12 Tips to Making Amazing Session Beers
Beer enthusiasts seek out and enjoy a lot of stronger styles, and with good reason. The richness, complexity, and depth of flavor we find in a stronger beer like a DIPA, an Imperial Stout, or a Wee Heavy just can’t be beat. The market keeps fulfilling the demand for these beers, and homebrewers make their own on top of that.
But we can’t always drink big beers, no matter how much we want to. Sometimes, we want to have a few beers with friends, or we want to have something quenching on a hot day. Can we do that without making bland, unsatisfying beer? Yes, we can. Fortunately, there are beers – session beers – that are perfect for times when we want something milder.
In general, I think of session beer as having an Original Gravity of under 1.040. If you look through the BJCP guidelines, there are a few styles to choose from – and infinite possibility to make up your own to suit your tastes. Milder beers are available from every brewing tradition, so you don’t have to feel constrained.
The suggestions below aren’t appropriate for every batch – some beers are just meant to be light-bodied and crisp – but if you’re trying to make a low-alcohol beer that retains some of the character and mouthfeel of a bigger beer, you might find some combination of these techniques helpful.
Making Amazing Session Beers
Use more flavorful malts. Since you won’t get the richness and complexity that a high-gravity ferment gives you, choose malts that have rich flavor of their own. This Is a great opportunity to explore English, Scottish, German, and Belgian malts. Yes, they cost a little more per pound, but you’ll be using fewer pounds to make milder beer, and you’ll find the additional flavor very satisfying. Look at mid-colored malts to punch up the flavor and aroma – Munich, Vienna, Aromatic, Biscuit.
Reduce or eliminate simple sugars. Simple sugars like dextrose will ferment out much more completely than malt sugars will, so they are good for boosting alcohol while keeping the body of a beer light – neither of which we want in this case. Unless you’re adding something with a real flavor contribution, like dark candi syrup, it’s probably going to be counterproductive in a session beer.
Consider adding some gums. The smooth, rich mouthfeel of some beers is boosted by the use of malts and grains like wheat, oats, and rye. Try adding any of these in flaked form to your grist, or use malts from these grains if you see them at the brew shop.
Don’t cut the crystal malt. Crystal malt can be over-used, but in a lower-gravity beer, it adds residual sugar, flavor, and color that you might miss if you just reduced every line in your grain bill. Cut back on base malts first to reach your lower gravity target, but leave the crystal content the same if you can or maybe even boost it a bit. Also, don’t limit yourself to pale crystals – the darker varieties have loads of good flavor you want in your glass.
Calculate carefully. In some systems, reducing the amount of malt in the tun can change the efficiency of the process pretty dramatically, either up or down. You will probably need to tune your process over a few batches to completely understand the effects for your system, but you may be able to extrapolate a bit based on previous experience. If you find your brewhouse efficiency is about 75% when you make beer at 1.050, but only 70% at 1.060, for example, you might find that you see 80% at 1.040. Only real experience will tell you for sure, but educated guesses can get you very close.
Mash a little warmer. A warmer mash will tend to favor the formation of dextrins and other longer-chain saccharides in your wort, which will attenuate less and lead to a richer flavor and mouthfeel. Bump your conversion temperature up to 153 or 154 degrees Fahrenheit (about 67 degrees Celsius) to get a richer wort. If you’re brewing from extract, choose one that is less fermentable
Punch up the aroma. Both with malt and with hops, look for ways to increase aroma. It’s well known that the senses of smell and taste are closely linked, so the more you can bring to the nose, the more you will get on the palate.
Back off on the bittering hops a bit. With lower gravity, you’ll get more bitterness from the hops you use, and there will be less malt to balance them. Don’t just maintain the IBU levels of your favorite styles; cut back a bit to let the malt shine through. You’ll get a more rounded beer, with all flavors playing nicely together to present a harmonious whole.
Choose yeast wisely. Some yeasts are known to add a lot of flavor of their own to beer in the form of esters and phenols. Others accentuate malt flavor, or have a lower expected attenuation. If you choose the right strain, you can actually make your beer more flavorful, and therefore more satisfying. Try to avoid yeasts that have a reputation for making dry or clean-tasting beer; they are more appropriate in other batches.
Don’t over pitch. This is the opposite of the usual problem for a lot of brewers, but pitching too much yeast can actually make bland beer. Consult a good pitching calculator, don’t make a starter, and even aim a little bit low on the cell count. The additional reproductive generations that the yeast will need to go through will increase their production of flavor compounds, enhancing your beer. Conversely, if you use too much yeast, you’ll get less good stuff and bland, disappointing beer.
Ferment a little warmer. Fermenting a few degrees warmer will again boost the production of flavorful and aromatic compounds. Don’t let it run away from you, or you might get more than you were aiming for, but a little extra here is useful for session beers.
Practice makes perfect. It might take you a few batches to dial in a process that makes great session beers you’ll want to have on hand as a regular feature of your beer fridge. It’s well worth the work, though, so keep at it. Your efforts will be rewarded.