It wasn’t long ago that craft beer lovers were clamoring for the hottest “extreme” beers they could find. These days, however, many craft consumers are opting for less-potent brews that allow them to enjoy more than one beer during a drinking session. Indeed, continued demand for such session beers could dramatically aid the craft beer category in its efforts to widen its customer base by attracting more mainstream beer consumers.
“People are getting tired of the heaviness of high-abv beers like double IPAs,” says Adam Sternberger, co-owner of White Horse Wine & Spirits in Absecon, New Jersey. “They want beers that don’t leave them feeling so full, as well as the option of having more than one.” That’s an attribute that on-premise operators like Greg Engert applaud. The longtime beverage director at Washington, D.C.-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG), Engert says that more and more of his beer customers are looking for low-abv brews, which are typically priced below their higher-strength brethren. At Veza Sur Brewing Co.—the Miami craft brewery funded by Anheuser-Busch InBev that produces mostly low-abv beers—co-founder Max-Antonio Burger says session beers are approachable and appeal to most drinkers. He also notes that because the brews transcend an array of styles, consumers don’t have to give up on variety. “You can enjoy two or three different kinds of beer during an occasion,” he says.t wasn’t long ago that craft beer lovers were clamoring for the hottest “extreme” beers they could find. These days, however, many craft consumers are opting for less-potent brews that allow them to enjoy more than one beer during a drinking session. Indeed, continued demand for such session beers could dramatically aid the craft beer category in its efforts to widen its customer base by attracting more mainstream beer consumers.
Beer marketers and retailers loosely define session beers as those with an abv of about 5% or lower, so in addition to craft entries, major brands like Budweiser, Coors Light, and Corona Extra qualify. Marshall Hendrickson, Burger’s partner at Veza Sur, says he identifies session brews as “anything you can have in multiples during one session and still be fully functional.” David Walker, co-founder of California’s Firestone Walker Brewing Co.—which makes the popular 4.7% abv 805 blonde ale—describes a session brew as “something you can open after work knowing you have an evening ahead of you.” The reduced alcohol content allows brewers and retailers to widen their nets when courting potential consumers. Engert of NRG, which operates several beer-focused venues in Washington, D.C. including Birch & Barley and Churchkey, says session crafts appeal to customers who might have previously drunk mainstream domestic brews. The trade-up, he notes, bodes well for retailers and craft beer in general.
Tremendous White Space
Arguably one of the most successful session craft beers is Founders Brewing Co.’s All Day IPA, whose volume surged 38% in 2017, according to Impact Databank. With an aggressive price of $18 a 15-pack of 12-ounce cans, All Day IPA is positioned to continue that growth. “The opportunity for the brand is huge,” says brewery co-founder Mike Stevens. Newer sibling Solid Gold lager—retailing at $15 a 15-pack—may have an even brighter future. “A lot of retailers are looking for change when it comes to domestic premium lagers as the bigger brands haven’t been able to hold growth,” Stevens says. Solid Gold is targeted at mainstream lager consumers, and due to its approachable lager style is holding its draft line placement in the on-premise.
Other fast-selling session brews include Firestone Walker 805, whose volume increased 25% in 2017. Walker estimates that the beer, which is currently available in 11 states and Chicago, grew 15% in 2018. National craft brewer Boston Beer Co. launched the ale-lager hybrid Sam ’76 in January 2018; the brewer describes the beer as perfect for multiple social drinking occasions. Over the summer, Boston Beer chairman and founder Jim Koch said the brand has seen early success. The 4.7% abv Sam ’76 retails at $9-$10 a 6-pack of 12-ounce cans.
There are some craft brewers that primarily produce sessionable beers, despite the craft segment’s higher-proof reputation. Veza Sur, whose beers are available in select South Florida bars and restaurants, offers Latin lager, Dark lager, and Mango Blonde ale, all of which have an abv below 5%. Even the brewer’s IPA carries a lower abv. “We didn’t want to do a normal-strength IPA,” says Hendrickson of the 5.2% abv Session IPA. “Being in South Florida, we want to offer an IPA that has strong hops flavor, but isn’t overpowering. Our Session IPA is the best of both worlds.”
Notch Brewing in Salem, Massachusetts has exclusively produced sessionable beers since opening eight years ago. “Our mission has been to focus on beer styles that haven’t been that popular in the U.S. in recent years, like German-style lagers and Czech-style pilsners,” says founder Chris Lohring. He adds that offerings such as Notch’s 4.3% abv Left of the Dial Session IPA ($16 a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans) are emerging as the types of beers consumers keep in their refrigerators for everyday drinking, replacing the likes of Coors Light. Notch beers are available in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
Sipping Versus Drinking
For on-premise operators, sessionable craft brews often translate into higher volume sales than more potent abv options. NRG’s Engert notes that customers would once gravitate toward high-abv crafts, but now they’re drinking—and drinking more of—lower-abv offerings, which has resulted in more rings and better tips for waitstaff. Elsewhere, Lohring says Notch Brewing’s beers have received an overall positive response from on-premise operators. “With high-abv beers, operators have to keep a close eye on their customers to be sure they’re drinking responsibly,” he explains. “Bar operators are also telling me that customers who drink craft session beers drink more, stay longer, and tip better.”
Sales of lower-proof beers are also picking up off-premise. David Symmes, co-owner of the 22-unit Crown Liquors in Indiana, says brews like Founders’ All Day and Solid Gold have been performing well, as has Golden Road’s Mango Cart wheat ale. “There’s no doubt that consumers are starting to look twice at high-abv beers,” Symmes explains. “While they’re still selling well, consumers are asking themselves, ‘How many can I drink?’” At White Horse, Sternberger notes that because the store is located close to New Jersey beaches, many beer customers opt for lower-abv craft brews. “They’re easier for day-drinking than beers with an abv of 9%,” he says. Founders Brewing’s Stevens agrees that session beers provide great opportunity in the off-premise. “With sessionable crafts, retailers can offer their customers quality beers that can be sold in greater quantities than their higher-abv counterparts, and with better margins than premium domestic beers,” he notes.
But the popularity of session beers on the West Coast, at least, may be slowing. John Jarjosa, beer manager at Boulevard Wine & Spirits in San Diego, thinks the segment is a passing phase. He adds that craft beer drinkers in his market—who largely favor IPAs—have now moved on to hazy, unfiltered IPAs, most of which are higher in alcohol. Similarly, at Bailey’s Taproom in Portland, Oregon, beer buyer and general manager Ryan Spencer says that while session beers received a lot of interest when they first emerged about five years ago, he’s not sure where the segment is going. “Guests are walking out of the bar and waking up the following day happier after consuming lower-abv beers,” he notes. “But we haven’t seen much growth in the category.”
Spreading The Word
Notch Brewing’s Lohring concedes that for session beers to really take hold, enhanced consumer education is necessary. He advises retailers to communicate with their beer customers about abv content and to utilize pertinent p-o-s tools when available. Likewise, Hendrickson of Veza Sur says education is essential for the category, and suggests that retailers stock an array of sessionable brews—from IPAs to lagers to amber ales—for that purpose.
At Founders Brewing, Stevens expects the sessionable beer trend to continue. “There’s the physical aspect,” he explains. “People can only drink so many high-abv beers, so lower-abv offerings allow for increased sales.”
NRG’s Engert is particularly bullish on the brews and believes that much of the growth of craft beer in the future will come from lower-abv beers. “Craft’s biggest gains will derive from becoming more mainstream, and from capturing occasions from cocktails, wine, and macro beer,” he says.