If you’re a craft-beer fan, it’s hard not to see the appeal of session-strength beers: lower ABV means that you get to enjoy full pours of several beers with a much more manageable impact. But … they’re session beers. And that means they’re weak, and lacking in flavor, and watery, and dilute—right? Wrong. Alcohol level doesn’t dictate flavor level, even though we’ve seen those two features move together in the recent history of beer and brewing. The trend toward lower ABV without sacrificing quality or flavor is a positive in many ways, for brewers and drinkers alike, and stouts are exceptionally well positioned to take advantage of that trend. They showcase a wide range of malt, hops, and fermentation characters and are easily among the most impactful beers in the craft-beer world. With just a bit of tweaking, we can produce a range of session stouts—not just that one that already, well, is a session stout—that preserve the complexity and interest of their full-strength cousins while taking it a bit easier on your liver.
“Session” and Stouts
If you put a bunch of session-beer enthusiasts in a room together and asked them to define the term “session beer,” you’d likely end up with a not-nearly-as-tipsy bar fight over it. Author and session-beer advocate Lew Bryson lays out some good, basic criteria for us to work from, though: “Session beer” is generally described as a beer that lands at or below 4.5 percent ABV, exhibits balance (in other words, you should be able to drink a full pint … and another, without excessive palate burn-out), and is flavorful. “Session” is not synonymous with “weak.” And while these guidelines are fairly subjective, they lay out an approach to beer that serves a clear goal: a great session beer should taste great and both encourage and allow you to have another.
There are few families of beers that set up as well as stouts do for “sessioning.” First, within that family of beers we already have one that fits the definition: Irish Stout (or Dry Stout) typically clocks in at about 3.5 percent ABV and certainly ticks the boxes on flavor and “have-anotherability.” Beyond that, though, the rest of the stout family (think Tropical Stout, Export Stout, and even Imperial Stout) is easily converted to session strength. They make liberal use of specialty grains, which means it’s fairly easy to give them a “big” mouthfeel even with less alcohol. The ingredients that make the biggest contribution to their flavor profile are very much in the “a little goes a long way” category, so we can get big flavors without high ABV.
We’ll talk briefly about general strategies you can use to “session” your favorite stout recipes (preserving body and flavor), and then we can do a walk-through with one of my own recipes: a session-strength version of one of the best Russian Imperial Stouts ever made (my beer goes by the name “Little Raspy”—I’ll let you work out its inspiration).
Big Body, Big Flavor, Small Beer
Making good session stout isn’t complicated, but it does require us to think critically about what makes a big beer seem “big”—because ironically, the thing that we most associate with big beers (high ABV) actually has the effect of making a beer thinner. Ethanol is less dense than water, and getting more of it often entails fermenting off sugars that would otherwise bulk up the beer. A lot of stouts make up that difference, though, by including a substantial charge of crystal and chocolate malts that contribute non-fermentable sugars. When scaling recipes down to session strength, a direct linear translation will reduce ABV, but it will also reduce the absolute amount of body-producing sugars and proteins, and it will also (potentially) cut into the flavor profile by reducing the absolute amount of specialty and character malts in use.
Given that, we want to produce recipes that lower ABV but leave intact those things that contribute to the beer’s mouthfeel and flavor—provided that the recipe in question satisfies our “session beer” requirement of drinkability, which many of the best stouts (even the biggest) still have. In essence, we’re going to deliberately unbalance our recipes, and what remains will look a bit perverse on paper but look and taste great coming out of the fermentor.
Creating a medium-full body and a rich mouthfeel can be done through process or recipe choices and often both. We can start with mash temperature (if you’re brewing all-grain). I’ve advocated for consistency in mash temperature as a way to encourage consistency in your brewing process (which makes correcting your beers easier), but this is an area where I make an exception. You’ll want to mash at higher-than-usual temperatures because in order to make a believable session stout, you’ll want to amp up the proportion of long-chain, unfermentable (or, at least, hard-to-ferment) sugars in your wort. A good target is 155°F (68°C). This will ensure that you end up with a somewhat less fermentable wort to begin with. Mash temperature, though, won’t get us all the way to where we need to be (and is irrelevant if you’re brewing with extract).
There are also recipe additions/conversions that will add to mouthfeel. The best single piece of advice I was ever given in this regard was to leave my crystal malt weights alone. While some adjustment is necessary at the tail end of recipe formulation (more in the Little Raspy recipe), a great starting place is to plug in your crystal malt additions as though you’re brewing a full-strength version of the beer. To adjust OG, you’re inevitably going to reduce your base malts. To avoid an acrid mess of a flavor profile, you’re also going to reduce the chocolate malts. But your crystal malts can be left largely intact, and the sugars they add will contribute lots of unfermentables to your session beer with no obvious ill effects.
That’s not the only recipe item that impacts mouthfeel, though. In terms of strictly bulking up the beer, adding maltodextrin powder to the beer will add body while remaining flavor-neutral, so it can be used at will, especially as a way to adjust a session stout recipe that is otherwise hitting on all cylinders. The direct addition of non-fermentable sugars (such as lactose) to the recipe will also add body, but will contribute to flavor, so you’ll want to account for them in your target flavor profile. To promote a sense of fullness, you can also consider maintaining (at their full-strength recipe weights) or adding oats, flaked barley, or flaked wheat.
Finally, to fill out mouthfeel, don’t underestimate the impact of carbonation. While carbonation alone is insufficient to create a genuinely “full” mouthfeel (ingredient choice and final composition of sugars and proteins in the beer matter much more), it can be a great tool to dial in the finished beer and take you the last few inches into the end zone. Bump up carbonation levels slightly (say, 0.5 volumes of CO2), but if you start to notice a metallic or carbolic “bite” to your beer, back it off. “Full but unpleasant to drink” isn’t much of a win.
In terms of maintaining full-strength flavor in the beer, you’ll want to act like a good chef and season everything. Two-row or six-row malt shouldn’t get within a country mile of this recipe. Scott Rudich, head brewer and co-owner at Round Guys Brewery (Lansdale, Pennsylvania), recommends sticking with the more robust base malts for your session stouts: Munich malt, preferably, but Maris Otter and Vienna are solid options as well. The second step is to incorporate healthy additions of crystal malts—luckily, as you just read above, you’re already doing that. Don’t be concerned if the percentage of crystal malts is hovering at around 25 percent, or if the character malts overall (crystal, flaked, and chocolate malts) are pushing 30–35 percent. Unfermentables are your friend here, and it’s the rare session stout recipe that will come across as cloying or thick (ethanol being one of the key contributors to sweetness in these beers, and we’re reducing alcohol).
You will, though, want to throttle your use of chocolate malts, especially once we get into Black Patent and roasted barley (500+ Lovibond) territory. I recommend a not-quite linear reduction here. If you’re going from 9 percent ABV to 4.5 percent ABV (as we will in Little Raspy), a straight conversion would have you reducing chocolate malts by half. Instead, I reduce by half and then add back 15 percent of the remainder. So, if there’s a pound (454 g) of pale chocolate in that Tropical Stout recipe you love, your Session Tropical Stout will use about 10 ounces (283 g) instead. That should preserve the chocolate malts’ flavor contributions while avoiding an overly astringent or sharp character. And if you want to adjust for color (so that the SRM matches for both versions), you can adjust with something relatively flavor-neutral, such as Midnight Wheat.
Carbonation is another area that you can use to mimic flavor (in addition to mouthfeel). That slightly higher CO2 level will add a peppery flavor to your beer, which will imitate the spicy alcohol flavor one finds in higher-ABV beers.
Finally, consider the impact of yeast strain on both flavor and mouthfeel. I’m not going to give you a “standard” rule on this one because frankly it’s going to vary based on your process, the beer in question, and the specific yeasts you choose. Don’t automatically choose a less-attenuating yeast in an attempt to reduce alcohol—it may end up yielding a sweeter beer than you want and will only reduce ABV by a negligible amount. I typically recommend that we adjust the things we have the most control of—grist, particularly—rather than the more biologically or chemically dependent aspects of the beer. In every beer, your goal should be a healthy fermentation, and that shouldn’t change here (with one possible exception below).
Breaking the Glass
This section addresses an “In case of emergency, break glass” kind of plan. Try it at your own risk.
Lots of big stouts have warm-to-hot alcohols in their flavor. That’s one thing I haven’t mentioned before now, and for good reason: I don’t think trying to add that flavor is a very good idea. But let’s say you were determined to try to re-create the alcohol heat of a strong ale, but in session strength. What’s a brewer to do?
The safe-ish option is to introduce a dark Belgian candi syrup or blackstrap molasses to your recipe (or maybe a dark treacle syrup). The upside is that the burnt sugar flavor will likely trigger a perceptual association with stronger beers, since we often taste that in old ales, barleywines, and some Belgian strong ales. The downside is that those syrups are 100 percent fermentable, which might make your beer seem thin. It’s a trade-off, and not one I’m all that keen to make in the first place (since even big beers can and should be relatively free of warmer/hot alcohols).
But if you insist …
Stress the hell out of your yeast. Underpitch your yeast by about 25 percent of your usual pitch rate. Ferment hot (about 74°F/23°C), and ramp it up from there toward the end of fermentation to about 80°F (27°C).
Do those two things, and you’ll probably provoke some fusel alcohols—but the downside is that you’ll probably introduce phenols and off-flavors that you probably don’t want, either.
As I said, this isn’t something I recommend, but someone was bound to ask.
Go Small (Again)
Small beer doesn’t have to be small in flavor. Almost any stout recipe can be adjusted to fit the session-beer guidelines, and in most cases your work is almost all done by reducing the original gravity via the base malt. You’ll end up with beer that tastes big, but drinks small—so raise your glass to session stouts, drain it, and go pour yourself another.
For Josh’s Little Raspy Recipe, click here.
From conception to perfection, learn the ins and outs of developing your best beer from professional brewer Matt Czigler, Founder of Czig Meister Brewing, in Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®’s online course Recipe Development from Start to Finish. Sign up today!