Session Beers: Jeopardizing the Craft Beer Industry?

The American craft beer scene changes pretty regularly, driven by drinkers’ tastes as much (or more) than brewer innovation and experimentation. Styles like ultra-hoppy IPAs and high-gravity beers are always popular with some drinkers, but mass appeal waxes and wanes. Currently, one of the most widespread trends is toward low ABV, lower hop session beers. And that might be a bad thing, particularly for craft breweries.

What’s a Session Beer?

We’ve covered session beers previously, so we’ll limit this to just a quick refresher course. There’s not really a set-in-stone definition for session beers, but they are almost universally low in alcohol content. You’ll find that most top out around 4.8 or so, but they can go as low as 3.8% or even 3% in some cases. The entire point of a session beer is to have something that tastes good, has high drinkability and can be consumed over a longer period of time without getting drunk. 

“Session” is not a style, like IPA, stout, porter or barleywine, though. It’s a concept. You can have a session IPA, or a session stout. It’s the ABV, drinkability and the possibility to enjoy a long drinking session without getting sloshed that matter the most.

Why Are Session Beers Bad for the Craft Industry?

Given the admittedly rough definition above, what’s so bad about session beer? Well, nothing inherently. Session beers are great. They’re excellent options for gatherings of family and friends, an outing on the lake or even for taking along on a hike. There’s really nothing not to love here. Except for the fact that they’re eerily similar to Big Beer products on the market.

What’s the first thing you think of when you imagine taking a sip of Bud Light, Coors Lite, or even the supposedly full-flavored versions like Budweiser and MGD? They’re low ABV. They’re not particularly complex in flavor, either. They can be consumed back to back to back without getting too lit. 

Starting to sound a little familiar? Yep, most Big Beer products are pretty sessionable, which means that craft brewers who start focusing on the session trend are putting themselves up against those better established products. Of course, brewers are only responding to demand. A Nielsen study in early 2017 found that 45% of drinkers preferred their craft beer with an ABV of less than 5%. 

Does that mean that consumers will be willing to turn to the big boys for their beer fix? Not necessarily. Most consumers not 100% brand loyal are savvy enough to tell the difference between Bud and New Belgium. However, what about those craft-like brands? 

Shock Top and Blue Moon are probably the two best examples of craft-like brands – brands that were never, ever brewed independently, but rather created by Big Beer to compete directly with craft breweries. However, there are many others out there, as well. Can consumers tell the difference? Not really. The packaging, different brand names, and the appearance of being “craft” are often enough to hoodwink the average beer drinker not in the know.

So, craft brewers who focus primarily on chasing the market with low-ABV, session beers are finding themselves pitted squarely against the big boys. When the flavors and ABV content are relatively on par, what reason does a drinker have to pony up $8 or $10 for a six pack of craft session beer, when they can get pretty much the same thing for $4 or so from Big Beer? 

Of course, there’s also additional competition in the form of former craft breweries now owned by Big Beer. Names like Terrapin, Elysian, 10 Barrel and Goose Island stand out. For those passionate about the craft industry, it’s obvious that these aren’t really craft breweries any longer, but for the average Joe? Not so much. 

Sure, diehard craft fanatics will pretty much always avoid Bud and its ilk, and put their money toward supporting the little guys, but those fans are in the minority. Most consumers don’t know, or care. They’re led by their wallet and unless there’s a payoff like a more complex flavor profile, the use of interesting new hops varieties, or higher ABV, there’s no perceived benefit to shelling out two or even three times as much money for what amounts to almost the same thing (at least in their minds).

Other Challenges Exist to the Craft Industry

Now, the complicated conundrum of session beer is not the only challenge that craft breweries face today. After posting double-digit growth for most of a decade, the segment has only grown by about 2.5% as of May 2017. In fact, the industry as a whole is starting to stagnate. Beer sales overall (including Big Beer) have been slowly declining since 2016. Why, though?

The answer can be found in two other segments of the alcohol industry – wine and spirits. Wine’s share of the market has grown by over 17% since the end of the last millennium, and Spirts have grown by almost 36% during that time. In contrast, beer’s control of the market went from 56% to 47% during the same period.

In other words, brewers are facing competition not just from other breweries, but from other areas of the wider alcohol industry. This trend is likely to grow, as more people discover wine and spirits, and as more local wineries/vineyards and distilleries start to open their doors. In short, the size of the pie hasn’t changed, but the size of the slices is shrinking. 

When It’s All Said and Done

Ultimately, the session trend will likely give way to yet another trend – ultra-hoppy beers will likely make a comeback first, although that remains to be seen. The fact that the market is slowing in general and consumers have far more options than ever before will be more important to overall craft brewery success.

What about you? Love session beers? Hate ‘em? Share some of your favorites, or let us know what you’d rather be drinking instead.