Summer has arrived, which means that it’s hotter than sin in the city of Sacramento.
With the temperature firmly entrenched in the mid-90s and higher, it’s the perfect time to forgo the dark, hoppy and heavy beers in favor of something light, crisp and session-able.
As with most beer styles, there is no hard and fast definition of a “session beer,” but it generally means a low-alcohol, well-balanced beer that can be consumed over the course of a session without extreme intoxication or palate destruction. This definition from a 2005 Beer Advocate article works best: “Any beer that contains no higher than 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), featuring a balance between malt and hop characters and, typically, a clean finish — a combination of which creates a beer with high drinkability.”
In other words, a mouth-puckering Sour Ale doesn’t make the session beer cut, no matter the alcohol content, but a slightly tart and refreshing gose could work, while Berliner Weisses and pale ales and stouts are probably judgment calls. Other qualifying session beer styles would include quaffable, low-ABV Pilsners, lagers, Kölsches, blondes, milds, bitters, saisons, ambers, radlers, bocks, browns, witbiers and more.
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The problem: while mass-produced bad lagers and Pilsners are everywhere, session beers tend to be an afterthought for a craft beer industry focused on experimentation, trends and pushing the envelope of flavor.
It doesn’t help that no matter how well-made they are, the humble, old-school styles like blondes and bitters never perform as well on beer rating sites as trendy styles like milkshake IPAs, pastry stouts and sours. That said, there are still numerous locally produced session beer options available for the parched Sacramentan, if one knows where to look.
I set out on one of the hottest weeks of the year to find the best Sacramento-based session beers. The search was limited to local breweries (sorry, Fieldwork) that operate a tasting room in the city of Sacramento (sorry, breweries from Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Folsom and so forth).
Only brewery tasting room tap lists were considered, not beer bars. Any beer with an ABV higher than 5.0% was disqualified. Upcoming Sacramento-based taprooms from Hoppy, Ruhstaller and At Ease (among others) were also disqualified, as was Oak Park Brewing, which closed last weekend.
That left 14 breweries, 15 tasting rooms and a whopping total of 22 Sacramento session beers (although it should be noted that beers tend to rotate frequently at craft breweries, and my search was limited to a three-day period between July 26 and July 28). Only three breweries (Big Sexy, Big Stump and Track 7) did not have a single sub-5.0% ABV beer on the board, and only five breweries (Bike Dog, King Cong, New Helvetia, Sactown Union and Urban Roots) offered more than one.
After sampling my way through session IPAs, California commons, shandies, petite saisons and beyond over the course of three sweltering days in the city, these are my five favorite Sacramento-based session beers.
Urban Roots’ Sidework Rice Lager
Honestly, I could have populated this list entirely with Urban Roots beers, but I wanted to spread the love around by only listing one beer per brewery. There were five beers with an ABV of 5.0% or less on the board when I visited Urban Roots, all of them perfectly balanced and drinkable, making this Midtown brewery and restaurant a veritable session beer mecca. Picking just one comes down to a choice between the clear, pale yellow Sidework Rice Lager and Luna de Miel, a Mexican-style Lager that comes with a lime wedge. I love both beers, but Sidework is my preferred hot weather crusher. ($6 full pour; $4 half-pour)
Bike Dog’s Bici Perro Mexican-Style Lager
Although Bike Dog’s production is based in West Sacramento, they qualified for the list thanks to their Broadway taproom. When I visited, they also poured a low-alcohol Kölsch radler that tasted like a ginger beer with citrus and floral notes, but I preferred the fresh melon flavor and super-light body of this Mexican-Style Lager. ($6 full pour; $4 half-pour — tasting flights available)
King Cong’s Golden Oasis Blonde Ale
This north Sacramento brewery was pouring three beers that weighed in at 5.0% ABV and under when I visited, including a juicy and crushable pale ale and a creamy and flavorful milk stout. However, the Golden Oasis is the perfect session beer for Sacramento summers: sweet but not sticky, complex yet quaffable, refreshing without sacrificing flavor. ($6 point; $2.25 taster)
Device’s Kid Casual Blonde Ale
Device Brewing operates two tasting rooms in the city of Sacramento, but this light and crisp blonde ale was the only beer at both spots that came in under 5.0% ABV. Balanced and restrained with a very low amount of bitterness, Kid Casual is a prototypical “river beer,” but with a high level of quality that leaves all corporate beer in its wake. ($4 full pour; $3 half-pour; $2 taster)
Sactown Union’s Sactown Ordinary Bitter aka S.O.B.
The classic British-style bitter is one of the beers that likely inspired the term “session beer,” as it was one of the low-alcohol brews rationed out to World War I-era munitions workers during scheduled “sessions.” Brewed with imported English malts and East Kent Golding hops, S.O.B. offers a faithful and compelling take on this malt-forward style. ($6 full pour; $4 half-pour; $2.50 4-oz. taster)
Daniel Barnes is a freelance writer, film critic, craft beer enthusiast and co-host of the “Dare Daniel” podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.