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Why you still get drunk drinking “session” beers

The difference between a 4% and a 5% beer is much wider than we assume.
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shutterstock_290920949We begin with a quiz: When it comes to our body’s alcohol intake, what’s the real difference between 4% and 5% alcohol by volume?

(a) 1%
(b) 20%
(c) 25%
(d) Much more than 25%

The answer is at the end. It’ll make more sense if you don’t skip ahead.

First, let’s talk about American session beer—increasingly popular thanks largely to flavorful, low-strength IPAs. For our purposes, a “session” is simply the enjoyment of several beers—more than two, I’d say—with companions. The idea is not to get zonked but to remain lucid enough for conversation, coordinated enough to walk straight, sensible enough to call a cab.

Is it an indulgent form of binge drinking? Oh my yes. Let’s call it what it is. But it’s one in which low alcohol content makes a critical difference.

Unfortunately—perhaps dangerously—American breweries have abused the word, even as their marketing folks have seen that session, like sex, sells. Or maybe we’re seeing a general misunderstanding of what a session ought to be, based on how our bodies process alcohol. Inevitably this leads to wider misunderstanding among drinkers—though ultimately the responsibility for smart choices rests with us and us alone.

So let’s clear this up, and maybe we can all make better choices.

In the question above I chose two alcoholic strengths. The lower one, 4%, is what sessionistas often propose as an upper guideline—sometimes allowing a limit of 4.5%. Meanwhile, 5% is mainstream lager strength.

I’ve read and heard arguments in favor of considering 5% beer to be session beer, and there are plenty of beers on the market above that strength that use the word “session.” Full Sail’s Session Lager, which helped to popularize the word, is 5.1%. In a world where special beers are forever playing near the upper boundaries, maybe a 5%-plus session beer sounds fine. But it’s not.

Our bodies can process a certain amount of alcohol, continuously. That process doesn’t stop until we die. There is a nifty way of explaining just how much—on average—our bodies can handle. It’s what health officials in some countries, notably Britain, call “units of alcohol.”

The US and Canada use a different measure called the “standard drink,” which is larger than the British unit of alcohol. There is a reason for that: Our governments are trying to define moderate drinking habits: no more than one or two standard drinks per day. The measure is based on what people typically consume, so one 12-ounce beer of 5% strength is one standard drink.

The Brits have taken a different tack: Their unit is based on the amount of alcohol that an average person can process in an hour. This can be useful information to know. For reference, an imperial pint of 4% strength beer—a fairly typical strength for cask ale—has 2.3 units of alcohol in it.

American officials say we shouldn’t have more than one or two standard drinks per day; the Brits say no more than two to four units daily. Experience suggests that most beer geeks venture well beyond those limits at least once per week. And if we’re going to be honest about what a session is—an indulgent, prolonged drinking event—then it doesn’t take long to blow the lid off those limits, even with lower-strength beer.

(Oh and we’re not even talking about calories today. Nope, better not.)

So let’s do some easy math, using the British units of alcohol. And let’s say we’re of average build and can process one unit per hour. But let’s also say that we’re in the United States, drinking 12-ounce beers with friends over an evening.

I did some math for you: A 12-ounce beer of 4% strength contains about 1.4 alcohol units. Let’s say you’re drinking only one beer per hour—you’re probably not, but for simplicity, let’s say you are. In that case, your body processes 1.0 units and leaves 0.4 to begin laying down that gentle buzz. Have another beer the next hour, your body handles another unit, and the excess goes to 0.8, and it accumulates from there. The next hour, you’re at 1.2 units excess. It’s a neat (if oversimplified) way to measure intoxication.

Now, a 12-ounce beer of 5% strength has about 1.8 units. That leaves 0.8 after your hour of your body doing what it does. After another beer and another hour, you’re at 1.6. The next hour, you’re at 2.4—that’s double the excess alcohol, and it only continues to accumulate.

Obviously the difference is further exaggerated if we were to compare proper session beers lower than 4%—as they should be—and beers stronger than 5%—like most of today’s novelties.

chart by Joe Stange

chart by Joe Stange

All of that excess—inevitable unless we’re drinking the lightest table beer—affects our mood, our blood-alcohol levels, our physical coordination, our ability to think and speak, to operate machinery. It affects our ability to not embarrass ourselves in front of potential or current mates. It’s important, and it’s important that the difference is substantial.

Many of us beer-inclined folks tend to drink more than is healthy for us. Not all of us, but many of us. It’s important to recognize these things. If we’re going to make better decisions, we need better information. Better labeling on the package wouldn’t hurt either.

So the correct answer is (d). And it may be the difference between self-indulgence and plain old drunken stupidity.

33 Comments

  • Great article with a valid point, but the correct answer is still “(c)”.

  • Jim says:

    Isn’t the real difference (c) 25% by volume? When not specifying how many drinks and at what frequency, that was a bogus quiz question.

  • Jeff Pelletier says:

    So my drinking friends and I have a couple of questions:
    How does one determine the alcohol units per 12 ounces? The article stated
    “A 12-ounce beer of 4% strength contains about 1.4 alcohol units,” but doesn’t explain that math. (Not questioning it, just want to see the work)
    Then it goes on to say a 5% same size beer has 1.8 units. How does the alcohol unit increase with percentage? Linear, exponentially, or otherwise.

    Just curious, overall an interesting piece.

    • Tom Ford says:

      @Jeff Pelletier, alcohol units can be calculated by multiplying the volume in milliliters by the ABV , then dividing by 1000. So 12oz, or 355ml, of 4% ABV beer would be (355 x 4) / 1000 = 1.42 alcohol units. If the volume remains constant then the increase in alcohol units as the ABV increases is linear. In fact, with each percentage increase, the alcohol units will increase by a value equal to one thousandths of the volume. In other words, if 355ml of 4% beer is 1.420 alcohol units then 355ml of 5% beer is 1.420 + 0.355 = 1.775. Note that if the label lists ABW instead of ABV you can divide the ABW by 0.79336 to calculate the ABV. Cheers.

      • Jeff Pelletier says:

        Thanks for “showing your work” Tom – that is a helpful explanation. Cheers!

      • Tony says:

        A british unit is defined as 10ml of pure alcohol (that’s essentially what his math shows). In NZ/Australia a unit is defined as 12.5ml of pure alcohol.

  • Christopher Brandow says:

    (d) would be correct, if you had asked a different question, along the lines of “alcohol accumulation rate”

  • Gary says:

    It’s more than 25% because the alcohol units increased by 0.4 from 4% (1.4) to 5% (1.8)

    So, ( 0.4 / 1.4 ) X 100 approximates to about 29 %

    • TechnoViking says:

      It’s not more than 25% because the question asked the difference between 4% and 5% alcohol by volume, not the difference between alcohol units. It should have been asked differently.

  • Steve says:

    This a nice and apparently well meaning post, but it seems you don’t understand the general purpose of beer drinking.

    • HowardB says:

      @Steve:
      Depends on your perspective, I guess. The general purpose of beer drinking for me has always been the flavor, and the ability to enjoy a few and still be able to socialize _without_ getting very drunk. If getting drunk is the goal, there are certainly far more efficient (and less bloating) ways to achieve _that_ goal (although if that is indeed the goal, it’s probably indicative of a much bigger problem).

      Like most things Americans have assimilated, we have mutated and co-opted the very meaning of the term “session” beer. In the early days of the craft beer revolution there was much talk of (and hype for) the idea of “respect for beer”. And now, 30+ years into it, there really doesn’t seem to be much respect at all (at least not here in the USA) with ABV levels quite commonly charting significantly higher than in the past. High ABV is even touted by some new brewers as the main selling point.
      Don’t get me wrong…I enjoy the occasional hi-test brew as much as anyone, but the craft beer industry’s now common practice of calling 5% ABV beers”session” is a bit ludicrous…almost as ludicrous as packaging 7.5% and higher beers in “bomber” sized bottles.
      I abhor the current wave of neo-prohibitionist crazies and their movement, but the increasing ABV rates of modern beers and the seeming encouragement of over-indulgence of them are sure giving the anti-alcohol fringe zealot loonies more ammunition.

  • Joris Cambie says:

    Isn’t the name “session” beer comming from the typical Belgian beer style “Saison” Like the best known: Saison Dupont, wich is my favorite saison ? Or do I have it wrong ?

    • Fergy says:

      You have it wrong. Saison is French for season… a libation that was typically brewed in the winter months and aged through to summer, where it was doled out to farm hands to sustain them through work in the hot days.

      Session stems from the one of the two allowable drinking periods in England that were imposed on shell production workers during World War I. Typically the licensed sessions were 11am-3pm and 7pm-11pm, and apparently continued up until the Liquor Licensing Act 1988 was introduced. Workers would find a beer that they could adequately quaff within these restrictive 4-hour “sessions” that were laid down by the government without getting legless and return to work or not get arrested for being drunk and disorderly.

      Or that’s the wives’ tale about it anyway lol.

    • TechnoViking says:

      “Saison” is French for “season”, not “session”.

    • Danny says:

      No, “Saison” is french for “Season”

    • Luke A. says:

      Saison translates to season and thus has nothing to do with session

    • Guys, really? says:

      So if “session” doesn’t come from “saison”, can anyone tell me what “saison” actually means? Can’t find the real meaning of the word anywhere.

  • John G. says:

    This article totally ignores the new information about enzymatic processing in the stomach before alcohol reaches the blood stream. This is why many traditional beliefs about drinking that were denied for decades have some basis in fact. Eating while consuming alcohol does make a difference. So does gender. So, as it turns out, does alcoholism, especially for women. However, most people are far too optimistic about the number of beers they can handle without becoming legally impaired. The best BAC for driving is zero… drinkers should not drive home themselves. Eventually, this will become law and drunk driving will fade away.

    • Nate C-K says:

      That will not happen.

      What will happen is that eventually, people will not drive cars, computers will, and at that point intoxication won’t matter.

  • Joe says:

    Agreed. Without the rest of the word problem, (c) is the correct answer.

  • David B says:

    Something that isn’t explained well here is this idea of units of alcohol processed per hour which would have a huge effect on the outcome. I have a very tough time believing that my body can process only “one unit per hour” when there are 1.4 units in a 12 oz. bottle of something like Michelob Ultra. You’re telling me that after drinking 3 Ultras in 3 hours I’d have 1.2 extra units of alcohol in me giving me a buzz? Nonsense.

    So, let’s do the math on 4 pints of 5% pale ale in 3 hours and I’ll show anyone that’s had a night like below that absorbing 1 unit per hour is too low.

    5% PALE ALE: a 16 oz pint = 2.4 units of alcohol. And we drink 1 beer every 45 minutes for 3 hours: this equals 4 beers in 3 hours. So: 1.4 Excess Units/hour X 1.33 Beers/hour X 3 hours = 5.6 EU

    According to the assumption and other charts (BAC charts) 5.6 excess units in my body (the equivalent of 4 excess drinks) would have me blowing about .11 into a breathalyzer. I have a police-grade breathalyzer and I assure you that’s not the case.

    I’m guessing if we change the math to about 1.4 or so units per hours we’re dealing with reality.

    Nonetheless, this article is an eye-opener. I had always compared a 7% IPA to a 5% pale ale and thought it was bad enough that it was 40% stronger.

  • Ernie says:

    10 grams of alcohol is the average amount per unit. Guidelines are 2-3 units daily for men which is 30 grams max. To calculate, use the multipliers below. ( for example, a 5% 12 oz. beer would be .05 x 280= 14 grams of alcohol)

    Alcohol
    .789 x ml = multiplier

    Alcohol grams
    1 oz./30 ml (% x 24)
    12 oz./355ml (% x 280)
    16 oz./473ml (% x 373)
    22 oz./650 (% x 513)

    • Ernie says:

      ^^^^
      Therefore, an 8-9% IPA in a 16 oz. can is at your daily limit per the WHO. I still think there is more wiggle room here in terms of non-accident related effects on health, but since most problems (accidents, injuries, deaths) happen after someone has been “over-served”, governments need to set limits.

  • David B says:

    Seriously, does anyone really give a hoot what a government says about what we should or shouldn’t be eating or drinking anymore? You know, the same idiots that gave us the Food Pyramid?

    And when was the last time you were sitting with your friends drinking a beer and one of them said, “Gee Bill, that’s it for me because the government says I should only have two drinks a day.” Yeah, right.

    Let’s just remove this silliness from the conversation.

    • Cheers says:

      I feel like your comment is a joke gone wrong and it’s actually sarcastic, but I can’t detect the sarcasm.

  • Eloboostking says:

    Just imagine how amazing games in the future will be!

  • […] is blurring). If you want to delve more into the scientific reasons of why that is, Draft magazine ran an informative piece on the […]

  • ramon says:

    Man this artical was so long and pointless i forgot why i was reading it before i finished it

  • John Smith says:

    Honestly, I find this entire discussion funny. Are you health nuts or beer nuts? Can one be both? I suppose so, but what a fine line to tread. All this science falls apart when you watch a skinny girl outdrink a 250lb man. Every body (yes, the space was intentional) is different and metabolism plays a big part in tolerance. So, you can give us exact numbers all day, but the truth is, you have no idea how much alcohol any individual can handle and what will change their behavior, mood, motor skills, etc. Should people drive after drinking more than a beer or two? No. That’s pretty obvious. We don’t need exact figures, we need experience in a controlled environment. And I mean actual experience with real alcohol. Imitations don’t work. Have you have driven wearing goggles that distort your binocular fusion? They attempt to represent drunkenness… and yet I can drive just fine wearing them. Another attempt to use the specifics of science and math, but more akin to statistics, to quantify something relating to a massive human population that simply isn’t true for many individuals.

    You should only consume as many beers as you would like of whatever alcohol volume you want as long as you don’t drive or act like a total fool. Isn’t that really the message? Oh, and don’t do it everyday because that’s alcoholism. That one’s important too.

    Isn’t that just common sense? Why do we need the government or scientists to tell us how much beer to drink? If people would grow the hell up and give their teenager a beer or two in the safety of their home, teen drinking as an issue in the US would dry right the hell up. Then the only people who think they’re invincible and drive drunk would be asinine adults who can be caught early enough and put in prison. If DUI punishments were more sever, say 10 years in prison for the first offense, DUIs would also dry up. Most drunk drivers who kill innocents are repeat offenders. There’s a few lives saved.

    Prohibition is the reason for drunk driving issues in the US. It changed how our society viewed alcohol. Now it’s “super cool” to drink a lot. Keg stands, lines of shots, beer-bonging: all dumb crap people do because being drunk is “cool.” Let’s instead teach teenagers how to both enjoy and respect alcohol and we’re one step closer to eliminating another thing the government shouldn’t have a part in.

    Last note, I’m drinking Quilter’s Irish Death right now. It’s 7.8% alcohol. How dare I…

  • EM Rae says:

    Yo, John Smith, me too. Drinking a Quilters whilst reading the article and You are 100% spot on! Thanks.

  • […] you want an even more in depth and clear explanation for why this is, head over to this article that explores the true differences between a 4% session and a 5% “session” beer.  It does a great job of clearly explaining how big the effect can be based on a little bit of ABV […]

  • […] you want to learn more about “session” beer and why it matters, Draft Magazine did a great article explaining it all. If you’re in the mood for something a little less […]

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