Brands are slapping the term on everything from hard seltzers to IPAs to cocktails
As hard seltzers balloon in popularity, brands have co-opted a term once reserved for a specific style of craft beer: sessionability.
It’s often used in tandem with descriptors denoting healthy, refreshing attributes. But on its own, the term means that a product can be consumed in a “session” of more than one or two drinks. And now, nearly every category of alcoholic beverage wants in.
While even that vague quantification puts drinkers over the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for alcohol consumption, it’s not unrealistic given the habits of American drinkers. Per a 2018 study, 40% of Americans are “heavy” drinkers. Research also shows that people have been drinking even more during the pandemic.
So, is sessionability a safe way for brands to promote their products?
“People are using a lot of terminology around session beers, like ‘easy drinking,’ ‘crushable,’ ‘drinkable,’ as trendy buzzwords,” said Megan Stone, media coordinator for San Diego-based brewery Societe Brewing Company. “It’s sneaky terminology.”
The idea of sessionability slides seamlessly into marketing campaigns aimed at selling more drinks. If fans drink more at a time, they’ll replenish more often. And while it sounds like that would conflict with a brand’s stated mission to promote responsible drinking, that’s not why the category was created.
After years of brewing mostly higher-alcohol, full-bodied beers, Detroit-based Founders Brewing Co. released All Day IPA, a 4.7% session IPA, in 2012, well before sessionability became a buzzword. Founders’ head brewmaster, CEO and president were all getting a little older and having kids, and they wanted something to enjoy on a craft level without feeling compromised after just one or two.
A session brew is just “low alcohol without the sacrifice,” explained Sandy Anaokar, Founders’ vp of marketing. ULTRA SPICY PINEAPPLE Al 801 0 4% SMIRNOFF. SPIKED SPARKLING SELTZER RASP- BERR ROSÉ PREMIUM MALT BEVERAGE NATURAL FLAVORS AND CERTIFIED COLORS 4.5% 5% AOCIAL$ CLUB 2 de/txer• tlTRus 7%
The Sessionability of Seltzers: Most hard seltzers fall roughly within the window of sessionability, and many have adopted the term in their advertising. Crook & Marker and Michelob Ultra Organic Seltzer are both just 4% ABV, for example. Bon Viv and Smirnoff Seltzer are 4.5%, while category leaders Truly and White Claw are both 5%. Anheuser-Busch’s Social Club Seltzer, however, marketed as a more “sessionable” alternative to classic cocktails, is 7%.
The Brewers Association defines a session beer as under 5% ABV, but some industry experts define it more conservatively at 4%. Lew Bryson, a beer historian and columnist who headed up the Session Beer Project around the same time that All Day IPA was being developed, defines a session beer as anything under 4.5%.
But it’s not just beer and seltzer brands that are jumping on the sessionability train. Low-ABV cocktails have also gained popularity in recent years, according to French spirits brand Pernod Ricard’s head of education and mixology, Kevin Denton Rex. Consumers looking to slow their alcohol intake began opting for apéritif cocktails and spritzes in place of stronger options. “It was something that was built on discovery,” Denton Rex said.
Jim Beam recently launched a campaign built around the idea of sessionability, promoting a ginger highball cocktail as an option for drinkers who’ve gotten tired of beer.
Still, experts urge caution. “As the tobacco industry discovered, when product extensions are marketed as somehow being either better for you, or just not worse, the reality is often divorced from that marketing message,” said Dipanjan Chatterjee, vp and principal analyst at Forrester.
“The industry does have a responsibility to self-regulate so as to not to cross the lines of excess into a very dark area of alcoholism and alcohol-induced social ills,” he continued.
Pernod Ricard, which owns brands including Absolut Vodka, Jameson Whiskey and Malibu Rum, is one company that’s been more open to that conversation. CEO Ann Mukherjee said she sees her position as an opportunity to encourage more openness around both sides of alcohol consumption.
As more brands market “sessionable” products, Pernod Ricard CMO Pam Forbus said, “It’s important to continue our work in encouraging responsible drinking through open dialogue and education on the effects of excessive alcohol consumption.” Brands should not market “sessionable” products as a form of responsible drinking, she added.
For some in the brewing industry, big beer companies’ adoption of craft beer terminology feels a bit misleading.
“You’re going to have to come down on whether it means that you can have four of these, or you’ll want to have four of these because they taste so light and good,” Bryson said. “But you need to make it clear to people what you’re saying.”