There’s no one way to play Texas Hold’em poker. You can play loose or tight, passive or aggressive, like a nit or like a calling station or like a maniac, if that’s your thing. Some strategies are better than others, but any winning player has intuition, some quick math, and above all, a clear head.
Which is ironic, considering the game is most often (and honestly) portrayed in film and television along with coils of cigar smoke, highball glasses, and some red faced guy in a suit, sweating and fuming. For better or worse, one vice tends to pair well with another, and booze and poker have a long history together. Legend has it "Wild Bill" Hickok died with a drink in one hand and Ace-Eight in the other.
And with alcohol, comes heroic, emotion-based plays. Calling down with King high because “you didn’t think they had it”? You’re tipsy. Triple barrel bluffing on a wet board? You’re slurring. Hoping for fold equity in that four-bet bluff against the old man coffee at your table, who only plays Aces? You’re drunk, man.
Despite the soul reads that are popularized by Hollywood, poker is a game based in math, not emotion. After thousands and tens of thousands of hands, you need to making the correct decision more times than not. This takes enough guts to stay in when you think your opponent is weak, but not so much pride that you can’t fold when you know your beat. If you start playing with bravado and not brains, the sharks at the table are going to target you.
So during long hours of play – and accounting for the two beers you pounded when that river bluff went exactly as you feared – how does one stay clearheaded? The answer is craft beer's new favorite buzzword: “Session beers.”
Recently, along with “proper glassware” and “hazy ipas,” session beers have invaded your favorite craft beer bar. The name fits the intention: “sessions” are beers with an alcohol by volume low enough to allow you to knock back quite a few without fear of mental fog. And on the poker felt, that means staying balanced enough not to chase cards, become a hero, or accidently muck the winning hand.
Certain styles of beer naturally lean toward the more sessionable end of the ABV spectrum. Here’s a guide to the best low ABV beers for your next poker session.
Pilsners and Kölsches
These are the grown-up versions of your first beer: the light lager. While they might be the youngest fish at the poker table, everyone has to start somewhere.
Pilsners are cold fermented with lager yeast and traditionally brewed with soft water, lending a sweet, round flavor. The style has since broadened to include regional variations, but they all tend to share the characteristics of the lagers found in a German bierhaus, where drinking all day and pounding bratwursts is the order of the day. This beer is crisp, refreshing, and (usually) below 5% ABV.
Not technically a lager, but borrowing aspects of the style, the Cologne-born kölsch style is made with pilsner malt and fermented with ale yeast but at lager temperatures. They are a touch fruity, but finish clean and refreshing.
Pairs well with: Not knowing what a kicker is, bluff-shoving the river, calling off your entire stack because you “didn’t think she had it.”
Examples: Upland Free Time Lager, Burial Beer Co. Billows, Brooklyn Brewery Pilsner
(Extra) Pale Ales and Session IPAs
You’re likely already acquainted with this very influential beer: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Since Sierra Nevada first showcased Centennial hops, America has become addicted to hoppy beer. Cue the influx of expensive, double dry hopped double IPAs served up in 16 ounce cans. At the table, these are the solid players that don’t get too out of line, and –just like the brewers – they know exactly how the game is played.
But you can’t crush DIPAs all night and still see your cards. You’ll need to look toward session IPAs or hoppy pale ales for your alpha acid fix. These beers scale back the malt, and therefore the alcohol, while allowing hops to dominate the flavor.
Pairs well with: Calculating pot odds, ABC poker, good position play
Examples: Founders All Day IPA, Maine Beer MO, Half Acre Tuna
Table Beer, Saisons, and Other Funk
While stouts and porters make their name through malt, and IPAs through hops, these beers focus on yeast and bacteria to create flavor. I haven’t included sours in this section, because pounding a few of those in a row can turn your tongue into a puckered stump, but a balanced, dry saison can stay refreshing the whole night. And like the best player at the table, these beers have that certain je ne sais quoi that makes them both sophisticated and unpredictable.
These beers – particularly the very low ABV table beer – are historically meant to be drunk in large quantity and with a meal. They can range from a touch sweet and sour, to extremely dry and funky (think Brett), allowing you to keep you palate, and the other players, on their toes.
Pairs well with: Exploitative play, bluffing with blockers to the nut flush, trapping
Examples: Allagash Little Brett, Saison Dupont, Jolly Pumpkin Bam Bière