The Other Extreme: Low-Alcohol Beers
KELLY TAYLOR was tired of the limited choices of beers he found at bars: either insipid lightweights or staggering powerlifters.
“There was no middle road,” he said. “We wanted to make beer where you could have a few and not have to go take a nap.”
So Mr. Taylor, the brewmaster at Greenpoint Beer Works in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, which brews for several local companies, started the Kelso of Brooklyn label in 2006 to make the quaffable beer he craved. Last year Kelso introduced a Fall Session ale. At 3.5 percent alcohol, it is full of flavor and less alcoholic than Bud Light (4.2 percent).
While many craft brewers are trying to quench the nation’s growing thirst for extreme beers pumped with alcohol, Mr. Taylor is one of a small but growing number of brewers, beer experts and importers who are applying the brakes and turning toward well-made low-alcohol beers.
“A bunch of guys talk in the market,” said Don Feinberg, a founder of Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y., and an importer for Vanberg & DeWulf there. “We’ve all been saying the same thing for about 18 months now, which is, enough of the high octane.”
Mr. Feinberg imports boozy Trappist and farmhouse ales, but in April he introduced a brew from another Belgian tradition: bières de table.
“When I lived there in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” he said of his time in Belgium, “everybody drank it for lunch, from grandmothers to kids.”
His new import, Brasserie Dupont’s spicy, yeasty Avril, is all of 3.5 percent alcohol. By comparison, the brewery’s more famous farmhouse ale, Saison Dupont, is 6.5 percent.
Tom Peters said Avril was selling well at his beer bar, Monk’s Café, in Philadelphia.
“Most people equate Belgian beer with big body and high alcohol, so having something like this seemed like an anomaly,” Mr. Peters said. “First, I had to educate my staff, and now they’re totally behind it. They really like to serve beers without being concerned they have to tell someone who’s drinking 8 or 9 or 10 percent alcohol, O.K., you’ve had a couple, so we have to slow you down now.”
For him, he said: “If I just want one beer, that high octane is stellar. If I want to drink several pints, I want something where I can still have a conversation.”
Other lovers of low-alcohol beer turn to Britain, where a long history of pub culture combined with a system that taxes beer according to alcohol level keeps ales at about 4 percent alcohol. Among British microbrews available in New York, Harviestoun Brewery’s grapefruity Bitter & Twisted, Orkney’s ruby-hued Red MacGregor and Daleside’s mild Old Leg Over exemplify the low-alcohol, full-flavored tradition.
“My brother and I lived in Europe, and we loved English milds because you got a lot of flavor, could have a lot of them, not get drunk, not get full, and really enjoy the taste of beer,” said Jason Ebel, an owner of Two Brothers Brewing Company in Warrenville, Ill. For the opening of their tap house this year, he and his brother, Jim, brewed a nicely hopped 3.9 percent ale, Mild, that was so successful they shipped kegs of it to New York. It has sold well at Bierkraft in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
“I think there’s a good chunk of the bigger players in the craft beer world that are starting to look at this,” Mr. Ebel said.
In fact, some bigger craft breweries already bottle beers that are below 4.5 percent alcohol. Shipyard has included a mild brown in their samplers for years, and Harpoon introduced a Brown Session Ale last year. There are also low-alcohol summer wheats like Magic Hat’s Hocus Pocus.
Last year on his blog, Seen Through a Glass (lewbryson.blogspot.com), Lew Bryson, a beer writer, began championing session beers: well-made low-alcohol brews meant for long nights at the bar. “Unfortunately, we have come to associate low alcohol with low flavor,” Mr. Bryson said in an interview.
That attitude frustrated David Pollack, owner of the Diamond, a bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “It seemed silly to me,” he said, “because I knew of really delicious session beers.” So he took on a mission to increase awareness of them.
The clientele at the Diamond on a recent night seemed to appreciate his efforts, which included a detailed list of his finds in the 3 percent to 6 percent range next to his regular beer board.
“If you order off the session list, you’re not going to go home and have a fight with anybody,” said Kevin Vincent, who sipped his way through a Reissdorf Kölsch (4.8 percent alcohol), then a Tröegs Sunshine Pils (5.3 percent). “And you can get in a few different flavors.”
Liz Geisewite was enjoying a Hop Sun (4.5 percent) from the Southern Tier Brewing Company after a fitness class because, she said, the description said it was light and easy. “Everything I drink after class has to be light and thirst-quenching and refreshing,” she said.
Ms. Geisewite is the type of drinker Alex Hall is going after. In the winter he plans to open the Nomad Brewing Company in Pittsfield, Mass., which will brew a low-alcohol English mild. “We may even convert some mainstream light lager drinkers who could be attracted by its ease of drinking through a session,” he said.
This taste for session beers will grow even in the face of Americans’ growing desire for double bocks and triple I.P.A.’s, said Ron Barchet, who brews Uncle Teddy’s Bitter (4.2 percent) and Donnybrook stout (3.7 percent) at Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown, Pa. “Their lighter body and alcohol are a natural attraction for more mature craft drinkers,” he wrote in an e-mail message.
As Scott Smith, who sells draft session beers in growlers at East End Brewing in Pittsburgh, explained: “People who come for session growlers are like me. They have young kids, so they’ll have a beer after the kids are put to bed. They’re not out on the town. It’s more about the flavor and enjoying a quality beer.”
One sign of changing times is the addition of a session beer category at the 2008 Great American Beer Festival, from Oct. 9 to 11 in Denver. “We realized that the smaller, flavorful, unique session beers made by craft brewers were being lost in the increased interest in extreme beers,” Charlie Papazian wrote in an e-mail message. Mr. Papazian is president of the Brewers Association, which operates the festival.
Microbrewers are experimenting with session beers as much as with big beers. Kelso’s fruity Fall Session is brewed with orange pekoe tea. Mr. Smith’s session series has included such esoterica as kvass, a fermented Russian beer made with bread.
Christopher Leonard, owner of the General Lafayette Inn, outside Philadelphia, said it was a test of his skill to create Lafayette’s Escape, a beer in the style of bière de table, at his inn’s brewery. It is only 1.9 percent alcohol.
“I was looking for a new challenge,” Mr. Leonard said. “I thought, Let’s go extreme the other way.”
He came up with an amber ale that has the peppery, herbal notes of Belgian yeast. “The beer had a residual sweetness, heft and density that made it taste like something that had more alcohol,” he said.
But although attention to low-alcohol beers is growing among craft brewers, there is still “not a lot out there,” said Mr. Pollack of the Diamond in Brooklyn. Because beer with less alcohol does not travel or keep as well as stronger brews, session beers are often available only in draft editions that do not make it to New York.
Moreover, whether beer drinkers will give up the stronger stuff and embrace beers with a low alcohol by volume, or A.B.V., remains to be seen.
On a recent evening at the East Village Pub in Manhattan, the owner, Bill Mackin, was fretting over the Victory Donnybrook he had listed next to Sixpoint Craft Ales’ 6.6 percent Diesel stout.
“The heat hit in the summer; I thought Victory would be more sellable,” he said. “But the Sixpoint outsells it, 2 to 1.”
As if on cue, Pat McCann, in a rumpled softball uniform, plodded in and ordered the Diesel. “I wanted a stout, and I don’t want a 3.7,” he said. “We lost by 12 runs tonight.”
“See?” Mr. Mackin said. “People lose their jobs, they don’t want a low A.B.V. People lose at baseball, they don’t want a low A.B.V.”
That may be the case, but according to those who champion session beer, if you’re at the top of your game and want to stay there, a low-alcohol beer may be your poison.