Wednesday, August 14, 2013

In eloquent praise of small beer.

Not so long ago, I bemoaned, be-tweeting, the dearth of full-flavored beers of lower alcoholic strength from small and independent American breweries. In response, a 'craft' beer geek tweeted back: "There are so few because they don't taste good."

So, so wrong. We're not talking 'lite' beer here, fella. Even the use of the term "lower alcohol" itself engenders prejudice.

There is no zymurgical reason why a beer of, say, 4% alcohol-by-volume (or lower) cannot be flavorful. The British (and Germans) have been brewing such for years. Early practitioner U.S. 'craft' brewers did such. Influential U.S. beer writers, such as Lew Bryson, have written often, and powerfully, in praise of such.

Although 'craft' breweries have been brewing ever stronger and stronger beers (one even reaching a prodigious, if ridiculous, level of 55% alcohol-by-volume), the tide may be turning, or, shall I say, the mash grist lessening.

More and more, U.S. 'craft' breweries are re-discovering the beauty and economy of smaller beer. So-called 'session' beer is becoming hip. Reference, for example, All Day IPA, from Founders Brewing, of Michigan, recently promoted to flagship status (even though, at 4.7% alcohol-by-volume, the alcoholic goal post of 'session' beer can be a moving target).

Some of the better posts at my blog have been written by others. Witness another, excerpted from a post by Jeff Alworth, at his blog, Beervana. I've reprinted it here, with his permission. Shunning the gerundival 'sessionable,' Alworth has written an economical, eloquent paen to the beauty of 'small' beer.

I am a fan of small beers.

However, unlike many of my fraternity, the reason isn't because I particularly care about long sessions in a pub. For me, the reason is purely aesthetic: small beers taste great
[emphasis mine].

Aesthetics is something we don't often apply to beer, but we should. We should approach each beer with an eye toward a kind of artistic mark of perfection and say: how does this beer perform against an ideal? In this way, best bitters are not judged ill because they lack the roasty heft of an imperial stout.

Beer geeks are generally pretty good about this, except when it comes to beers that ring in at under 5%. They are then dismissed as lesser substances, like diet soda, skim milk, or frozen yogurt. (And indeed, in America the small beer has been roughly treated--it's often a throwaway beer aimed to appeal to Bud drinkers.) Yet a small beer by its nature is not a compromise. It exists as a fully-formed beer, ready to be judged on its own merit.

Many small beers are vivid with flavor. The virtue of small beers is that they have less molecular density; the flavors have room to unfurl and blossom in the mouth. Certain styles have taken full advantage of this: Bavarian weizens have remarkable complexity (and are just psychedelic, period); Irish stouts can be sharp and intense with roast and hop bitterness; Berliner Weisses are so sour that Berliners developed the practice of cutting them with sugar syrups.

Firkin transport

And on cask, British ales reveal flavors you can never find on regular taps, sometimes with such bell-like clarity you feel you've found a fourth dimension of beer.
[emphasis mine] Unlike heftier beers, the flavors in these little ones are distinct, particular, and knowable .

Small beer. Say it loud. Say it proud. Amen, brother Alworth, amen!

  • The week of 11-17 August 2013 is DC Beer Week in Washington, D.C. The official beer of the festival is Solidarity Summer Ale, which was brewed collaboratively by several DC-area brewers, and described as a "sessionable pale ale" of 4.7% alcohol-by-volume.
  • The photo is of Steve Jones, long-time brewer at Oliver Ales, in Baltimore, Maryland. He brews, among many beers, British-style, lower-alcohol cask bitters.


  1. Yes, they can taste wonderful.

    However, they suffer from a slight marketing problem. Because of the way "big beers" are typically marketed at beer bars (at inflated prices and/or in smaller goblets/servings), beer drinkers get the idea that they should be paying more for greater alcoholic strength--and, conversely, less for lighter strength. So the brewpub cranks out a delightful "session beer" at 3.5%, prices it at the same price per shaker glass or pint as the 7% IPA or 8% imperial stout, and then wonders why folks aren't drinking it up. The consumer perceives the stronger beer as being a better value for the money, and typically it ends up being so, unless it's 110 degrees out.

    I think the perfect compromise, for the place that is able to do so, is to offer the "session beer" by the full or Imperial pint, just a hair larger than the standard glass. The first place that does that, I'll be pounding them away all day. (Well, not literally. But you get the idea.)

  2. My husband and I have friends that are not into hoppy IPA's or heavy, milky porters and stouts. However, we can't help but intervene on their Budweiser drinking ways. We've used "small beer" as "training wheels" so-to-speak in introducing our friends to and show that there is good beer outside of the commercial stuff. Some have come to our side of thinking and enjoy branching out and finding new and awesome beer. Others are sticking to their Bud, Miller, whatever and you know - as long as you've tried it and said, "Nope, not for me", we can still be friends!


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