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.
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.