Young and Hungry

Why Are There So Few Low-Alcohol Specialty Beers?

CharlieFred-and-Kens-Lager-300x299Today's topic is a spin-off of our first question from readers during this All Beer Week here at Young & Hungry. The question, which Beerspotter Orr Shtuhl responded to yesterday, was about the absence of craft Pilsners in the American beer market. In what we see as a related topic, we turn the discussion from Pilsners and how hard they are to make to session beers (drinkable, low-ABV beers you can drink several of in one "session") and how we as consumers don't want to pay for them–at least not when they come in fancy packaging.

Big beers, high in alcohol and intense in flavor, have been very much en vogue over the last several years. The booze-loving Lagerheads are the last to complain about beers that pack a nice punch, but as proponents of variety we would like to see more hand-crafted specialty beers on the low-ABV end. Like many other American craft beer drinkers, we have been waiting patiently to see the pendulum start swinging the other way, which it has with beers like Dogfish Head Lawnmower and Mikkeller Drinkin in the Sun.

While drinking Charlie, Fred, and Ken's Bock Imperial Helles from Sierra Nevada's 30th Anniversary collaboration beer series at this June's Lupulin Reunuless tasting at the Brickskeller, we decided to ask the panel of brewers about making extremely small beers. Read on for what Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada and Rob Tod of Allagash had to say.

LH: So thinking about this Imperial Helles, a strong version of traditionally lighter, lower-alcohol beer, I am wondering if you have plans to make any extreme beers in the reverse direction, super low alcohol content but highly flavorful?

Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada: Yes, actually we have and it was a topic of discussion when we were trying to formulate this beer. Fred Eckhardt in particular was suggesting that we tone it down and make it a more session beer. The problem is, and some of it is us and some of it is you as consumers, if we had a cork-finished, very expensively produced package of beer that did not offer a fairly significant flavor, that we would get beat up. Beers are that incredibly well-crafted but not a knock-your socks-off style tend to get beat up pretty significantly in the beer geek community, on Ratebeer and BeerAdvocate and places like that. The drinker didn't get what they were expecting; they were wanting a more extreme interpretation of the beer.

Rob Tod of Allagash: I'll definitely echo that. We have been doing cork-finished beers for a number of years and early on we wanted to come out with a lower-alcohol, pretty full-flavored but around 4.5%- to 5%-alcohol beer. It was called the Allagash Special. That was in a cork-finished 750 mL bottle and it didn't sell in that package. It cost us a lot to make it and cost us a lot to package in that bottle, so we had to charge a lot for it. We got beat up for it and people didn't buy it. I think people want higher alcohol with the bigger, cork-finished special releases. I'll welcome it when the consumer will buy those lower alcohol, fuller-flavored beers in that package. I think it will be great.

We think that U.S. craft beer drinkers are getting close. God knows in D.C. we pay an arm and a leg for most of our craft and imported beer, so perhaps this market is ripe for testing.

What do you think? Would you shell out big-ABV cash for a low-ABV brew made with an emphasis on flavor without the alcohol? Do you care what kind of a bottle it comes in? Do tell.

The beer bloggers who have taken over Y&H will be responding to readers' questions all week. If you have a good one, email it to

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  • Sheepy

    I think the problem is more packaging than price -- why are they tied to 750ml bottles? If I'm looking for a *session* beer, I'll ignore the single bottles, but pay $10-15 for a 6 pack.

  • Lew Bryson

    We DO pay big bucks for session-strength beers with intense flavor in cork-finished big format bottles: Cantillon, Hanssens, etc. LAMBICS. can be done, and we will pay for it. I know I do. But I just saw Stone Levitation (4.4%) for $16 a sixpack, and I balked at that. Price is not just a matter of ingredients and ABV, it includes rarity, and age, and work, among others. We need to have this discussion more often, and more deeply.

  • Rick Garvin

    At Mad Fox our biggest selling beer is our 4.4% Kolsch. But, the most asked for beers are the high alcohol hop bombs like the Molotov Hoptail DIPA. Big and extreme beers are objects of obsession. Session beers are objects of consumption.

    Cheers, Rick

  • Tammy Tuck and Bruce Falconer

    Smaller bottles seems like an easy fix. And true about lambics, Lew, but we weren't counting imports in our discussion since we can count on paying through the nose on those no matter what.

  • Raul

    I'd be happy if more brewers made beers like Dogfish Head Festina Peche, which is flavorful, reasonably unique, and sessionable.

    For me, it comes down to the packaging. Why would a brewer put a session beer in a 750 mL bottle? If it's a session beer, you're probably going to want to have more than 25 ounces, right? Why not a four pack or a six pack? If it's flavorful and interesting, I'll buy it.

  • Beer Made Clear

    Nice article. Have to agree w/Lew that price is not just a matter of ABV. Take 21st Ammendment for example, their Watermelon wheat is 4.9% and their brew free or die IPA is 7.0%, but yet in McLean, VA, both canned sixers cost me $10.50...

  • Chris Lohring

    Session Beer is all about the occasion for drinking it. Maybe we have just few when flavor is paramount, but alcohol is required in moderation (driving is on the horizon, etc) - or - maybe we have many beers during the back yard BBQ over a long day tending to the fire (wood smoked BBQ... ahem). So, we may scale our price sensitivity based on the occasion, and the volume.

    And let's not forget that the price reduction the brewer provides the wholesaler for the small cost savings in brewing a 4% ABV beer over a 6% ABV beer will be pennies on the dollar by the time it's in your glass. Why? The wholesaler and retailer are not changing their margins (mark-ups), and the brewer cost difference on a 4% beer over a 6% beer is a few dollars per keg (ingredient cost). That's the grim reality - ingredient cost is a fraction of the overall cost in getting beer to your lips. Repeat this last sentence 5 times.

    Why is higher alcohol beer so much more expensive (say a 9% over a 6%)? Beyond the increase of ingredient cost, reduced brew house yields also come into play. So, the 9% is not only more expensive for ingredients, the yield per batch is much lower. Beyond that, look in the mirror. As long as you continue to stand in line for the next ultra-rare release, the price will continue to rise.

  • Heff

    I don't understand the 'session beer' thing. Maybe it's because I have a bladder like a little girl.

  • RobbyA12

    I remember this discussion at the Lupulin Reunuless, and I remember thinking it was kinda BS. Craft brewers have carved their whole niche by telling us that they have higher alcohol, better ingredients, bolder flavor. They insult fizzy yellow beers, then ask us to spend up for a better product. Many have gotten so used to this, in fact, that they cork and cage everything they brew and presume that their whole line is worthy of a $20+ price point.

    You can't turn around now and blame the market for not supporting your low ABV/session beer efforts. You helped create this monster, and you'll need to adjust if you want out now. Package and price your session beer appropriately, and you might just be surprised at how the market responds.