Why Are There So Few Low-Alcohol Specialty Beers?
Today'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 firstname.lastname@example.org.