Bold and boozy beers like double IPAs and bourbon barrel-aged stouts tend to get all the attention among craft beer fanatics. Recently, however, a growing number of local lower-alcohol, session-style beers—like Port City Brewing Company’s Ways and Means and Bluejacket’s Forbidden Planet Kölsch—are becoming available in D.C. area bars and restaurants.
These session styles, which generally contain 4.5 percent alcohol or less, are by and large some of the oldest beer recipes around. But many more local breweries are experimenting with and fine-tuning these beers. Meanwhile, the audience for session beers that aren’t mass-produced budget options like Bud Light or Miller Light is starting to slowly expand beyond a vocal minority of beer drinkers.
One reason for this? The quality and variety of session beers are improving and catching up with the popularity of craft beer as a whole. The misconception that all light or low-alcohol beers taste like a cheap college party keg is starting to disappear.
“There’s this idea that bigger beers have more to offer than smaller beers,” says Greg Engert, beer director for Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns a number of area bars including ChurchKey and Bluejacket brewery. “The one thing that I think we do have to encourage to the craft beer community is to constantly remind them not to confuse intensity with complexity.”
At their best, session beers are subtle, complex, and nuanced. But getting that result isn’t easy. That’s because brewing lower-alcohol styles means using less raw ingredients, especially malt, which plays a big role in shaping the color, body, and flavor of a beer. Yeast also goes a long way in helping give unique character to beers.
These lower-alcohol beers leave little room for brewers to hide their flaws, says Bill Madden, CEO and head brewer of Falls Church’s Mad Fox Brewing Company. “The brewer stands naked,” he says. “There’s nowhere to hide.” Mad Fox has become known for its low-alcohol beers. The brewpub’s Kellerbier Kölsch, which is an unfiltered version of its standard kölsch, won a gold medal at the 2011 Great American Beer Fest.
Right Proper Brewing Company also produces other great examples of how, when done right, low-alcohol beers can remain big on both body and flavor. Scattered among the bar’s higher alcohol options is the Really Rosie, a tart and fruity 3.9 percent alcohol rose Berliner Weisse that drinks like a full-bodied brew. The 4.4 percent alcohol Astral Weeks farmhouse ale and the 3.7 percent alcohol Ornette—a farmhouse wheat ale—are also on the list of rotating drafts.
Head Brewer Nathan Zeender goes to great lengths to create recipes and buy ingredients like yeast that can retain complex fruity, sour, malty, and even bitter or hoppy flavors while remaining easy on the booze.
“We have a lot of tools at our disposal to sort of create some more interesting flavors,” Zeender says. “As long you are making intelligent and artful decisions about your recipe making, you don’t have to have thin or hollow beers even at a lower [alcohol].”
Mad Fox’s Madden says he’s seeing a large interest in session beers as consumers become more familiar with craft brewing styles. So have Meridian Pint Beer Director Jace Gonnerman and owner John Andrade. Andrade believes that the excitement of trying something with prominent flavors is one of the biggest draws of high-alcohol beers. But he’s seen a shift in the way people are thinking about the beer they consume.
“As the average consumer starts to understand that craft beer isn’t just about getting drunk on high octane beers, they’re going to start finding some really creative beers,” Andrade says.
Gonnerman also sees a gradual shift toward some of the lighter styles: “There is definitely a group of consumers who want something that’s back toward the sessionable side—low alcohol, easy drinking—but something that still definitely has a really nice quality and depth of flavor to it,” he says.
It can be tempting to label this swell in session beer curiosity as a trend, but the truth is that progress remains slow. Despite all the chatter among beer insiders and brewers, the general public still has a way to go before sour beer is the new hefeweizen.
“Everybody wants to believe that this huge thing is happening right now, and I just don’t know if it’s happening. I really don’t,” says Engert. He adds that even though more people are drinking session beers, the demand for standard IPAs and pale ales shows no sign of slowing.
But no matter where the beer pendulum ends up swinging next, Engert says the most important thing is to sustain quality and avoid brewing a beer just because it’s popular: “I worry that this kind of sudden turn toward the love of sessions may be overlooking best practices… to the point sometimes where it’s like, if it’s low alcohol, it’s great.’”
Photo of Right Proper Brewing Company's Ornette by Tammy Tuck