Yet One More Post in Promotion of Small Beer

A fascinating conversation has broken out on the Brew Crew Listserve.* It started with a question of what to call low-alcohol beers given that Full Sail has a trademark on the word "session." I can't imagine Full Sail trying to protect their mark when used adjectively, so I think we should just continue calling this category "session beers." But from there it evolved into a general discussion of the nature of small beers, their value, and commercial viability.

Just for the sake of discussion, I'll throw in my two cents. (By coincidence, I happen to have a blog to facilitate such things.) In my reckoning, there are several issues that thwart the wider adoption of small beers--all to the detriment of good beer culture.
  • Small beer costs the same as large beer. So, if you order a pint of 3.9% mild ale, you pay the same amount as if you buy a 6.7% IPA. Guess which beer most people buy? This is true when you buy beer by the bottle, too. I will confess to having, on at least one occasion, been seduced by a $7 sixer of 8% Hop Czar. Who doesn't love a bargain?
  • Conventional wisdom maintains the accuracy of these proofs: strong beers = flavorful beers and low-alcohol beers = insipid, lame beers. This is an unfortunate legacy of insipid, lame industrial lagers. It's true that if you brew a beer with corn, rice, and three hops ("triple hop brewed!"), you wind up with uninspiring beer. The lesson seems to have been that the opposite must therefore be true: deploy massive amounts of hop and barley, and you will produce good beer. A logical mistake. Lots of ingredients don't necessarily make for good beer, and few don't necessarily make for bad beer. Many small beers shine exactly because the ingredients are displayed nakedly and allowed to express their intrinsic character without a lot of interference. Small beers can, in many cases, be more flavorful than larger beers, muddied by a surfeit of ingredients.
  • Not all small beers are mild ales. (And, as Ron Pattinson would say, not all mild ales are small beers--but that's a different post.) In the world of under-5%-ers, you have a great variety of styles: lambic, saison, Irish stout, Berliner Weisse, bitter, steam beer, and yes, mild ales.
  • Cask ales, which Oregon is slowly, slowly beginning to embrace, are a perfect platform for displaying the amazing subtlety of beer flavor. Flavor that is sometimes frankly unavailable when you have higher-gravity beers with more intense hopping. (Not that cask ale is only delightful when the beers are small.)
In the US, we've really never tried to seriously brew low-alcohol beers for beer geeks. We instantly default to big beers--preferably barrel aged, with lots of nice liquor to boost the alcohol percentage. There's nothing wrong with big beers, but there is something wrong with the idea that only big beers are tasty.

I recall two experiences with especial vividness. Both happened at the Portland International Beer Fest, where small beers are served in the guileless belief that drinkers will enjoy them. In the first case--the second PIB, I think--I discovered a keg of Cantillon Rosé de Gambrinus. This was sort of early on, and the organizers hadn't hammered out the pricing yet--I remember being shocked at how cheap it was. Anyway, while my friends were off seeking the strongest beers they could find, I was going for pour after pour of the lambic. Ironically, I couldn't get anyone to join me: the Cantillon was too intense for them.

In the second case, I found a cask of Coniston Bluebird Bitter. The brewery ships a 4.2% bottled version to the states, but his was their 3.6% version, a different recipe made with 100% Challenger hops. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. That beer would easily make my top ten in the world. (And this time, I found some support for the beer when I handed out tasters.)

In any case, I feel duty bound to turn to that great American philosopher Kevin Costner when offering advice to American brewers: if you brew it, they will come. Seriously. Small beers rock. Brew them. (But maybe sell them at a slight discount to offset bargain-hunting.) And don't fear the cask!

Update. In comments, two brewers offer good news. Alan Sprints reports about the future of small beer (that is to say beer made from second running, a special variety of small beer) at his future brewery and Ted Sobel describes how he prices beer at Brewers Union.

*One of the reasons Portland is known as "Beervana" is because we have the Oregon Brew Crew, a homebrew club who leave their fingerprints on nearly every beery event that happens here. If you see a brewer under 40 years old in Portland, ask if they've been a member of the club--chances are, they were. Their Listserve is one of the finest public services to good beer we have in the city.