The Washington Post

Low-alcohol beers: Take a walk on the mild side

Shift: New Belgium's attempt to beer drinkers a lighter quaff. (New Belgium Brewing Co.)

“Could pour this on pancakes,” Komi sommelier Kathryn Bangs groused of the Dogfish Head Burton Baton (at 10 percent alcohol by volume, our strongest contender).

That’s the rationale behind the “Crisp” category we added this year: There is a place for lighter, more delicate, refreshing beers that you can down from a mug and not a thimble.

It’s like the old Schaefer slogan: “the one beer to have when you’re having more than one.”

And the market is responding.

Boston Beer Co. is releasing a new beer, Samuel Adams Belgian Session, as part of its summer variety pack due out in April. This hazy, amber-colored ale has a gentle toffee flavor up front and finishes with the sharper herbal and citrusy notes of a saison. The alcohol content by volume is a mere 4.3 percent.

Could this be a shot across the bow of New Belgium Brewing Co. and its flagship Fat Tire Amber Ale? New Belgium has announced plans for an East Coast branch brewery, to be located in either the Asheville, N.C. or Philadelphia areas. A decision on the site could come as early as next month.

New Belgium has a few tricks up its sleeve, including the April 2 release of a new year-around, nationally marketed brand: Shift, a pale lager in a 16-ounce can. The press release describes this average-strength beer (5 percent alcohol by volume) as “easy to drink, crisp and congratulatory.” It’s hopped with Nelson Sauvin, a New Zealand variety known for its light, fruity flavors, sometimes likened to gooseberries or white wine grapes.

The idea behind the name is that “you punch a clock at the end of your shift” and relax with a pint, says Bryan Simpson, New Belgium’s media relations director. But he acknowledges that a shift in direction, towards more sessionable beers, would be a valid interpretation as well.

Two local breweries are taking a walk on the mild side, too. DC Brau teamed up with Baltimore’s Pratt Street Ale House to brew Burial at Sea, an English-style dark mild ale with soft biscuity and chocolate flavors.

The draft-only beer was brewed in both Baltimore and Washington. Pratt Street’s version finished up at 4.3 percent alcohol, while DC Brau’s batch measured 4.5 percent, a discrepancy that DC Brau CEO Brandon Skall chalked up to different efficiencies in their respective brewhouses. Regardless, it’s the lowest alcohol beer he’s brewed yet, says Skall.

The new beer was previewed on March 3 at the Brewer’s Ball, an annual fundraiser for cystic fibrosis research. The official Washington premiere took place on March 8 at Meridian Pint. This is a limited, one-time release, with just 25 half-barrels and 20 sixtels released, notes Skall.

Meanwhile, cofounder and head brewer Favio Garcia of Lost Rhino Brewing Co. in Ashburn is fermenting a helles, a malt-accented, golden, Bavarian-style lager, to be released in a couple weeks. Garcia expects the alcohol to clock in at under 5 percent. He hadn’t named the beer as of press time, but noted the possibilities for puns (Helles or High Water?) were almost limitless.

Finally, Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Mich. has come up with a kinder, gentler India pale ale, dubbed All Day IPA. Formulated for “optimal aromatics and a clean finish” (so says the Web site), the beer measures a respectable 42 international bitterness units but only 4.7 percent alcohol. Alas, it’s being marketed at present only in Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and the Chicago area.

The beer to have when you’re having 32?

Our Beer Madness panel would have appreciated that one.


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