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Posted at 08:00 AM ET, 04/11/2011

The cure for the high-alcohol blues


As I fished around for a topic for this week’s blog, two remarks from Round 4 of Beer Madness stuck in my mind.

Christina Hoffman termed Flying Fish Exit 4 “a perfect summer baseball beer.” I share her admiration for this big, American-style triple, but occupying a bleacher seat on a sultry July afternoon, in need of rehydration, I might opt for a brew a little less potent than Exit 4’s 9.5 percent alcohol by volume.

Bob Tupper referred to Lagunitas Maximus as “pint-able.” Maybe so, but after quaffing 16 ounces of a double IPA that measures 8.2 percent alcohol by volume, would you order a second pint?

The strongest beers didn’t necessarily triumph in Beer Madness, but by the time we crowned our Final Four, the lower-alcohol contenders had all been eliminated. The “weakest” of our Final Four was Evolution Brewing Co.’s Rise Up Stout at 6.7 percent, and that compensated for its slightly lower proof with its intense coffee flavor.

But such is the bias when you evaluate beers by a two- or three-ounce sampler glass rather than the full pint. High-alcohol, fuller-bodied, intensely flavored beers will almost always get the nod over subtler, more refreshing, lower-alcohol beers.

Can you divorce flavor from alcohol? Can you brew a beer that slides down as easily as a Miller Lite but has the punch of a solid India pale ale?

House in Session Ale is evidence that it is indeed possible.

This draft-only beer is a collaboration between Schlafly Brewing Co. in St. Louis and three Washington, D.C. publicans: Greg Engert of Birch and Barley/ChurchKey, Greg Jasgur of Pizzeria Paradiso and Sam Fitz of Meridian Pint.

House in Session measures a hair below 4.2 percent alcohol, less than a Budweiser (about 5 percent) and about the same strength as a draft Guinness. The formula incorporates four hop varieties, but most of the flavor comes from Simcoe (a strain noted for its intense pine and grapefruit notes) and Amarillo, with its softer, tangerine-like flavor.

The beer measures about 60 international bitterness units, a respectable figure for an IPA. But much of the hops are added late in the boil or during fermentation, so they contribute bouquet but not bitterness.

Why should a St. Louis brewery be interested in brewing a beer exclusively for the inside-the-Beltway crowd? Schlafly Brewing Co. sells most of its output close to home in the Midwest, but founders Tom Schlafly and Dan Kopman have relatives in the D.C. area and make frequent trips here to lobby on behalf of small brewers. (That lobbying has reached a new intensity with the introduction of H.R. 1236 in the House and S. 534 in the Senate, bills that would halve the federal excise tax to $3.50 per barrel for the country’s smallest brewers. Read more here.)

Jasgur credits Kopman with the idea for a special beer. The four hashed out the specifications by e-mail before making a four-day trip to St. Louis in January. (“The hop profile changed six different times, including a few minutes before the last addition,” laughed Fitz.)

Only 25 half-barrel kegs (about 300 gallons in all) were brewed, and the question of a follow-up batch remains up in the air.

But other breweries are experimenting with beers that combine flavor and drinkability. For its warm-weather seasonal, San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery released a new canned offering, Bitter American, that combines a 4.4 percent alcohol content with a big citrusy hop blast. Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, Calif., was well ahead of the pack in 2002 when it released Levitation Ale, a beer that likewise melds a 4.4 percent alcohol content with aggressive Pacific Northwest hops.

Is session IPA on its way to becoming a new category? I hope so.

By  |  08:00 AM ET, 04/11/2011

Categories:  Beer | Tags:  Greg Kitsock

 
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