Three of the region’s craft brewers are taking a stand against imperialism.
That’s “imperial” as in big, boozy, often highly hopped beers. The adjective was first used for Russian imperial stout, a heady dark brew once exported to the czarist court. Nowadays it prefaces any style, including Pilsener and porter, with a pumped-up alcohol content.
And yet, “you cannot have a million 12 percent beers out there. They will not sell,” says Jason Oliver, brew master for Devils Backbone Brewing in Roseland, Va.
Oliver, Steve Frazier of the Brewers Art in Baltimore and Jeff Hancock of DC Brau have been commissioned by the Brewers Association to create a special symposium beer for this year’s Craft Brewers Conference, scheduled for March 26-29 in Washington.
The three have decided that the opposite of “imperial” is “session.” There is no hard-and-fast definition for the latter term, but a rule of thumb is that you should be able to split a pitcher of session beer with a friend and walk away unimpaired by alcohol. The beer should be crisp and clean, neither too subtle nor convoluted in its recipe.
“Everybody’s getting older. We want to be able to drink more than one” round, says Frazier.
Making a lower-alcohol beer is a real test of the brewer’s skill, he adds, in that it leaves the brewer “more exposed.” Any defect will stand forth all the more clearly without a rich malt body or extravagant hopping to mask it.
After shooting e-mails back and forth, the men agreed to brew a rye Pilsener clocking in at a non-punishing 5 percent alcohol by volume. It’s quite a step down in potency from last year’s symposium beer, a 10 percent West Coast hop bomb dubbed a “San Diego pale ale.”
The Pilsener will contain about 20 percent rye, for a pumpernickel-like spiciness, and will be hopped with Sterling, a hybrid variety that combines the peppery flavor of Czech Saaz with the pungent fruity and floral notes of Pacific Northwest strains. Lager beers such as Pilseners require a longer conditioning (about five weeks in the case of the symposium beer), so the trio will do their brewing in early February at the Devils Backbone satellite plant in Lexington, Va. Among the trio’s breweries, that one has the most tank space.
Conference attendees probably will get their first taste of the rye Pilsener at the opening reception, scheduled for the National Air and Space Museum on March 26. They’ll also get a souvenir bottle. A limited amount of draft beer will be served to the public at the individual breweries and at selected tap houses across the District. How much depends on conference attendance (last year’s event in San Diego drew a record crowd of about 4,500) and on a decision that Oliver will need to make in upcoming weeks: Should they brew 60 barrels or 120 barrels?
Lower-alcohol beers aren’t exactly the forte of American craft brewers, but each of the three breweries already has dabbled with gentler beers below that 5 percent benchmark. At his brewpub, Oliver offers a Rye Session Ale flavored with the same Sterling hop and clocking in at about 4.5 percent alcohol. He says the beer is named after his Chihuahua, Session: “I’ve brewed with hop additions that are larger” than he is. Additionally, Devils Backbone features a semi-IPA called Four Point Pale Ale that measures a mere 4 percent and showcases a different hop with each batch.
The Brewer’s Art dispenses a Zodiac Pale Ale that changes with the astrological sign it was brewed under, although it always finishes in the mid-4s in alcohol percentage. The Capricorn version now on tap, says Frazier, combines fruity Sorachi Ace and Cascade hops with raspberry leaves and barberries.
About a year ago, DC Brau teamed up with the Pratt Street Ale House in Baltimore to brew Burial at Sea, a ruby mild. It was a dark, malt-forward, English-style session beer that was quite complex and satisfying for its 4.5 percent alcohol. Despite their decidedly un-macho name, milds were once the favorite tipple of coal miners and steelworkers, says Pratt Street brewer Steve Jones, a native of Coventry, England: “You can down four pints and walk away from the bar comfortably. It’s not going to mess you up.”
Jones intends to brew an encore batch of Burial at Sea in May. In the meantime, he’s got his own house mild called Dark Horse and offers a series of low-octane brews named after dialogue from “Planet of the Apes” movies. The latest, Beware the Beast Man, is a 3.8 percent, copper-colored ale that is dry-hopped with Citra and Sorachi Ace hops and bitter orange peel.
“It’s a sign of maturity in the industry that more people are doing these beers,” Frazier says. Yet bottled versions, particularly milds, are still scarce. Goose Island Beer in Chicago does a Mild Winter as one of its cold-weather seasonals, a nice example of the style with notes of cocoa and coffee and a hint of burnt toast in the finish. But at 5.6 percent alcohol, it’s poking its head out of the session-beer niche.
Although the craft beer ethos is to drink for flavor and not for the buzz, “people might perceive that they’re not getting enough bang for their buck based on the alcoholic strength,” says Hancock, DC Brau’s head brewer.
Kitsock is the editor of the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. His column runs monthly in Food.