The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism considers a 12-ounce can or bottle of beer with 5 percent ABV to be a “standard” drink, containing the same amount of pure alcohol as a shot of liquor or a glass of wine. Five percent is about the level of Budweiser or Heineken. At the bar where I sat, the beers were about 57 percent stronger. That’s not good for your liver or your hangover. And it’s enough to make me wish I was drinking in England.
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I enjoy many things about British pubs: The sensual pleasure of sipping a malty ale from a dimpled mug; the chatty bonhomie of talking to regulars; architecture that ranges from ancient crooked timbers and plaster to polished wood and etched mirrors. But as I get older, I’ve started to also appreciate the ABV on the tap handles: Easy-drinking bitters, pale ales and porters fall between 3.6 and 4.7 percent; a ruby-colored mild is usually closer to 3 percent. At London beer festivals, I’ve seen a 5.5 percent IPA — the level of a lawn mower beer over here — listed as a “strong ale.” But with an imperial pint of Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter (4 percent) or Dark Star’s Hophead Mosaic (3.8 percent) in hand, I’m reminded how nice it is to sit at the bar for a few hours and chat over a couple of beers without feeling a little bleary by the end.
So-called session beers with ABVs under 5 percent began to gain a foothold in the American craft brewing scene in the past three or four years, thanks to successes such as Founders All Day IPA (4.7 percent ABV), Firestone Walker’s Easy Jack (4.5 percent), Green Flash’s Jibe (4 percent) and Ballast Point’s Even Keel (3.8 percent). Those are all breweries known for making aggressive, assertive IPAs and stouts, but they’ve shown they can dial back the alcohol while still making hoppy, flavorful beers.
Of course, “session” applies to more than IPAs: Victory’s wonderful Donnybrook Irish Dry Stout is just 3.7 percent, and Boulevard’s delicious Unfiltered Wheat is 4.4 percent.
The segment of the market is growing quickly — research firm IRI recorded 21 session IPAs sold in supermarkets in 2013, and 107 by mid-2016 — but they can still be hard to find in bars. It’s all too common to pick up a menu whose only choices under 5 percent are gose or Berliner weiss. I love tart and funky beer, but I’m not always in the mood for it.
Session beers aren’t as sexy as imperial IPAs or the latest bourbon-barrel-aged stout. But if I drop into a bar to sample a new 11 percent imperial IPA, I’m probably going to have only one. If Port City’s Ways and Means — a spicy rye IPA with 4.5 percent ABV — is on tap, I’ll hang out longer and drink more. What’s not to love?
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