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Sunday, August 28, 2011

When Small was King

One of the things that's happened to craft beer in its zeal to be the polar opposite of macro lagers is it has gotten big. Check the beer list at your favorite watering hole. You'll likely discover that ABV levels are regularly north of 5 percent, often a lot higher. Is all that alcohol really necessary?

Serving up the little guys
Yesterday's Mighty Mites Session Beer Festival was designed to answer that question. The event, nudged into reality by esteemed Portland beer writer and blogger, Jeff Alworth, was held at Coalition Brewing as part of PDX Beer Week.

There were 18 beers on tap. The program listed 17 breweries, but one of those was pouring two beers. More importantly, these were small beers, most coming in at less than 5 percent ABV. In fact, at least eight beers came in at less than 4 percent.

Of course, reduced ABV means nothing at all if the beer has the taste and character of a Bud Light. Anyone who looked at the list of participating breweries prior to arriving at Coalition probably had reason to believe the beers weren't going to suck. The list included: Hair of the Dog, Breakside, Cascade, Coalition, Oakshire, Ninkasi and Burnside, among others.

Before I move on to the beers, I want to talk about the session concept for just a second. The term apparently refers to a time when factory workers in England were allowed to drink during licensed sessions that lasted several hours. The beers had to be low in alcohol because the workers often returned to factor floors after consuming numerous pints. Session beers, then, can be consumed in significant quantity without causing incoherence.

A good time was had by all!
I didn't taste every beer, but I tasted more than half of them. There wasn't a bad one in the bunch, although Little Sir John, a cask-conditioned bitter, was flat (as expected) and warm (not expected).

My highlight reel:

Ninkasi Helles Belles 
I first met this beer, a German lager, at the Oregon Brewers Festival. As I said at the time, this beer is off-brand for Ninkasi, which is widely known for heavily hopped ales. Never mind the history. Helles Belles is well-balanced, crisp and has plenty of subtle flavor. At 5.1 ABV, Helles Belles barely passes muster as a small beer. Great stuff, anyway!

Hair of the Dog Little Dogs
Hair of the Dog has been producing top flight beers for years, most of them big ones like Fred and Adam. HOD had two beers at the Mighty Mites: Little Dog Fred and Little Dog Adam. Both are made by reusing the grains made to make their high gravity elders. I was pleasantly surprised to see HOD owner/brewer Alan Sprints pouring his beers. Alan is always happy to chat about his beers and yesterday was no exception. Both Little Dogs behaved nicely. Little Dog Fred was light and crisp, and my favorite of the two.

Alan Sprints (right) pouring his Little Dogs
Stone Brewing Levitation
I walked up to the Levitation tap without and real thought. In the glass, this beer smelled very similar to Laurelwood's Workhorse. For the unknowing, Workhorse is a fairly big IPA (7.5 percent ABV) that leans heavily on Amarillo and Simcoe hops for aroma and flavor. A quick taste. Levitation lacked the depth and punch of Workhorse, but the subtle flavors were terrific. I'd like to have a case of this stuff in the fridge for summer drinking. Great stuff.

In my estimation, this is an event whose time was right. I hope Jeff and some of the folks who helped organize the inaugural Mighty Mites will continue on next year. I think they should provide more shade next year, either in the form or umbrellas or trees (move it to a park). No one has been able to provide attendance figures, but it looked to me like the event was a success. On a perfect summer day in Portland, a celebration of small beers is just what we needed.


  1. Thanks for explaining "session" beers. Interesting. I'm guessing, though, that many a factory worker went back to work with a BAC exceeding .10 or .20 if they had several pints of beer with even a moderate ABV, say 3-4%. Of course, those guys probably had some stout livers too.

  2. I suspect these guys had pretty high alcohol tolerance. Plus, they drank over a period many hours, which probably softened the impact. In our present circumstance, none-other than Fred Eckhardt, the dean of American beer writers, has called on the industry to produce more session-style beers. His logic: "If I have to stop after one or two, what's the point?"


Keep it civil, please.