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Monday, January 14, 2013

Is Session Beer the Future of Craft?

There's always discussion and speculation about the future of craft beer. Where's this all headed? What are the most probable craft beer styles of tomorrow? Will we ever overcome the current IPA fetish?

In this month's Beer Advocate, Andy Crouch says the era of extreme, innovative beer is over. He believes the focus of the industry in the coming era will be sound business practices. Instead of brewing beer with eclectic ingredients, successful brewers will rely on HR pros and accountants to drive their business. Sounds exciting, I must say.

I don't know about Andy's prediction, but I do think there's an opening for a new era of brewing...or a return to earlier values. We may well be entering the era of the tasty session beer. There are others who have similar thoughts here and here.

If you go back a decade or two and look at what craft brewers were producing, there are some fairly illuminating facts with respect to ABV values. A few Oregon-centric examples (disclaimer: these are current, as opposed to historical numbers):

  • Portland Ale: 5%
  • Widmer Altbier: 5%
  • Widmer Hefeweizen: 4.9%
  • Widmer X Wheat (original Hef recipe): 4.5%,
  • Bridgeport Blue Heron: 4.9%,
  • Bridgeport IPA: 5.5%,
  • MacTarnahan's Amber Ale: 5.1%
  • McMenamin's Ruby Ale: 4.1%

Of course, you have to put these beers into the proper perspective. They were designed as alternatives to tasteless macro brews, which were typically 4 to 5% ABV...beers like Budweiser, Coors, Miller, etc. The primary differentiating factor with craft beers was flavor, body and character...and they gained a following based on those attributes.

Fast forward to modern day. Over the last few years, we've seen an escalation in ABV levels (IBU levels, too, although that's another post). There were few mainstream beers with ABV levels higher than 6% 10-15 years ago. Today they're all over the place and represent some of the most well-known beers around. A few (again, Oregon-centric) examples:

  • Boneyard RPM: 7% (I know it's draft only at this point, but it's wildly popular)
  • Laurelwood Workhorse IPA: 7.5%
  • Bridgeport Kingpin: 7.5%
  • Deschutes Red Chair NWPA: 6.4%
  • Widmer Rotator IPA (Falconers): 7%
  • Hopworks IPA: 6.6%
  • Double Mountain IRA: 6.5%

We somehow arrived at the point where higher alcohol beers became the accepted standard. Some might say the higher ABV is the collateral damage of the ongoing hops arms race. Another argument is that brewers, attempting to differentiate their beers from the competition, simply got immersed in a battle of bigger and bigger beers.

Regardless, escalating ABV values eventually have to moderate. I realize people like to feel like they're getting their money's worth in a beer, but please. You cannot drink a lot of this stuff on any kind of regular basis and remain healthy. The health risks may be less apparent when you're 25 or 30, but they will catch up with you eventually. And drunk driving is an ongoing risk.

I certainly don't think exotic, high octane beers are going away. That's not happening because hardcore fans will always seek these beers out. But sooner or later mainstream beer fans are going to figure out they can't make a steady diet of these kinds of beers. It just won't work for a bunch or reasons.

The challenge for brewers is to create beers that have character and depth with lower ABV levels. Is it possible? Of course it is. It's been done before...some of those beers are still out there largely in the background. A new crop of session-type beers brewed with modern ingredients and techniques might well foster changing drinking habits.

If you need verification of the session beer concept, consider Portland's original craft beer publican, the late Don Younger. Jerry Fechter, Don's partner for many years, says Don would hate the high ABV beer craze. He wanted good tasting, low ABV beers that patrons could drink a lot of. His reasons may have been selfish, but he had the right idea.

So we'll have to see what happens. There's already evidence that some respected brewers are increasing their production of lighter beers. I'll return to that theme in upcoming posts.

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