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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Yet One More Post in Promotion of Small Beer

A fascinating conversation has broken out on the Brew Crew Listserve.* It started with a question of what to call low-alcohol beers given that Full Sail has a trademark on the word "session." I can't imagine Full Sail trying to protect their mark when used adjectively, so I think we should just continue calling this category "session beers." But from there it evolved into a general discussion of the nature of small beers, their value, and commercial viability.

Just for the sake of discussion, I'll throw in my two cents. (By coincidence, I happen to have a blog to facilitate such things.) In my reckoning, there are several issues that thwart the wider adoption of small beers--all to the detriment of good beer culture.
  • Small beer costs the same as large beer. So, if you order a pint of 3.9% mild ale, you pay the same amount as if you buy a 6.7% IPA. Guess which beer most people buy? This is true when you buy beer by the bottle, too. I will confess to having, on at least one occasion, been seduced by a $7 sixer of 8% Hop Czar. Who doesn't love a bargain?
  • Conventional wisdom maintains the accuracy of these proofs: strong beers = flavorful beers and low-alcohol beers = insipid, lame beers. This is an unfortunate legacy of insipid, lame industrial lagers. It's true that if you brew a beer with corn, rice, and three hops ("triple hop brewed!"), you wind up with uninspiring beer. The lesson seems to have been that the opposite must therefore be true: deploy massive amounts of hop and barley, and you will produce good beer. A logical mistake. Lots of ingredients don't necessarily make for good beer, and few don't necessarily make for bad beer. Many small beers shine exactly because the ingredients are displayed nakedly and allowed to express their intrinsic character without a lot of interference. Small beers can, in many cases, be more flavorful than larger beers, muddied by a surfeit of ingredients.
  • Not all small beers are mild ales. (And, as Ron Pattinson would say, not all mild ales are small beers--but that's a different post.) In the world of under-5%-ers, you have a great variety of styles: lambic, saison, Irish stout, Berliner Weisse, bitter, steam beer, and yes, mild ales.
  • Cask ales, which Oregon is slowly, slowly beginning to embrace, are a perfect platform for displaying the amazing subtlety of beer flavor. Flavor that is sometimes frankly unavailable when you have higher-gravity beers with more intense hopping. (Not that cask ale is only delightful when the beers are small.)
In the US, we've really never tried to seriously brew low-alcohol beers for beer geeks. We instantly default to big beers--preferably barrel aged, with lots of nice liquor to boost the alcohol percentage. There's nothing wrong with big beers, but there is something wrong with the idea that only big beers are tasty.

I recall two experiences with especial vividness. Both happened at the Portland International Beer Fest, where small beers are served in the guileless belief that drinkers will enjoy them. In the first case--the second PIB, I think--I discovered a keg of Cantillon Rosé de Gambrinus. This was sort of early on, and the organizers hadn't hammered out the pricing yet--I remember being shocked at how cheap it was. Anyway, while my friends were off seeking the strongest beers they could find, I was going for pour after pour of the lambic. Ironically, I couldn't get anyone to join me: the Cantillon was too intense for them.

In the second case, I found a cask of Coniston Bluebird Bitter. The brewery ships a 4.2% bottled version to the states, but his was their 3.6% version, a different recipe made with 100% Challenger hops. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. That beer would easily make my top ten in the world. (And this time, I found some support for the beer when I handed out tasters.)

In any case, I feel duty bound to turn to that great American philosopher Kevin Costner when offering advice to American brewers: if you brew it, they will come. Seriously. Small beers rock. Brew them. (But maybe sell them at a slight discount to offset bargain-hunting.) And don't fear the cask!

Update. In comments, two brewers offer good news. Alan Sprints reports about the future of small beer (that is to say beer made from second running, a special variety of small beer) at his future brewery and Ted Sobel describes how he prices beer at Brewers Union.

*One of the reasons Portland is known as "Beervana" is because we have the Oregon Brew Crew, a homebrew club who leave their fingerprints on nearly every beery event that happens here. If you see a brewer under 40 years old in Portland, ask if they've been a member of the club--chances are, they were. Their Listserve is one of the finest public services to good beer we have in the city.




  1. It seems like the pricing IS the issue. Why do breweries charge the same for lower ABV beers when they take less ingredients (and cost less) to make? I'd probably buy more lower ABV beers if they were priced accordingly.

    I drink pretty much exclusively craft beer on a struggling small business owner's income, which isn't always easy.

    Now the fact that I drink craft instead of big macro stuff indicates that I enjoy the finer aspects of beer, and I'm not just drinking to get a buzz, but let's be honest, that's part of it. Otherwise, I'd be into craft soda.

    If I only have so much (litte!) to spend, I want something that's going to be delicious AND do the trick.

    If a sixer of smaller beers cost the same as 2 or 3 bigger IPA's, I'd probably buy the smaller beers fairly often.

    But if the pricing is more buy the volume of liquid I'm buying, and not the make-up of it's contents, then it's IPA (or stout, or bwine, etc...) all the way.

  2. I released Small Beer, the second runnings of Adam, in the mid '90s and just explaining the process was enough dissuade drinkers. Ed, the second runnings of Fred was much more successful with the public, but the market kept me from being able to sell it cheaper. Either your distributor will take the extra mark-up, or the retailer will. In my new tasting room, I will be able to release small beers for half the price of my regulars.

  3. @Alan: your original Small Beer was a treat! I've missed it these many years and would love to see it resurface some day.

  4. I've adopted the British pricing scheme here at the Brewers Union, in which pricing is based loosely on alcohol content. My session beers, 4.0% or below, are always $4.50, the "normal" beers are $5.00, and the specialty beers are $5.50. This is for a proper 20 oz. certified Honest Pint (tm). Brewers Union members get a buck off that as well. Three or four pints of a session ale won't set you back much.

  5. People forget that it's not just the brewer that sets the price, like Alan mentions above. No way a middle man is going to pass up making an extra 50¢/beer.

  6. Does Anchor's Small beer (3.3) ever show up on tap in PDX?

  7. Alan, that's fantastic news.

    Ted, that's fantastic news. The only problem I can see is that your scaled-price pints are not located in Southeast Portland.

    El.Hueso, possibly, but not often nor for long.

  8. From a retail/bar perspective I also find that price is the biggest hurdle. I see it time and again; people passing up the wonderful sessionable things on tap (like the hugely flavorful Heater Allen Schwarz @ 4.8%) in favor of the imperial IPA or strong ale further down the tap list.

    I've discussed the issue with several brewers, and most seemed to believe that when you consider all the costs involved with procuding a beer the actual ingredients only account for 2-30% of the price. Therefore, shaving a couple percentage points off the abv is only going to shave a couple percentage points off the brewers' costs, so it's not really feasible to offer them for much less than the standard price.

    That said, I'd love it if you could expound on this topic a little more. For example, it would be great to see an actual breakdown (from several breweries if possible) of what the true cost of brewing a 3.5% beer vs a 7% beer is.

    I understand that brewers/owners might be unwilling to go on record with financial details, so maybe you could get the info from them anonymously and simply tell your readers that they're "a mid-sized Oregon brewer" or "small brewery under 5,000bbls" or something like that.

  9. $ ed
    hooray for the return of ed!
    w hooray

    tank and fermentation constraints seem to have a larger impact on the price of beer than the ingredients. even for quicker-to-package small milds you still have fixed labor costs.

  10. This is a really interesting article!