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Monday, September 14, 2009

Time for a Bonsai Beer Movement

[I'm out of town until September 18 and away from computers of all sorts. On the assumption that you won't have read every post from the past 3 years, I'm reposting a few favorites. See you soon.]

The joy of drinking beer is in the epiphanies it sparks. In my case, the insights are often directed back on the source itself, and so it was last night as I shared a bottle of Pyramid Imperial Hefeweizen with Sally. We have entered the era of imperial. No style is immune. Imperial IPAs and stouts, of course. But now there are imperial reds, porters, pilsners, wits, and hefeweizens. Never mind the "doubles" and "strongs." The age of supersized beer is upon us.

I love strong beers. When Sam Adams released its Triple Bock back in 1994, I shelled out for a bottle. I exaulted when Hair of the Dog released Fred. I laid away gallons of Jackfrost Doppelbock. Sasquatch Strong still remains one of the best beers I've ever tasted, and I drank it whenever it was available.

But the madness has to stop. I bought the Pyramid Imperial Hef with reluctance but dim hope. Maybe the word "hefeweizen" was an evocation--the beer, I hoped, might be something like a wheat wine. Alas, this really is just a steroidal hef. Hefeweizens are quintessentially light beers; the characteristics that distinguish them are products of smallness--light body, gentle wheaty palate, and the fragile, spicy character from yeast and phenols that make the style unique.

As an antidote, we need some kind of small beer movement. Bonsai beers, miniaturist efforts that focus entirely on producing flavor with a minimum of ingredients. I know that in a vacuum, breweries probably aren't going to invest a lot of time into beers that will get overlooked--especially when they can bloat a beer and get a fair amount of attention. That's why it needs to be a movement--consumers would become more conditioned to appreciate the small beers.

A festival of beers under 4%? A contest? A joint brew-off? Something needs to be done or we're going to have to endure imperial lambics, double milds, and strong sessions. Stop the madness before it's too late!

Originally posted September 21, 2007

I apparently forgot this post, because later I wrote "Super Small Beers" ...

A British beer blogger has a post up about an English brown ale that weighs in at 2.8% alcohol:
If you're American, you'd probably laugh it out of town. I doubt they send much - if any - across the Atlantic. Instead, the beer cowers in brown, half litre bottles on the shelves of Tesco stores in Britain. It coyly suggests on its label that it be used for cooking. There's even a recipe for beef stew on the back. It's as if the little chap doesn't want you to drink him.
It appears that the beer in question, Mann's, is a throwback. In the comments to the post, a guy named Paul notes "When we had our beer shop we used to sell a reasonable amount of Mann's brown. I don't ever remember a customer for it being under 60." That, and the suggestion that it's more fit for stew than mug, hint at its status there.

Nevertheless, there is a long and loving history of small beers, going back to the time when they were consumed in greater quantity and at what we might now consider off hours. In our mania for extremes, we extend not even scorn for these kinds of beers now--most craft beer drinkers probably believe that beer under 4% alcohol was made to serve scorn-deserving niches (light beer, non-alcoholic beer).

Well, as a sometimes brewer and all-around beer appreciator, I will go on record as a fan of the little beers. They're the quadruple salchow of brewing--very hard to pull off, so much so that few even bother. But when done properly, they reveal flavors concealed at higher octane. Here in Beervana, we so eschew anything with the macro taint that even our session ales are 5.5%. But in the world of extremes--which make Beervana's heart sing--super small beers are something to consider.

A general call to Oregon brewers: what about trying to knock off our socks with one hand tied behind your back? Something around three percent, style of your choice. Betcha can't.

Originally posted June 30, 2008

And finally, earlier this year, I had this brainstorm in a post called "Fest Thinkin"...

While I'm on the subject of fests, here's a random thought that floated through my brain after last week's experience with Full Sail's cask Amber. Since we have such a grievous paucity of beer festivals in Oregon (293 at last count), I'd love to see one more--the small beer fest. No beer above, what 5%, 4.5%? Maybe have a people's choice for beers below 5% and below 4%. Invite breweries to brew up special beer for the occasion and challenge them to come up with riveting flavors. Call it the Extreme Small Beer Fest or something. Small: it's the new frontier for extreme.

Now, how do you put on a fest?

Originally posted March 24, 2009


  1. anybody recall the third runnings beer at hop madness 2007?

    small beer readily fits into the shadow of its imperial brethren. I find it a shame it is so frequently overlooked.

    low ABV beer is kind of like running around in your knickers: it's really easy to see if you're not in good shape. there's simply very little place for off-flavors to hide.

    maybe I need to come up with a low ABV beer manifesto or something...

  2. I, too, would welcome small beers to the market. Love the idea of a small beer festival, but you can expect the crowds to be very small, too. When festival goers learn that the beer is very low alcohol, they will run the other way, toward the pubs or the grocery store aisles.

  3. to have a festival you'd need a critical mass of brewers for it, which I don't believe currently exists. even in Portland.

    heck, you couldn't even call it the "session festival" since full sail grabbed the name for their 5% ABV lagers.

    I guess that's what keeps me homebrewing...

  4. I find and drink a lot of light beers... and am happy with 4th Street Brewings lineup as most are sessionable.. which it seems most complain about and is why they don't like their beers. Everything now has to be way outside the basic and normal anymore.

    One reason i really like Rogue... they can still have a light beer like Chipotle Ale, and yet be light and sessionable while retaining great craft and flavor.

  5. to have a festival you'd need a critical mass of brewers for it, which I don't believe currently exists.

    I wonder if that's true. The brewers I've spoken to are generally quite enthusiastic about small beers. The "Cheers to Belgian Beers" model might work: every brewer does one special batch for a fest. No one is going to lose money on a single batch of small beer, and it could be a way to begin to open up a whole new market. If you gave breweries up to 4% to work with, they could make some pretty jaw-dropping beers, and it might dispel the idea that small beers are insipid in many consumers' minds.