I’ve been watching quite a bit of Terry Kay’s excellent Beer Goggles Reviews. For those who don’t know, Terry is based in the UK and mainly reviews beers from the real ale movement. I scrolling through his extensive repertoire I noticed something interesting: a good deal of these beers were in the sub 4% category. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see Terry review beers in the 2.5% ABV range with equal enthusiasm as a 10% whiskey barrel aged monster.
It is rather apparent that lower-alcohol beers do not carry the same connotations as they do in North America. Here, lower-ABV products are equated to light (or “Lite”) beers which are generally viewed as anathema to the craft scene. Light beers took off around the same time as craft beers. To see how the two markets competed, I would highly advise reading Tom Acitelli’s “The Audacity of Hops“. The UK has had a different history with lower alcohol products, in part stemming from the intense taxation of malted barley. As a result, brewers have had to learn to do more with less and indeed, have carved out a historical niche in the market of “milds” and value bitters. Even earlier that that “small beers” of very low ABV (1-2%) were actually drank over water since the brewing process necessarily removed many of the dangerous impurities of industrial revolution-era water tables.
I feel that either as a result of, or in addition to the perception of lower strength products, there is a difference in how beer is perceived generally. While beer is clearly a leisure drink in both societies, in the UK it is more a matter of course. It is not embarrassing to be seen drinking, and it is not necessarily immediately associated with drunkenness. Perhaps as a result of these perceptions, North American beer culture, even craft culture has placed certain expectations on strength. A person drinking a lower strength product is presumed to give something up (usually flavour) for fewer calories or a more ‘smooth’ experience. Indeed, light beers are seen as the drink of choice for those who don’t like the taste of beer.
This is frustrating to me as a beer drinker who wants a more varied range available to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love a >12% Bourbon aged espresso stout as much as anyone, and will fully admit the majority of beers on my top 10 are above the 7% mark, but I would nonetheless like the choice. I would think it is just as hard and maybe even harder to make a decent beer in the 2% range as it is to make one in the double digits.
My hope is that if the craft scene can develop a legitimate base of low-ABV beers it can shuck the misrepresentation that drinking craft is just a snobby excuse to get drunk. For me, this would present the perfect rebuttal when someone makes a snide comment about either what I’m drinking or where I’m drinking it. Beer with lunch? Why not? A 2% mild might pair excellently with what I’m eating and will likely have less of an impact on my cognitive function than a sugary caffeinated drink.
Here’s a few beers I’ve seen in Ontario which have taken up the challenge.
Bellwoods Brewery Stay Classy Light Session Ale: 2.8% ABV
While perhaps not actually the lowest alcohol beer brewed in Ontario (Brick’s Red Baron Light and Molson 67 go a bit lower), this beer has the much more worthy aim of providing a full flavour experience below 3%. Looking forward to trying it. Ironically I picked it up along with the 10.3% “Bounty Hunter” Strong porter. Look for a review of both soon.
Grand River Brewing Mill Race Mild: 3.5%ABV
This highly acclaimed mild stubbornly refuses to leave the brewery’s retail store. As a result, I have not had the pleasure of sampling it, but look forward to doing so soon. I can appreciate GRB’s trepidation in releasing it fully, but I hope they take the plunge and put it into the LCBO.