Written by Jason Notte for thestreet.com
BOSTON (TheStreet) — Craft brewers who make low-alcohol beer and put their beer in cans seem to be ignoring history. In reality, they’re learning from it.
The trend toward low-alcohol “session beers” and cans instead of bottles can be a little troubling for anyone old enough to remember the direction American beer took in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When Pabst relaunched the Schlitz brand in 2008 and 2009, Schlitz senior brand manager Kyle Wortham lamented that the beer being sold under the brand’s name before the relaunch had suffered the same “death by 1,000 cuts” that had stripped Schlitz and brands such as Narragansett, Lone Star and others of their original flavor.
“It wasn’t something you could recognize yearly, but over decades there’s a hell of a difference from what you were drinking back then to now,” he said.
As craft brewers embrace beers with less than 5% alcohol by volume and can packaging long held to ridicule after being stacked in “beeramids” and smashed against one too many frat boy foreheads, they’re battling both for market share in an increasingly crowded segment and against longstanding beer stigmas passed down through generations of drinkers. Chris Lohring launched his Notch Independent Brewers out of Mercury Brewing’s Facilities in Ipswich, Mass., and a small brewpub in Kennebunk, Maine, about three months ago and produced a session ale and session pilsner that are each less that 4.5% alcohol by volume. After starting as a brewer in 1993 with Tremont Brewing, Lohring began hearing other brewers refer to the low-alcohol beers he loved as “session beers” and decided he wanted to make a few of his own.
“The one thing that’s always struck me is that brewers and people who actually produce the beer, at the end of the day, they typically go for a beer that’s a session beer,” Lohring says. “It’s rare to see a brewer at the end of the day reach for a double IPA and knock a couple back before they go home.”
The goal was to produce a beer similar to British ales and Czech lagers that are full flavored but benign enough to allow a drinker to enjoy one or two without feeling the detrimental effects of higher-potency craft brews. He insists that he’s not touting the superiority of low-alcohol beers, but presenting them as an option to those who find bigger beers too filling, dehydrating or intoxicating to have at lunch and continue the workday. This is a situation that’s only exacerbated during the summer months, when the sun takes its toll on beer swiggers outdoors.
“We have a ‘usability’ problem — average alcohol by volume is way too high to be sipping multiple beers down at the river, cutting the lawn or at the game,” says Joseph Tucker, owner and operator of RateBeer, who sees session beer as a solution to craft beer’s summer quandary. “High-alcohol beer is more filling, it has more calories and it’s dehydrating, and this makes the average craft beer a problem in the summertime.”