Monday, November 5, 2012

Putting the "micro" back in Microbrew

For my next brew, I'm planning to make a small batch of very small beer: 2.5% abv. When I say this to people, they almost always have the same reaction "why?".

It seems that often in the micro-brew world beer is judged by its "size". That is, it's alcohol level, it's bitterness level (especially for IPAs) and in general how much havoc it will ring on your body systems. Whereas the average alcohol content of commercial beers seems to be around the 4.5 to 5 percent mark, for microbrews 6 percent seems to be the minimum acceptable level, with many beers topping 7 and 8 (and 9) percent alcohol by volume.

I think possibly part of that trend is a reaction to the lower-alcohol, lower-flavor approach of commercial (or I should probably say, large-scale commercial) beers. It's a way to distinguish your brew from the crowed. And that's fine. Truly, when microbrews got their start in the late seventies and eighties they needed every advantage they could muster, so upping the ABV was fair game. When you are trying to sell beer to people who's spent their entire life drinking industrial pale lager, you need to be able to have as many selling points in your arsenal as you can. Nothing wrong with that.

But I think that this had also had an inadvertent effect on micro-drinkers. We've come to identify quality beer with higher-than-average alcohol level. I imagine that the penetration of Belgian-style beers into the micro-drinking market didn't help either. Though it's probably a chicken and the egg kind of scenario: Belgians became popular (partially) because they were "big", and people came to seek out big beers because they were popular. The fact that you can now get Leffe beer (which, incidentally, is owned by nBev ) just about anywhere shows that restaurant owners have long wised-up to the idea that people like high alcohol beverages.

Another aspect of this is that people like to feel like they're getting their money's worth. At most restaurants and bars, there is no real difference in price between a bottle of 4% beer and 7% beer. So people choose the 7% because it's "more bang for the buck" and will get them drunk sooner, for less money. Unfortunately, in as much as we beer geeks adore the drink for it's qualities, most people still drink to get happy. (whether that's a fight worth having is a discussion for a different post).

The thing is, however, that this is no longer the same beer world as it was in the seventies and eighties. Over the years, a fairly large drinker base has developed that drinks beer for its quality and flavor, not (just) it's alcohol content. People who smell, and look at, and taste their beer fully, and who can spend half an hour admiring the hop qualities of a brew. In short, a consumer base that you don't have to "sell" on beer, but that you can sell beer to based on its merits.

And for those people, with whom I humbly consider myself, alcohol is just one the many facets that make up beer, and is not very high on the list. We want quality and flavor. And I submit that if a beer has quality, and has flavor, and is satisfying to hold and smell and taste, then the level of alcohol becomes much less important. In matter of fact, the level of alcohol is important only in as much as it contributes to the overall character of the beer, and so if you reduce the alcohol level, you must make up for it in other ways.

And so that's the answer to the people who ask me "why": Because it's a challenge.  Because making a 2.5% beer is much harder, in my opinion, than making a 6% beer. You have much less to hide behind. You have to make a beer that has flavor and body, and that doesn't feel like a "light" beer. formulating a recipe for a low alcohol beer is a complicated balancing act of body, flavor, hopping, and a dozen variables that don't work quite the way they do in a normal beer. If, in a 6% beer, we can mash at 67-68C and get a full body beer, at 2.5% that will yield a watery feeling beer. And so we have to work extra hard to make sure everything balances out right, and the drinker has a wonderful experience. The test of a "great" low-alcohol beer, in my opinion, is that you should be able to serve it to someone without telling them it's low alcohol, and they wouldn't know it. :)

And then, of course, there's the other answer to the question of why make it: "Because it's there."

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