A tilt toward lower ABV sessions leads craft beer trends in 2017
If you’re a craft beer drinker, you know the struggle.
You relish the slow-drinking delights of a hoppy India pale ale with a hearty meal or a few drinks with friends, then call it a night, relatively unfazed by the 6 percent (or higher) ABV.
Then comes the barbecue. Or the day at the beach. You’re in for the long haul, and an afternoon of those IPAs you normally savor is going to hit just a little too hard for you to head home under your own power. It’s one of those moments as a craft beer fan when you think to yourself, “It sure would be nice to have a crisp, refreshing pilsner that went down easy like the ones dad used to drink, but still had some craft beer personality.”
The good news is that craft brewers, who helped launch the IPA craze, feel the same way, says Mike Piorunsky, brewer for Evolution Craft Brewing Co. The Salisbury, Md., brewhouse has introduced Delmarva Pure Pils to its lineup to entice the more session-minded consumer looking for clean refreshment with the quality of a good craft brew.
“You definitely are looking for that drinkability factor,” says Piorunsky. “And with this beer, the intent was to make something that would have a lot of the traditional characteristics of the pilsner style.” While not as heavily hopped as many of the craft beers people are most familiar with, there’s still that touch—mostly aromatic—that says this was a purposefully crafted brew.
But it’s not just the drinker preferences that brewers are aiming to satisfy, says John Leyh, craft and specialty brand manager for NKS Distributors in Wilmington. It’s also about the bottom line.
“More people are drinking craft beer every day, but not as fast as there are new beers available to them,” he says. “These brewers have kind of gotten into a place where they’ll make a really good IPA, but [thanks to traditionally higher alcohol content] people can’t drink a lot of it.”
Those brewers are also looking at beer sales figures showing that nearly 80 percent of the beer sold in the United States still falls under the heading of German-style pilsners—the Budweisers and Michelobs that combine smooth drinking with a lower alcohol by volume. Not wanting to give up their growing market share to the big brewers of the world, craft brewers are getting the message and ramping up production of their own pilsners, blonde ales and golden lagers, Leyh says.
“It’s effectively the same style of beer as Budweiser, it just might have a little more of a hop character,” he says. “The brewers are offering what the consumer wants and hoping they’ll pay for something that’s a better beer. They like making really good beer, but they also like selling a lot of it.”
Selling more also means finding a niche that isn’t being filled by other brewers, Leyh says. Those pitching a new IPA to a bar that already has several on tap in that category won’t get a positive response, but offering something different like a flavorful golden ale or pilsner gives a brewer a better chance of getting that foot in the door. Often, the hope is that a good experience with a beer that has broad appeal might lead to a tavern owner trying another beer from that brewer.
“This is kind of a course correction because it allows the craft brewing community to service more customers,” says Leyh.
Evolution’s Piorunsky concurs.
“When we put this beer together, we did it with the thought that it’s going to be approachable to everyday beer drinkers in the market and flavorful enough to capture the palate of someone who would normally buy an IPA,” he says.
Here are a few of the latest crop of golden brews sure to make your summer sipping more refreshing:
Fordham Gypsy Lager – Particularly here in the Northeast, saying “lager” denotes a specific brand that often is not up to snuff for many craft beer drinkers. What Fordham has done is take the traditional Munich-style Helles lager, with its distinctive Munich and Vienna malts, and created a honey-tinged sweetness that contrasts the hoppy bitterness. Clean and crisp, this brew checks in with a 5 percent ABV that won’t overwhelm your afternoon by the pool.
Firestone Walker Pivo Pilsner – As with any good pilsner, Pivo starts with the classic styles of Europe – in this case the Czech Republic, Italy and Germany. But the folks at Firestone have put a decidedly American spin on the Old-World flavors by adding hops at the end of the brewing process, thus delivering the aromatic floral notes of the hops without the bitterness.
Kona Big Wave Golden Ale – Hawaii wouldn’t seem to be a hotbed of heavy IPA brews, but the folks at Kona do offer their own spin on the venerable ale. This golden ale pairs a light body with floral hoppiness for easy-drinking refreshment that complements seafood, pasta dishes and poultry.
Goose Island Four Star Pils – Another take on the traditional pilsner, this one emerged, according to Goose Island lore, from its employees’ interest in brewing a beer “they could enjoy at the end of their shift.” Brewed with a blend of American and German hops and with an easy-drinking 5.1 percent ABV, this is a flavorful pick for your enjoyment after work and over the weekend.
Give It Some Juice
Not all refreshment this summer will be had at the hands of a pilsner or golden ale, however. The venerable IPA has gotten a boost of summertime sparkle from the increasingly popular addition of fruitier hops varieties, resulting in a flavor that’s come to be described as “juicy.”
While not involving actual juices, these (often double) IPAs possess a flavor and aroma that departs from the usual piney overtones of traditional hops and comes off as more fruity or citrusy. Think pineapple or passionfruit rather than the floral notes that often accompany a traditional IPA.
But even though these newer arrivals might make it seem like juice is the hot new thing, using actual juices and fruit sodas in beers has been around for a while. Shandies—essentially a lager spiked with lemon soda—have been slow to catch on with the craft beer crowd because they go against much of what they strive for in the way of complex flavors and high alcohol content. But as warm weather is upon us and every bit of refreshment is appreciated, it’s worth noting that summer brings more of these juice-infused delights than any other time of year, and that some craft brewers are warming up to the idea of cooling off with some juicy creations of their own.
One of the pervasive challenges of loving your local brewpub has been enjoying their beers at home. Not long ago, the only option a devoted fan had was to purchase a “growler”—essentially a jug—from said brewpub and pay to have it filled. But as handy as growlers are for beer you plan to drink quickly, they’re not great at keeping beer fresh for longer than a few days.
And those craft brewers that focus more on bottled beers than on-site brewpub consumption have their own portability problems. What to do if you’re inclined to carry your favorite craft brew to an event that limits or prohibits glass containers?
The solution: The “crowler,” essentially a canned, sealed version of the growler that saves brewpub proprietors the hassle of dealing with customers who return unwashed growlers and likewise sparing customers the aggravation of beer that skunks after a few days in the fridge.
Still more convenient: Regular old cans that you can grab at your favorite retailer. Downingtown, Pa.’s Victory Brewing is offering a limited edition seasonal 12-can variety pack through August that includes four summer seasonals: Summer Love, Vital IPA, Hop Devil IPA and Prima Pils. Meanwhile, local brewpub chain Iron Hill has begun offering canned versions of its most popular brews, including Vienna Red Lager; Mahalo, Apollo!, and Rising Sun IPA.