Beer here! - Page 4

Why choosing Bay Area craft brews is good for the earth, the economy, and your palate. Plus: Light beer's plight
Turleen hoists a few
Photo by Jeffery Cross

But I could care less about beer making me fat (I can always give up food). What I'm talking about is what's known in the business as ABV; that's alcohol by volume. Typical American beer — say, Budweiser — runs about 5 percent. Typical craft brew — say, Anchor Liberty Ale — is about 6 percent. The more serious stuff is even stronger — Lagunitas Maximum India Pale Ale, for example, clocks in at 7 percent.

Typical light beer — say, Bud Light, at 4.2 percent ABV — has almost 20 percent less alcohol than Bud, 30 percent less than Liberty Ale, and only about half as much as some of the more extreme brews.

And for those of us who would rather have four light beers than two Imperial Red Ales (and really — in America, is that even a choice?), the craft brew pickings are fairly slim. Especially in Northern California.

"You are living in the land of the IPA," Bill Manley, communications coordinator for Sierra Nevada brewery, which makes no lighter beers, told me.

It's not as if we're without choices. Anchor makes a Small Beer (with the leftovers from it's brutally strong Barleywine Ale) that comes in at about 3.5 percent ABV, but you almost never see it in stores. The 21st Amendment brewpub makes an excellent Great American Bitter that meets the session-beer standard of less than 4.5 percent. Magnolia makes an English Mild, and there's Stone Levitation Ale (4.4 percent). But again: check out most liquor stores and none of those are on the shelf.

Across the country, that's starting to change. Lew Bryson, a beer writer and blogger in Pennsylvania, has started the Session Beer Project ( to share information about full-flavored, high-quality brews that don't knock you silly after a bottle or two. "There are more people like us than most craft brewers would credit," Bryson told me.

The term "session beer" comes from England. By some accounts, it dates back to World War II when pubs were only open for short "sessions" so the workers could get back to the munitions plants in a relatively functional state. By Bryson's definition, a session beer has an ABV below 4.5 percent and doesn't overwhelm the party.

There are distinct advantages to lower-alcohol beers. "I was at a session brew festival two years ago and went through six pints in about two hours," he said. "I keep a Breathalyzer in my car, and when it was time to go home, I blew .02" — well within the legal limit in every state in America.

A brewpub near Bryson's house on the outskirts of Philly sells a Belgian ale called Mirage with an ABV of just 2.9 percent. "I can have a couple of pints with lunch and it doesn't blow my entire afternoon," he said.

Yet the reluctance remains. "A lot of brewers, they hear low-alcohol and they think light beer — and that's the enemy," Bryson said.

Mike Riley, marketing director at Anderson Valley Brewing that makes no beer with less than 5 percent ABV, added: "It's one of those stigmas that's gone on for a long time."

In fact, I could only find one craft brewer in the country that actually makes a "light" beer: Minhas Brewery in Monroe, Wis., which makes Huber Light and Minhas Light. "People were asking for it," Gary Olsen, the brewery manager told me. "Our first reaction was, why make something that doesn't taste like anything? But we found out you can make a very good lighter beer."

Yes, indeed. And when Anchor starts making (and marketing) Liberty Ale Light, I promise — I'll give up Bud Light forever. (Tim Redmond)

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