Aim Low: A Defense of Everyday, Low-ABV Beer

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If you ask most of the folks that walk up to my taps, they’ll tell you that whatever you might find in terms of quality (I like it, but I’m biased) you’ll almost certainly find beers under 5% ABV. This is an undramatic departure from the conversations and iterations I find in homebrew groups, in other folks’ breweries, and in most brewing media (though when I get the chance to contribute to that media, I do my best to encourage folks to “aim low”).

Why do I do it? Lots of reasons. And I’m not even going to waste time with the “session beers can be super intense and flavorful, too!” or “here’s how to make a beer seem like it’s a big beer!” stuff. Either you believe the former or you don’t, and either you know your recipes well enough to do the latter or you don’t, so why bother? If you want to know how, mention it in the comments and I’ll get to it another day.

Today’s about the pragmatic, boring, and (dare I say) simple reasons to not brew beer that’s even moderately high in alcohol.

1: ABV is Money, and in More Ways than One

Of all the questions that will peg you as a new brewer, “how do I make my beer stronger?” is right up there, because there’s no freakin’ mystery here: more sugar. Whether that’s in the form of grain, candi syrup, table sugar, agave syrup, lollipops, Grape Nuts, leftover corn, or edible underpants, it’s MORE EXPENSIVE to brew stronger beer. You need more gravity, and gravity ain’t free.

And if you succeed in this wizard-like alchemy, your reward is that you ALSO need to spend more on hops (in the boil because your utilization just dropped AND you have more sweetness to balance, or in the whirlpool/fermenter because you have another flavor to compete with), maybe on yeast (higher ABV means a tougher fermentation environment), and almost certainly in time (more sugar means longer fermentation and maybe longer bottle conditioning times).

No thanks.

2: I Want More Beer

I don’t want to be more intoxicated - I just want more beer. I mostly drink for the social ritual of the thing, not for the buzz, and so more time socializing means more ounces of consumption, and so I’d rather have more beer at lower ABV.

“I know it’s only eight minutes into the second half, but may I shift from beer to some Mountain Dew?” is a sentence I don’t want to utter for a whole host of unnaturally green reasons.

This also works in the “I want to brew more beer for the same effort,” sense. I can brew three gallons of 4.5%-potential wort. Or I can brew the same amount of 9% wort, cut it, and end up with six gallons. Score.

3: I Don’t Want You Drunk In My House (Or Outside Of It)

What you do in your own time is your business. If you’re at my house, though, I need to deal with you, and you getting drunk and yelling at my dog to “stop staring at me, b**ch, I’m not even talking to you!” just doesn’t work for me (nor for Biscuit, I suspect).

Then there’s the legal liability question. Even if I offer you a bed and an Über, if I’m offering liter-boot pours of a Belgian Quad I think I’m skirting uncomfortably close to some legal problems. Even if I’m not all that invested in you living or dying, I don’t want to roll the dice that you won’t hurt someone I DO care about, you know?

4: You Get Enough of That Other Stuff

Look, I see what tap lists look like in most places. You can get 7% IPAs and Belgian Strong Ales and “Session” Pilsners (at 5.8%) all day long. Have a 4.2% Bitter, or a Mild, or a Leichtbier, on me.

And good luck finding them at even a supposedly “English Pub-inspired” taproom.

5: Sweet Beer Sucks

Alcohol is sweet. I don’t want sweet coming out of my walls. I don’t really do “sweet” in anything - not in food, not in relationships, and definitely not in beer. When I see a brewery bragging about a “zero-IBU” beer, I want to run the other way. I’ve tried, gang, but you’ll probably never convince me that the key to a good beer is a lack of bitterness. I like bitter. I came of craft brewing age in the years of the IBU Wars and Hops Shortages.

If I wanted sweet, I’d have gotten into alcoholic water ice.

Less alcohol means less sweetness, all other things being generally equal. So, low-ABV for me.

Drink What You Want - Just Not in My House

Before anyone says, “who the he** are you to tell me what to brew or drink???,” relax, I’m not. But if you want to drink in my home brewpub, then wrap your head around the idea that you’re going to have to drink more than a snifter of a bitter beer, and that it won’t make you forget the poor choices that brought you to this point in your life.

Fair warning.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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