This is a promising development. One trend that I’ve been hoping for – lower-alcohol craft beers – seems like it’s beginning to take hold. These are not quite “session beers,’’ by strict definition – that’s an old British classification for beers with less than 4 percent alcohol by volume – but because it’s all but impossible to find good craft beers with such low ABV in this country, these new lower-alcohol brews are being loosely called session beers. (Beer connoisseurs argue about this phrase all the time online.)
In the United States, it’s becoming acceptable to refer to beers with as much as 4.5 or 5 percent ABV as sessionable beers, meaning you can drink a few in a drinking session. Whatever you call them, it’s all right with me, because most of the attention on craft beer over the past several years has gone to beers with higher ABVs – brews like Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA (9 percent), Sierra Nevada Bigfoot (9.6 percent), Stone’s Double Bastard (11.2 percent), and Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout (13 percent). Great beers, yes. But one of those and you could be done for the night. Not exactly ideal for parties, gatherings, or a hot July afternoon by the pool.
Boston’s big two local brewers – Sam Adams and Harpoon – have built their businesses on beers with ABVs around 5 percent, and it’s heartening to see others following suit. My favorite new sessionable beer is Spring Hop Ale (5 percent), from Mayflower Brewing Co. in Plymouth, but unfortunately it’s available only in early spring. Another local brewer – Notch, which brews in both Ipswich and Kennebunk, Maine – makes nothing but beers under 4.5 percent ABV. Even Stone, the California brewer that specializes in in-your-face, hoppy, high-alcohol beers, makes an excellent 4.4 percent ABV beer – Levitation, a red ale – just to prove it can.
Lower-alcohol ales are what separate excellent brewers from fair ones: A mediocre beer can be disguised by its high alcohol content. A lousy 5 percent beer reveals itself. Here are some great locally made “sessionable’’ beers:
Narragansett Summer Ale I don’t have any romantic notions of Narragansett Brewery, despite the fact that I grew up in Rhode Island and my grandparents lived half a mile from the old brewery, which closed in 1981. Heck, I even lived in the town of Narragansett for a few years. But listen: ’Gansett was not good beer. (How do I know? My father drank it. He also drank Busch and Schlitz.)
The new Narragansett is not your (or my) grandfather’s ’Gansett, though. Mark Hellendrung, the former Nantucket Nectars president who revived the Narragansett name, contracts out the brewing, and everyone involved is doing a bang-up job.
The company keeps rolling out new beers – Fest (a marzen), Porter, Bock, and now Summer Ale (a pale wheat) – and they’re all excellent. The Summer Ale is a perfect hot-day quencher, with enough body to keep a serious beer drinker satisfied but a low-enough ABV (4.2 percent) to keep you from falling asleep in your chaise lounge.
I poured my 16-ounce “tallboy’’ can into a pint glass and got a gigantic pillow of a head. Lemony and earthy, it was dry on the front and slightly sweet at the finish – crisp, light, and totally refreshing. You’re going to have to change your outdated opinion of ’Gansett.
Haverhill Haver Ale Haverhill Brewery, which also operates the Tap in Haverhill, deserves wider attention. The folks there know how to brew good beers without busting the bank on alcohol content. Perhaps their greatest feat is brewing an excellent IPA, Leatherlips, that is only 5 percent ABV – a huge accomplishment in the age of 7 percent IPAs. It doesn’t skimp on the hops, either.
Haver Ale, a cream ale that goes down nicely on a hot day, is only 4.6 percent ABV. The cream ale is something of a hybrid style. A cousin of the American lager, it is fermented warm like an ale but then cold-lagered (stored) and filtered, all of which gives it a smooth, dry character.
Golden with lots of bubbles rising quickly to a small but foamy head, Haver Ale gives off a mildly fruity and grainy aroma. Light and refreshing, this is a more robust than the usual cream ales, which are often yellow or straw-colored. “Designed for the discerning,’’ it says on the label. Hardly a groundbreaking beer, Haver Ale is nevertheless a strong rendition of its style.
Samuel Adams Rustic Saison Rustic Saison is a light, pale Belgian-style beer with notes of bananas and cloves (thanks to that distinctive Belgian yeast) and a spicy finish. Unfortunately, the only way to get your hands on a bottle of Rustic Saison is to buy this year’s Samuel Adams Summer Styles variety pack, whose two best beers are the saison and East-West Kolsch.
Rustic Saison is more in line with the original saisons, or farmhouse ales, that were brewed centuries ago in Belgium to refresh field workers (since drinking water could prove fatal). These days we have become accustomed to saisons that are anywhere from 6 to 8 percent alcohol by volume, but the original saisons were only 3 to 4 percent.
At 4.35 percent ABV, Sam Adams’s Rustic Saison adheres more closely to the original intent. It’s a perfect thirst-quencher for working in your own fields, whether that means weeding your tomato plants or mowing your lawn.