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Beer for the super session

Mann's Brown Ale beer bottle.
A lower ABV beer that’s been around for a long time and has its fans.

While our chums across the Atlantic grapple with the idea of tasty beer at less than 5% ABV, British brewers, it seems, are pushing even further downward, seeking to create exciting beers that  nonetheless gesture towards ‘low alcohol’.

There is, it seems, a magic 3% boundary below which it’s hard to make a satisfying pint. We’ve had a couple of crackers, from Brentwood and Harvey’s, but, in bottles at least, c.2.8% beers rarely seem to work. Just above the line, however, we found Brodie’s Citra (3.1%) and Redemption Trinity (3%) to be not only passable but very, very good indeed. We’re also very interested in Simpleton, Magic Rock’s entry into a market they’ve called ‘session IPA’.

It’s a market driven, we think, by consumer demand. For our own part, we like drinking pints, and we like the pub, but we’re terrible lightweights, so beers like this, or 20th century style milds, are perfect. It also makes a lot of sense in a world where ‘craft beer bars’ are banding draught beer prices by ABV: if your beer is the cheapest on offer, while still presenting ‘craft’ credentials, you’ll sell a lot of it.

What’s also interesting to us is that the 3% line was pretty much the line in the sand for the CAMRA campaign in its earliest days: most big brewery bitters were c.3.5% and getting weaker each year, leading to several consumer investigations and outraged newspaper articles. Were Watney et al sweating the details to make sure those weaker beers were satisfying? Probably not. Once again, something that is a problem in a near-monopoly isn’t so much of an issue in a more diverse market.

Maybe it’s time we wrote one of those ‘eight alternativesposts dealing with the word ‘weak’?

15 replies on “Beer for the super session”

Apart from being good for ‘lightweights’, and I count myself among them, they’re also useful for social occasions when you have to drive afterwards. I took cans of Adnams Sole Star with me when visiting relatives over Christmas and it was nice to join in the drinking without worrying so much about the driving.

I’d say Adnams Sole Star and Brentwoods BBC2 have been the best I’ve tried, good beers in their own right, and Oakham brewed a nice one which seems to have been a one-off. And of course, there’s always Manns Brown Ale 😉

I reviewed some here:

We loved the Brentwood one. A good beer, regardless of strength, somehow. Don’t recall trying Sole Star but will keep an eye out for it.

Great round up, by the way.

Interesting choice of picture. My dad always talks about how good Mann’s Brown Ale was back when he was a young drinker and so I am planning to try brewing a version for when my parents come to visit later this year.

We definitely didn’t choose the picture because it was the only one of a sub 3% beer in our ‘library’…

Mann’s is weird to drink on its own — very sweet, quite thin, but I’m a sucker for adding it to *any* cask ale. Successfully faked a cracking pint of mild by adding it to a half of St Austell Trelawney last weekend.

Sadly, this is an entire slice of the market that is not available here commercially. Also, the supposed reason I brewed at home in the past. One of my favourite (dim) recollections from 12 years ago was draining a 5 gallon cask of 3% with two pals over the course of a long day and night. The only side effect was from the volume of hop we had been exposed to, not the alcohol. Very odd dreams.

Another element would be beer tourism – I especially think of the Lakes for this, where there are places like Hawkshead Brewery and the Black Bull in Coniston that one would visit for the beer but as often as not there will be someone driving, so it’s good to have a (relatively) low alcohol ale that is part of the real ale experience, such as Windermere Pale, Bluebird or Loweswater Gold.

The weaker of Pretty Things Barcaly Perkins X Ale recreations, the 1945 one, was only 2.7% ABV, but pretty tasty. It did have a lot of different malts in it. I reckon if you primed it as it would have been in the casks, you’d have a cracking beer.

One of the sub 3% beers we’ve liked was Harvey’s Ration Ale, also from a WWII-era recipe.

What do you reckon to St Austell’s IPA? It’s 3.something, making it much lower than most contemporary IPAs, and I didn’t find it at all thin or bland. OTOH I had a 4.5% stout today which tasted watered-down – there obviously isn’t a direct relationship between “low abv” and “weak-tasting”.

Only had it a couple of times. Don’t remember thinking it was thin or bland, but didn’t fall in love with it either. Very rarely seen, probably because it’s not one of Roger Ryman’s babies (if we’ve understood correctly).

Is there really much consumer demand for sub-3% beers? Those stocked by the major supermarkets don’t seem to have made much of an impact, and the keg ones brewed by Lees apparently bombed. Isn’t it more a mixture of pandering to political correctness and taking advantage of the duty cut for 2.8% beers? As Cookie has said in the past, a duty incentive will only work if there is a demand for the product in the first place.

Not sure about pandering — maybe in the case of some of the bigger, Portman-allied breweries, but I suspect it’s just an accidental allignment. I don’t want the strength of my beer to be political one way or the other!

Is there demand? Again, the bigger brewers seem to think so (Carling C2 et al), but then they also think there’s demand for a beer for girls. I can say that:

1. Both Boak and I get very excited at the sight of a beer of 3.5% or less cos it means we can have a really good session with no ill-effects. (We love beer but not alcohol: neither of us is much good at handling hangovers, and I don’t even like being drunk much.) If there was an alcohol free beer that tasted as good as one with booze in, we’d probably drink that!
2. When I go out with non-beer geek mates, especially on school nights, they often ask for ‘the weakest lager they have’, or drink Greene King IPA because of it’s relatively low ABV.

I was really impressed with Mikeller “Drink In The Sun” on keg, which is 1.9%. Hoppy but tasty and drinkable.

Tried Fuller’s “Mighty Atom” and was underwhelmed sadly (I’m a big Fuller’s fan generally). Didn’t realise Adnam’s Sole Star was one of these – saw it in Morrison’s the other day.

1.9!? That’s really pushing it. Funk yeast probably helps — adds more character and complexity in lieu of that which comes from alcohol in some other beers.

[…] The skill of putting hug taste into low-ABV beers is, to me, one of the marks of a master brewer, and it was one of the topics Boak & Bailey touched upon this week. And they confessed to being “terrible lightweights”. I confess, too, so am I, which is why I’m glad the like of Redmeption Trinity and Brodie’s Citra are out there, especially during those long London sessions. B&B analyse the trend toward ‘super session’ beers here. […]

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