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Over the past decade, American beer drinkers’ demands for ever bigger and bolder flavors have pushed hazy IPAs and pastry-laden stouts to the brink of, and often past, double-digit ABVs. Simultaneously, the wellness movement has fueled brewers to explore nonalcoholic options, resulting in the 0% ABV field blooming with newfound variety and quality.
More recently, a growing number of brewers have been turning their attention to something that splits the difference. Shrinking ABVs, in the 2% to 4% range, are proving a growing trend. People have been drinking more since the onset of the pandemic but still have just as many (if not more) daily responsibilities to manage, highlighting the need for balancing beer enthusiasm with moderation efforts.
“I think when the pandemic began, a lot of people enjoyed having a beer at 5 p.m. as a way to transition from at-home work time to at-home personal time,” says Pete Ternes, the co-owner of Chicago’s Middle Brow Beer Co., which has brewed almost exclusively 3% to 4.5% ABV beers for five years; the brewery’s By Day beer clocks in at just 2% ABV. “But the healthy-drinking trend was already riding a major tailwind when COVID-19 struck. Combine the two trends, and 2% ABV beers make a world of sense.” As Ternes points out, low-ABV beers enable a drinker to indulge habitually but still more healthfully.
Brewers are interpreting the trend in great ways, helping it pick up steam. They’re having fun working with the challenge of getting big flavors without big booze, according to beer writer and author John Holl. “After years of pushing ABVs into the stratosphere, they’re going in this different direction and looking to coax nuance and depth into these low-alcohol beers,” he says.
Ternes agrees, saying, “There's so much cleverness in brewing these days. It's possible to produce immense complexity in beer, whether derived principally from yeast, hops or malt, with a little extra reading and practice.”
Take the 2% Beer Initiative, for example, a project from Jack Hendler, the co-owner and brewer at Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers and Springdale Beer Co. Hendler drills down into every component of different beer styles to reconstruct complex and flavorful iterations with significantly lower alcohol contents. Echoing Ternes, Hendler says he has seen the conversation in the beer industry begin to seriously factor in consumers’ increasing interest in health. So-called “small beers” are a response to an overall shift in American drinking culture.
The fact that craft brewers are rising to this challenge and creating complex and interesting high-quality beers that help imbibers avoid hangovers and happen to be low-calorie (calorie counts drop when the alcohol content does) signals a golden era for the small beer. With that in mind, these are five standout options for starting to explore the trend.
Allagash Little Grove Sparkling Session Ale with Blackcurrants (3.8% ABV)
An iconic founding member of contemporary American craft beer, Maine’s Allagash Brewing Company is a safe bet for balanced brews with Belgian-inspired bites of fruitiness and spice. It’s little surprise that its Little Grove sparkling session ale is so bright and effervescent, with a harmony of sweetness and tartness, that you might forget it’s only 3.8% ABV and 100 calories.
Anchor Little Weekend Golden Ale (3.7% ABV)
Pilot brewer Dane Volek says Anchor Brewing Company has been experimenting with lighter beers for several years at its San Francisco tasting room and has seen an increasing interest in and demand for these smaller brews. This inspired the creation of Little Weekend, a golden ale with just 100 calories but tons of mango flavor. “This is a beer you want to take with you to the park, to the beach, on a hike,” says Volek. “It’s inspired by the spirit of getting outdoors; it won’t slow or weigh you down.”
Bell’s Light Hearted Ale (3.7% ABV)
Bell’s Two Hearted ale is one of the iconic brews credited with creating the mold for perfect IPAs and has consistently been voted the best beer in America. The Michigan brewery has translated Two Hearted’s crisp and bitter punch of citrus and pine into a light option sure to please any IPA lover. The Light Hearted ale has a 3.7% ABV and 110 calories but plenty of flavor and body.
Goose Island Brewing Co. So-Lo IPA (3% ABV)
Not all IPAs weigh in at over 6 or 7% alcohol, and not all big hop flavor has to mean big booze. Goose Island’s So-Lo is proof. It has the bouquet of citrus and herbal notes plus the nice presence of bitterness that IPA lovers look for, all at 3% ABV and, as an added bonus, only 98 calories. Brewer Quinn Fuechsl crafted this beer out of his own needs. “Over a year ago, I became a new dad and knew I wanted to make some small changes toward a healthier life, including the beer I was drinking,” he says. “What I needed was a full-flavored beer that had all the hop character I loved but was still sessionable and balanced.”
Sunday Beer Light & Tight Anytime Lager (3.8% ABV)
Sunday Beer co-founder Eric Schulz says the company was born out of a quest for quality local craft beer that was actually both good and light, friendly to active lifestyles and parenthood. “We’ve always said the goal for Sunday was to be interesting enough that if you really wanted to do a sit-down tasting, there’s enough there to pay attention to,” he says. “Or you could just sip on one with your friends and not be labored by a discussion of hops, malt and yeast—the choice is yours.”