Over the past decade, the alcohol levels of many beers has edged toward -- or well into -- the double digits. But a couple of new Bay Area brewing companies are betting that bigger is not always better.
Pete Slosberg of Pete's Wicked Ale fame unveiled Mavericks "Not yet world famous session beers" on Feb. 8. This comes on the heels of the debut of FreeWheel Brewing Co., which introduced a lineup of cask-conditioned English-style ales mostly clocking in under 4 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Their approaches differ, but both are striving for the same goal: Making low-alcohol beers that taste just as good as their high-octane counterparts.
"What I wanted to demonstrate is that we could make a beer in basically any style and have all the full flavor attributes as a 5 or 6 percent (ABV) beer," Slosberg says. "So as a consumer, you wouldn't know the difference, but at significantly less alcohol, you can enjoy it and not worry as much."
Those worries include waking up with a hangover. Or getting back on your bike after knocking back a couple beers. Or feeling tipsy halfway through your second glass.
Slosberg is marketing Mavericks as a lifestyle beer that won't interfere with your lifestyle. It was inspired by Slosberg's own experiences bicycling over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin Brewing Co., says his son Alex Slosberg, who, along with Will Shelton, are working on the project in partnership with Half Moon Bay Brewing Co.
But after a glass or two of 9 percent ABV beer, Slosberg often ended up taking the ferry home to San Francisco. This left him longing for a flavorful beer he could drink without becoming impaired. When Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. sought his advice for getting into the external distribution market, Slosberg suggested a differentiated beer.
"With over 2,300 micros and another 1,000 in process, the world doesn't need another pale or amber or IPA," Slosberg says. "So I told them if you're going to do something, do something completely different. Stand out."
Standing out from the crowd
The four co-founders of FreeWheel Brewing Co. in Redwood City reached a similar conclusion.
"The reason we decided on session beers was once we decided to do a brewery, just like any business, you try to figure out how you are going to distinguish yourself and stand out as a business," says Malcolm McGinnis, who started FreeWheel with Larry Bucka, Gary Waymire and Pete Krausa.
The partners were intrigued by English ales and sought breweries in the U.K. with whom they could collaborate. They hooked up with Ironbridge Brewery and Green Jack Brewing Co., giving them a direct connection to the style of beer they wanted to produce. As part of the relationship, they share beer recipes and collaborate on new ones.
"For them, I think it's interesting to have their name and beer over here in California," McGinnis says.
The brewery makes session beers from an English-inspired tradition, with cask-conditioned ales packaged without carbon dioxide pressure and poured from hand pumps, also known as beer engines. McGinnis personally defines session beer as one under 4 percent ABV, but in California, he sees this definition inching toward 5 percent ABV. FreeWheel's core lineup will include a bitter and an amber ale in the 3.5 to 4 percent ABV range. It also offers a 5 percent-ABV-plus stout, and may occasionally feature popular higher-alcohol beers, such as IPAs or porters.
Mavericks, meanwhile, is taking a more contemporary approach, with modern styles that include a Belgian-style wit, rye pale ale and chocolate porter. Mavericks is going all-in with session beers by specifically targeting 3.75 percent ABV, but Shelton would like to see them go lower.
The definition of session beer may differ depending on whom you ask, but generally refers to low-alcohol beers that can be consumed in larger quantities in one sitting or session. Some industry players, including beer columnist Lew Bryson, advocate for a 4.5 percent ABV threshold. Brian Stechschulte, executive director of the San Francisco Brewers Guild, generally views a session beer as under 4 percent ABV.
"I think that is the traditional idea or thought," Stechschulte says. "What's happening now is that definition or target is moving."
For newcomer Pine Street Brewery, that target has edged higher.
"We're dedicated to session beers, but our definition is quite a bit bigger," says Jay Holliday, co-founder of Pine Street Brewery, which just launched ahead of SF Beer Week two weeks ago.
The company's inaugural beer, the Atom Splitter, contains 5 percent ABV. So do two of its upcoming beers, a stout and saison.
"Here on the West Coast, everything is a little bit bigger, a little more intense, so we interpret that to be 4.5 to 6.5 (percent.)," Holliday says.
There never has been a lot of agreement on what a session beer is, Shelton says.
"I don't know that there is a definition," Shelton says, "except that most people are wrong."
What these brewers do agree on is that this segment of the market is under-served, even though some craft brewers offer lower alcohol beers as part of their lineups.
"There's a real gap," Slosberg said. "An IPA might be 6, 7 or 8 percent ABV, but if you're active, that'll screw you up for continuing your activity," he said. "The alternative is going for a light beer, but you get no flavor with a light beer. And by the way, many mass-produced light beers in the U.S. are 4.2 percent ABV."
Low-alcohol beers don't have to be thin or taste like water, he says, but don't expect them to be cheaper. Making a great low-alcohol beer can cost as much as a making a full-strength one.
"That's our challenge," Shelton says. "How do we present our beer that's going to be in the same price range as full-strength beers, and have people say even though it's 3.75 (percent), it tastes good enough to me that I choose it over a similarly-priced beer that is 6, 6.5 percent (ABV)."