Seattle’s Low-Alcohol, High-Flavor Beers

By Allecia Vermillion June 11, 2012 Published in the July 2012 issue of Seattle Met

In Washington, bigger beer usually means better beer. Turbo-charged behemoths like double IPA, imperial stout, and Belgian-style tripel have alcohol-by-volume levels that can soar to 10 percent and above, complex and boozy as a glass of wine.

And then there are guys like Kevin Klein, founder of Northwest Peaks Brewery. In his miniscule brew house in Ballard, Klein brews blondes, browns, porters, spiced ales, and more. And most of them have alcohol levels that hover between 4 and 5 percent.

“I like a lot of the bigger beers, but once you do two of them, your night’s done,” says Klein. “And if you do any more of them, your next day is done, too.”

Some people call these gentler brews lawnmower or patio beers, since they are a natural fit for summer and sunshine-related activities. But the proper term for easy-drinking beers is sessionable. And the public’s growing interest in them has more breweries in Washington and elsewhere brewing creations that ratchet down the booze, but still pack a lot of flavor.

In brewer parlance, sessionable beers have an ABV of 5 percent or below, and keep flavors like hops or malt in balance. This way you can enjoy a “session” of these beers—that is, several in one sitting. In drinker parlance, you can put away a bunch of them and not get wasted. And they actually taste good.

These beers aren’t any more difficult to make, says Klein, though the lighter flavors means that “if you do screw up, there’s less to hide behind.” His primary challenge is convincing the drinkers who wander into his tiny tap room that low in alcohol does not equal low in flavor.

Kayle Thompson, who manages the beer program at Brave Horse Tavern, says Washington brewers have been making good sessionable beers from the beginning, but only recently labeled them as such. She has also noticed that brewmasters who have jumped on the canning trend usually fill those aluminum vessels with sessionable beers, perfect for transporting multiple beers on a hike, or just to the backyard. Her own tavern recently got in on the session action, collaborating with Pike Brewing to make a Hop Session house beer that will pour all summer long. It’s a sessionable version of the Northwest’s signature IPA; Thompson says area breweries are “definitely pushing the stylistic boundaries” when it comes to low-alcohol ales, branching beyond the expected pilsners and hefeweizens to create sessionable Belgian-style ales and IPA.

Plenty of hardcore beer lovers will never stray from those potent brews. But they can find their own ride home.

Three to try:
Two Beers India Session Ale
Pike Brewing Hop Session
Northwest Peaks Brewery
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