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Does More ABV Mean More Flavor?

There has been some discussion on Facebook and Reddit lately about the role ABV plays in craft beer.  I’ve really only been exploring this world for about 2 years now, so I consider myself a newcomer.  But what I think I knew was that higher ABV meant more flavor.  And to some extent I still think that holds true, however there are some lower ABV brews out there that are challenging this notion.

Take for example Nanny State, Brew Dog’s foray into low ABV brews at .5% (yes, that is a decimal point before the 5) ABV it certainly qualifies as a low ABV beer.  I read this morning over on Reddit that it is pretty tasty for a uber low ABV brew.  I haven’t had Nanny State yet, so I can’t really comment, but I can say that I think there is a huge roll for low ABV brews that are very flavorful to fill in the craft beer kingdom.

Take for example what happened to me yesterday.  I cracked open a nice Ninkasi Spring Reign.  It is 6% ABV.  I drank it, then remembered that my son’s normal ride home from the gym wasn’t going to be bringing him home that day, and I needed to go pick him up.  Now I was fortunate that I am a big guy, had just recently finished my lunch, and only had one 12 oz bottle, so I was fine to drive the 5 miles to the gym and pick him up.  But what if it was a bomber?  Or if it had been a 10% imperial?  I would have had to make other arrangements.  So I can definitely see the role for good and flavorful session brews.

My question to you is what do you think about this paradox? Do you need to give up flavor for lower ABV?  Have you had some lower ABV brews that you would recommend to others based solely on their flavor?  Do you think you need to sacrifice flavor for sobriety? Let me know your thoughts.

-Don

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48 Comments on “Does More ABV Mean More Flavor?”

  1. johnking82
    April 11, 2011 at 11:26 am #

    The first question is, what exactly classifies as a low ABV beer? Anything under 4%? 3%?

    I think with addition of certain spices, fruits, or hops you can get a better tasting lower tasting ABV beer, but like Kool-Aid…the more spoonfuls of sugar, the better.

    I don’t classify higher ABV beers as having more/better taste, some of Avery’s Angels of Death series can be almost undrinkable at their 15% status…even if they are aged for 4-5 years.

    • Don
      April 11, 2011 at 11:38 am #

      Well John, I guess low ABV is in the eye of the beholder, but for me I would say under 5%. I grew up in Wisconsin in the era of the 3.2% beer. Believe it or not there was a time when it was illegal to sell beer in WI that was greater than that amount. So I am no stranger to low ABV bad tasting brew. I agree that some of the higher ABV beers can be bad too, like DFH 120. I can’t drink the stuff.

      • April 11, 2011 at 11:48 am #

        I think that according to British guidelines, session beers fall in the 3% and under range. I know my friends tend to lean to 5% or even higher. It all depends on the drinker, IMHO.

        • Don
          April 11, 2011 at 11:55 am #

          Good points Zac. But you can relate to the fact that sometimes you are busy and just want a beer, but don’t want the associated buzz that a 10% brew will undoubtedly bring on. I’d like to have a good lineup of lower ABV brews to keep on hand for just such an occasion.

  2. April 11, 2011 at 11:27 am #

    I do generally think high ABV usually translates to more flavor. But low ABV doesn’t necessarily have to mean the absence of it.

    Don, did you get any of the Odell Cutthroat Porter either in the bottle or on nitro at Brewforia? I think that’s barely over 5% and to me it tastes like a much bigger beer. Nice hickory smokiness to it. It’s a complex beer for such a low ABV.

    Historically, saisons were lower ABV beers (although they’ve crept up in recent years). Saisons, even the low ABV ones, have a lot of flavor.

    Sessionable beer with flavor seems to be trend that’s gaining steam. And a challenge many brewers are excited to take on. Craft beer drinkers I talk to seem to dig having the option of choosing low-octane, tasty brews. I venture it won’t be long before most craft breweries have more high-flavor/low-abv offerings.

    • Don
      April 11, 2011 at 11:40 am #

      I didn’t get any of the Cutthroat porter. However I must say that I had a Donnybrook stout from Victory Brewing about a year ago and loved it. And at 3.7% it is a perfect breakfast time brew…I think I had that one before 10:00 am!

  3. Andy
    April 11, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    I was just about to mention how I enjoyed what I thought was a low alcohol brew in Fuller’s ESB (on cask!) this weekend, but now find it was 5.9%. No matter it was so tasty!

    I have been searching quite a bit lately for beers in the 4-4.5% range, and my favorite so far is the new 21st Amendment “Bitter American” at 4.4% I like it better than Surly’s Bitter Brewer, which i believe is around the same.

    • Don
      April 11, 2011 at 11:44 am #

      That sounds great ANdy. I will have to look for that, although 21st amendment has been very scarce in these parts lately. Probably another brewery that will pull out of a bunch of states before too long. 😦

  4. April 11, 2011 at 11:47 am #

    I have to agree with both commenters (johnking82 & @BeerPoet) so far. My circle of beer geeks recently had the same debate after a video of a tasting of one of BrewDog’s higher ABV beers made the rounds. The consensus seems to be that while flavor is not limited to high ABV beers, it usually works out that bigger beers carry bigger flavor. There are always exceptions. I love the lineup of brews at The Bruery and most of those beers land in the 3-5% range. Interestingly, The Bruery does a lot with spice and other adjuncts. No one’s brewing 3% DIPA’s. There is certainly an art to the low ABV beer, but I still go for higher ABV. That said, I don’t pick a beer based on ABV, but it sometimes factors in.

    In regards to the question about sacrificing flavor for sobriety, it seems this is a false dichotomy. Don’t drink an entire bottle at once. Have only one beer. In this instance, less is more. We often go to a happy hour where I can get some pretty nice beers. I tend spread my consumption of 2-3 beers over an entire evening with plenty of food and water before driving home. There are ways to manage your consumption without sacrificing flavor.

  5. April 11, 2011 at 11:51 am #

    I like big, boozy, toe curling beers, which are tough to make at a lower ABV. There are certainly some nice session beers out there (anything under 5% qualifies in my book) and they can be great, especially when the weather heats up.

    I guess I’m saying that in most cases, booziness is a flavor component I enjoy, and ABV is required to deliver it.

    • Don
      April 11, 2011 at 11:55 am #

      I know, you’re a lush Jim.

    • April 11, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

      I agree with you, Jim. Some people judge big beers favorably on their ability to mask a high ABV, but I like a little alcohol burn with a big imperial stout. I also think that most contemporary beer geeks would agree on the 5% threshold for session beers.

      I tend to have an upper bound limit as well. I call it the 18 rule: anything over 18% ABV or $18 a bottle is to be viewed with greater skepticism than other beers. Mikkeller Black would typify the upper bound for me. Of course there are exceptions, in the case of Sam Adams Utopias or Odell Woodcut ($25), where the beer is known as being excellent and not just a publicity stunt/overpriced.

      • Don
        April 11, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

        So Alex, do you typically stay away from lower ABV beers?

      • April 11, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

        Oh, not at all, Don. I just tend to prefer the big ones (like a good American). For everyday drinking, I tend to stick to beers with more sessionable ABV levels.

        • Don
          April 11, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

          I like big ones too, but sometimes smaller ones fit the occasion better…Wait, what were we talking about?

      • AntlerAdam
        April 11, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

        Best line of the day, Don!

        • Don
          April 11, 2011 at 1:21 pm #

          😉

      • April 11, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

        🙂

    • johnking82
      April 11, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

      the imperial stout I just brewed produced enough CO2 to blow the lid off my fermenter…it was 13% before I added the 4 roses soaked oak chips.

      • Don
        April 11, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

        Important safety tip John…That won’t be a session brew. But it will probably have kick ass flavor! 🙂

  6. April 11, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    I LOVE the idea of a low, low ABV beer that actually tastes great. From a beer drinking musician standpoint… I like something with a low ABV that tastes great so I can have a few before and during the show. It ain’t easy to play the guitar well after 2 bombers of Stone’s AB! My regime these days is to nurse a nice big beers socializing before a practice or show, then switch to Miller 64 during the practice/performance. I’ve tried the NA route, but that stuff is bad, worse than 2.8% Miller 64.

    I believe .5% or less can qualify as an NA beer. Pregnant beer loving women everywhere would rejoice at a great tasting low ABV brew.

    • Don
      April 11, 2011 at 11:59 am #

      I don’t know where you are at Chris, but Victory Donnybrook Stout only runs 3.7%, which is almost as low as MIller 64, and has a great flavor. I found Miller 64 last year during the final 4 and I wanted to go out to watch games. I could drink 6 of them over a few hours and drive home without ill effect. I was hoping for a better selection at home however.

      • April 11, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

        I’m in MN Don. I know Victory is around cause I love me some Storm King on those cold winter nights! I’ll check in at the Ale Jail for some Donnybrook Stout, thanks!

        Yeah, “Miller 64: When you’re going to have more than 6” they tout it as a low cal beer, which it is, but they should market it to people who love power tools.

  7. AntlerAdam
    April 11, 2011 at 12:52 pm #

    We’ve been brewing a few beers at the office that are lower in ABV but still have big flavors. We just bottled a tasty chocolate stout that ways in at 4.5% and I bet it would be just as good at 3%. We also did a tea infused brew at 5.5% that was amazing. Again, high and low ABV are in the eyes of the beholder.

    If the goal is toe curling, well, you might have to bring the SG up a lot to handle the complexity and balance. Worth a try though!!

    • Don
      April 11, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

      Sounds good Adam, and if I were a brewer, you can bet I wuld be making low ABV stuff, but sadly I have no space for it in my home, so I have to find good and interesting low ABV brews that are available retail.

  8. April 11, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

    Tried a bunch of their beers in Edinburgh last week but gave the Nanny State a pass. Maybe I should have tried it after all considering every other Brew Dog we tried was full of flavor. We’ll have to go back because I also want to try the hop pizza.

    • Don
      April 11, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

      Mmmmm….Hop Pizza! Brew dog makes some good beer, and some Meh beer. I totally loved their Tokio Stout at 18% ABV. But I have also heard not so good things about some of their more regular offerings. I would be interested to try Nanny State however, as it is a protest beer that they brewed to thumb their noses at over regulation. And interestingly enough I have heard some pretty good things about it. Welcome to our site Craige. Thanks for commenting and don’t be a stranger. 😉

  9. NicM
    April 11, 2011 at 3:13 pm #

    I’m totally down with the idea of session beers. Unfortunately here in Colorado you can’t get anything below 4% in bars, restaurants, or liquor stores while grocery stores and convenience stores can only sell below 4% so good luck finding a decent session beer. I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks it’s completely insane to not allow bars to sell low abv beers.

    • Don
      April 11, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

      I think we need to get rid of all the arcane laws where they relate to alcohol. Get rid of all blue laws, get rid of ABV restrictions, get rid of the three tier system. Clean the slate and start over! We have to be able to build something that is consistent and promotes creativity and freedom. Afterall isn’t that supposed to be the spirit of this country anyway?

      • April 11, 2011 at 4:55 pm #

        It was the spirit… now it’s who can make the most money. 😦

        • Don
          April 11, 2011 at 5:18 pm #

          Well it sure as hell ain’t me, so I’m hopping for the spirit part.

      • April 12, 2011 at 12:46 am #

        Oddly, or not, the one place that has some choice when it comes to 3-tier, rare beer availability and selling craft beer at retail is Washington D.C. Apparently bootlegging there is completely legal. http://bit.ly/el3sbo

      • April 12, 2011 at 10:59 am #

        Thank God for ABV restrictions, at least here in Colorado. The big name supermarkets and convenience stores have been pushing to sell higher ABV for years here; thankfully it just got voted down again. It’s those laws that make Colorado such a great Craft Beer state. The minute the big distributors get to dictate which higher ABV beers go on shelves in grocery & convenience stores is the minute we lose the diversity from our smaller brewers since there is less shelf space for beer in those stores. Not to mention the closing of our numerous liquor stores due to competition with the big chains. There are several small liquor stores in my neighborhood that carry Craft Brews that I rarely find anywhere else; and not just Colorado brews, it was in one of these stores that I first discovered Victory Brewing. Stores like these would probably be shut down due to competition if laws were different since a good number of them are in close proximity to grocery stores.
        I think the way things are now, it actually encourages breweries to offer lower ABV versions of their line-ups just to get them into grocery stores. Breckenridge, New Belgium, and Flying Dog have had 3.2% versions of their beers in grocery stores here for years without too much sacrifice for taste.

        • Don
          April 12, 2011 at 11:15 am #

          Interesting perspective Will. I would say that it works for Colorado, but then again in Idaho I can’t get any beer over 16% ABV. Why? Because any beverage over 16% has to be sold in state liquor stores. So what is bad about that? Well the State in their infinite wisdom has promised the Grocery and Convenience stores that they will not sell any brewed malted beverage, so as not to be in competition with them. That blows, because I can’t get any of the higher ABV brews. It wouldn’t bother me too much, but that means no Tokio Stout, and no Utopias in the State! So all these stupid restrictions that vary widely from state to state are nothing but a self imposed head ache in most cases. Don’t even get me started on Utah! 😉

    • April 12, 2011 at 11:40 am #

      I agree with you Don, you’re between a rock and a hard place in Idaho. And I can also relate to your mention of Utah! My brother and I were sitting at the bar in a brew pub in Ogden, after ordering they told us that we’d have to find a table to sit at because my bro was drinking a rum & coke. And their liquor stores give me nightmares just thinking about them!

  10. April 12, 2011 at 7:56 am #

    Seeing that summer is right around the corner, I’ve been craving easier to drink beers (something I can have three or four of while I grill out) that still pack a flavor punch. I’d love to have IPA flavor with hefe drinkability. I think there will always be a place for high-flavored session beers.

  11. Trevor B
    April 12, 2011 at 10:40 am #

    I have been having a kick of making lower abv for homebrew, my recent favorite is my Bitter, it comes in around 4% abv, but has such a complex flavor, i can sit around quaffing it all night long

  12. corey
    April 12, 2011 at 11:35 am #

    I have to mention Stone’s Levitation Ale here. Its officially a red, but has so much hop to it, that it is often mistaken for a pale, and comes in at a very sessionable 4.4 ABV. I’ve been keeping an eye out for sub 5% for awhile now, and Levitation is by far the biggest flavored.

    • Don
      April 12, 2011 at 12:41 pm #

      Good to know Corey. They had that on tap at Brewforia the other day. If it is still there the next time I stop in, I’ll have to give it a try.

    • Greg
      April 26, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

      I just tried this for the first time as well as Stone just came to Missouri. I was shocked to see the 4.2% (I think I remember?–could be 4.4%) due to the big flavor. Like most were indicating I usually see the bigger flavored beers carry the higher ABV. I’ll second the Levitation rec for a ‘low’ ABV.

    • Ell
      April 26, 2011 at 2:17 pm #

      Another vote for Stone Levitation. I’ve got a homebrew version of that beer fermenting now – clocking in around 4.7%. Should be tasty (since we can’t get Stone in Alabama – and yes, homebrewing is illegal too, but whatever).

      • April 26, 2011 at 2:20 pm #

        I always find I fall short of the original when I brew a clone, but it’s an “aim for the moon and hit the mountain top” kinda thing – it always turns out pretty good.

      • Ell
        April 26, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

        Well, I’ve got a DFH 60 clone nearly ready to bottle – I tasted it yesterday, and it was darned fine. We’ll see. The DFH clone was from Sam’s book, so that helps in getting the recipe right. I think the Stone recipe was actually also from the brewery, so we’ll see. It smelled great when I was brewing it!

        • Don
          April 26, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

          Yeah…Ell, I think it is more about my brother’s ability to brew than whether the recipes are any good. Jim…gets distracted, and doesn’t pay attention to little things like time or temperature, etc. You know…The small stuff.

        • April 26, 2011 at 2:40 pm #

          Hey, I resemble that remark!!

  13. James
    July 27, 2011 at 2:24 am #

    I now tend to only drink beers at 6% (or 5.8%+ maybe) partially because beer is food, it has calories, and I’d rather get a slight buzz with my calories, partially because 6% abv has a much easier potential to relax you, and because of the flavor. I don’t think a 4% abv stout will have the same taste and complexity as one that is 8%. Being slightly drunk with these beers doesn’t bother me. Also I really prefer stouts and porters, and other dark beers, so even if a food match would be better with a pale ale, I’d push for something dark/black. For some of these beers, a bigger abv is practically required.

    • July 27, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

      I agree – most beers I enjoy are 6-7% ABV, but I do enjoy boozy stouts, which are more in the 10 – 12% range.

  14. James
    August 3, 2011 at 3:52 pm #

    Looks like I’ve spoken too soon. I think I’ve been “stouted out”. Too much roast. I’m switching to English Strong Ale for now. Big abv, big flavor, basically a strong pale ale.

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