For a certain group of beer drinkers, as soon as alternatives to the dominant industrial lagers were offered, we ran toward them. We embraced the boozy, strong-flavored ales. In typical American fashion, these became the status quo among the enthusiasts, falling for it, hook, line and tankard. It seemed that, for the longest time, the notion that “bigger is better” was the only way to describe the modern American brewing scene.
Maybe we were trying too hard to distance ourselves from those monolithic days. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be grateful for all the superb high-gravity and über-hoppy beers that grace the landscape. But we are rediscovering and appreciating low-gravity beers once again, either as classic reproductions or European imports.
One of the misconceptions about low-alcohol beers is that they tend to be mundane—exactly what we were trying to get away from in the first place. Not only can they be quite flavorful, full of body, or both, but also delicate and refreshing. Low-gravity beers ferment and mature quickly, can be savored over a long period of time, present a great challenge, are woven into the culture of great brewing nations, can be brewed by those on a budget and often are at their best naturally conditioned.
Brewing them, though, is no small undertaking, the challenge being to eke as much out of the ingredients as possible and still create a well-crafted beer that is also satisfying.
Low-gravity beers can be approached in a variety of ways. Most commonly they are the focal brew, the intent of the brewing session, and the recipe is tailored specifically to them. They can be those beers that feature delicacy as their signature and rely on pale malts or more complex, flavorful brews that come in a variety of darker styles where the alcohol content is kept low so they can be enjoyed in quantity. Another approach applies to parti-gyle (small beer) second runnings, where the low-gravity beer is a means to make use of leftover wort. With some careful recipe considerations and/or sparging tricks, it can easily produce a beer worthy of first-running quality. Since you’ll be using a second fermenter, you’ll have even more options with regard to hops, yeast and beyond.
Golden Brews and Single-Malts
’Tis dogma that the hardest beers to homebrew are those that are pale and low-gravity, because of their naked, nowhere-to-hide-flaws nature and the fact that they rely on the inherent delicacy of pale malts. Because they have little to no specialty malt to enhance their character, you will have to rely on some very basic brewing tenets, attended to without compromise, to pull them off.
If you are an all-grain brewer, mash temperature is critical and can be used to great advantage to enhance or lighten the body. If a lighter body is desired mash at 148 to 150°F, or 151° to 153° for medium-bodied brews, or 154° to 156° for fuller-bodied styles. Always mash with the best pale or pilsner malt that you can get. Dextrin malt at 5%, and Vienna or Munich malt up to 15%, will add more than enough mouthfeel and extra flavor to make even the lightest beer very interesting without adding much color.
If your recipe calls for adjunct grain or wheat, make sure that you are well-versed in its handling. Improperly cooked or converted starches that might get somewhat lost in a darker or stronger beer will stick out like a sore thumb in pale beer in appearance, attenuation and, ultimately, taste.
Low-gravity beers are a great way to experiment with single-malt brews. Pilsner will suffice for helles, pilsner and kölsch, but pale, Vienna and Munich malts make very interesting beers at low gravity. Pale ale can be made with either pale-ale or Vienna in single-malt fashion. Vienna is one of my favorite malts, and I use it for session pale ale.
More within most brewers’ low-gravity capabilities are the authentic British-style session beers or American versions thereof. Session beer is a loose term that has been used in Britain for the past 30 years or so to denote beers of 4% or lower: those that can be consumed in relative quantity over a period of hours. Not that they are necessarily easier to make well, but these are a bit more forgiving than more-delicate brews.
Sessions are best presented as cask-conditioned ales: bitters, milds, browns and pales, but they can also include porter or stout. All can be brewed within the 4% limit and have loads of flavor with more-than-satisfactory mouthfeel.
Premium British pale or mild ale malt offers a sturdy background with which to work, but the key is to allow specialty grains to do the finishing touches and add stylistic nuance. This is perhaps quite obvious for the darker styles, but even bitter, light mild and pale ale can handle, and benefit from, a fair measure of crystal malt. Cask- and bottle-conditioning adds even more texture and complexity to these low-gravity beers. As a homebrewer, you always can fall back on bottle-conditioning, which is not a bad option. Consider looking into bulk keg-priming as those beers can be served under gravity or with minimal head pressure after proper conditioning.
American brewers have a less-rigid definition of session beer, which often denotes beer of 5% or less. American-style session IPA is a hot item at the moment, as it delivers all of the hops without the alcohol. Nearly any brew can be modified in this manner, from maibock to stout.
Second running from big beers is actually the origin of the term “small beer.” Small beers need not be an afterthought, though, nor simply a way to make use of extra, low-gravity wort. The big-beer recipe should be considered with respect to the small beer, in other words, building a recipe where the character will carry into the second runnings.
Another alternative is “topping” the mash. This is done by folding some specialty grains to the top of the grain bed once the main mash has been run off and before the wort has been run for the small beer. Crystal and dextrin malts are especially effective since they will enhance the body and, in the case of the former, also add a bit of fermentables.
Vienna Summer Session
SMASH, All-Grain, OG 1.043, 27 IBU, 5 gallons
Mash 8.5 pounds Vienna malt at 150 degrees F for one hour
Hop Schedule: 6 AAU German noble hop of your choice, 60 minutes, then 1 ounce same hops, 5 minutes
Ferment with altbier yeast (Wyeast 1007 or White Labs WLP003) or kölsch yeast (Wyeast 2565 or White Labs WLP029)
Lager post-fermentation for 4 weeks
Session Dark Mild
Extract and Steeped Grain, OG 1.042, 22 IBU, 5 gallons
Steep 1 pound 60 L crystal malt and 4 ounces chocolate malt at 150 degrees F for 20 minutes
Collect steeping liquid and dissolve 5 pounds amber LME or 4 pounds amber DME and bring to a boil
Hop Schedule: 5 AAU East Kent Golding, 60 minutes; unce East Kent Golding, 5 minutes
Ferment with London or British ale yeast of choice. I prefer Wyeast 1318 or White Labs WLP013 for English session ales
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer.