All About Beer Magazine - Volume 30, Issue 3
July 1, 2009 By

Oh, wait. Not five-cent beer. What we need is five percent beer, although I actually drank what may have been the last five-cent beer ever offered. That was in about 1955, when a local Seattle tavern offered beer in a schooner-shaped jigger for a nickel! Great fun at the time, and one such beer was sufficient to make a point.

My last five-cent hamburger? Memphis TN, in 1944. It was very small, about three inches diameter. I was weaned on 3.2 beer in the Marines during the war, which was all the military could serve enlisted people, It was free, but rationed, in combat zones. That designation indicated that the beer had only 3.2 percent alcohol by weight, the measuring standard of the Prohibition era. America’s pre-Prohibition brewers were mostly of German extraction, and they calculated their beer parameters using the mathematically simpler “by weight” system, which was equivalent to 4 percent “by volume.” Today we all use the universally understandable “by volume,” since almost all other alcohol standards, these days, are in that format as well.

Light Beer vs Heavy Beer

Old brewing texts describe the traditional difference between heavy and light in beer: 12.5 Plato. Less than 12.5 Plato (Original gravity, or OG, of 1050) before adding yeast delivers “light,” while more than that gives us “heavy.” Light beer may therefore be (loosely) defined as a beer with less than 5 percent ABV (alcohol by volume). Truly classic Guinness Draught, is a black light beer at OG 10.3-Plato and 4.4 percent ABV. Unfortunately, there’s no nationally available American brew quite like Guinness Draught, found in a surprising number of American pubs across the country.

As I noted above, most craft brews in this country are actually “heavy.” Worse, even the beer we call “session beer” is often brewed to over 5 percent ABV. Not so in Europe, where most of the beer finishes below the 5 percent edge.

We have become obsessed with the idea that light beer must be tasteless, exceedingly pale and calorie deficient. At the same time, we are taught to believe that any beer with less than 5 percent is weak, wussy beer; hence the fading malt liquor phenomenon: insipid wussy beer with plenty of alcohol. We have even become acculturated to disdain our traditional “3.2” beer (4 percent ABV). In Britain, however, such beer will not be wimpy at all. British milds and bitters will, for the most part, be delicious and very enjoyable. Good taste is possible even in non-alcohol beer. Check out NA Kaliber from Guinness!

But that’s not my point. Our craft brewers (bless them) have taken to brewing some truly magnificent beers: strong and delicious at 10 percent and up to over 20 percent alcohol. There are more such brews out there now than there are of what we formerly called “session beer” or what the British call “mild.” Strong beer cannot take the place of what I call table beer, which, if it is done in the traditional way will have less than 5 percent alcohol content. If one wanders the continent these days, most of the beer served in pubs is of 4 to 5 percent. Since the name “session beer” is no longer available, we need a new name. May I suggest “table beer.”

A Brew for the Pub

If one wishes to sit and sip beer in a pub, strong brew is out of the question. Our brewers should follow their Old World comrades’ example. We have far more need of “table beer” than of strong beer. Young people cannot learn to manage alcohol if it is found only in strong libations. We all need low caliber beer, so that we can enjoy an evening with friends at the local pub.

The anti-alcohol people are out there. They are out to get us; and they are growing in number. It’s time we consider this carefully. I’ve not found many examples of this species, but I do know that the biggest problem is not that our brewers cannot produce such beer, but that no one has a satisfactory name for it.

The term “session beer” was grabbed up by a craft brewer for his 5 percent beer in a cute bottle; a brew which if offered in the old days would have had to be labeled with the dread “malt liquor” designation. “3.2” is good but it doesn’t really work in this era. The British title “mild” is not one which will do well in this country either. Few Americans will search for a “mild.” “Low alcohol”? Forget that, too. Americans may want a beer with a low alcohol content, but they will never admit that, nor will they want to be seen drinking such a beverage. “Light beer”? Most of the people I know think that is a bad word one shouldn’t even use in church. The “table beer” name has few negative factors and nothing to suggest any alcohol strength or color.

Today, we are a nation of people who don’t like the taste of beer. I get this from young people all the time. They “love” the Bud-Millers fizzy yellow industrial stuff’s (lack of) taste, and don’t really want to change. They just want the effect. When they want “strong” beer they choose malt liquor, which is merely “light” beer on steroids. This is not all that surprising, considering the fact that good beer actually has a rich, assertive, taste profile, and takes a bit of adjustment for the novice drinker.

Our job, as craft brewers and beer enthusiasts, is to educate people to the joys of taste and the fun of drinking beer. Our whole society is rushing pall-mall down the paths of non-taste. We have finally escaped from coffee that tasted like lightly-flavored water, but we still have hamburgers with flavor enhancement added to bring out the “hamburger” factor. There’s bland processed cheese that has “natural” cheese flavors added, along with vegetable-based gums, dyes, emulsifiers and stabilizers (it melts in your hand, not on the stove). Did I mention sugar-free soda pop that is more like flavored water than the ambrosial sodas of yesteryear (root beer, ginger beer and vanilla soda from real spices and roots)? Bottled water? Bottled water is the ultimate in tasteless beverage rip-offs. It is a rare city, indeed, whose water is so bad that one needs to buy the bottled stuff. And, yes, I am aware that our government has declared arsenic in water is OK. Fortunately, there’s actually little of that out there.

Guiding Light

It is time to take a look at the “tasty” department at the light end of things. America does have some good tasting table beers and there are styles that are not to be taken lightly, even if they are light. Here are some craft beers of 5 percent ABV or less. They all qualify as table beer.

American-style wheat and/or rye ale seem to be the standard in the light end of craft brewing. Averaging 9.5- to 12.5-Plato, these brews have become “training wheels” of the craft brewing industry. They are a mainstay of our industry in educating new craft beer enthusiasts. I remember in 1985, when the Widmer Brothers, here in Portland, brought out their first summer seasonal wheat beer, as an unfiltered brew. Now here was a fairly mellow beer; but when a person held a glass of it in hand, it announced to the world that the drinker had taken the giant step into the new beer revolution. You could see that because the beer was cloudy, not clear. The novice beer enthusiast was able to gain the benefits of a brave new world, without suffering through the heavy taste of craft beer to get there. Moreover, the cloudy beer was an open invitation to take the next step, to actually try the same brewery’s regular beer, which most actually did sooner or later.

Lager beers have long been most popular with Americans, and we make some fine session lagers-with-taste. Samuel Adams Boston Lager is one such example: This beer starts at the light-heavy demarcation line of 12.5-Plato and ends with 4.4 percent ABV. It is widely distributed across the country. There is a delicious rich taste and definitely noticeable hops both in aroma and on the palate: a fine, well-balanced beer.

Anchor Steam Beer is another well distributed and well-made American table beer and one of my all-time favorites. This is a beer style we have come to call California common beer: steam beer is the progenitor of that type. It, too, starts at 12.5-Plato and ends at 4.7 percent ABV. There’s wonderful taste here because the beer is brewed in the warm fermented manner of ales, but with bottom fermenting yeast normally used in cold produced lager production. These temperatures promote faster changes from the action of the yeast, yielding a somewhat more assertive taste profile when compared with lagers. This beer—a warm temperature, bottom fermented lager is an Americanized, warm temperature version of nineteenth century German alt-bier. Many craft brewers brew an alt (top fermented ale, aged in lager style), still a popular style.

English type bitters and some special bitters, pale ales, brown ales and stouts also meet these requirements. Here are a few: Harpoon Ale, 11.5P, 4.2 percent ABV, Boston MA; Mt.Hood Hogsback Oatmeal Stout, heavy at 14.6P, but light at 4.3 percent ABV, and truly rich in flavor, from Government Camp, OR; Skagit Brown Ale, 12.8P, 4.5 percent ABV, Mt.Vernon, WA; Rogue Younger Special Bitter, 12P, 4.8 percent ABV, Newport OR; and Wasatch Irish Stout, 11.3P, 3.6 percent, Park City UT. It should be noted that most kölsch and many pilsner beers are “light” with less than 5 percent ABV, and there are many other types as well, including English style brown ales.

Make your next beer a light beer, the darker the better, and then have two instead of one. Just remember to procreate responsibly, and not in an automobile.