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Is Small Beer the New Pale Ale?

Will small beer overtake pale ale in popularity? Probably not, but I have noticed an uptick in beers that are 4% alcohol by volume and under. These beers are brewed with people like me in mind: those who absolutely adore smaller beers. So here are 10 beers at 4% ABV or under, some local, some not.

The localest example is the recently released Always Wonder, from Bluejacket. Cushwa Brewing’s Nanofluid, a bit north of us, is also a small lager. Further afield in Virginia Beach is Commonwealth Brewing’s Puff. All three of these beers are 3.5% ABV.

Bluejacket Always Wonder Schankbier

With three being a crowd, I could not be happier to have these three beers all available in the DC metro region. (Bluejacket, Commonwealth, Cushwa, if you’re reading this I will gladly pay for these beers but will also accept a case or two on behalf of DCBeer).

Commonwealth’s Puff is the outlier here, first as an ale, secondly as an all-wheat beer, thirdly as a smoked beer, and lastly as a historical style: Grodziskie Pivo, from Grodzisk, Poland. In fact, when I went to buy this beer the cashier said, “Grodziskie Pivo? Never heard of it!” He wasn’t wrong in that most people have never heard of it. But Live Oak Brewing in Texas has been making arguably America’s best take on the style for years.

Commonwealth Puff Grodziskie

Bluejacket labels Always Wonder a schenkbier lager. The name schenkbier, invoking the small lager traditions of Austrian, German, and Czech lands, is a beer that is traditionally below 4% ABV. The one is a wonderful little gem of a lager with enough bitterness and malt complexity to keep things interesting and not tax the tongue. The beer is sold as a pale lager but it’s deeper in color than nearly every other pale lager on the market. The beautiful bitterness provided by Tettnanger hops in the kettle is the antithesis of neutral-tasting and sweeter leaning macro lagers.

Many people smarter than I have never heard of this style of beer. So I asked one of them, Andreas Krennmair, author of “Vienna Lager,” what he thought of Schenkbier. The Austrian-born, German-dwelling author replied:

The steel mill where I worked a summer job had 2.9% ABV beer in vending machines. My brother works at the same place as a crane driver, and he confirmed to me the other day that they still do that. Freistädter had a lower-ABV beer branded “Midium”, no idea whether that’s still around. More recently, Trumer started doing a beer called “Hopfenspiel”, with less than 3% but lots of American hops. Certainly not traditional.

The more recent trend is certainly towards Radler. That started about 10 years ago, breweries doing quality Radler, and it’s really taken off.

Speaking of Radler, the first DC craft brewery, DC Brau, made one! At 2.25% ABV their Brau Radler Lemon is the newest sub 3% beer to hit the streets of DC. DC Brau’s President, Jeff Hancock, is a well-known lover of German styles, so it makes sense that DC’s oldest production brewery would turn to the style eponymous with cyclists.

Further west, Front Royal is canning Hackney, an English Dark Mild, tipping the scales at 3.8%. It is a wonderful expression of malt depth and possesses an easy drinkability that makes a four pack disappear quickly.

brau radler

Not local at all, though available locally at Arrowine, The Brew Shop, and Neighborhood Provisions, Ology, a Florida brewer, has cans of Spa Goggles in the area. The 4% ABV Gose is fermented with cucumber, lime, and pink Himalayan Sea Salt.

At the opposite coastal end of the 95 corridor is Maine’s Oxbow Brewing Company. Their Dark Lager, Dusky, and their pale lager, Northern Lights, are both 4%. They receive double brownie bonus points for using local Maine ingredients.

Closer to the District is Elder Pine Brewing and Blending Co. Their wonderful 10 Plato Pivo, is a Czech-Style Pilsner and my incredibly biased opinion is that this is the best 4% lager made in Maryland. Elder Pine started delivery in the District and were it not for my robust smoked salmon budget I would’ve bought several cases of this golden lager already.

In Charlottesville, Reason Beer’s Hoppy Blonde is 4%. An aromatic, hoppy ale that is almost too easy drinking. Less hoppy but equally pale is Port City Brewing’s Beach Drive. A pint is $6 in the taproom and a six pack to go will set you back $11.75. If you get a 12 pack you’ll save a few bucks and pay $20.

In total, these are the 10 beers–five 4% and <4% ABV beers–I am crushing or will soon crush. I hope you have a chance to get your hands on these beers, dear reader. If not, rest easy knowing I’ll do my best to give them all a try for you.

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