Beercraft Newspaper Column #56: Low alcohol, big flavor


Low Alcohol, Big flavor
By Mark Tichenor and Bruce Lish

So how were you feeling under the harsh dawn of New Year’s Day?

A bad hangover, which some of you readers undoubtedly had, can put a person off of alcoholic beverages for quite a while, and rightly so. A hangover is a message from your brain that you were drinking in an irresponsible fashion.

One of the trends in craft beer over the past few years has been to make the occurrence of those hangovers much more likely. Strong beer has been king. The alcohol content of craft brew by volume usually tops 6%, and routinely spikes over 8%. Some of the strongest “extreme” beers pack an alcoholic punch eclipsing wine, up to 22% alcohol by volume in some cases.

These are fine, but it’s difficult to have more than two of these alcohol-bombs and still remain socially acceptable. Fortunately, and especially if you’re cool with drinking imports, there’s a whole range of commonly available beers that offer huge flavor while treading a bit more lightly on the old liver. If you’re planning a longer night out, you can’t go wrong with any of the following.

We’ll start with the obvious session beer: Guinness Irish Stout. Imposing, nearly opaque black, and bursting with dry, nutty, roasty flavor, Guinness does much to explode the myth that high alcoholic content is necessary for a satisfying beer.

Guinness is the beer we use to free beer newbies from their preconceptions. Many people believe that darker beer is stronger and heavier. But the only thing that makes Guinness dark is the roasting of the malt before brewing. A heavy roast results in grain that’s nearly black in color, and the use of this grain in brewing gives Guinness its inky, seductive hue.

Take a look at the numbers. The black beast of Dublin clocks in at 4.2% alcohol by volume, the same as a Bud Light. At 220 calories per pint, Guinness isn’t murder on the waistline either.

Of course, the flavor of Guinness isn’t for everybody. If you prefer a crisper, lighter, clean-tasting beer, a Pilsner might be just the thing. Pilsner Urquell, from the Czech Republic, is the original Pilsner beer (it’s brewed in the town of Pilsen). Over the years, the term “Pilsner” has become bastardized to refer to any light colored lager.

But the original Urquell is packed with flavor. You can taste the sweet malt in each sip, bready, yet light on the tongue. As you swallow, that clean sweetness rounds into a gentle bitterness imparted by Czech Saaz hops, lingering on the back of the tongue and inviting another sip.

Urquell is refreshing enough to drink outside on a hot day, complex enough to stand up to most food pairings, and, at 4.4% alcohol, light enough to make it your “go-to” beer when out with friends.

Our third suggestion comes from the Rhine river town of Cologne (spelled ‘Koeln’ in German). The city’s breweries are famous for their Koelsch- a slightly sweet, light colored low-alcohol ale that serves as an accompaniment to many meals and an excellent social lubricant in the evenings. It’s not the easiest style to find in Rochester, but Gaffel Kolsch has recently been on tap at the Tap and Mallet, and is available bottled at Beers of the World.

While Gaffel Koelsch is in fact an ale, its clean flavor and grassy body seem very lager-like. The key to this beer is balance, with neither the hops nor the malt dominating the flavor. Instead they combine to impart a gentle spiciness with noticeably grain and floral aroma.

Gaffel checks in at an underwhelming 4.8% alcohol, making it a good choice if you’re planning to have multiple brews over the course of an evening.

So who says you have to compromise? Pick one of these beers, or really pretty much any Irish stout, Koelsch, or Pilsner, and you can be assured you’re drinking a beverage that’s absolutely delicious, and is likely to split your bladder prior to splitting your skull. High alcohol content is great from time to time, but moderation hurts less in the morning.

In other beers

The annual Scottsville Ice Arena Winterfest is taking place on Saturday, January 19th, from 5pm to midnight. Included in the $10 admission is a beer and wine tasting from 7-9pm. Head on over to darkest Scottsville and sample the finest from Southern Tier, Rohrbach, Brooklyn Brewery and many more fantastic New York State craft brewers. There’s also music provided by The Meddling Kids and Random Act, and by you if you bring bongos and join the rhythm-optional drum circle.

Bruce is a certified beer judge and commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to



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