As 2014 comes to a close, several trends in the brewing world have emerged. These include moving away from high alcohol beers to the more difficult to brew but more easily drinkable session beers; the emergence of styles that have been very infrequently brewed in an effort to broaden the brewing palette, and the growth of estate beers along with the increased availability of local hops and malt.
Session beers are named because one can drink several of them in one session, often with friends, and still maintain sobriety. Part of the newfound prominence of these beers is a reaction to the spate of high alcohol beers of the last decade. Drinks-writer and “The Session Beer Project” blogger Lew Bryson says, “You want a beer that facilitates conversation, not dominates it.” Usually these are beers between 3.5 and 4.5 alcohol by volume (ABV), although the Brewers Association defines a Session Beer as a lower strength version of a beer meeting classic style guidelines and one that can reach 5.1 percent ABV.
A number of session beers are available in the region from Frederick’s Monocacy Brewing, D.C.’s Right Proper Brewpub (which always has 2 to 3 session beers on tap), Philadelphia’s Victory Brewing, Dover, Del.’s, Fordham Brewing and Roseland, Va.’s, Devil’s Backbone Brewing. The latter three and other breweries are even making sessionable IPAs. Some styles which are being brewed more often are inherently sessionable, such as Berliner Weisse and Gose.
Other styles that are receiving renewed interest as brewers stretch their brewing horizons looking for new avenues to entice the craft beer enthusiast include: Grisette, a Saison-like low alcohol style originally brewed for Belgium’s working miners; Lichtenhainer, a tart sessionable Berliner Weisse beer with a notable smokiness; and the Grodziskie style (also known as Grätzer in German), another low alcohol, smoked wheat beer originating in Poland and usually slightly tart.
Estate beers — beers for which the hops and grains are preferably grown onsite but often just locally — are becoming more prominent as craft malting has grown. Encouraged by changes in state agricultural regulations promoting farm breweries, many in the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions, these maltsters are using heirloom grains, or grains which take advantage of local soils for richer flavors. One regional maltster hears complaints such as, “Your malt is too flavorful. I can’t taste my hops.” Combined with the upsurge in local hop growing, and sometimes even locally acquired yeasts, estate beers are becoming somewhat more available but still difficult to find. Look for such beers from Maryland’s Monocacy Brewing, Burley Oak Brewery and the nascent Scorpion Brewing, and Virginia’s Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery.
Grisette Working Class Ale (5.6 percent ABV) is brewed by Sly Fox Brewery in Pottstown, Pa. Grissette has a sweet malt and enticing lemon nose. Smooth throughout, it has a restrained sweet malt front with a muted melange of citrus fruits including orange, grapefruit and lemon. The lemon citrus wanes as the malt grows in the middle. A soft earthiness emerges along with a genial tartness in the finish as the citrus ebbs. The tartness lingers in the aftertaste while the other flavors fade. Ratings: 8.5/7.5.
Goldie’s Best Bitter Ale (3.9 percent ABV) is made at the Milkhouse Brewery at Stillpoint Farm in Mt. Airy. This delightful best bitter has a light floral hop and sweet malt aroma which presages a slightly sweet malt front with a hint of bitter hops. The bitterness increases a bit in the middle and edges up more in the finish joined by notes of apricot. In the aftertaste the mild hops continue but are well balanced by the robust malt presence and tempered dryness. Ratings: 8.5/8.
Pivo Grodsiskie/Grätzer Ale (4 percent ABV) is produced by Dr. Fritz Briem, a professor at Doemen’s University, the German brewing university in Friesing, who has recreated a number of forgotten beer styles. It is brewed in Munich. Grätzer has a tempered sour bouquet of wheat, heavy smoke, and orange peel. The subtle sweet front is followed by the addition of some sourness, a modest smokiness, and a tinge of orange rind in the middle. The smokiness intensifies in the finish as does the orange zest. The sourness comes to the front in the aftertaste while the smoke tapers and a wisp of dryness appears. Ratings: 8/8.
Gold Leaf Lager (4.5 percent ABV) is brewed by Devils Backbone Brewing of Lexington, Va. Gold Leaf has won several awards, including gold medals, at the Great American Beer Festival in the Pilsner category. The sweet malt nose with a touch of floral hops melds into a delicate sweet front. The middle adds a pinch of citrus which continues in the finish where the malt elevates modestly. All these flavors continue in the refreshing aftertaste, mingled with a nuance of melon. Ratings: 7.5/8.