Lower alcohol no longer means less choice

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Over the last decade or so, the craft brewing industry in the UK has gone from strength to strength. Unearthing older recipes and investigating alternative methods have given British beer depth and personality. Craft breweries have been welcomed with open arms and much rejoicing over the intense flavour profiles, but while craft breweries are renowned for beers with high alcohol content, others have taken on the challenge at the other end of the scale.

Low alcohol beer has been disdained by the British public for years, being cited as tasteless. Recent years have seen a changing psyche. As more drinkers become health-conscious, an enormous hangover is no longer the sign of a great night out and nobody wants to waste their Sunday.

Craft breweries have followed this trend by offering low to no alcohol beer that retains their bold palate without packing the same alcoholic punch. While initially there was a struggle to stock them, they are now being praised with numerous awards and making some headway into the bad reputation of lighter beverages.

Why lower alcohol?

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Some craft breweries may be following health trends, but others began for convenience. Thornbridge Brewery created their Wild Swan (3.5% abv) to cater to those visiting the brewery:

“We actually first brewed this in the summer of 2006. It was a year after we started brewing at Thornbridge (it’s been said we were the first UK craft brewer). Given we are in a very rural area with lots of day trippers, the beer was seen as ideal for those wanting to have a beer and maybe drive or go cycling or walking It proved so successful over the summer that it became,  and remains, a core beer in our range.”

Alex from Thornbridge Brewery also comments on pubs’ initial reluctance to sell Wild Swan, purely based on the alcohol content, but after nearly a decade there have been no complaints.

Others are returning to their roots with history revealing a tradition of lighter table beer. Craft breweries are all about quality ingredients and traditional processes and this is reflected in the products.

Twisted Barrel Ale felt the need to try their hand at a low alcohol beer (the Beast of a Midlands Mild) to revoke its shoddy reputation:

“This beer is due to our desire to brew a beer that is synonymous with our local culture, with Mild being a huge part of the Midlands’ brewing history. We felt that the style was being unfairly maligned and falling out of fashion. We've brewed it as a core beer since we began, and have had so much great feedback from customers who haven't seen one at a bar in years.”

The holy grail of beers

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By all accounts, a tasty low alcohol beer is difficult to achieve, which may explain its previously poor reputation. While this may put off some brewers, others see it as a challenge and use it to showcase their skill. Luke from Ilkley Brewery was quick to tell me about the challenges that brewers face:

“The technical challenge when brewing at the higher or lower end of the abv range is flavour and balance – making a weaker beer still full of flavour, or making a stronger beer not too overpowering and well-balanced. Balance is the key to Ilkley beers, and we hit upon a formula of hop-dosing that enabled us to brew hop-forward beers at low abvs.”

This challenge for craft breweries set them apart from the industry giants. While each smaller batch is tinkered with, perfecting balance and palate, the household names may be unable to achieve this and Luke has a theory as to why:

“The big boys are cottoning on to this, but they can’t add too much flavour for fear of alienating a massive market.”

The industry response

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You would be forgiven for thinking these mythical flavourful table beers are squirrelled away in quiet pubs in the heart of the countryside, but fortunately, that is not the case. These have seen a mainstream uptake with some big names weighing in to sell them. The Ilkley Brewery has seen some serious success for Mary Jane (3.4% abv).

“Last year, we brewed over 500,000 litres of Mary Jane and expect this to be 1 million litres by 2019. It accounts for over 40% of our overall production. She continues to win medals and accolades, and has listings in M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Co-op, Asda and Booths supermarkets, as well as on P&O Ferries, and is a key part of building our brand internationally.

“We have followed the story through recently, brewing a Table Beer (another name for Dinner Ale) exclusively for The Savoy in London, and we’re brewing another batch of Dinner Ale in time for Christmas this year.”

Those looking for healthier or lighter choices in beer are no longer compromising on taste and as the nation becomes more health-conscious, the lighter beers will grow in popularity.

Image Credit:Jakub Dziubak