The bang-to-buck ratio is a simple calculation.
First, you take the serving size of your beer. Then, you multiply by the ABV. Divide by the price, and there you have it: the absolute value of the buzz in your bottle.
The math works out instinctively. A 30-pack of 5% Budweiser for $20? That’s about what you’d expect. A single 22 oz. bomber for the same price? Well, it better be at least 12% alcohol, or it’ll stay on that shelf until it fossilizes.
Both big and local brewers are victim to this lizard-brain value assessment. It’s not just Surly Darkness anymore—craft IPAs and stouts routinely clock in at wine-like double-digit alcohol-by-volume levels. From 2014 to ’15, the number of 6.5%-plus ABV craft beers increased by 319%. Beer Advocate’s 10 highest-rated beers average 9.8% ABV, with the top entry sitting at 12%.
That booziness can be stifling. But everything in brewing is elastic, and local brewers have begun testing their answer to the high-gravity gut-wreckers crowding the release market: the ultra-low, sub-5% craft beer.
If you ask Fair State Brewing Cooperative brewer Niko Tonks what’s in his beer fridge, you’re not gonna get a sexy answer. He’s been a proponent of the sessionable craze since before it had good branding, and he predominantly drinks light, volume-ready lagers. He’s tried to translate this into Fair State’s menu.
“We put low-ABV stuff on because we want to have it,” Tonks says. “If you ever see a beer roll outta here with a low ABV, you can be assured that beer was closer to my heart than the other ones.”
Tonks’ Central Avenue shop has rotated in a slew of ultra-low-ABV options, including a smoke beer (Grodziskie, 3.8%), a Berliner weisse (Funkelweizen, 3.6%), and a wild ale (Chateau Estate Reserve 2018, 2.9%) to contrast their weighty imperial stout line. They’ve also bottled a 3.8% Kvass-style ale made with pretzels, an emblem of their commitment to brewing small beers with unmitigated creativity.
But they’ve yet to see this creativity translate into sales, which means these beers tend to be the exception and not the rule.
“As a brewer, I’m not here to be prescriptive. I’m not here to tell people what to do,” Tonks says. “We’re beholden to the market to do things that people want. We agree with some of them, but we don’t agree with all of them.”
South Minneapolis’ Wild Mind Artisan Ales is also prone to low-weight beers. They have their own kvass (2.6%) and a table beer (2.8%), both favorites among the brewers. But brewer Ryan Placzek has been left feeling hamstrung by the success of higher-ABV beers. Their most sought-after offering is still the 11.5% Atomic 26.
“Some people just don’t understand it,” he says. “They see 2.6%, and they say, ‘Why would I ever get that?’”
Both Fair State and Wild Mind have made strikes against the high-gravity beers that have become the norm, but only Bauhaus Brew Labs has dared to go so low as 0.5%. The Northeast brewery just released its nonalcoholic variant of Homeguys Helles Lager, making it the first Minnesota brewery in almost 100 years to offer patrons buzz-free beer if they so choose.
“It’s inclusivity. We want everyone who walks into our taproom to feel welcome,” says Matt Schwandt, Bauhaus COO and head brewer. “The beers that we offer are ones that you want to have several of, inside or outside the taproom. As far as the greater industry, I think there is gonna be a natural trend towards lower-ABV options.”
So far, the response to NA Homeguys has been positive, Schwandt says, and retailers are clamoring to get it on their shelves. He worries about the price point being potentially too high to compete with macro lagers, but his version of O’Douls has layers more flavor. It’s biscuity and finishes with a bright dose of floral hops.
If there’s hope for beer with absolutely no alcoholic effect, can low-ABV craft beer flourish as well? The prospects are mostly untested, but drinkers like Minneapolis’ Charles Harris are ready to branch out from the punch-packing tallboys that first made him fall in love with craft beer.
Harris says that, for him, selecting a beer “comes down to taste.” He, like a lot of other consumers, can be a seasonal drinker, and subzero temps drive him toward boozier varieties. But he prizes breweries like Barrel Theory for how they’re able complement richer stouts with sours that knock back effortlessly.
Still, he admits he isn’t immune to the instinctive appeal of the bang-to-buck ratio.
“When consumers sit down, they’re looking at the whole package,” says Chatterbox Pub co-founder Steven Miller. “Think about buying a flat-screen TV. You’re looking for the best value, the best picture, the best features, and the best price point.”
With 34 beers on tap, Chatterbox is uniquely positioned to provide drinkers with the opportunity to convert to lighter weight beers on that second pour. Miller believes drinkers might not opt for a 3.7% Able BLK WLF on their first go, but they’re far more willing to pivot after they’ve satisfied their inner bargain-hunter. He prizes tasty low-ABV beers like Bad Weather’s Scottish Mist (3.5%), and if more beers of its caliber hit the market, he’s convinced it could change the drinker’s calculus.
“It’s crazy how often trends manifest themselves in the beer world,” he says. “There really aren’t many [low-ABV beers] that are out there competing with the big beers. If people could get a really good double-dry-hopped IPA that was 3%, I think they’d find a market for it.”