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The Low Alc / Low Calorie Craft Beer Fad Will Die a Quick Death

Harpoon Rec. League
Picture from Harpoon Brewery

Year after year the craft beer industry, as a whole, looks to grow the segment, attempting to attract more non-beer and macro beer drinkers. I’m all for more people enjoying craft beer and I’m certainly all for fun, new ideas and flavors helping accomplish this initiative. While we’ve seen Budweiser and the like lose market share as a sign people are tired of plain old light lager, these people aren’t flocking to Milkshake IPAs. In addition to craft breweries pivoting to hard seltzers to bring in more eyeballs and mouths, there has been a big push coming from bigger craft companies that there is a demand for a product that is both craft beer and a part of an active lifestyle.

RIP Session IPA 

Roughly seven years ago, coming out of San Diego, the session IPA was born. If somebody would like to point to a different origin, I will gladly listen. While many smart mouths are quick to say the Session IPA is a rebranded Pale Ale, it is not. The design of a Session IPA was to create a West Coast style IPA that had a big pungent nose and a sharp hop bite, but a dialed back malt bill that would trick the senses into thinking one was drinking a full-fledged IPA with half the amount of alcohol by volume. Stone, Firestone Walker, Ballast Point, Founders and Lagunitas got a quick jump on this style, as they were already well-versed in hoppy ales. As the rest of the country followed suit, the style died within a year’s time. While people can point out that Founders All Day IPA is one of the best-selling beers in the country, the other offerings mentioned above are background players in their respective portfolios. Why did this seemingly genius concept die such a quick death? In one word: value. The most sophisticated craft beer enthusiast will claim that the strength of their beer is not a factor in making a buying decision. I watched this style die real time while working at a craft beer bar in Los Angeles as well as frequent visits to bottle shops and big box stores. Basically, when given an option of buying a 4.5% ABV Session IPA next to a 7.5% ABV Single IPA, the customer would select the full strength Single IPA 10 out of 10 times. Why? Because they were priced identically. Brewers and sales reps could explain until they turn blue that there was just as much labor and resources put into a Session IPA, minus the malt of course, but the bottom line is perceived value. How much alcohol is getting poured into my glass for X amount of dollars. Because this beer was harder to sell, and because of how delicate this style of beer was, the beer would lose its snappy fresh appeal quicker than a full strength or double IPA.

The Health / Active Narrative

Whether it be after a long day of work or a half marathon, nothing is more satisfying than a cold, delicious beer. You won’t find any argument from that stance. What I find to be laughable and borderline irresponsible is the narrative that there are alcoholic beverages that promote health and are good for you or will help you maintain your healthy lifestyle. Putting in ginseng, fish oil, sea salt, electrolytes, etc. does not take away from the fact that you are drinking a 4.0% ABV beverage. This is the very definition of putting lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig.

People who want low calorie / low alcohol adult beverages

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to partake in drinking alcoholic beverages and being mindful of the caloric intake and the level of intoxication brought on by drinking and socializing. There are products on the market already, and it’s not full-flavored craft beer. Whether it be Tito’s vodka or Michelob Ultra, there will always be a tradeoff. The Tito’s drinker will get a flavorless beverage that will pack a punch, versus a well-crafted cocktail with layers of flavors and subsequent calories. The Michelob Ultra drinker will get a brown glass bottle in their hand of 4.2% ABV lager and will have to be satisfied at the one or two beer mark with a minimal level of intoxication and minimal malt or hop flavor. There is nothing wrong with either option and both seem to have a very strong foothold on the market. Simply put; clear liquor and soda or light beer for the conscious, craft beer for those who understand it’s full flavored and full strength.

Low alcohol / low calorie craft beer will die a quick death

Just like the Session IPA flop from six years ago or so, right after every regional brewery brings a low alcohol beer to market with an “active/healthy spin”, it will quickly fade away and not grow the segment. Light lagers, whether made by the big boys or the small brewers will continue to be enjoyed, and those who don’t want the calories from craft beer will turn to other options outside of craft.