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Craft brewers try 'less is more'


Stop by Woodfour Brewing in Sebastopol for a cold, hoppy India pale ale, and you'll be fresh out of luck.

In an era when big, heavy, hoppy India pale ales dominate the craft beer market, owners Olav Strawe and Seth Wood are trying something different. They're emphasizing unusual styles of beer typical of Germany and Central Europe: delicate, flavorful, lighter on the hop bitterness and generally substantially lower in alcohol than the beers at your average local brewpub.

"Drinkability is something that we really focus on. It should be approachable; you can have more than one," Strawe said. "Drinkability means that you really enjoy drinking it on an ongoing basis."

Woodfour's approach is unusual but not unheard-of. After a decade or more in which American brewers have raced for the biggest, bitterest, hoppiest beer possible, a handful of brewers are starting to look for lighter alternatives.

"The pendulum has swung quite far in that direction, and we do see in certain areas of the craft beer movement, the pendulum is swinging back," Strawe said. "We definitely think we're part of the other side."

Earlier this year, the owners of Carneros Brewing near Sonoma opened with a lineup in which no beer exceeded 5.8 percent alcohol by volume, quite mild by modern standards.

"People are really enjoying it," brewmaster Jesus Ceja said. "People are doing the sampler and are just amazed at the diversity of styles."

Woodfour's most recent tap list included 11 of its own beers, only one over 6 percent alcohol. Most are 5 percent or less, including a Berliner Weisse, a traditional sour wheat beer, at just 2.9 percent.

"We are trying to bring beer back to a dinner table," Wood said of his lighter lineup. "It's a food drink. It pairs with food very well, and it is underrepresented in that way" in American brewing.

Up at Anderson Valley Brewing in Mendocino County, brewer Fal Allen is preparing to unveil a line of lower-alcohol, lower-hop beers known as the Highway 128 series, starting with a light ale flavored with lemongrass and coconut.

Allen said the new lighter beers are a reaction to the super-hoppy trend, a return to the early days of craft brew when the objective was simply to make something more flavorful and interesting than the mass-market lagers made by Budweiser and Coors.

"The seasoned craft brewers, and I mean really seasoned, are going back to that," he said. "They have gone all the way out there (with hops), and now they are coming back."

There was a time when a beer over 5 percent alcohol was unusual. Budweiser weighs in at 5 percent, while Bud Light is around 4.2 percent. Rival brands such as Coors and Miller are similar in strength and character.

The intensity of hop character is a little harder to measure, but something called "International Bitterness Units" can give a rough guide for comparison. Budweiser has about 12 IBUs and Bud Light barely approaches 7 IBUs, meaning both are very mild.

When New Albion Brewing opened in Sonoma in 1976, the first new brewery in America since Prohibition, it rocked the beer world with pale ale that was 6 percent alcohol and a stunning 30 IBUs. It was considered a radical departure from the mass-market beers that had ruled the scene for decades.

Today, however, such a beer is considered almost laughably mild.

Only one of the top 10 best-rated beers at popular website BeerAdvocate.com is below 7 percent alcohol, and more than half exceed 10 percent — including Russian River Brewing's cult classic Pliny the Younger, at 11 percent, and that's the fifth strongest on the list.

The hop bitterness scale has inflated even more dramatically over the years. The top-rated beer on the list, Heady Topper Double India Pale Ale from Vermont brewer The Alchemist, claims to have 120 IBUs. Russian River doesn't publish the IBU count for No.2-ranked Pliny the Younger, describing the bitterness only as "medium," but aficionados estimate the brew at well north of 100 IBUs.

Santa Rosa brewer Brian Hunt, who opened Moonlight Brewing in 1992 at the start of the modern craft brew movement, said the wild escalation of alcohol and hops is part of a macho arms race among drinkers and brewers alike, who are keen to differentiate themselves from the mild mass-market beers like Budweiser. He dates the race back to the 1996 founding of Stone Brewing in San Diego, famous for mouth-puckeringly bitter beers and a "You're not worthy" tagline.

"That started a whole concept that I am a bigger, tougher fill-in-the-blank than you because I can drink a beer that has more going on," Hunt said.

Healdsburg Beer Company owner Kevin McGee said he sees the past decade, when the bitterness and alcohol trend took off, as part of a natural maturing of the craft beer market.

"I think of it as the stunt junkie phase of the consumer's palate," he said. "In order to please people, it has to be this big, bright, vivid thing," so flavor and alcoholic punch ratcheted quickly upward.

There is no sign that these big, hoppy beers are on the wane, brewers say, although a small but growing countertrend is emerging among casual drinkers unable to stomach the intensity and experienced drinkers looking for something less fatiguing to the palate.

Both kinds of drinkers may also be looking for something with less alcohol so they don't become intoxicated so quickly.

Armand Ausiello, owner of Ausiello's 5th Street Grill in Santa Rosa, said the escalation of alcoholic power has made life difficult for bar owners. Stronger craft brews are more expensive for them to buy, but market pressure means he can't pass the full cost on to his customers. That puts pressure on his bottom line and, worse, customers are able to drink fewer pints while feeling the effects more quickly.

"The heyday of the beer bar was in the '80s, when Budweiser and Coors were king. ... Everybody had a good time and didn't get stupid on a Tuesday night," he said.

Ausiello has become so frustrated with the increasing power of craft beers that, after three decades of running beer bars, he decided to obtain a liquor license. Mixed drinks have a better mark-up, he said, and he can control the strength of the drinks to avoid pushing his customers over the edge of dangerous intoxication.

Even customers have begun to react against the strength of the modern craft beer.

"In the past couple of years, I've had customers saying 'Jeez, I can't drink that all the time,'" Ausiello said.

Even brewers known for the big hoppy beers say there is a time and place for something a little lighter. Russian River sees no end to the market for the big stuff, co-owner Natalie Cilurzo said, but it has consistently brewed a handful of smaller beers, including a popular blonde ale known as Redemption, with just 4.8 percent alcohol.

"We make what we like to drink," she said with a laugh. "We really don't enjoy drinking a 12 percent imperial this-and-that" on an everyday basis.

Customers still flock in for the bigger beers, she said, including top-selling Pliny the Elder, a beer with 8 percent alcohol and 100 IBUs. But in recent months, the No.2 seller has been a beer called "Hill 2, Row 56," named after the location where the hops are grown. It's still plenty hoppy, but it comes in at only 5.8 percent alcohol.

"For me it's like Pliny Lite," Cilurzo said.

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.