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.

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