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.