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Good Beer Hunting

Dec 19, 2019

Here’s an odd thing that enthusiasts don’t always focus on when talking about beer, or wine, or spirits, or whichever hard seltzer brand we happen to be enjoying in the moment: they’re vehicles for alcohol. There may be tasting notes scribbled down or spoken aloud, and we may stop to reflect on what we just sipped, but the pure, biological impact isn’t always discussed when we’re quaffing something intoxicating. The moment you take your first sip, that ethanol-infused liquid is altering your body chemistry.

This is no surprise. We see the Alcohol By Volume—ABV—listed on the drinks we consume and feel it in our bodies. In the simplest terms, courtesy of Wikipedia: ABV is a “standard measure of how much alcohol (ethanol) is contained in a given volume of an alcoholic beverage (expressed as a volume percent).” In beer, a serving size is 12oz, and it’s easy to find a range of ABVs, from a 4% Gose to a 7% IPA, all the way up to a 12% Imperial Stout or a beer that really pushes the limits, like Dogfish Head Brewery’s 120 Minute IPA, which measures in at 18%. The higher the ABV, the more ethanol, and the stronger the impact each drink has on our brain and motor functions.

In casual and on-the-record conversations over the past year, I’ve been chatting with beer industry professionals about ABV and their impressions of its impact on the marketplace, related to sales and to consumer desires. There are all sorts of scenarios to weigh up—maybe you’re at a taproom, or strolling through your grocery store beer aisle. What are you thinking about? The occasion you’re going to have that beer? Who you’re with? What’s the time of day?

In one way or another, these considerations will likely make you consider the alcohol content of the beer you’re going to drink. Interestingly, in many of those chats I had with brewers and brewery owners, I kept hearing about an interest in higher-ABV products.

But how can that be? The past year has been full of stories on Good Beer Hunting and elsewhere about the rise of lower-ABV brands, or “better-for-you” products like Michelob Ultra (with an ABV of 4.2%) and Dogfish Head’s Slightly Mighty IPA, a 4% “lo-cal” India Pale Ale. On a monthly basis in 2019, local and national media outlets have been pumping out stories about a grand shift toward lower-ABV and lower-calorie beers. Which isn’t false. It’s also just not entirely true.

In a GBH Sightlines story from September, it was shown that almost all growth from in-store beer sales has come from higher-ABV brands, and it’s a shift that’s been happening for years. And just recently in November, more analysis showed a rising ABV level for some of the best-selling Stouts as weather got colder toward the end of each year.

So while all these narratives can take place at the same time, together they create a complex conversation about the aspect of craft beer that we don’t often discuss. That alcohol content? It’s got consequences.