Similar to the low-or-no alcohol trend of lighter beverages like hard seltzers, there are clear benefits to beers like Sassafras. As Witchey points out, “a small beer like [Sassafras] is pretty guilt free, won't mess with your head space, and is relatively 'healthy' in regards to calories and such.”
(Witchey says he originally intended to keep all of his brews below 5% ABV. Though it didn’t pan out that way, the brewer still regularly releases lower alcohol content, including both hoppy and non-hoppy beers.)
But, despite the obvious benefits to a low-ABV brew, both Witchey and Andy Kwiatkowski, director of brewing operations at Hitchhiker Brewing Co. who recently released Baby Bane, a 4.6% IPA, agree that lower alcohol beers are a hard sell to the craft beer community.
Kwiatkowski explains that many people make beer purchases based on the alcohol content. "The ones that will affect them most,” adds Witchey. Commercial brands that have latched onto the low ABV trend make it all about health, trading calories and carbs for flavor.
Fortunately for Pittsburghers, Sassafras and Baby Bane do not sacrifice flavor with alcohol content.
When they released Sassafras, Dancing Gnome wrote that it drank “way above its weight class.” It was clear from the first sip that they were right. Both breweries managed to keep the hoppy bitterness that’s standard in an IPA (Sassafras hit the bitterness a bit harder than Baby Bane), and drank like they were 7-10% ABV. Sassafras carried notes of pine and tangerine, while Baby Bane was a bit less floral.
The best part, aside from the taste, was finishing a pint and not feeling the alcohol effects. Instead of exhausting my tolerance after one beer, I was ready to drink — and actually enjoy — a few more.
Kwiatkowski says that Baby Bane will be a seasonal brew, unless customer response dictates otherwise. Sassafras is a one-time brew part of the tree series collaboration between Dancing Gnome and Tree Pitttsburgh, but Witchey says that petite IPAs will always be a part of his brewery.
Neither brewer is sure if good, low ABV beers will ever catch on in the craft community. Kwiatkowski believes that brewers will keep wishfully making them, and consumers will keep reaching for high ABVs.
“Those that drink to enjoy beer will never grab a low ABV, because traditionally, they A) weren't marketed to them, and B) weren't any good,” says Witchey. “I'm definitely tired of that, so we're working to change it.”
Dancing Gnome. 925 Main St., Sharpsburg. dancinggnomebeer.com; Hitchhiker Brewing Co. 190 Castle Shannon Blvd., Mt. Lebanon, 1500 S. Canal St., Sharpsburg. hitchhiker.beer