Brooklyn bar and restaurant Grand Army will soon list alcohol by volume (abv) percentages and cocktail descriptions on its menus. While the abv is standard information on beer and wine labels, and proof on spirits bottles is always present, a potency listing is often missing when it comes to mixed drinks, the assumption being simply that the outcome will likely be impactful.
“We go to bars because we want to be around people, but you don’t have to be drunk to do that,” says Damon Boelte, co-owner of Grand Army and co-host of The clandestine bar Podcast. “Bars are about hospitality and having fun and welcoming everyone and having something for everyone and not making them feel weird about it.” Across all major alcohol categories, there has been a resurgence of interest in non-alcoholic beverages, designed to appeal to the health conscious, the sober curious or those in need of a change of lifestyle. life. This growth has been driven by initiatives such as Dry January and Sober October.
Between the soft drinks and non-alcoholic offerings is the session category, which offers moderate alcohol and familiar flavors that fit casual occasions and parties while allowing for a clear mind and perhaps fewer calories.
What’s in a name?
Session drinks are hard to define because they mean different things to different people, makers, and even concepts. “Session” has long been used in the beer world to describe weaker abv ales and lagers that can be consumed without the drinker quickly becoming intoxicated. Session beers can also be used to describe selections that can be enjoyed on long outings to a pub or the home bar.
At Great American Oktoberfest, an annual gathering and judging contest, the guidelines for the “session beer” category state that the beer must be at or below 5% abv and have an original gravity and alcohol content below the range of the classic style. “Drinkability is the key to a successful session beer,” the rules state.
Early beers had low to moderate strength. Enough alcohol to kill all the bacteria living in the water, but not enough to make societies unproductive. As brewing science progressed, water became cleaner and civilization progressed, and the abv of beer increased.
Today, standard light lagers are around 3.5% abv and barley wines and imperial stouts can push up to 14% abv. A quick review of bar faucet listings typically reveals ranges of 4.5% to 10% abv.
Still, every once in a while, subpar abv beers pop up. Jack’s Abby’s Brewery in Framingham, Massachusetts, experimented with The 2% Beer Initiative several years ago, offering lower strength beers without sacrificing flavor. Aecht Schlenkerlathe famous Rauchbier brewery in Bamberg, Germany releases a Hansla every year, a hopped and unfiltered smoked beer based on a traditional recipe that revolves around 1.2% vol.
Session drinks in the wine and spirits category are a little harder to find and a little harder to define. Compared to beer, these drinks have a higher alcohol content, so simply lowering the abv is not an easy task. And so, some producers are working hard to make these drinks possible. To Wild Bow Farma winery in New York’s Hudson Valley, co-founder Todd Cavallo crafts piquette, a low-alcohol wine created from the second pressing of grape pomace.
“A big part of why we started doing piquette is because it’s more accessible, it’s sessionable, and it’s affordable,” Cavallo says. “It just so happens that when we started in 2017, that’s when hard seltzer was having its meteoric rise, and it was all about refreshment and low alcohol content. We’re adapting to that market with picket.
Hard seltzer usually hovers around 5% abv. Piquette de Cavallo is packaged in 375 milliliter cans and clocks at 7% abv.
“The 7% is a standard drink size as opposed to 12%,” he says. “I’ll have a bottle of 15% alcohol wine with dinner when I’m home for the night and if I finish it, that’s okay. But the piquette is for the day when I’m hanging out, swimming , fishing, whatever. It’s for if I’m at the beach all day and don’t want to get knocked out.
The piquette on its own doesn’t have much body, which is why Cavallo adds carbonation to the finished product.
Throughout the session category, as the alcohol wanes, makers across all platforms strive to strengthen the body to replicate a traditional alc-bev experience. A drink that’s too runny isn’t usually as appealing to consumers, so carbonating or adding additives for a bit of weight can fill the void.
“Texture is so important,” says Cavallo.
This is how the brewers of Offset Beer Company in Park City, Utah approach many of their beers. State law prohibits beers over 5% alcohol from being served in containers larger than a gallon, so draft beer must be accepted. When it comes to Indian lager, a style that typically ranges between 6% and 8% abv, brewers get creative and use specialty malts to enhance the body of the finished product.
Conor Brown, brewer and co-owner of Offset Bier Company, says when tourists pass by, they’re sometimes skeptical of the lower-than-normal abv.
“I think they’re slowly starting to come in and generally people are excited because they can get a few rather than just one,” Brown says.
Low/no consumption climate
The Covid-19 pandemic has put more emphasis on personal alcohol consumption. More time at home starting in 2020 and still extending to varying degrees into 2022 removed some of the social guardrails that existed with absorption. While new variants have emerged and full reopenings remain uncertain, drinkers are looking for moderation.
According to NielsenIQ 2022 Consumer Insights Report, 61% of consumers in the United States said that physical and mental well-being would be more important to them in the next 12 months. The study also found that 78% of beer, wine and non-alcoholic spirits buyers also buy beer, wine or alcoholic spirits.
“The overlap is quite high, indicating that those who purchase non-alcoholic options are very similar consumers to our traditional consumers of alcoholic beverages,” the report said.
Sales figures are mixed, however. Sales of low-alcohol spirits were up 14.5% over the previous year ending mid-January. Low-alcohol wines fell by 1.2% and low-alcohol beers by 0.5%.
“Beer came first, but what we’re seeing is wine and spirits coming into brand premiumization, the so-called ‘better for you’ or ‘perceived better for you,'” says Kimberly A. Clements, managing partner of Pints LLCan Arizona-based consulting firm.
Often this means touting low calories or carbs in addition to less alcohol than well-known brands. “We saw it with Thin girlor babyor Stella Rosasame Slightly powerful [from Dogfish Head] and fly jack [from Firestone Walker] beer side. People want healthier options.
There are low-alcohol cocktail options, Boelte says, but they’re often overshadowed by high-alcohol cousins. The Bamboo cocktail, for example, is a combination of dry sherry, dry vermouth and dashes of angostura and orange bitters topped with a twist of lemon. The Adonis is made with equal parts fino sherry and sweet vermouth, doused in citrus and topped with an orange zest. Boelte also points to a 50-50 martini where equal parts vermouth and gin are mixed together, reducing the punch of the hard liquor.
“When you have an ounce and a half of gin versus five ounces, it’s a cocktail that pumps the brakes,” he says. Session drinking is a frequent topic on his podcast, and Boelte believes the innovation is poised to enter the space. As many bartenders seek to reduce alcohol consumption and innovate in the production space, he believes that tastier but lower alcohol impact options are on the horizon.
“It’s a really fun category to work in,” says Boelte. “It’s a whole different world of drinks and you can do things that have never been done before.”
This might even be helped by the ready-to-drink segment, where pre-mixed cocktails hit the market at around 7.5% abv. It’s less than a standard cocktail, but perfect for settings like concerts or tailgates where hard liquor isn’t often found or embraced in droves. A brand, LiveWireworked with bartenders to create canned cocktails suitable for such venues.
“Initially, alcohol brands were focused on imitation, but now there are alcohol-free or low-alcohol brands that are delicious on their own,” says John deBary, author of drink what you want and the founder and CEO of Proteau Zero-proof drinks.
“There is credibility in the category and as it becomes more mainstream there will be more creation.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Passionate about wine magazine. Click on here to subscribe today!