Meet the Craft Brewer Making Low Alcohol Beers

Chris Lohring had two problems with the beers he was drinking. First: The alcohol content of the craft beers he preferred was just too high. (Two or three of those and it was naptime.) Second: The popular mainstream brands lacked the flavor of the full-bodied craft brews he loved.

“I had an epiphany when I realized what I really wanted wasn’t available,” he said. “I thought there was a market for people like myself who didn’t want to drink six, seven, or eight-percent [ABV] beers.

Lohring took matters into his own hands and in 2010 started Notch Brewing, which specializes in session beers. These are full-flavored, well-balanced, highly drinkable brews with a crisp finish and no more than 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Notch’s offerings top out at 4.5 percent.

There’s been a recent proliferation of session styles thanks to a handful of micro and larger independent brewers creating respectable versions. Prior to that, though, few people outside of the craft beer world knew they existed.


Photo: Notch Brewing

To help the growing number of session beer fans stay warm through the cold months, Notch Brewing, based in Salem, Massachusetts, has released two seasonals: Cerne Pivo, a black Czech-style lager Notch has brewed through the winter months for the last four years, and the new single-series Rauchbier, which in German means “smoke beer.”

Next year, Notch plans to open its own brewery and tap room, focused on developing new and limited-run beers, in Salem. Notch currently uses several New England breweries, including Ipswich Ale Brewery (check out its very cool tapmobiles), to make its current line of IPAs, lager, pilsner, weisse, one-off, and small-batch beers.


Chris Lohring “sparges" one of Notch’s brews. Photo: Notch Brewing

A professional brewer since 1993, Lohring honed his chops as the co-founder and head brewer of Boston’s Tremont Brewing, which closed its doors in 2005, a stagnant time for craft-beer sales. Since then, the market for crafts and sessions has steadily grown.

“Interest in craft beer has built over the last five years, where now it’s almost mainstream,” Lohring said. “We’ve also seen an explosion in session-strength IPAs. The tipping point came a few years ago when Founders came out with its All Day IPA and consumers noticed there was a well-respected brewer putting this out.”

In 2013, craft beer production grew 18 percent in the U.S., while retail sales jumped 20 percent, according to the most recent stats from the Brewers Association. Craft brews last year accounted for about 8 percent share of the total U.S. beer market, up from 6.5 percent in 2012, for a retail dollar value of $14.3 billion, up from $11.9 billion the year before.


Graphic: The Brewers Association

Bart Watson, staff economist for the Brewers Association, is compiling new stats, and expects production volume and dollar sales of craft beer to have increased by about 18 percent by the end of 2014. He’s also corralling numbers for session beers, and predicts solid increases this year and next, fueled by new releases from popular independent brewers; innovation in hops production (which makes it easier to brew full-flavored beers with lower ABV); and consumer acceptance.

“More consumers have connected with local craft brands and want to branch out with sessions,” Watson said. “Lower ABV allows people to integrate craft beers into more aspects of their lives.”

And there’s really no better time than the winter months to branch out with a dark or smoky session.


Graphic: Notch Brewing

Lohring considers the Cerne Pivo to be one of Notch’s premier beers. Although it has 4 percent ABV, it drinks more like a 5.5 because of its malty, toasted caramel flavor and aromas of cocoa and coffee. Yet, unlike some malty beers with high ABVs, Notch’s Cerne finishes dry and crisp.

“This Cerne is rooted in the Czech drinking culture, where the beers are about 4 percent, because you’re expected to drink three, four, or five of them in one sitting,” Lohring said.

While there are several smoked beers on the market, many have relatively high ABV, such as Schenkerla’s famous rauchbier, which clocks in at 6.6% ABV in one dark, tasty incarnation. Notch’s rauchbier comes in at 4.2 percent, and incorporates the traditional German method of smoking the base malt over beech wood for a slightly sweet flavor, which is offset by a subtle smokiness and hints of a bacon-like aroma.

“The [misunderstanding] is that people think session beer is flavorless and that it’s new,” Lohring said. “But session beers have been around for 100 years. It’s just that brewers in the U.S. haven’t paid a lot of attention to it.”

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