BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Craft brewers who make low-alcohol beer and put their beer in cans seem to be ignoring history. In reality, they're learning from it. The trend toward low-alcohol "session beers" and cans instead of bottles can be a little troubling for anyone old enough to remember the direction American beer took in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When Pabst relaunched the Schlitz brand in 2008 and 2009, Schlitz senior brand manager Kyle Wortham lamented that the beer being sold under the brand's name before the relaunch had suffered the same "death by 1,000 cuts" that had stripped Schlitz and brands such as Narragansett, Lone Star and others of their original flavor. "It wasn't something you could recognize yearly, but over decades there's a hell of a difference from what you were drinking back then to now," he said. As craft brewers embrace beers with less than 5% alcohol by volume and can packaging long held to ridicule after being stacked in "beeramids" and smashed against one too many frat boy foreheads, they're battling both for market share in an increasingly crowded segment and against longstanding beer stigmas passed down through generations of drinkers. Chris Lohring launched his Notch Independent Brewers out of Mercury Brewing's Facilities in Ipswich, Mass., and a small brewpub in Kennebunk, Maine, about three months ago and produced a session ale and session pilsner that are each less that 4.5% alcohol by volume. After starting as a brewer in 1993 with Tremont Brewing, Lohring began hearing other brewers refer to the low-alcohol beers he loved as "session beers" and decided he wanted to make a few of his own. "The one thing that's always struck me is that brewers and people who actually produce the beer, at the end of the day, they typically go for a beer that's a session beer," Lohring says. "It's rare to see a brewer at the end of the day reach for a double IPA and knock a couple back before they go home." The goal was to produce a beer similar to British ales and Czech lagers that are full flavored but benign enough to allow a drinker to enjoy one or two without feeling the detrimental effects of higher-potency craft brews. He insists that he's not touting the superiority of low-alcohol beers, but presenting them as an option to those who find bigger beers too filling, dehydrating or intoxicating to have at lunch and continue the workday. This is a situation that's only exacerbated during the summer months, when the sun takes its toll on beer swiggers outdoors. "We have a 'usability' problem -- average alcohol by volume is way too high to be sipping multiple beers down at the river, cutting the lawn or at the game," says Joseph Tucker, owner and operator of RateBeer, who sees session beer as a solution to craft beer's summer quandary. "High-alcohol beer is more filling, it has more calories and it's dehydrating, and this makes the average craft beer a problem in the summertime."
The very definition of "session beer" is still up for debate, with English brewers lowering the bar below 4% alcohol content for bitter and dark mild beers, American craft beer writer Lew Bryson and beer site RateBeer holding the line at 4.5% and other American craft brewers and sites including BeerAdvocate expanding that category to beers below 5%. Though Stone Brewing in Escondido, Calif., produces a Levitation amber ale roundly considered a session beer and Milton, Del.,-based Dogfish Head co-sponsored an "extreme session beer" brewing contest with craft beer site BeerAdvocate last year, beers under 5% are still seldom referred to as session beers and rarely packaged as such. Lohring says he's trying to ease consumer confusion about alcohol content by trying to make "session" synonymous with low-alcohol beers and putting his beer's alcohol content on all its packaging and tap handles -- the latter of which is highly unorthodox in beer circles -- but the brewing community's reaction to Lohring's approach has been mixed at best. "There definitely have been people who don't like what I'm doing and some pushback on the session beer definition, but if you don't give a consumer a reference point then how are you going to expand their knowledge of what a beer can be?" Lohring says. "If it's fine to call something 'extreme,' and the craft beer community has really embraced that term, then what's so bad about embracing a term that's the opposite of that in 'session'?" Craft beer canners were similarly isolated back in 2002, when the Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons, Colo., became the first craft brewer to package its beer exclusively in cans. Dale Katechis, who founded Oskar Blues in 1997 and lent his name to its top-selling Dale's Pale Ale, began canning in an attempt to draw visitors to the small town of 1,400 Rocky Mountains where they could get a plate of jambalaya, a shrimp po' boy and a beer at his brewpub. His packaging operation started with a one-at-a-time can filler and seamer bought during a trip to Canada, where Katechis noticed that roughly 50% of the country's beer was sold in cans and included seasonal varieties in aluminum. Once canning started in 2002, it was a lot easier to get the beer into cans than it was to convince craft beer lovers that there was anything in the can worth drinking. From the moment Gottfried Kruger Brewing in Newark, N.J., introduced the beer can in 1935 to the day Oskar Blues pitched its first cans of craft beer in Colorado and at brewers conventions in 2002, Katechis says the common belief was that beer cans held nothing but pale yellow swill with a taste only further degraded by the metallic flavor. Katechis logged a lot of miles and cracked open a lot of beers trying to prove otherwise. "It's what we wanted to do, and nobody would take us seriously enough unless we had time to just one-on-one engage them, educate them and let them know that if they honestly believe that beer was designed and made to taste bad in a can, taste our beer and tell us what you think," Katechis says. "What they're learning is that it wasn't cans giving cans the bad name -- it's the beer people were putting in cans giving it a bad name. The cans were getting a bad rap." This year, as the Brewer's Association says craft beer brings in nearly 10 billion barrels in sales, makes up 5% of the market by volume and 7.6% by revenue and has experienced 11% and 12% growth in both areas of market share, respectively, since 2009, cans and caps on alcohol volume are coming into vogue. Oskar Blues' sales have jumped from 500 to 600 barrels in 2002 to 42,000 last year, with Katechis estimating that another 60,000 barrels of his canned concoctions will leave his brewery this year.
Russ Phillips, co-founder of canned beer website and database CraftCans.com, says more brewers are starting to feel Katechis' love of the can. The cans function as mini-kegs by sealing out more light and ultraviolet radiation than brown bottles, are lighter and easy to recycle and are now lined with a water-based polymer that ensures the beer inside won't absorb a metallic tang. As a result, Phillips says nearly 130 of America's more than 1,750 craft breweries are now either canning or planning to can their beers. "It was the major beer geeks who once eschewed the idea of their favorite craft beers being put in cans, and you've really seen a shift on sites like BeerAdvocate and Ratebeer of beer lovers being OK and even preferring craft beer in a can," Philips says. "They've been around long enough for the folks that pick up different beers on a regular basis to have tried a few different styles in cans, and it seems the overwhelming consensus is 'Who cares if it's in a can? It's the beer inside that matters, and it tastes fresh and good.'" Bigger craft brewers are starting to feel the same way and, in some cases, calling up Katechis and Oskar Blues for help. New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colo. -- the maker of Fat Tire and Ranger IPA that cranked out 661,000 barrels last year to eclipse the amount produced by the Anheuser-Busch InBev ( BUD)-aided Craft Brewer's Alliance ( HOOK) -- had some of Katechis' staff in last week and have been canning recently. North American Brewing's Vermont-based Magic Hat (332,000 barrels) and Brooklyn Brewing (108,000) are also canning, and craft heavy hitters including Chico, Calif.'s Sierra Nevada (786,000) and Kalamazoo, Mich.-based Bell's brewing (154,000) are planning to. "I think the large and diverse flavors of craft-brewed beer will impact any preconceived notions that the beer drinker has about the type of package," says Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association. "Also, when someone sees a six-pack of cans priced as a subpremium lager and another six-pack of cans at a craft price, I don't think the expectations of what is in the craft can are the same for what is in the subpremium lager can." Those canned beers take on an even more premium profile when Oskar Blues' high-octane Ten Fidy Russian Imperial Stout (10.5% alcohol by volume), San Francisco-based 21st Amendment Brewery's Black IPA (6.8%) and Aurora, Ind.-based Great Crescent Brewery's Bourbon's Barrel Stout (7.5%) push the limits of what's acceptable in aluminum. Oskar Blues' Katechis seemed pleased, though, when his in-state colleagues at Avery Brewing in Boulder began distributing their White Rascal Belgian Pale Ale in cans this summer. "In the early days, they were really just calling to ask us how it was going, if it was real and how we did it," Katechis says. "Now I have a six-pack of White Rascal cans in my refrigerator right now and, the way I perceive it, the more people that get into canning beer and do a good job of it, the better off we'll all be."
The session beer trend hasn't been nearly as strong, however, as RateBeer's Tucker says that his site's numbers indicate that there's actually less session-strength beer being produced in the U.S. Beer blogger Joe Strange, using RateBeer data, discovered that 419 beers of 4.5% alcohol by volume or lower were produced by U.S. craft brewers last year, making up 4.8% of the market. That's down from 615 and 9.6% of the take in 2004. It's not for lack of effort on the brewers' part. Aside from Lohring's Notch ale and pils, Tucker says Anderson Valley Brewing's Bahl Hornin' Wee Geech Pale Ale, 21st Amendment's Bitter American, Oakham Brewing's Citra and the Ballast Point/Kelsey McNair/Stone collaboration San Diego County Session Ale are all great low-alcohol picks for those seeking something light, while Russian River Brewing's OVL Stout, Narke Single Target and Titanic New York Wheat Porter are all dark without being debilitating. He counts a session beer -- Little Dog Fred from Portland, Ore.,-based Hair of the Dog Brewing -- as one of his favorite beers of 2011, but thinks session beers may be just one more great idea away from breaking into the mainstream. "Brewers, writers and beer enthusiasts are very enthusiastic about this solution ... canned low-ABV beers!" Tucker says. "It's actually a great idea: In addition to the beer being better protected from damage by light, it's lighter and less likely to break, and more acceptable in places where broken glass would be a problem, like parks and sporting events." It would also perform the same function for craft beer as low-alcohol, canned beer did for the big brewers: making it more accessible to the masses. Lohring has found that the best customers in his first few months have been either craft beer fans familiar with session beers or beer drinkers who are just getting into craft beer who are drawn in by the low alcohol. It's the main reason he's begun brewing a Belgian saison that's only 3.8% alcohol by volume that, he says, more closely resembles the beer drunk by Belgian farmhands in the early 1900s than the 8%, 9% and 10% alcohol saisons produced today. In his view, it would not only expand options for beer drinkers put off by the potency of craft beer but make it more palatable for those concerned about craft beer prices. For comparison's sake, a 22-ounce bottle of Cambridge, Mass.-based Pretty Things Brewery's Jack D'or sells for $5 to $10 at retail and cost. Considering that a six-pack of 12-ounce bottles of Notch go for roughly the same price, that low alcohol can lead to big savings for consumers who value the opportunity to have more than one. "I offer my beers for a pretty competitive price and I can't have people just buy one 22-ounce bottle and move on, which is why I offer my beers in six-packs to people who are going to barbecues," Lohring says. "From a business perspective, I want people to want to drink more than one beer." -- Written by Jason Notte in Boston. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: email@example.com.