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Olympic Range Brewing “Micro-Session” Beers Take Popular Trend to Another Level
Trends in the beer industry certainly come and go. While high-alcohol imperial IPAs and imperial stouts were all the rage not too long ago, in recent years the hot trend has turned towards “session beers”. It seems like every brewery around offers a session IPA these days, and why not? People love hops, and people love drinking. If you want to have a few beers in one sitting or just not get buzzed from a couple of pints after work, the lower the alcohol by volume (ABV) the better.
While the definition of a “session beer” is flexible, the standard threshold is that any beer with an ABV of 4.0% or less qualifies. But, that loose standard doesn’t stop breweries from releasing session IPAs at closer to 5.0% ABV (it’s all marketing…).
The challenge to brewers is how to create session beers that stay below the 4.0% threshold and are still flavorful, enjoyable and not out of balance. There are several traditional styles that are meant to be that light in alcohol, such as English-style milds and bitters, some Scottish-style ales, Berliner weisse and light American lagers. But, popular styles that have assertive hop profiles, like IPAs, typically need a more substantial malt base to hold up to all those hops, which in return means a higher ABV (in general, more malt = more alcohol).
Todd Olsen recently founded Olympic Range Brewing in order to focus on what he terms “Micro-Session” beers. His flagship beer, the O/R/B Micro Session IPA, weighs in at just 2.75% ABV. The beer is currently available at Zeeks Pizza’s Upper Queen Anne location, which is near Olsen’s home, and it is or will be on tap soon at both Chuck’s Hop Shop locations and Beveridge Place Pub. You can expect to see it make its way around town to other bars soon.
The reason Olsen is focused on beers with a very low ABV is because those are often the types of beers that he wants to drink when he goes out. He found that too many breweries label beers that weigh in close to 5% ABV as “session beers”, and it was rare that he’d find something with a very low ABV that actually tasted good. He is a longtime homebrewer who has been tweaking the recipe for this session IPA in his garage for a few years now. Earlier this year, he received some help from another local brewer, as many other hopeful future brewery owners do. Olsen says, “I was a fan of Naked City so I started coming in and bugging Don (Webb, brewer and co-owner). He was really, really generous with his time and giving me tasting notes. At some point he said, ‘Let’s make some. I’ll put it on tap and let’s see what happens.’ ” It was a perfect opportunity since Olsen was starting to think about this as a business idea, and the initial batch at Naked City was positively received by customers. After that, Olsen was able to secure the services of another local brewery that is contract brewing the beer for him.
While the IPA is going to be the flagship beer for the brewery, Olsen plans to develop recipes for other styles. He says, “The idea is that there will be a whole line of ‘Micro Session’ beers which will be between 2.5% and 3.5% ABV. I’m working on a coffee porter right now with a local roaster that I know. Really, it’s easier to make a low alcohol porter than it is a hoppy pale. In darker roasted grains, some of the fermentables are roasted out of them.”
As for how Olsen is tweaking his recipes to get the low alcohol results he wants, he is having to be creative. He says, “Basically, I’m trying to break most of the brewing rules around efficient conversion of grain into alcohol.” To start, he uses a higher percentage of a malt called Carapils that has less fermentables than typical base malts, and he uses a clean yeast strain with low attenuation. He’s also being less efficient in terms of mash temperatures.
It doesn’t matter how low the alcohol in a beer is if it doesn’t taste good, and Olsen realizes that there is a fine line he has to walk to balance the hop characteristics and the lighter malt bill. He says about the IPA, “You’ve got to be really careful with this beer, because it can go over the top really easily because there is less malt to stand up to the hops. If you overdue the hops, they can just take over.” In the most recent batch of the IPA, he also lightly dry-hopped the beer with Citra to enhance the aroma.
Early feedback on the IPA from customers at Zeeks is very positive. The staff there says that customers are certainly curious when they see how low the alcohol content is, and the concept is perfect for what is a family-focused establishment.
Olsen hopes to someday have a brewery of his own with a tasting room where customers can sample an entire line of his “Micro-Session” beers. Until then, you can follow the brewery on Facebook and Twitter to see where the beers will be available.