When we drink alcohol, we aren’t necessarily looking for its effects. We want the experience that surrounds it, the flavors that come with it. We want to have fun without going too far.
Reflecting this mindset of moderation is one beer style that’s been omnipresent in nearly every cooler and fridge this summer: the session IPA. A lower-alcohol take on the already astronomically popular India pale ale, it’s been dominating beer lovers’ attention of late as breweries across the country make their own versions of it.
But taking it easy isn’t just possible when you’re drinking beer. You can also find lower proof — or even zero-proof — options on cocktail menus. Bars and restaurants have lately been seeking out fortified wines like sherry and vermouth or their own house-made sodas to provide drinkers with the same quality beverage that their higher-alcohol counterparts can offer. That’s all so you can enjoy one or two drinks without feeling them, while still having fun.
“I don’t get a ton of questions from people about low-proof cocktails, but I think that’s why this conversation is important,” Chris Bostick, co-owner of Rainey Street’s Half Step, said. “A lot of people don’t think that it’s possible. They think there’s only high-proof cocktails or wine and beer and that’s it. Knowing there’s a middle ground could change the demand for them.”
He’s recently added a happy hour at the bar with aperitif-style drinks and other low alcohol-by-volume (ABV) options, and they’ve all been well-received, he said.
Easy on the ABV, still full of flavor
Even though session IPAs haven’t always been a recognized style, session beers in general — beers that are 5 percent or less in ABV — aren’t a new concept.
Many Belgian and German styles are traditionally low in alcohol because they originated as sources of both hydration and sustenance for the farm workers who relied on them, and the U.S. versions of those beers, like Austin Beerworks Einhorn, Jester King Le Petit Prince and Live Oak Lichtenhainer, stay true to their low-ABV origins.
That’s not the case with the heavily hopped IPA, however, whose ABV can range more widely. A few years ago, a sessionable side to the beer emerged when brewers decided they wanted to make something as big on the hops as ever, albeit with no more than 5 percent ABV. Although Founders All Day IPA largely launched the concept of this easy-drinking beer in 2012, this year has seen the style explode on the marketplace.
“Every brewer is releasing their take on a session IPA, but there aren’t too many of them yet that are year-round,” Tim Gustainis Vela, general manager of WhichCraft Beer Store, said. “They’re a good summertime beer for how light and refreshing they are.”
One year-round session IPA is Oasis, Texas Brewing’s Metamodern, a stand-out that debuted in the springtime. Oasis founder Spencer Tielkemeier said brewing a session IPA had been a priority since the beginning.
“We had to wait about a year until we were able to secure the hops necessary to make a good one,” he said. “We also felt that some of the offerings in the market took ‘session IPA’ to mean ‘watered-down full-strength IPA.’ We felt like we could do it better.”
With the brewery’s use of hop-bursting — which means that Metamodern gets all its bitterness from late-addition hops, as well as a heavy floral aroma — Tielkemeier is certainly making a good argument for brewing one of the top examples of the style. Metamodern shows off a different side of the hop; its floral essence, versus the typically bitter result that most beers achieve, shines through with nuance and flair.
But that’s not the only brew Gustainis Vela likes. From Ballast Point Brewing’s Even Keel to Deep Ellum Brewing’s Easy Peasy, he has no shortage of session IPAs to recommend to his customers. The style has taken off so much that this year’s Great American Beer Festival is adding the session IPA style as a category for the first time.
“Session beers didn’t always have such a positive connotation because of the light macro beers that Budweiser and Miller were making,” he said. “In reaction to that, the craft beer movement called for crazy big beers. Now, we’ve shifted again, and the session IPA is more of what we’re looking for: lots of flavor but low enough in ABV that we can have a few All Day IPAs at a barbecue and be fine. Low ABV doesn’t have to mean low in flavor.”
Spiriting up low or zero-proof drinks
Bostick’s Half Step isn’t the only bar in town offering cocktails that take it easy on the alcohol. At Vox Table on South Lamar Boulevard, a small menu of lower-proof options featuring aperitif wines like Lillet and Bonal is available in case the fuller roster of boozy drinks is too much. And at Hopfields, a restaurant in the West Campus area more known for its beer selection, cocktails without spirits is all there is.
Not having a liquor license doesn’t always stop a bar from getting creative with cocktails. Hopfields is an example of that, arming its bar shelves with various types of sherries, vermouths, port wines and even sake. These act as the base of drinks such as the Port of Havana, with white port, vanilla, lime and bitters — a sweet tropical alternative to, say, the piña colada.
My favorite of Hopfields’ low-ABV drinks is the Frontera Sidecar, a dark and herbal elixir of Pedro Ximenez sherry, orange oloroso sherry, lemon and bitters. The fruity citrus notes that introduce it give way to an almost chamomile-like backbone no doubt fostered by the blend of sweet and savory sherries.
Beer as a base is also an option. St. Philip, a pizza parlor in Sunset Valley, offers beer cocktails daily, although they pair best with brunch. Let the Osiris — with Hops & Grain’s The One They Call Zoe, ginger simple syrup, lime and orange juice — or the Morning, Sunshine — with Zoe, Carpano Antica, orange juice and orange bitters — take the place of a mimosa. Both are easy-drinking alternatives to that classic brunch staple, and they’re slightly more complex, too.
Zero-proof drinks are increasingly more common as well, as bars realize that you may come in with friends and not want anything alcoholic but also don’t just want to sip on water all night.
Bostick said Half Step has a stellar seltzer system that allows the bartenders there to play around with craft sodas. Barley Swine on South Lamar Boulevard also provides house-made sodas to diners, with plans to expand these carbonated concoctions once the new location opens on Burnet Road. Currently, the farm-to-table-focused restaurant offers a mustang grape soda with Fredricksburg peaches and Trinidad pepper and another with ginger, green cardamom and makrut lime.
And at Peche, bartender Mariko Buser has made it her mission to provide people with a whole variety of off-menu nonalcoholic drinks made from all the syrups, herbs, juices and fruits and vegetables available at the French-focused downtown bar. Oftentimes, she’ll make one up on the spot based on the parameters she’s given, but she also has tried-and-true staples.
“I love making nonalcoholic drinks because there’s no recipe for them; I’m the recipe,” she said.
Among the ones she’s named is the Triple Citrus Cooler with lemon, lime, orange juice, orgeat and ginger beer. She also likes the Pineapple Coconut Refresher with pineapple juice, cinnamon syrup, coconut cream and Topo Chico. Having these kinds of nonalcoholic beverages serves an important purpose at any bar, she said.
“I might make drinks for a living, but I’m really not a big drinker. I understand if a customer comes in with friends not wanting alcohol, but still wants to participate in the night out,” she said. “There shouldn’t be a stigma attached to that. There should always be good quality options for them.”