While one of the recent trends in craft beer has been toward bigger, bolder and more potent renditions (imperial pale lager, anyone?), the summer months pair most appropriately with a refreshing, lower alcohol pint. Sipping from a goblet of 12 percent imperial stout with the mid-July sun beating down might feel badass, but one's head will generally present a pretty convincing counterargument the next morning. (We've conducted extensive studies.)
Somewhere, in some godforsaken backwater region of the country untouched by craft beer, warm weather implies a shift from 30-packs of industrial lager to 30-packs of "lite" industrial lager. Not much of a migration. But this is the North Bay, arguably the most vibrant brewing region in northern California, itself the birthplace of the modern craft-beer movement. If we have anything, it's reasonably priced, artfully crafted and locally produced summer-beer choices.
So step away from the Corona. And cellar those imperial stouts until it starts raining again. We've got beers far, far better.
To focus this roundup of summer-appropriate beers in North Bay, we've limited ourselves to those brews weighing in under 5 percent ABV.
The vast majority of craft beers land above the 5 percent line, and those often tend to be the brews that draw the most attention. But under 5 percent is an entirely different ballgame, where one finds the focus shifted to things like Pilsners, English-style bitters, Kölsch-style hybrids, a plethora of wheat beers, blonde ales and (good) pale lagers. It's also where one can better distinguish the artists from the amateurs. As increased alcohol levels tend to parallel both increased hop bitterness and malt sweetness (generally speaking), brewing flaws have nowhere to hide here.
We rounded up three North Bay breweries offering a particularly broad selection of sub–5 percent beers, as well as a couple other local favorites that fluidly argue bigger isn't necessarily better.
First stop was Bear Republic Brewing Co. in Healdsburg, best known for its citrusy Racer 5 IPA (7 percent). While their bottled lineup of standard releases starts at 5.4 percent and rapidly heads up in alcohol from there, Bear's draft-only offerings at the pub itself are impressively geared toward summer imbibing. Just a few paces from the Plaza in central Healdsburg, surrounded by wine bars and boutique hotels, their quiet back patio keeps tucked away from the traffic.
Bear Republic's Double Aught (4.2 percent) pilsner was the lightest of the group, modestly hopped for a pils and lightly effervescent, while El Oso (4.5 percent) amber lager showed fruitiness, Vienna-like malt character and a lasting toastiness on the finish. Speed Bump (4.6 percent) "American red ale" was darker and fruitier than El Oso, but similarly toasty and balanced. All were well-rendered and worth a sample, but Wine Country wheat (4.5 percent) seemed the most successful on the board. A German-style hefeweizen, the hazy pint offered up notes of caramelized bananas, soft cloves and white pepper, almost entirely courtesy of an assertive yeast strain. It finishes slightly dry and crisp. (Bear Republic's Nor Cal (4.5 percent) "California bitter" is likely on tap by now, too.)