The problem with all the juicy IPAs and heavy-hitting stouts that I adore is that they come with a heavy standard-drinks price tag. This is largely because of the volume of malt required to give these big boppers their delicious spine – the backbone that holds together all the complex flavours that the brewer wants you to enjoy. A beer without a backbone completely lacks the fullness that we beer nerds like to call “mouthfeel”. It’s why all those “light” beers that sit around two to three per cent alcohol-by-volume (ABV) can ultimately taste watery. Even the good ones like Garage Project’s Fugazi (2.2% ABV) and Croucher’s Lowrider (2.5% ABV) have delicious high notes, but are ultimately unsatisfying.
But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to achieve oodles of deliciousness with a relatively-low ABV beer. I reckon there’s a “Goldilocks Zone”, where there’s just enough booze and residual sugar left at the end of fermentation to provide that all-important mouthfeel, plus a spine for attaching hoppy high-notes or other complex flavours.
Critically, beers in the Goldilocks Zone deliver these important characteristics while still sitting around one standard drink per serving. To borrow a line from a cereal commercial, beers in the Goldilocks Zone are not too heavy and they’re not too light. They’re just right – both in terms of flavour and in terms of responsible decision-making about how much booze you’re putting in to your body.
So what is the Goldilocks Zone? After searching for it for decades, I’ve come to the conclusion that it sits between 3.5 per cent and 4.5 per cent ABV. Beers below 3.5 per cent are generally unsatisfying, because they lack the mouthfeel that I need to feel like I’ve actually had a beer; and beers above 4.5 per cent generally often lead to poor decision-making and midnight kabab runs.
Thankfully, we’re blessed to have some pretty sensational local beers that are perfectly nestled within the Goldilocks Zone. At the lower end of the range we have Sawmill’s gravity-defying Session IPA (3.7% ABV), which manages to neatly stack a pile of tropical fruit within a slender yet fully-formed body. McLeod’s Heathen Session Pale Ale (3.8% ABV) is of a similar ilk, but a smidge more British in its heritage – with more emphasis on the malt and mouthfeel. The last time I had it, my impression was that it was akin to the Godfather of Kiwi session ale, Emerson’s Bookbinder (3.7% ABV) – which is high praise indeed.
At the opposite end of the Goldilocks Zone we have the big-bopper of session ales: 8 Wired’s Semiconductor XPA (4.4%). Exactly half the ABV of its IPA brother Superconductor (8.8%), Semiconductor manages to gracefully walk that tightrope between a knee-slapping mouthfeel (reminiscent of a much larger pale ale) and an ABV that stymies your risk of morning-after regret. The salivation-inducing hop aroma is worth the price of admission alone.
Finally, for the ultimate Goldilocks Zone post-lawn-mow refreshment, you really can’t go past a cold 8 Wired Hippy Berliner (4%), a Berliner Weisse-style sour wheat ale. Hippy’s combination of a smidge of sourness with a dash of fruity hops makes it the most refreshing beer available on any Kiwi beer shelf. Give it a crack; you won’t be disappointed.