There i am, standing in line at Oakland’s Beer Revolution staring confusedly at the board. This is a place where the draught board changes daily, and out of the ten beers listed i can maybe pick out 3 producers i know. Alongside the name of the beer, quite prominently, is the alc. % of the beer, going anywhere from 4% all the way to 9%. i choose something on the lower end of the scale, but at the last minute i decide to ask the proprietor instead. i ask for something light.

“What do i mean by “light?” He responds.

Well what do i mean? Low-alcohol? Not heavy? Not overly hopped?

“Not overly hopped.” i wager this is what i actually want, since i can’t fucking stand beers that smell like pine-cones.

Oh, ok. He pours me a tiny glass of beer. Perfect. Not overly hopped. He knows his stuff. Chapeau-bas.

6% Alc. Higher than what i picked. That’s what i get for trusting a number.

i slowly remembered this when i saw this tweet on Eric’s Asimov’s twitter feed (i believe both “tweet” and “twitter feed” have entered the Ap stylebook, as much i despise having to say “tweet”). At first i agreed. And then i remembered. When i think of quality of wine alcohol percentage is at the very periphery. Lower alcohol is nice, but there are so many factors that come before it that once you get to low alcohol it becomes moot. i thought of the beer. Here i was ready to buy a beer on alcohol content alone when there was someone standing in front of me that knew so much more than me that i sort of felt stupid for even considering not asking.

Of course i’m a wine geek, not a beer geek, and generally i can find a wine on a wine list that i would like to drink. Even still, with all the boring pretension that i, as a wine geek, carry around, i still like to ask the sommelier to recommend something. This goes doubly so for restaurants with an extreme regional focus in their lists, where slight overlap is expected and minor variations mean more. i do this in the hope that the sommelier can figure out what i like, and come up with some gem they like. This is how people learn.

So what does this have to do with alcohol percentage? i’ve been to both Beer Revolution and DBGB (the restaurant Asimov mentions) and i’ve seen the care they both put into their lists. These are places where, if you’re significantly adventurous, you can find something cool to drink. They are lists that prize diversity and producers, over price considerations or mass market appeal.

Would either place choose a drink where the alcohol was out of balance with the rest? So why put the information at all? Sure there is this idea that giving consumers more information empowers them, but what if someone passes on the legendary Huet Clos-du-Bourg when it clocks in at 13.5% and they think a 12.5% option would be better? Wouldn’t that be a very, very tiny tragedy? Or, as Adam Lee tut-tutted to Asimov, would he be less likely to order the Joly Clos Sacre that came out on top of The New York Times Savennières tasting because it comes in 14.5%? Do we need so much information that we may pass up excellent choices because of a component that can only be understood on a wine to wine basis?

To say i like low alcohol wines would be both true and misleading. A 12.5% can be just as bad as one hitting 15% in the hands of the wrong producer. By the same token a 14.5% can be lovelier by far than some 12% wines in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing, and has the experience to craft a wine when alcohol hits that high (although i will concede that i have not tasted many wines above that that don’t begin to smell like vodka). Finding a sommelier/wine buyer/beer guy who puts in the effort sort of pre-empts the need at all for this little details, notes or scores or alcohol percentages.

(Thoughts? This is nascent Tuesday morning blogging).

~ by Cory Cartwright on August 31, 2010.

10 Responses to “%”

  1. I’m with you that showing alcohol on its own is meaningless as a quality indicator, particularly for drinkers who are not familiar with the wine “category” – imagine discarding a Quintarelli Amarone because of alcohol levels… You need to see alchohol fits into the balance of hard and soft components of the wine; acidity, tannins, dry extract and so on, and in the context of each wine. It really upsets me when I hear of people buying wine based on APV – it seems mad to me, like buying books based on ISBN barcodes. Disclaimer: I am involved in producing a wine that ranges from 13.5 – 14% so I’m rather sensitive about the whole business…

  2. I was in DBGB over the weekend, and it was extremely hot outside, and I was glad to weigh abv as part of my choice. It actually helped push me to try a beer I’d never had instead of one I knew I really liked. No tragedy. It was just a beer.

  3. It’s got everything to do with gauging your total alcohol consumption. Your lead in about beer should make this obvious with the range of alcohol levels in beer ranging from 4% to 12%. At Monk’s Cafe in Phila. there are certain beer’s that customer’s can only have one of (and this in a relatively walkable city).
    If you’re only having one glass the alcohol doesn’t matter, but for larger volumes it does matter.

  4. The only relevant information on a bottle of wine is usually on the back and that would be the name of the importer.

    • the only relevant informations on a label are the makers name, and the aoc of the wine. Importers don’t make wine.

      • Re-read the post. Alcohol levels do not tell the story of the wine. Unfortunately AOC is n guarantee of anything anymore – I’d rather take my chances with an un-classified wine from an importer I respect than some undeserved AOC classification. But yes, from a producer I trust and know, I will try anything they produce. But…. if you don’t know the producer, “…as your importer, I advise you to drink (this wine) heavily.”

    • Good luck finding a wine list with the importers name on it. Wine lists aren’t only for wine geeks and for some customers alcohol level is the msot important factor.

  5. I’m with TWG. It’s about your toxin intake. In Australia, it is shown on a bottle as Standard drinks as well. This way, we can gauge how many we can consume responsibly and still drive. You can’t judge quality by alcohol content, but you can get an indication of style. Disclaimer: I am a very petite female consumer of alcohol and hence am also rather sensitive about the business of alcohol.

  6. Cory, this is another very thoughtful and insightful post. Thanks for articulating what has been sloshing around in my brain for some time!


  7. ABV is just another piece of information. Why put vintages on the list? Why put grape varieties? None of that tells you everything you need to know about a given wine. Sure, some jackass might skip the wine because it doesn’t look good on his iPhone’s ERP vintage chart, but that doesn’t seem like a big deal to me. Someone also might miss a stunning value Mâcon because they think they don’t like chardonnay. We all have our own biases and it’s great to work to overcome them. Keeping information away from people for their own good seems a little condescending, doesn’t it?

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