A survival guide for the ABV arms race

Once again, we invite you to see the world through a fresh set of eyes. Our own North Seattle Sarah talks about managing the impact of the higher gravity beers that we craft beer aficionados have come to consider normal. If you are a craft beer newbie, this is some valuable advice.

Now that I think of it, Sarah’s advice is good for any of us. In case you haven’t noticed, there is an ABV arms race happening. Recently I was drinking beer somewhere. Imagine that. I remember being astonished to discover that the pint I’d just ordered contained a beer that weighed in at close to 10 percent ABV. Not a snifter, not a half-pint, and not a 12-ounce tulip: an entire pint of too-easily-quaffed, 9.7 percent ABV goodness. That’s pretty much the last thing I remember. Oy vey.

Time to learn your ABV’s

by North Seattle Sarah

I realize that most people reading this blog are probably beer nerds. And please don’t take offense to the term “nerd.” I say it with love, from a real nerd that grew up watching Star Trek and finishing her homework long before it was due. But the writers of this blog give me space here because I speak not from the perspective of the beer nerd, but from the perspective of the average Joe (or, more aptly, the average Jane) who does not necessarily know everything there is to know about beer.

As I have begun drinking top-notch local brews, and as a 125-pound female beer drinker, I have discovered something: this ain’t Busch Light.

If you’re like me, your first drink of beer was probably something really generic that you thought was amazing. For most men, I’m guessing it was a Bud Light, or Corona, or PBR–whatever you could get your hands on. For the girls, well, we were always given the incredibly sugary Smirnoff Ice or Mike’s Hard Lemonade (yes, even back then, at that tender age, the fellas knew to pay for the ladies’ drinks).

How I stomached that sugary stuff, I’ll never know, but I do know this: when playing a good college drinking game we could certainly get through a lot of cans and bottles in one night. And by the time you’re out of college, you’ve got your limits all figured out—you know just how much you can have to drink when you are out with friends and still keep your cool.

A New Perspective

Joining the local craft beer scene as I recently have, everything has changed. Where I used to have several drinks in one evening, now I can have one or maybe two. Part of it is getting older, I suppose, but I attribute this difference mostly to a need to learn my ABV’s.

ABV (Alcohol by Volume) is, by its simplest definition, a measurement of a drink’s alcoholic strenth. Here’s how I’m going to put this in perspective for those new to the world of “good” beer. A bottle of Bud Light is 4.2 percent ABV, and a bottle of Budweiser is 5 percent. This is about typical for the most nationally recognized big-brand beers that you find at the grocery store or see advertised during big football games.

Now when you’re drinking local craft beer, the numbers range. A glass of Manny’s Pale Ale from Georgetown Brewing, for instance, is a quaffable 5.5 percent, which is not too much stronger than what a non-craft drinker expects. This is probably one of the reasons it is so popular—that and the fact that it’s darn tasty beer. But take a trip to Naked City Taphouse these days and try the Naked City Gilda and you’ll recognize a huge difference. Gilda is a big girl. She weighs in at 8.5 percent ABV. That’s about double the ABV of Bud Light. You’re already two beers into the night when you finish your first beer. The ABV of some local brews go even higher than that. At better beer bars these days it is not uncommon to find an 11 percent ABV beer. Or higher. For some of us lightweights, you can end up stumbling out of a bar after just one drink.  And no one wants to see that.

Pay attention. Ask questions

So, how do you manage your ABV’s? Know what you’re drinking. Many bars and breweries put the ABV right there on the menu. If they don’t, ask. You can usually be fairly certain that pale ale will be on the lighter side, and an IPA will be a little stronger.

If you want to enjoy a strong ale without the strong effects, ask for a smaller glass—a half pint or a snifter. Most good beer bars are happy to accommodate you. Of course, best of all, you need to know your limits.

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  1. I usually try to avoid spirits, because it’s too easy to “get into trouble” with those stronger mixed drinks. But you’re right that it’s equally true that you can quite quickly get out of your depth with beer if you don’t watch out. Some stronger beers will let you know they’re bigger than their more sessionable friends, but not all do so. (I find Black Raven’s scotch ale to be deliciously deceptive, for example.)

    Some places (such as Malt & Vine, and Black Raven Brewing) post the ABV on the menu/board. But, as you said, don’t be shy to ask.

    Don’t think there’s any shame in ordering a schooner, even if the beer is usually served by the pint. Or, if it doesn’t gross you out, when you are out with friends, consider sharing beers so that everyone gets to try more different brews! 🙂

  2. Good point Tracey. There is no shame in ordering a schooner or a half-pint. If nothing else, you can taste more different beers. Mrs. Beer Blog orders halfs often and I am trying to get into the habit as well, especially when I go to some place that has a bunch of beers I’ve never tried. Another point, the halfie is a good tool for evaluating a beer. Ever paid 5 bucks for a pint of the obligatory “Oh My God It’s From California So It Must Be Awesome IPA” and then found that you don’t like it? I rarely will send a beer back after just a few sips, feeling that every beer deserves to be heard, so to speak. But a half pint is surely enough to determine if the beer does indeed taste like something divine or if the beer does indeed tastes like asswash.

  3. The high ABV thing comes into play at the store/bottle shop as well. Many brewers sell their high ABV beers exclusively in 22 oz. bottles. I understand the economics behind that. Still, it sure would be nice to be able to sample a few different smaller-packaged beers instead. It’s not always easy to commit to a 10% ABV, 22 oz. behemoth I’ll be trying for the first time. Dogfish Head is bucking that trend, and I applaud them for it. (although I suspect they can afford to do so, while smaller breweries might not be able to)

  4. Sorry to hear( or not hear) the lack of Skip Madsen, THE creator of Strangebrewfest not even being mention.
    The name comes from a Hockey/beer movie that is truly the heart of Skip. It has taken on a whole new meaning, which is fine, I just don’t think the originator should just be forgotten.
    I am thankful to Joe ( managing yet another fest in this town) and every “responsible” business owner here certainly appreciates the business.
    I can’t help feeling a bit sad the the creator of this event hasn’t even been given a mention. Hopefully time heals all wounds.
    Long live the beer Geeks!

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