Everything I would say by way of introduction on this particular review, I wrote a few weeks ago when drinking another beer: Deschutes’ Wowza Lo-Cal Hazy Pale Ale.
This is what happens when the craft beer scene isn’t growing the way it used to: You’ve got more than 8,000 breweries attempting to grab hold of the Next Big Thing, and when one major regional chooses to embrace a trend, you can bet that a stampede of imitators are coming. When the fight is well and truly on to keep year-end growth numbers in the positive rather than negative, they almost don’t have a choice—you can make “whatever we feel like” when growth is effortless, but the harder things get out there, the more sensitive to emerging opportunities a company like Deschutes or Bell’s must become. They can’t afford to miss out on anything that could be “the next hazy IPA,” as unlikely as that is.
Enter, the proliferation of “low-cal” pale ales and IPAs, which are simultaneously regurgitating the previous session IPA trend and grafting calorie-consciousness onto a craft beer style (IPA) that has never been particularly welcoming to those on a diet. Once again, it comes down to necessity: The letters “IPA” are the strongest marketing device that exists within the craft beer world, so of course these new beers need to bear that title, even as they drift further and further from anything we’d recognize as India pale ale.
This isn’t to say I’ve always had some kind of stance against session IPAs—hell, we blind-tasted 52 of them once and found some excellent examples—but the current, calorie-focused revival of the style seems to suffer even more commonly from many of the criticisms that were hurled at session IPA back in 2015, when detractors were labeling them as banal, unbalanced, or as “hop water.” At least those session IPAs, though, were typically assertive in their flavor profiles. The “lo-cal IPA” trend? Too many of these beers are simply settling for a dearth of flavor, in the name of drinkability. In its own way, the trend seems to mirror the energy of the hard seltzers they’re chasing: Easy to drink, low-flavor booze delivery devices. And it’s hard to square that with the ethos of craft beer, which has always been about embracing more assertive flavors than what was available in the macro beer world.
ANYWAY. Into this mix, Bell’s is offering the (brilliantly titled) Light Hearted Ale, a miniaturized version of their iconic Two Hearted Ale, one of the most widely beloved IPAs in the U.S.A. Weighing in at 110 calories but only 3.7% ABV, this is a tiny package indeed, but one that promises to mimic the flavor profile of the bigger Two Hearted through the use of Centennial and Galaxy hops. The brewery refers to it as “aromatic, balanced, and incredibly easy-drinking,” but the question I need to answer is where it stands in comparison to the Deschutes product from a few weeks ago … and whether the calorie count justifies drinking it rather than simply reaching for a Two Hearted.
On the nose, Light Hearted is mild but pleasant—much less fruit-forward than the more tropical profile of the Deschutes Wowza, and instead leaning in the direction of dank, greener characteristics, with fresh grass and pine in addition to grapefruit zest and a bit of grapefruit juice. Notably, I also get a bit of biscuity malt on the nose, which is nice to come across.
On the palate, however, this is another entry in the lo-cal IPA movement that is quite mild across the board. A slight biscuity tone and a bit of grainy barley flavor give it the barest amount of malt balance, which pairs with flashes of light clementine orange, grass clippings and pine. As in the Deschutes, it has a disappearing quality that I find disappointing—flavors that pop up, initially seem promising, and then vanish from the palate almost immediately. This is no doubt intended to make the beer as drinkable (read: chuggable) as possible, as is the very dry finish and mild bitterness, but you can’t deny it’s a bit lacking in verve. It’s indeed very easy to drink, as they wish it to be, but the trade-off is that it doesn’t hold your attention. In the Deschutes review, I wrote that it seemed like something calculated for “absentminded drinking,” and I ended up feeling that way again—as with macro lagers or seltzers, it feels like something you’re meant to drink without even realizing you’re doing it, to get to the next one that much faster. It feels disposable.
And I’m sure, for some drinkers, that’s exactly what they want. It’s not that Light Hearted is actively flawed in some way. In fact, I think I actually like its overall flavor profile a bit more than the Deschutes entry. But it’s not something that I’d really see myself reaching for, and especially not if I was counting calories—in that case, I’d prefer a slightly more caloric beer that also happens to be considerably more flavorful, rather than something that feels like a half measure.
It’s entirely likely that I’m in the minority here, and that beers like this one will carve out an enduring niche in the market. But I can’t help but think that you probably won’t find me there.
Brewery: Bell’s Brewery
City: Kalamazoo, MI
Style: “Lo-cal IPA”
Availability: 12 oz cans
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.