It is equal parts amusing and annoying to watch the craft beer industry flock in the direction—or “re-flock” might be more accurate—of a trend that mirrors a past fad that had already come and gone. Are drinkers really so precise and fickle that they’ll embrace the same types of beers they didn’t embrace five years earlier, if the marketing is simply tweaked a bit?
We’re talking, of course, about the current industry wide trend toward “100 calorie” craft beer cans, which has been underway for more than a year but still seems to be gathering steam, as more and more major regional breweries (Bells, Dogfish Head, Oskar Blues, etc, etc) introduce beers labeled “IPA” that hover in the 4% ABV and under range. It’s a response to the popularity of two competing segments in particular: Within the beer world, the unstoppable march of Michelob Ultra (95 calories), and the frightening outside force of hard seltzer brands such as White Claw and Truly, all of which weigh in around 100 calories as well. The 100-calorie craft beer trend, then, aims to provide “all the flavor,” in a smaller package.
The bit that is left out, of course, is the fact that this isn’t a new idea: It’s just the session IPA craze all over again. Suffice to say, we’ve been here before. Five or six years ago, the concept of session IPA flared to life with quite a bit of enthusiasm, and breweries around the country all began cranking out lightweight, zero-malt-flavor, assertively hoppy beers with the hopes of making them into year-round flagships. Not long after, the trend burned out—although session IPAs did prove successful year-rounders for a handful of major regional breweries, many more of them were unceremoniously discarded, proving to be less flavorful than apparently desired by craft beer consumers. Today, beers labeled as “session IPA” are back to being a niche style, rather than being hailed with “next big thing” status. It was a trend where too many of the high-profile offerings were lacking in substance.
The irony, of course, is that many of those session IPAs were likely as light as 100 calories, but at the time, none of them were using calorie counts as a selling point—until pretty recently, in fact, the craft beer industry preferred to avoid any kind of conversation around calories at all. Rather, the first session IPA craze was driven by speculation that “lower ABVs” would be desired by drinkers to promote both moderation and the ability to consume more beer, but the narrative of session beer’s growth didn’t really end up jibing with hard industry data. Even today, in fact, the lion’s share of craft beer growth is still in higher-ABV styles. And so, the second attempt to sell us what amounts to session IPA has taken a new tack: Focusing on calorie count rather than ABV, in a more concrete appeal toward moderation and “wellness.”
And that’s all well and good, if the beers are good, but in my own experience they remain a mixed bag. When Oskar Blues released its One-y low-cal hazy IPA in 2019, I tasted the sample with a figurative if not literal shrug. Yeah, this is more or less what it claims to be—a miniaturized version of hazy IPA, but one lacking in assertiveness of flavor or the kind of fullness of mouthfeel you probably want in the style. Would it do in a pinch? Sure. But in this ABV range, I’d rather reach for a true American pale ale—one that promises at least some modicum of malt and hop balance. Try as I might, that tends to be the way I end up feeling about these beers.
Into that increasingly crowded field, though, strolls a new contender: Deschutes Brewery, and its new Wowza Lo-Cal Hazy Pale Ale. To their credit, I approve of the fact that they decided to call this new 100 calorie, 4% ABV beer “pale ale” rather than “IPA,” for the sheer fact that I would still prefer if these terms had actual, concrete meanings, rather than being something you just slap on a can to move product. But I realize that’s asking a lot.
Regardless, this is a surprisingly complicated little beer, with a grist of pilsner malt, wheat, oats and acidulated malt, and a hop bill of Citra, Simcoe, Cashmere and Callista. It also features one additional, unusual ingredient in the form of chicory root from Cosucra Farms in Warcoing, Belgium, which is stated to “bring some balance to the body of the beer without affecting the calorie count,” according to the brewery. Let’s get to tasting (finally) and see how they did.
On the nose, I am pleasantly surprised by the lovely hop bouquet here. I am getting big orange grove aromatics, with some tropical notes (pineapple, passionfruit) and then a segue into stickier, danker resin notes. There’s a slightly funky, musty quality as well that I noticed more over time—does chicory (unroasted, I assume) contribute this, I wonder? Or perhaps it’s a factor of that grain bill.
On the palate, however, Wowza can’t quite deliver of the promise on the nose. Here the beer initially comes across as very dry and very thin of body. The big fruit notes I was getting on the nose aren’t showing up nearly as assertively, although I am getting notes of resin, orange citrus and bread dough. It drinks very easily, with bitterness that is quite mild, which is obviously the point, but at the same time it feels lacking in verve or excitement. The fact of the matter is, it feels almost designed for absentminded drinking, lacking the complexity found in beers like Deschutes own, classic Mirror Pond Pale Ale. By comparison, Wowza is meant to feel lightweight, but I fear this goes too far in that direction.
Unfortunately, beers like Mirror Pond are now much harder to sell to us fickle beer geeks, which is why we find ourselves here, with new products formulated to combat the likes of hard seltzer. Perhaps beers like Wowza will speak to that demographic, but for those of us who are still turning toward craft beer with flavor as our chief priority rather than wellness, it leaves a bit to be desired. It’s less a matter of being actively objectionable, and more an issue of lacking the full-flavored exuberance that got so many of us into craft beer in the first place.
Brewery: Deschutes Brewery
City: Bend, OR
Style: Hazy pale ale
Availability: 6 packs, 12 oz cans
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.