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I caught a pleasant surprise while scanning the beer menu at Birch & Barley one recent Sunday. It was a recovery brunch, and between my hangover, my caffeine deficiency, and the 14th Street traffic and blazing heat pounding our streetside table, I wasn’t looking to order a beer so much as brush up on new releases, the ever-changing list standing in for the Sunday paper. After all, it was almost an hour before noon, and I have my standards. Usually.

But a new beer by 21st Amendment Brewery caught my eye: Bitter American, a 4.6% pale ale that bridged England’s session traditions and America’s aptitude for hops. The glass emerged a sunny golden column that seemed to promise that everything would be OK, just the reassurance I needed, seeing as it was still technically morning and I was about to make a pretty questionable life decision. As I confronted the glass and drew myself nearer, the whole gamut of hop aromas leapt out, from Cascade’s classic West-coast citrus to a more blunt, coffee-bean bitterness. I drank it like the messenger returning from the Battle of Marathon, gulp after salving gulp, pausing to note its fresh aftertaste only after I’d drained half the glass. If my dining companions were staring, they looked away at the last second.

Bitter American is the finest low-alcohol pale ale I’ve ever tasted. Even some good examples of the style, such as Stone Levitation Ale, are plenty hoppy but one-dimensional, something 21st Amendment brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan solves by using a rich specialty malt called Simpson’s Golden Promise. The result is a balanced, hugely flavorful beer that you can A) drink it without getting drunk, or B) enjoy a lot more of it on your way to doing so.

Hopefully, this draft-only summer seasonal beer (currently at The Big Hunt and Pizzeria Paradiso Georgetown) is part of a trend of American brewers packing hop flavor into low-abv beers. Yards Philly Pale Ale is an old-school English pale that’s also nice at 4.6% abv, and Stone recently announced a collaboration with Ballast Point Brewing Co. and homebrew contest winner Kelsey McNair to make a low-abv “West Coast Bitter.” (Ballast Point, from San Diego, practices the style themselves with a 3.5% beer called Even Keel, but it hasn’t found its way to D.C. yet.) The Stone collaboration is due in late summer/early fall, so in the meantime, I’ll be parked at the bar next to the 21st Amendment tap handle, sipping a tasty light beer with my morning coffee.

Image courtesy of kludgebox via Flickr Creative Commons, Attribution License