Beer Buzz: ABV Takes Center Stage

Bars and retail outlets highlight beer’s alcohol content.

At New York City’s two-unit Pony Bar, an electronic menu board displays each beer available on tap and includes such information as style, state of origin and alcohol-by-volume.
At New York City’s two-unit Pony Bar, an electronic menu board displays each beer available on tap and includes such information as style, state of origin and alcohol-by-volume.

When the Pony Bar opened its first of two locations in New York City six years ago, patrons would often ask co-owner Dan McLaughlin what the “abv” on the pub’s electronic beer menu stood for. Today, only novice beer drinkers don’t know that alcohol-by-volume (abv) is an important criterion in selecting a brew. “In the early days, abv was a talking point for our guests and bartenders,” McLaughlin says. “Now, most of our guests are aware.”

Beer retailers and brewers agree that consumer knowledge about the range of alcohol content found in beers has widened, largely thanks to the craft beer boom. “Years ago, consumers were accustomed to beers that had a lower abv,” says Jason Daniels, COO of the two-store Half Time in New York state. “But with the proliferation of craft beer, they’ve learned that there’s a whole range in the alcohol content of beer, and that some offerings can reach up to two, three and even four times the abv consumers are used to.” Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, expects that as craft beer grows in market share, abv knowledge among consumers will further expand.

A change in policy from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) a few years ago has also contributed to consumer knowledge about beer abv levels. In 2013, the TTB granted all beverage alcohol marketers permission to voluntarily label their products with serving information, including abv, and a number of brewers have already complied. “It seems anecdotally like the majority of brewers are now putting abv on their bottles and cans,” says Brewers Association director Paul Gatza.

MillerCoors is one example. The company is revising packaging on a number of its brands to reflect the supplemental information, including alcohol content. Beers that feature the information include Miller 64, Coors Light, Miller Lite, Blue Moon and Keystone. “We’ll continue to add these serving facts to our other brands in the coming months and years,” says MillerCoors media relations manager Marty Maloney.

Knowledge of alcohol content helps consumers make informed decisions when purchasing beers that are either higher or lower than average. Ray Daniels, founder and director of the Cicerone Certification Program, notes that while high-proof or extreme beers were all the rage a few years ago, the trend toward more sessionable brews—generally 5-percent abv and below—demonstrates that “consumers are maturing a bit.”

Dogfish Head, often cited as a founder of the extreme beer movement, also offers sessionable beers like the 4.8-percent abv Namaste and the 4.5-percent abv Festina Peche. This month, however, the Delaware brewery is releasing the 20-percent abv Higher Math to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Calagione describes Higher Math—which is expected to be priced at about $11 a 12-ounce bottle—as a “special occasion, sipping beer.” He adds that because it’s difficult to precisely control the alcohol content in beers with an abv in excess of 15 percent, Dogfish Head doesn’t include alcohol content information on those products.

Retailers and on-premise operators are finding innovative ways to inform their customers about alcohol content. Beer-focused concepts like Pony Bar post abv on beer lists. McLaughlin says his menu board also displays details like beer style and state of origin. The venue, which sells only U.S. craft brews on tap, offers 22 rotating beers, priced at $7 a 14-ounce or 8-ounce pour, depending on the alcohol content.

Half Time has also made a big commitment to educating its customers about abv content. The company’s website,, allows visitors to shop for beer by alcohol content, among other variables. Overall, Half Time offers 5,000 beer SKUs, priced from $1.79 a 12-ounce bottle of Long Trail pale ale to $500 a 24-ounce bottle of Samuel Adams Utopias.

With beer consumers in the know about abv, experts say the time has come to dish out the details. “We’ve reached a bit of a tipping point in that craft beer drinkers expect abv information from the brewer,” Gatza says. “Companies that choose not to include it may be missing out on potential sales.” Daniels also advises on-premise operators to get on board. “Craft beer has made it easier for bar owners to offer beers ranging from 4-percent to 9-percent abv and higher,” he adds. “It’s time for all venues to include that information on their beer menus.”