It happens almost every time: We’re zigzaging the aisles in Safeway and find ourselves at the edge of the store in the cooler section staring at the shelves of beer. We’re not pondering our selection; as any Colorado beer drinker knows, you don’t buy a sixer at the grocery store. (Thanks to an old state liquor law, grocery stores aren’t allowed to sell full-strength beer.) Instead, we’re looking at the shelves wondering: How do they make this 3.2 percent stuff? Is it just watered-down regular beer? To find out, we asked AC Golden‘s head brewer Jeff Nickel, who described the process as a “pretty good challenge.”

AC Golden’s most popular brew is Colorado Native, an easy-drinking amber lager brewed with ingredients from the Centennial State. When the brewery first introduced the beer a few years ago, it clocked in at a 5.5 percent. But this year, when the sales crew thought to try Native in grocery stores, the brewers had to figure out how to make a 3.2 version.

The easiest way would have been to dillute Native down to 3.2 percent alcohol using water, which the brewers tried. “It tasted like watered-down beer,” Nickel says. “If someone happened to pick up the 3.2 version and was used to drinking regular Native, they might have thought there was a defect.” So they tried to brew a different version of Native that tasted the same, just with less alcohol. Or, put another way, they attempted to brew a completely different beer with the exact same flavor as the original Colorado Native. The problem was, alcohol contributes to flavor and mouthfeel in a beer. “When you’re brewing a low-gravity beer,” Nickel says, “the ester profile is very different.”

After tinkering with several batches, they came up with a version of Native they liked. It was about 3.5 percent, and the brewers were able to dillute that batch down to 3.2 percent without altering the flavor too much. Nickel was pleased with the final product. “As a brewer, as much as I like our regular Native, I really enjoy the 3.2 version,” he says. “It’s nice and sessionable.” In fact, the 3.2 version of Colorado Native took a bronze medal at this year’s United States Open Beer Championship in the American Amber category.

So, the next time we see 3.2 beer on grocery store shelves, at least in the case of Colorado Native, we’ll know it’s the same—but different.

—Image courtesy of Shutterstock