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Thursday, June 6, 2013


My friend Morgan Cox from Ale Industries and I used to joke years back about putting on a Pale Ale fest, in response to the rise of the Alcohol Robot fests: the IPA fest, the "big beer" fests, the 5 barrel-aged RIS fests.  10 years ago this was real funny to us, because the idea of a festival with nothing but beers coming in under 6% just seemed ... well it seemed the beer drinking world wasn't ready for celebrating lower ABV beers.  They were too hung up on the extreme side that there was no room for the subtleties that smaller beers require.  Attending a beer fest with the same old IPAs that you see everywhere just got real boring after awhile, and I stopped going to fests on my own.  I longed for beers under 5%, and have been advocating and pushing for them for the last 5 or 6 years on The Brewing Network, and brewing nothing but low ABV beers for about as long.

Then I heard about the Session Fest at Drakes Brewing and realized that this is what I had been waiting for - this was a beer fest made just for me!  The first fest I had heard about like this was at Eagle Rock brewery a few years ago, but my travel plans never synched up with theirs.  So this one at Drakes was a must-attend for me.  Fests like this are great for many reasons - sure the lower alcohol is a bonus, but it's much more than that.  Session beers are delicately balanced, and require skill to pull off.  I suppose so do IPAs, but you can hide flaws and imbalance behind all those hops.  Usually, session beers show off malt more than anything, focusing on sweet flavors instead of crushing them with alpha acids.  In my opinion, anyone can make an IPA, but it takes a good brewer to pull off a session beer.

Another reason these types of fests work is you truly get to try beers from brewers that you don't normally see at other festivals, which is the flaw built into the system, right?  What this fest made me realize is that there are so many breweries making session beers and the general beer-drinking public knows nothing about them.  All they get hit with at standard beer festivals is a flagship beer - your Pale Ales, your Ambers, your IPAs - but what about your line-up makes you unique?  Tell me how much different another IPA will really be from the next IPA down the line, if you can.  SessionFest opens doors like these and gets people to realize there is more to beer than simply the standards we are all bored with.  It's a very refreshing thing to see in the beer-soaked Bay Area.

The fest started off slow at first, but after about an hour there were lots of folks enjoying the nice weather - about 400 of them.  It warmed my heart to see so many people enjoying beer for beer and not for the ABV.  Ok, I can't prove that last statement, but whenever I see someone with an IPA, I can't help but judge them silently.  I think they must not know the virtues of a Mild Ale, so they are sticking with what everyone else thinks they should drink.  OMG, if it's not killing your taste buds with hops, it's crap, right?

As I walked around, I spoke with some of the brewers there, just asking how they liked an event like this.  My favorite quote of the day came from my favorite brewery (odd how that happens) Lee from the aforementioned Eagle Rock.  He said, "It's been great - nobody has asked me what my highest alcohol beer is yet!"  Now folks, if you have never worked a beer fest, this question is constantly being asked of whomever is pouring the beers, and it is about as boring a question as there ever has been.  As brewers, they are serving you beer so you like it, so you enjoy it, so you come back for more.  To them it's an art form at best, and an enjoyable beverage at least.  It is not an alcohol delivery system, but that's what most fest have turned into and, in turn, fests have turned beer drinkers into mindless ABV counters.  Not at SessionFest!

I had a great time here, and I never wanted it to end, but , alas, four hours went by in a hearbeat and I had to say good-by to one of the great beer fests in the Bay Area.  I was assured that this will happen again, though, and when it does, you bet you can find me at the head of the line just waiting to find my next favorite beer.