Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wait, a low-alcohol beer festival?

Session ales first started making their way into the beer-drinking lexicon a little less than four years ago, while I was doing the research for "Mountain Brew." I can remember Adam Avery saying that he was working on one because he was getting too old to drink 10% ABV beers all night. And Steve Jones commented that he was dedicating his Pateros Creek Brewing to lower-alcohol beers because, as a new father, he wanted something to drink and still be able to play with his son.

But even as more and more people came to espouse session beers, few probably thought the mini-trend would reach the peak it is scaling this weekend: A whole beer festival entirely devoted to beers less than 5% ABV. And that is why Sesh Fest, which kicks off at 3 p.m. Saturday at Sculpture Park in Denver, may just be the most interestingly odd yet appealing brewers' gathering of the summer.

More than two dozen Colorado breweries are committed to creating and pouring low-alcohol beer there - including auteurs like Epic, Great Divide and Oskar Blues, which are not breweries that you typically associate with the word "light." There will be saisons, stouts, pale ales and IPAs; there just won't be the opportunity to get accidentally drunk really quickly while enjoying a great variety of offerings. (And, yes, "accidentally drunk" is a term I use to describe what happens to even the most seasoned beer veterans at festivals with a great amount of options to which you can't say no.)

Steve Kurowski, marketing director for the Colorado Brewers Guild - which is throwing this party in conjunction with Imbibe Denver - said Sesh Fest was designed to be different in ways beyond just the lower-alcohol offerings. The ticket price is a comparatively low $20, the pours are coming in 6-oz. vessels and the restrictions on the ABV are a challenge to brewers to show what they can do.

"I think this as a category hasn't gotten enough exposure in the United States," Kurowski said. "I think it's time to showcase the finesse that brewers can bring to low-ABV beers with a lot of flavor."

One of the beer makers going all in is Ska Brewing, which is sponsoring the festival and using it as a platform to debut its session Rudie Session IPA - giving away cans of the new beer to the first 1,000 people who enter.

Ska co-founder Dave Thibodeau said he's not sure exactly why session beers have become so popular, but at his brewery it traces back to the creation of Mexican Logger some 10 years ago and the ability of people there to drink a lot of tasty beers without getting too hammered.

"For me personally, I like drinking beer most of the time I'm awake - so that's why I like them," Thibodeau said. "Maybe it's the afternoon, and I don't want to be smashed the whole day."

Rudie is the latest in the most discussion-generating of the session beer trend: The session IPA. Are they full-bodied, lower-alcohol IPAs or just watered-down versions of the style? The crew at Ska made it with a lot of El Dorado and Galaxy hops to give it a full, fruity, watermelon taste in a lower-ABV body. And after tweaking the recipe several times as one-off beers, they're ready to take it prime time.

It will be interesting to see how many other beers made for the festival become regulars in breweries' rotations. But then, much of that may depend on the reaction they get from the crowd on this newest and most surprisingly popular of beer styles. I can't wait.

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