Unfiltered: Session Beer

By John Gillooly, Drake’s Brewmaster
June 12, 2017

Session Beer Fest will be at Jack London Square on May 19th.

On May 20, we are hosting our 5th Annual Session Beer Fest, a beer event that serves ONLY beer under 5% ABV. This is one of my favorite beer festivals ever. We shed all the “What’s your strongest beer?” hunters from the crowd, and it’s just a super chill time for people tasting and enjoying beers designed for actual drinking.

Since there’s limited space, we curate the breweries attending, and some people self-segregate because session beers just aren’t everyone’s thing. And yeah, OK, the whole point is to make full-flavored beers at lower alcohol contents, which can be hard. Big beers are easy to make with big flavors (a festival with beers over 8% that taste like nothing… that would be hilarious), but making little beers with big flavors is more of a challenge.

Some styles are easier—Britain has a long tradition of producing “session” ales, primarily Mild Ales and Bitters. A lot of brewers use these as inspiration and it’s a pretty short line from a traditional English Bitter to a Session IPA. We jump right in with two different Session IPAs pouring at Sesh Fest:

Kick Back at last year’s Session Fest.

It’s becoming the annual introduction of Kick Back, our summer IPA with heavy, dank hops over a blend of American and British malt. It’s a little bit British Bitter fused with the spirit of pure American IPA. This year we also added a running mate, Freaky Tales, a New England-style IPA which features ridiculously over-the-top tropical hop aromatics atop a thick, mildly sweet body. The beer has some grain proteins (there’s your mouthfeel), low bitterness, and some further fruited aromatics (a little haze, too) from the British ale yeast.

Session IPAs aren’t the only thing we throw down with at the Drake’s booth. We have some of our standards that are all under 5%—our Nitro Dry Stout, Hefe and Flyway Pils—as well as Bright Side, our Berliner Weisse formerly known as Oaklander Weisse. Our Berliner will make for a fine base for another release of Brawndo (it has what plants crave!).

We will also be bringing back Rye Robustito, our [Award Winning] Barrel-Aged Session Porter which we occasionally release throughout the year. We’ll likely make a variation or two with Rye Robustito (coffee? Cacao nibs?).

Beyond those beers, we have three beers we brewed explicitly for this year’s festival:

Aces High creator, Amanda Cowles, and fellow Drakers Eric Ortega and Brendan Gesley.

The first, Aces High, is a low-gravity Saison designed to be a complex yet approachable. Fermented with a French farmhouse yeast, spiced with coriander and grains of paradise, and hopped with a nifty new hop variety, Styrian Wolf, Aces High is super flavorful while being impeccably easy to drink. Our amazing events coordinator, Amanda Cowles, wanted a Saison to drink at Sesh Fest so she designed and brewed this beer along with our Brewery Engineer Michael Boals.

Our second special creation is a collaboration with Mike “Tasty” McDole called Tasty Mild. It’s a pretty damn traditional British Mild brewed with heirloom Chevallier Pale ale malt, a touch of Black Patent malt for color, minimal hops and a lovely British ale yeast. This one’s a real head turner—barely 3.4% ABV, it features a full-flavored malt toastiness enhanced by notes of pear and honey from the yeast. It’s drinking great out of the tank and will be stunning after a couple more days to clean up. Great work, Tasty and [Brewer] Alyssa!

Mike “Tasty” McDole and John Gillooly enjoying a beer together at Session Fest 2016.

Our final special is Eternal Tap Lager, my interpretation of an old-school pre-prohibition pilsner. Back in the 19th Century, German brewmasters newly arriving in America found they couldn’t make all-malt beers like they did in Germany. Frankly, at the time, American malt sucked. An all-malt lager in America would be thick and hazy and not capable of the crisp golden goodness they were used to making. They discovered the way to get the beer they wanted was to cut the malt with adjuncts—generally rice or corn.

I’ve reproduced these beers before, but even cheap American malt now is good enough that you don’t need to cut it. As an aside, I could go on about this stuff, and the difference between 6-row and 2-row barley, but I’m not getting that deep in the weeds right now. However, this year I found an Heirloom American 6-row barley that has a lot of the same features (and bugs) of old-school American malt, and I came back to the style with renewed enthusiasm. The grist uses 40% flaked corn (sorry Molly), and we employed an abbreviated American double mash process to get more sugars out of this recalcitrant malt variety. It was totally worth it! Instead of being thin, like many of these beers often are, it has a great mouthfeel from all the proteins and is a really neat and highly crushable bit of history. I’ll be happy to talk to you all about it at the festival.

Don’t just drink our beers though—all the breweries that show up bring their A-game, and will be featuring stuff you don’t see every day. Oh, and every brewery featured at Session Beer Fest is independent. That matters.

‘Unfiltered’ is a recurring column by our Brewmaster, John Gillooly, where he dishes on whatever topic he’s inspired to prosthelytize about. With over 20 years of brewing experience ranging from Red Hook (back when they were independent) to Dogfish Head, John’s take is always uniquely his and we do our best to bring it to you as it is…unfiltered.