There's a common misconception that craft beers are exclusively high-alcohol beverages and that the world of microbrews only includes boldly flavored and anti-macro styles like IPAs and imperial stouts. But spend a whole evening washing down full servings of these big beers and you'll soon realize that in large quantities, they're more likely to have you drunk and puking than savoring the essence of each.
Behold, the session beer: an umbrella term for low-alcohol, easy-drinking brews that can be consumed in multiples over the course of a drinking session without leaving you running to hug the ivory throne. It's a term that originated in Europe — where beer is less a means to a drunk end than, well, a social experience — and has been lovingly adopted by the American craft beer scene to refer to any beer that helps you to actually remain present for the entire session.
Eagle Rock Brewery co-owner Jeremy Raub says that session beers take way more guts to make since imperfections can't hide behind heavy smoked chocolate malt or a 10% alcohol content. That's part of why he invented Session Fest three years ago as a way to educate people to these often overlooked small beers.
The event returns this Saturday when a half-dozen beers under 5%ABV will be served at the brewery's taproom, most of them small batch or one-off experiments conceived of by Raub, his wife Ting Su and Eagle Rock's five staffers. In addition to being an L.A.-needed opportunity to taste test a bunch of new low-alcohol beers that won't ruin attempts to drive home safely, the event is also an exciting time for a brewery that spends most of its days cranking out batches of year-round Solidarity Black Mild (at 3.8%, itself a session beer), Manifesto Wit and Populist IPA.
Since most of the year is now focused on making Eagle Rock's production beers needed for bottling and distribution, Session Fest is the one time of the year when staff gets free reign on the brewery's pilot system. We sat down with Raub at the taproom earlier this week and talked to him about the festival, the beers and the responsibility his brewery has to educate the masses about beer.
Squid Ink: You guys started Session Fest within six months of opened? That's pretty immediate for a brewery that landed in the middle of a beer wasteland three years ago.
Jeremy Raub: One of our goals in starting up was helping to build a better community for beer in L.A. and this is part of it — having these sorts of events that educate people's minds a little bit. The original idea with Session Fest was that we love lower alcohol, easier-drinking beers and that's why a lot of the beers that we do are more balanced and lower alcohol. We looked around and saw that there were strong-ale festivals and barleywine festivals, Belgian-beer festivals and we were like, “What about a session beer fest? That would be cool.”
The other motivation in organizing it was that all of the beers we have on tap not so much now, but when we started out with were beers my dad and I had homebrewed. So they were these recipes we'd come up with but at the same time we wanted to have our crew be able to have a little creative freedom so we could serve something they created to the masses. And potentially be a proving ground for beers to make on the big system.
SI: How do the beers get made for Session Fest? Who creates the recipes?
JR: We do pilot batch brews. We have a pilot brewing system here that only allows you to make batches up to 10 gallons, but you can also make five gallons at a time. So we just have our staff take turns rotating threw brewing on that. And the recipes are all ideas that they come up with or are popular ones returning from previous Session Fests. We just tell everyone on staff to brew at least one beer and some have the time to really get into it and make two or three beers. But basically it's one or two five-gallon kegs of each batch, so most of the beers that will be on tap are all small-batch or one-offs.
SI: Do you find that a lot of people still think that craft beer means high-alcohol beer?
JR: That's part of the education aspect of it. There is that misconception that craft beer is higher in alcohol, but that's changing. People are learning and people are starting to appreciate the lower alcohol beers, too. I remember when we first opened up here, it was kind of a weird thing in L.A. There weren't really any other breweries in L.A. and not any with a tasting room, so we're in here every day talking to people because they would literally come in and say, “I tried a microbrew in the '90s and I didn't really like it, so I'm not going back to that.” From 20 years ago, that was their conception of microbrews.
It took a bit of learning about people's palettes and preferences — like asking about what kind of wines they like or what kind of cocktails they like. Let's talk about flavors and now that we're talking about flavors, let's draw some parallels to flavors that could be in a beer and then let's put this beer in front of you. And they say, “Wow, that doesn't taste like beer.” People tend to concentrate so much on what is beer. If it's a means to a buzz or a means to get drunk, then sure, it doesn't really matter what it tastes like because your end result will be the same. If you treat it as a flavor experience–a culinary experience, or a life experience–then that's cool. I think that's why craft beer is doing so well is that its paralleling the foodie movement.
SI: Did you realize when you opened that you had this responsibility to educate?
JR: Yeah, definitely. From conceptualizing this and putting the business plan together, educating people was a part of it. The Session Fest was sort of built into our DNA in a strange way because the first beer we ever brewed here is Solidarity, which is 3.8% ABV. And similarly to the concept of Session Fest and how that came about, when we started brewing here, there are a lot of people in the homebrew community and beer geek community that said we needed to brew a big imperial stout.
First of all, everybody else is doing that right now and we don't want to do what everybody else is doing. And second of all, it's a lot harder and shows more nuance to make a beer that's less alcohol. There's less of a beer to hide behind, so let's focus on making something that a lot of people can enjoy that has a lot of nuance to it and is accessible. Also, it's L.A. and people have to drive everywhere, so let's make it easier.
SI: How to you attack a session beer as a brewer? How do you develop recipes that are nuanced?
JR: It starts with really being careful with your process. But as we discovered, little tweaks in the recipe process show through in the finished beer a lot more than they would in an imperial stout or something like that. The other misconception that we wanted to clear up–again part of this education aspect–is to show that flavor in beer is not related to the alcohol content, color or alcohol strength. Look at Solidarity. It's got a little roastyness to it, but when people look at it, they think it's going to taste a certain way because of how it looks and when they taste it, it's different.
SI: Do you think that there has been a return to brewing these smaller beers?
JR: I think so. A lot of the bigger breweries are starting to do that. Ballast Point for instance has Even Keel, an awesome, session-y, hoppy beer. It's a really clean hoppy beer that's 3.5% or something like that. Even Stone did a collaboration beer called San Deigo Sessions Ale and it was a ridiculously hoppy beer that was 4%. I just saw a bit of news that the guy from Pete's Wicked Ale is getting back into brewing and is making a whole line of session beers. XPAs are an emerging style, too. It's just that the imperial, exponential, triple, double whatever beers are kind of a novelty that wears off.
Think about it in terms of food. If you have some modernist cuisine that's really rich favor-wise — like foie gras — you want that's not very big. It's an intense flavor experience and you don't want to have a mouthful of that. So it's sort of a novelty in that sense; there's a limit to it. If you translate that to beers, it's novel and cool to have these big, strong, intensely flavored and probably high-alcohol beers. Collectively, the whole beer community in general, as it's growing up nationwide, is starting to grow out of that phase.
SI: But big beers seemed like the logical place for craft beer to start entering the market because they're so different than the macro beers, right?
JR: Almost everybody I know, when you first start getting into beer and discovering this whole world, you start looking for the strongest beer you can find. As a homebrewer, it's what's the strongest beer I can make? And it's almost like being a teenager and wanting to know how fast can I make this car go? But as you realize that there's more out there, you appreciate it more. I can't drink triple IPAs all day every day. I'll kill my palette and I'll be drunk. The whole craft beer community is maturing in a way.
SI: What kind of beers can we expect this weekend?
JR: I had this idea of using different kinds of nut flour in a beer, which is kind of weird. And we also got some samples of hop varieties from our distributor, so I told my brewers, “If you see a hop you want to try, now's the time.” Ting did a couple of beers too. One she's calling a “mini moo “–it's a milk stout — and another is a British-style bitter in which she tried a new variety of hops called Helga. She's calling that one Bitter Helga.
Session Fest: Saturday May 4, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.; 3056 Roswell Street, Los Angeles.