Denver Breweries, Innovation and the State of “Session Beer”

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Denver Breweries, Innovation and the State of “Session Beer”

Anyone who’s been paying attention to craft beer in the last few years could draw you a fairly accurate graph of the relevance and interest given to the concept of session beer. The still-ongoing rise of more sessionable styles was a natural rebound to the era of “extreme beer,” when seemingly every beer of note had become a DIPA or imperial stout. The session beer movement, then, was a response to the “bigger is better” mentality, but at the same time it’s also been a reflection of those other trends that had also come forward into the limelight at the same time—particularly the popularization of more accessible, less complicated sour beer styles.

Today, the general conception of “session beer” held in the minds of many beer geeks is still somewhat narrow, although strides are being made. Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend Sesh Fest, a younger Denver festival specifically themed around 5% ABV or lower session beers, currently celebrating its third year. What I saw there was encouraging, both for Denver’s own craft beer scene and for the future of session beer as an idea. Although certain examples do still tend to dominate the genre, many of the breweries I spoke with were turning either to their own creativity or a reverence for historical beer styles in their attempts to expand drinkers’ definitions of “session.”

It’s important to note here that it is indeed the rank and file craft beer drinker we’re talking about. Professional brewers, by and large, don’t need to be reminded that Vienna lager or dark mild make excellent session beer styles. But ask around in an average beer bar about what styles constitute “session beer,” and the ideas will be significantly more limited.

Session IPA, certainly, is one of the main culprits here. For many drinkers, hearing the style described with that name was the first time they even heard the word “session” enter the craft beer lexicon, so it’s only natural that it’s become intimately associated with the term. The style conquered the market nearly immediately when it appeared in numbers, piggy-backing off the “anything with IPA on the label sells” mindset and immediately surpassing the number of American pale ales being judged at GABF in its very first year. As we’ve written before, if you’re looking for concrete causes for the continued shrinking of American pale ale as a category, a significant amount of credit goes to the changes in taste reflected by the rise of session IPA, which has cannibalized that market with zombie-like vigor.

session ipa all day inset (Custom).jpgExhibit A

In the summer of 2016, however, it’s hardly just session IPA that has been dominating the session beer market. Although session IPA might be the most visible, you’d have to go out of your way to not notice the preponderance of low-ABV, often fruited, quickly produced kettle sours on tap in almost any big craft beer market. As the best practices of making these significantly more simple (i.e., no barrels required) sours have spread throughout the industry, it’s bred an offshoot of sour beer styles that tend to be rather kinder, gentler and more approachable than the big, aggressively lactic, barrel-aged sours that still dominate the top tier of beer rating sites. They make natural summer session styles as well, with their mildly tart profiles enhancing drinkability and making them more appealing for settings like outdoor patios and beer gardens.

At the same time, though, let us not forget that session beer isn’t just a summer phenomenon, and neither is it limited to just session IPA or the current vogue of light sours. Despite your absolute definitions of “session” (some writers are intense sticklers about codifying the term), the same way that drinkers now appreciate session IPA should theoretically be reapplied to other, less sexy styles, helping them find some new life.

What styles are we talking about? Well, lagers in general are obvious candidates. In the same way that kolsch and hop-forward pilsner have been on the rise, a robust session beer market should ideally make space for more malt-forward lager styles to gain traction. The subtle toast of Vienna lager or the chewiness of a great dunkel are all too often missing from brewery lineups, even when those breweries are attempting to provide a variety of sessionable choices. Dark beer styles in general are far less frequently cited as “session” in the current market, despite having often played that role historically. Irish dry stout, by definition, is more or less always a session beer style. 4.5% ABV porter? Totally reasonable as well, and even quite refreshing when executed smartly, but still pretty rare in the session beer conversation. Even at Denver’s Sesh Fest (admittedly an outdoor fest in August), a festival devoted entirely to sub-5% ABV beer, only two of about 100 entries could actually qualify as “dark beer”: A schwarzbier (also underrepresented in the U.S.) and a coffee stout. And forgetting “dark” entirely, there’s myriad other styles that make for superb session beers: Hefeweizens, petite saisons, bitters, Scottish ales and more. The point is simple: “Session beer” as an idea continues to be embraced and grow, but it still has plenty of room to diversify itself in the minds of beer drinkers and the lineups of breweries.

In Denver, and at Sesh Fest, this thankfully does seem to be happening, at least to a degree. In the Mile-High City, one would think the physical effects of altitude might naturally lead to a more robust appreciation for camping and hiking-friendly low-ABV beer styles, and this is at least partially the case, according to a few brewers I spoke with at the event. It was an unusually smooth, easygoing beer festival, and it would be hard to deny that the concept isn’t great, as a session beer fest can simultaneously encourage eclectic sampling and relative moderation. Eric Nichols, the head brewer at Beryl’s Beer Co. in Denver’s beer-rich River North neighborhood, said the event was indicative of the session beer culture that has grown in the city during the two years that Beryl has been in operation.

“I think if you live here, more than the altitude, it’s the active lifestyles you tend to find in Colorado that are driving session beer here,” Nichols said. “Most people here aren’t drinking to get blitzed, and they’re very outdoor-focused. Session styles are perfect to incorporate into that.”

At the festival, Beryl stood out for being one of the breweries offering a style that not a single other brewery had brought along—in this case, their O.G. Dunkel. Bready, full of flavor but still quaffable on an 80-degree sunny day in the Rockies, it was the kind of session beer I’d be thrilled to get my hands on at any time of the year. Nichols, meanwhile, found himself attracted to the myriad sours of the festival.

“The obvious style you’d expect here is session IPA, but so far today I’ve been seeing a lot of good kettle sours,” he said. “They’re the hallmark of this Sesh Fest already, and I do think it’s a great style. Although the techniques being used by a lot of breweries to make them are similar, you get a massive spectrum of flavor out of them.”

That would no doubt be a fine spot to leave you, but you can’t very well write a piece touching on a beer festival without listing some of the best beers present. Here, then, are my five favorite Denver-area beers I sampled at the 2016 Sesh Fest. Keep an eye out in the coming days for a longer feature on the younger generation of Denver breweries as well—I was able to physically, blearily visit a rather ridiculous 8 of them over the course of the 48 hours I was in Denver, in addition to attending the festival.

5 Great Beers from Sesh Fest, 2016

The Post Brewing Co. – The Town Tart

The Post, a brewery in Lafayette, CO to the east of Boulder, served up this perfect example of a clean, engaging, sessionable kettle sour. It might best be described as a moderately soured witbier, except with a brighter, cleaner yeast profile, and the version pouring at the festival also featured the herbal and citrus qualities imparted by kaffir lime leaves. With a perfect level of acidity, Town Tart was easy drinking and tart without being at all puckering, the sort of sour you’d no doubt want poolside, or at a BBQ. It’s exactly the sort of kettle sour that could theoretically convert a lifelong margarita drinker to craft beer, as it packs enough residual sweetness to engage their palate and familiar flavors of mildly tart lime. As I discussed with the person running the booth, it would also be great in craft cocktails—someone make a paloma variant with this beer, stat, and let me know how it is.

Unrelated note: I am not forgiving this brewery for going on about their amazing fried chicken at the festival without BRINGING ANY DAMN FRIED CHICKEN. I want that chicken, damnit.

the post brewing inset (Custom).jpg

Call to Arms Brewing Co. – Freedom Ain’t Free

There were any number of petite saisons floating around the festival, many brewed with various spices and nontraditional additions, but the one to nail the spirit of the festival best was likely Call to Arms’ Freedom Ain’t Free, a mere 3.8% ABV “table saison” made with lemon peel and thyme. There’s no denying it’s a lemony beer, but it handles the fruit in a way that is very authentic and feels “earned,” with a bright, Meyer lemon aroma that doesn’t feel at all artificial. I love low-ABV saisons in general, as they’re one of the most flavorful and balanced styles to do in the 3 and 4% ABV range, and the citrusy, herbal dual nature of Freedom Ain’t Free is an excellent example of why. This is like beer to pair with a roasted chicken drumstick.

Cerebral Brewing – Dark Energie

God, I was glad to see at least one stout among the 100 beers at this festival. The fact that it’s a really good coffee stout? So much the better—I’d rather drink this than the “hopped iced coffee” (literally iced coffee with hops) that was being served nearby. This beer appears to be the rarer, newer variant of Cerebral’s year-round Dark Galaxie oatmeal milk stout. With a velvety mouthfeel provided by both the oats and lactose, it’s a bit like a cortado—a shot of espresso and just enough steamed milk to take the edge off. And at 4.9% ABV, it goes down easy. People really think you can’t drink this kind of beer in the summer? Think again.

Baere Brewing Co. – Baere-liner Weiss

Best pun of the festival? No doubt about it. Baere’s take on Berliner weisse also came with the best presentation or additional component of the festival, in the form of a squirt of woodruff syrup. I’d always read about the supposedly traditional serving style in Germany of Berliner weiss with a squirt of various fruited syrups, but I’d never actually tasted the most famous kind, “woodruff,” until now. Combined with a fairly neutral and considerably tart Berliner weiss, it offers a very different experience. The Baere team were wise to influence each taster by telling them in advance that it tasted like “apple pie,” as it prepares them mentally for a new flavor. And lo and behold, it does taste like apple pie in that context—lightly tart green apples, with a spice that almost seems like cinnamon. It was the most unique sour thing I tasted all day, and it seemed like a big hit, considering how little woodruff syrup was left by the time I got to their booth.

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Caution Brewing Co. – The Earl

Is Earl Gray tea the next thing we’ll be seeing all over craft beer? I ask because during 48 hours in Denver, I witnessed not one but multiple Earl Gray beers either in progress or on tap. Regardless, I was pleased to try this one from Caution, a brewery I once tried to visit two years ago while visiting Denver, only to arrive after hours to find it closed. The traditional choice of English dark mild is an inspired one to use in combination with the tea, creating a flavor profile that is like tea and biscuits, all at once. Mildly toasty, with a hint of residual sweetness and a touch of citrus from the tea’s bergamot, it’s a wonderfully expressive little beer at 3.5% ABV. To think that this beer is actually .7% ABV lower than a Coors Light, one wonders why American light lager would ever be necessary again.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident beer guru, and he loves a great 3.5% ABV beer. You can follow him on Twitter for more beer coverage.

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