Written for the Burlington Free Press by Jeff Baker; http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/life/food/2017/01/13/craft-beer-trend-predictions-2017/96359006/
(Photo: JEFF BAKER/for the FREE PRESS).
Mediocre beer … or worse: It is an unpopular thing to say but I’ll say it: There is a lot of bad beer being produced and sold in this country.
Lax brewing standards, under-trained brewers and a crowded beer market are resulting in all this bad beer. Under-carbonated brews, unintentionally soured beers from wild yeast and bacteria infections, beers that taste like butterscotch, canned tomatoes or creamed corn: I tasted a bunch of bad beer in 2016. And I know I’m not alone.
Faulty beer is being passed off to consumers for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that breweries are fighting for their lives to stay open. The field is chockablock with microbrewers all vying for a piece of the market, and the stakes are higher than ever. When the pressure is on, it’s tempting for a brewery to sell a batch of faulty beer instead of dumping it down the drain and losing tons of money. As consumers start to push back against those who are hocking shoddy wares, brewers with integrity, those who maintain the highest standards, will rise to the top and will be rewarded for their diligence.
Buyouts: In January 2015, Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Company announced it would be selling to Anheuser Busch-Inbev, and the craft beer community cried out in terror and frustration. But, by the time Constellation Brands bought Ballast Point (California) in November 2015, the public interest and outcry had softened noticeably. In 2016, more breweries sold. ABI acquired Devil’s Backbone (Virginia), MillerCoors acquired Revolver Brewing (Texas), and Japanese brewer Kirin bought a 25 percent stake in Brooklyn Brewery (New York). The Kirin/Brooklyn deal was announced in October, but it barely made the news. I personally didn’t hear about it until December.
Buyouts and mergers are a normal part of every industry, but it’s still fairly new to craft beer. The last year showed us that consumers are accepting the fact that the market is maturing and becoming less of a club and more of a business. Expect more mergers and buyouts in 2017.
Nitrogen beers fizzled: I had predicted that nitrogenated beers would have their moment in 2016 and I suppose they did. It was just a lot shorter than I had expected. The largest player to give it a go was Samuel Adams and its “Nitro” beers were met with mixed reviews. And I was disappointed with how few other brewers embraced the style. The ones who did release new nitro beers managed to grab tap lines, with some bars expanding from the standard one nitro line to having a second nitro line. But all told, nitrogenated beers never broke out this year and I don’t think they are poised to do so in 2017 either. Looks like it will still be a niche style for now.
And now for something more positive…
Craft-brewed lagers (maybe this year?): The end of this month I will be celebrating five years of writing beer columns for the Free Press, and I think all five of those years I have predicted the rise of craft lager. I’m not ready to say that it finally happened in 2016, but I think the stage has been set for it to happen.
This will be a trend that is advanced by “hop fatigue.” Consumers are shifting away from the ultra-bitter beers of the last decade. As consumers stop numbing their palates with IBUs, they are starting to appreciate the subtle grace of a masterfully-brewed lager.
In fact, lager is being accepted in all corners of the craft beer industry. In a December 2016 Facebook post, Benjamin Caplin, national sales manager for BeerAdvocate, wrote, “All I crave is pilsner.” Chad Rich, owner of Prohibition Pig (Waterbury), chimed in saying he has felt similarly for the past year. I’m right there with these guys, reaching for a pilsner or a crisp lager over many of the varied options available in beer shops and bars.
And speaking of hop fatigue…
IPA is getting less bitter: And as it does, consumers are asking for more pale ales. “Hoppy” is no longer used to discuss the bitterness of an IPA; consumers are now using the term to mean how much hop flavor the beer exhibits. And now that hop flavor is more important than bitterness, pale ales are seeing a resurgence. The pale ale has always been less bitter than its cousin the IPA and modern American pale ales are packed with juicy hop flavor by using more hops at the end of the boil and more in the dry-hop.
Gose is here to stay (or for a while): Almost every other brewery booth at the Great American Beer Festival had a gose (“goes-uh”). These lactic-tart German-style wheat ales have captured the attention of the American palate. Fruit-infused, spiced or traditional, there’s something for everyone (provided you can handle lemonade-like acidity in your beverages). Taprooms and bottle shops have noticed the variety and now it’s common to see two or three goses on a draft list and a gose section at craft beer stores. This year will be a fun one for gose innovation (industry speak for “new beers”), but it will also determine if gose has the staying power to keep the attention of American consumers and to become a standard in the American brewers canon.
Fruit beers are back: Another thing I gleaned from the 2016 Great American Beer Festival was that fruit beers are decidedly back en vogue. And when I say fruit, I mean every fruit you can imagine: dragon fruit, tomato, finger limes, pineapple and more. The sky is the limit for the modern fruit beer, so long as the brewery is using real fruit and not natural (or God forbid “artificial”) flavors. This poses a hurdle for larger breweries, as brewing with real fruit on a large scale can be time consuming and costly. They should avoid the temptation of cutting corners, however. Consumers can tell the difference.
Did you spot any craft beer trends in 2016 that I missed? Got a prediction for trends in 2017? Send me a note on Twitter.
Jeff S. Baker II is the Curator of the Curriculum for Farrell Distributing. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @aPhilosophyOf. Jeff co-hosts the “It’s the Beer Talking” podcast found on iTunes and Soundcloud. More info at www.burlingtonfreepress.com/news/podcasts