Memorial Day 2019
Trends on Tap in the Craft-Beer World
By John Tracy Jr.
The Cape May Brewery taproom. Taprooms are now as commonplace as the local pub.
The ever-evolving craft-beer industry is always looking for the next big thing, even if it means going back to the future. Here is a look at craft-beer trends for 2019 and beyond.
1. Consumer Palates Come Full Circle: The Rise of Craft Lager
Before craft beer was a thing, most of the beer sold in America was mass-produced golden lager, mainly of the lighter variety. Intrepid brewers like Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, and Jim Koch of Sam Adams paved the way for hundreds and now thousands of craft brewers by introducing the American public to full-flavored, hop-forward ales and lagers. That revolution gained steam in the early 2000s and, by the time I went to work for Sierra Nevada in 2009, people in California and other beer-loving regions were acclimating their palates to progressively stronger and hoppier ales.
Among beer geeks everywhere, it was a badge of honor to have enjoyed the most imperial, barrel-aged barley wine, gnarliest double IPA, or tartest sour ale at the local beer bar. I might have been one of those guys, but like many of my 30-to-40-something counterparts (who were the main consumers of craft beer), I am not living the party lifestyle that I did in my 20s anymore, and those raw, mouth-stripping beers are no longer my cup of tea.
In today’s beer market, the easy-drinking session beer is making a strong comeback. Smoother hazy IPAs, fruity ales, and session IPAs have become staples on cooler shelves, and a surge in available craft lagers has almost brought craft beer back to the 1990s. In fact, lager is more difficult to produce consistently than ale, and the Brewers Association has recognized this, and acknowledged light lager as a category of craft beer. Things are really getting weird, but hey, I am all for saving a few calories and can appreciate the taste of an ice-cold lager on a hot summer day. Consider me in!
2. Canning Revolution in Full Force
Ten years ago, most craft brewers considered it unthinkable to place their high and mighty ales in a lowly tin vessel. The mindset was that drinking from a can negatively affected the flavor of the beer and debased the image of the product (because it looked like a macro beer). Today, however, canned beer is in style for many breweries, especially those producing craft lagers and other beers appropriate for summer sipping.
Cans are versatile for transport, don’t break, keep out light and air, and are more easily recycled than glass. It is also convenient for smaller craft breweries that turn to mobile canning services to package their product without the cost of purchasing a bottling line. The glass bottle isn’t going away any time soon, but when breweries like Founders, New Belgium and Golden Road have success selling 15-packs of canned beers that barely break the threshold of light lager, look for others in the industry to follow suit.
Rosalie, a wine beer, is among the newest innovations in the beer world.
3. Continued Decline of the Flagship and Merging of Styles
When I first started drinking craft beer, there were certainly a lot fewer breweries and styles to choose from than there are now. In those days, breweries became successful by creating a flagship beer – their major focus – and selling as much of it as possible. Sierra Nevada was synonymous with Pale Ale, Stone with Arrogant Bastard, Dogfish with 60 Minute IPA, Sam Adams with Boston Lager, and so on. I’d say it was in about 2010-11 that things started to change, and an increasingly competitive craft-beer market spurred an endless variety of styles from each and every brewery.
Flagship beers that had once been viewed as novel became the mundane. Beer-geekery and snobbery set in and reveled in the ever-increasing population of new breweries and beer choices. To stay relevant, larger regional brewers had to step up their game and rushed to stand out from the crowd by creating unique brews. This was mostly accomplished by tweaking existing conventional styles; so much so, that at this point many beer styles are hardly recognizable and difficult to lump together into groups. Look at the IPA category, for example: IPA, Double IPA, Triple IPA, Dry Hopped IPA, Session IPA, Fruit IPA, Black IPA, Brut IPA, Hazy IPA, Belgian IPA … you get the point.
And the trend is not stopping in 2019. While seemingly a positive trend, beer making is still a business, and a move away from flagships is actually a bad thing for the survival of some of the mid-sized regional breweries, whose relative newness to the nationwide market (compared to the Sam Adamses of the world) has been crippled by the overwhelming saturation of new breweries across America.
4. Looking Outside the (Beer) Box to Gain New Consumers
Craft beer still only makes up about 30% of total beer sales in the United States, so there is still room to grow. However, breweries might have to look outside the traditionally target group of white males 25-35 to see those gains. Some brewers have turned to unconventional methods to make money, and this is a trend I see gaining steam in 2019.
One example is Firestone Walker’s newest release, Rosalie, which blends wine from its proprietary vineyard in San Luis Obispo, Calif., with traditional beer elements to create a rosé wine-beer in a can, meant to target the female wine drinker.
Traditionally, liquor has been the biggest competitor for beer in the alcohol industry. Over the past few years, sparkling seltzers have become all the rage and have certainly taken a chunk from the beer market. That is why beer companies like Southern Tier and Boulevard have taken matters into their own hands, and have started to can mixed cocktails like vodka-soda, gin and tonic, bourbon smash, and margarita.
Then, of course, is THC-infused beer, which I discussed in the Spring edition of the Times. With marijuana legalization on the horizon, weed will be a major competitor or advantage for breweries that position themselves properly.
Craft lagers in a can are all the rage these days.
5. Brewery Boom and Industry Consolidation
Statistics show that 85% of Americans live within 10 miles of a craft brewery. That simple fact is astounding when you think only a few years back. Look at Cape May County, for example. We had zero breweries until the Cape May Brewing Company opened its tanks in 2011, now there are 10-plus and counting. Taprooms, especially in New Jersey with its strict liquor-license quotas, have become a sort of more affordable loophole for owning a bar (in a state where a liquor license could cost $1 million or more).
Complete saturation and hyper localization will, of course, make it very difficult to survive on distribution alone, but people have started to embrace the brewery taproom as their local watering hole, and that is where much of the brewery’s money will be made. This creates a paradox for other retailers, who have to decide whether it behooves them to carry local beers even if the local brewery is now direct competition. I believe that in the near future, perhaps as early as this year, we will see even more new breweries popping up but also some local breweries going out of business, a loosening of regulations, and increased backlash from fed-up retailers.
On a more regional and nationwide level, we have already seen the push by corporate brands to sweep up some of the larger players in the craft space. Lagunitas is now under Heineken (Netherlands), Boulevard is owned by Duvel (Belgium), Founders by Mahou San Miguel (Spain), Brooklyn Brewery by Kirin (Japan), Ballast Point by Constellation Brands, and Goose Island, Golden Road, Elysian and many more by AB Inbev. These superconglomerates will continue to buy up the industry as they fight back the onslaught of local breweries with their deeper pockets and influence on distribution networks.
6. European Craft Beer Renaissance and American Influence Abroad
Many of these corporations buying up the American beers are, as you can see, from Europe, which up until now, had been steeped in brewing traditions hundreds of years old. There’s no doubting that Chimay or Paulaner or Pilsner Urquell are in one way or another “craft” products, as they inherently are original brews from much older and mature beer-producing countries. But when it comes to hoppy ales and stylistic creativity, it is America that has been the greatest influencer of brewing in the world.
Europe is experiencing its own craft-beer revolution and now hundreds of small breweries are opening in countries that were – like America in the 1980s – limited to just a few choices of frothy yellow beer. Places like Ireland, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Spain, France and Germany are perhaps seeing the biggest booms, and it is not long before some of those brands make their way across the sea and create a whole new category of import beer. Just what we need, more beer!
But conversely, American beer will also continue to grow exports to Europe and Asia. I also predict that more companies will attempt to open brew pubs internationally, just like Stone did in Berlin and Shanghai.