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HOOPS ON HOPS: What's behind the surge in beer popularity?

Travel and beer tourism has helped the industry boom.

Happy New Year. To start the year out, I want to celebrate the popularity of America's favorite alcoholic beverage — yes, beer! — with some thoughts on why many of us enjoy beer so much.

The popularity of small and independent breweries producing less than 30,000 kegs per year rose nearly 30 percent in 2015.

These craft breweries have no doubt helped increase many people's awareness of beer. Big beer has also had a large impact by brewing new and more challenging styles and drastically increasing market availability of many smaller brands. A great example of this is the benchmark beer, Blue Moon.

Brewed by Molson/Coors this Belgian style white beer has helped define a little-known style into a beer most visitors expect to see at their local brewery. Just 15 years ago, only brewers and hardcore beer geeks knew much these beers.

Over the past 10 years, a big influence has been the now-21-and-older crowd reaching drinking age. A much larger percentage of people never saw anything except craft beer in their parents' fridge growing up. These beers did not exist when Gen X grew up, and Gen Y was just starting to be exposed mainly to import beers and the earliest craft beers. Craft beer is common to many of these young people.

The increase in local small business and the desire to support it is a driving force as well. Many times, the beer you buy is made locally often by brewers known well by their customers. "My neighbor brews this beer" was a commonly heard comment during holiday parties.

I also like the positive reports about possible health benefits. Moderate beer drinking just might be good for you! According to Dec. 30, 2016, article in U.S. News & World Report, "The ingredients in beer, including hops, yeast, water and cereals, provide antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Further, research has linked moderate beer consumption (or no more than one 12-ounce glass of 5-percent alcohol by volume beer a day for women and two glasses a day for men) with heart and bone health, a reduced risk of diabetes and improved psychological and cognitive well-being."

Another major reason for beer's popularity is experimentation and flavor. IPA, for example, has become by far the highest-selling brand in the craft beer quiver, and it's due to experimenting and creative trailblazing. IPAs are red, white, orange, black, yellow, high in alcohol, low in alcohol, West Coast, North Shore, East Coast, Belgian, German, New Zealand, English and now fruited. It seems like this style has no limit on growth potential.

Travel and beer tourism is a big thing, as well. More than 10 million people took a brewery tour in 2016 per the Brewers Association. Areas like San Diego, Portland, Denver, the Bay Area, Colorado, Michigan, Duluth and the Twin Cities have become destinations for beer lovers. Many state brewers' guilds are marketing beer trails for folks to follow and log in with comments and stories about their beer travels.

Fancy beers are really becoming popular. For the first time, some beers cost as much as wine or liquor. These special selections usually incorporate extra elements to the brew like barrel aging, creative blending of beers of different ages, adding expensive or rare ingredients or massive amounts of fruits. It's fun to see consumers out there seeking these beers out and telling others about them.

The simplicity of beer is a beautiful thing. Beer has always been considered a common drink — regular and blue collar. Not so much, anymore. The huge media exposure to the brewing trend and the amount of easy-to-gather information about making and drinking beer has changed perceptions in a great way. Beer emerges from the shadows of wine and liquor as a premium beverage, yet retains its simplicity — four ingredients, not too complicated to brew. It's also very approachable and easy to find. I want to go to a taproom in my town and enjoy a locally made brew. That's easy in Duluth, but what's great is it's becoming pretty much the same in every town I travel to.

It's now cooler than ever to drink beer. It doesn't matter that much if it's a macro lager or a micro ale. It's a brave, new and continually expanding world for beer drinkers. Enjoy.