As the nights start to lose the heat and humidity and a hint of fall drifts in, I’ve been mulling over the current climate of beer trends. The trend today seems to be "go big" and "go bigger." Have you found yourself in your local beer aisle feeling overwhelmed by the choices?
Of course there are many nice, safe, traditional beers being produced out there, but when I get an email from the Brewers Association in Colorado mentioning that the last quarter’s best-selling beer styles included 12 different versions of IPA, it really got me thinking.
Small, micro breweries broke into the public eye in the 1980s by unearthing somewhat dormant styles such as porter, pale ale, wit and more. Over the next 30 years, beers continued to evolve and improve, and many, many new breweries opened. As a result, new beer styles cropped up and continued to expand. For example, The Great American Beer Festival first started judging beers in 1987. There were 99 beers submitted. Compare that with last year’s entries: 8,496! As I review the style guide for this year’s GABF competition coming up in October, there are 107 styles with subcategories in over half of those. After counting them all, I come up with 204 beer styles that will be judged this year. This is truly a staggering number. As I often remark, there has never been a better time in history to be a beer drinker.
So why am a lightly questioning the current trends? I don’t really mean to; my concern is that many brewers are going with the "more is better" program, and the public is searching for these new beer trends while ignoring classic beer styles such as German lagers, mild ales, Hefeweizens, brown ales and Belgian ales. Craft beers have a history of providing more flavor, and craft breweries have very successfully projected that fact to the public using American macro lagers as their comparison point. So, it is not surprising that the full-flavor trend continues.
My concern extends to the beer-drinking public and the perception of traditional quality craft. It’s difficult to brew a great lager beer with delicate flavors and clear, bright color where it’s virtually impossible to hide any flaws in the beer. Compare this with a high alcohol, hop-laden mango or a coffee-infused beer that sports so many competing flavors that potential beer flaws are masked in the added flavors. In itself that is just fine; as I always write, drink what you like, and if you like it, then it’s good. It’s just food for thought.
I personally usually have a few of these beers on tap, but it’s pretty important that we also also feature a lineup of centuries-old styles that I pray won’t die out during this explosive time in brewing. I’m a purist with a deep respect for the traditional styles. Let’s face it; brewers could not invent a raspberry, lime, mint, chili pepper brown ale without the traditional brown ale. Same goes for a coffee stout.
I get that I’m showing my age as I talk about traditional brewing and styles, but those words are the backbone of our entire industry and history. All craft brewers owe a debt of gratitude to the Anchor Brewery of San Francisco that reinvented an old style called Steam Beer in 1965 under the leadership of visionary Fritz Maytag. The birth of craft brewing started there. Nowadays, the brewery has been sold. Their lineup still includes legendary beers like Liberty Ale, Anchor Steam and Porter as well as Mango Wheat, but on their website, I also saw a stunning array of IPAs. I admire this brewery very much; it inspired the early days of my career, and they can do no wrong in my mind. I’m just illustrating where brewers are focused these days. The market is king, and "too much" does not appear to be too much just yet.
Without a doubt, there are new classics being brewed in this era. Ten years from now, this perspective will surely look different. But if I’m lucky, I’ll still be writing about glorious German lagers that are all the rage, as well as undiscovered styles that are yet to come.
Please send notes or stories of your favorite beer styles. I’d love to get your take and maybe highlight a few in the newspaper.
Dave Hoops lives and works in Duluth and is a veteran brewer and beer judge. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.