Craft beer’s market expansion is slowing, but still growing. As new breweries continue to open across the country, brewers must balance satiating consumer demand with popular styles against creative passion projects that will set them apart from their competitors.
When it comes to predicting upcoming craft beer trends, the Great American Beer Festival (October 3–6 in Denver), the largest annual beer competition and festival in the United States, is a harbinger of American craft beer’s evolution. This year, 322 judges tasted 9,497 beers over 107 beer style categories submitted by 2,295 American breweries. (That’s 1,001 more beers than 2018, sent in by roughly one-third of all craft breweries currently operating in the U.S.) Approximately 800 breweries poured over 4,000 beers on the festival floor as well.
Six new beer style categories were added to the competition’s judging roster this year—fresh hop beer, India pale lager, Franconian-style rotbier, juicy or hazy strong pale ale, emerging India pale ale, and contemporary Belgian-style gueuze lambic—signaling rising consumer demand and brewer interest. Only non-alcohol beer, defined as containing less than 0.5 percent alcohol, made a return appearance for the first time since 2006. “I’m fielding more media requests on [non-alcohol beer] than any other topic right now, which is amazing,” says Julia Herz, the craft beer program director at the Brewers Association, the nonprofit educational and trade organization that organizes GABF, and a Certified Cicerone. “There’s a lot of demand.”
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By recognizing up-and-coming breweries, legitimizing trendy beer styles with new awards categories, and providing a glimpse of the future with what breweries offer on the festival floor, GABF tends to set the tone for the coming year. After drinking in some of the thousands of beers available at GABF, here are some things to anticipate in craft beer.
Non-alcohol Beer Is Back in a Big Way
Breweries such as Brooklyn Brewery, Mikkeller, and Heineken have all diversified their traditional beer portfolios in the last year by adding non-alcohol options. New brands dedicated exclusively to non-alcohol beer offerings have also launched in the U.S., including Athletic Brewing Company, based in Stratford, Connecticut, and WellBeing Brewing Company in Maryland Heights, Missouri. “The category is finally seeing its first innovation in over 25 years,” says Bill Shufelt, the founder of Athletic, who calls non-alcohol beer the “fastest-growing category in beer.” (Nielsen data contradicts Shufelt’s optimistic claim, ranking non-alcohol beer the fifth-fastest-growing beer type in the U.S., behind categories like sours beers and American IPAs.) But as part of a multibillion-dollar (and rising) market, Athletic plans to increase 2018’s output tenfold in 2019 to meet demand and claim an early foothold in an increasingly popular niche.
As much attention as non-alcohol beers are enjoying, the Brewers Association’s Herz stresses that there are still plenty of drinkers who specifically seek out the opposite end of the spectrum—that is, high-alcohol beers. A 2018 Nielsen report on the Brewers Association’s members showed that beers between 7% and 7.5% ABV earned 21.3 percent of market share, while beers below 7% ABV received 60.9 percent, and beers above 7.5% ABV earned 36.7 percent.
Herz cautions against companies going all-in on alcohol-free options in case initial excitement fades. “[Non-alcohol beers] are an emerging trend that’s not fully established,” she says. “It’s one to watch.”
Juicy and Hazy Styles Hold Strong
When hazy beer first found mainstream favor, craft beer connoisseurs questioned its longevity. But it seems these cloudy concoctions are here to stay. Chris Leguizamon, Advanced Cicerone and beer education program manager at San Diego, California’s Pure Project Brewing, thinks they’re a natural progression from the bracingly bitter brews that helped bolster the current wave of craft brewing.
“I think [hazy IPAs] are an incredible way to express the hops in a new fashion. I think it’ll be here for a long time,” predicts Leguizamon. Pure Project is banking on it; Leguizamon says they release two new beers every two weeks and most of the time, they’re what Pure Project calls “murky” IPAs or double IPAs.
Breweries like The Alchemist in Stowe, Vermont, and Tree House Brewing Company in Charlton, Massachusetts, which have long been lauded for their juicy brews, helped promote hazy hop bombs to a wider audience. The Alchemist’s Heady Topper double IPA has served as the gateway to hazy beers for many hardcore craft beer drinkers, creating an opportunity that breweries like Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and Boston Beer Company capitalized on by releasing their own hazy IPAs to a national audience.
The category for juicy or hazy IPA has had the most entries at GABF for the past two years in a row, with 348 entries this year. The second most-entered category was American-style India pale ale with 342 entries. For comparison, the average number of beers entered per category was 88. Overall, IPAs remain the largest craft beer style in the U.S., accounting for 6 percent of the total beer market.
More Hop Farms Means More Fresh Hops
Four of the six new categories at GABF this year were hop-centric. With a 77 percent increase in hop production in the U.S. since 2012, an expanding supply of locally grown hops from farms outside the Pacific Northwest—which is home to the vast majority of U.S. hop farms—means breweries are gaining greater access to freshly picked hops in their own neighborhoods. They are taking advantage of it, brewing fresh hop beers (which are beers made with whole cone hops instead of pelletized version, which is typically the standard).
Fresh hop beers are notoriously fragile, thanks to the limited harvesting schedule and immediacy required to brew them. Depending on the geographic region, whole cone hops are harvested between late August and early October and must be added to the brew kettle within 24 hours for maximum freshness and flavor. But the aromatic intensity and inimitable flavors of each hop’s terroir—along with limited availability—makes them irresistible to hop heads. GABF accommodated the new category this year by allowing late competition entry for fresh hop beers in order for brewers to send in their freshest batches.
Steve Luke, owner and head brewer at Seattle, Washington’s Cloudburst Brewing, has been making fresh hop beers for nearly ten years in various breweries around the Pacific Northwest and Cloudburst earned a bronze medal for their “Aqua Seafoam Shame” fresh hop beer at this year’s GABF. “I enjoy that they can’t really ever be mass produced,” says Luke. “They’re incredibly fragile…and the beers are super fleeting, as aroma fades fast.” But he, like many other small, independent craft brewers, appreciates the unique experience that’s only available once a year. Other medal winners in the fresh hop category were in Ohio and Texas, which haven’t historically been home to many hop farms, but have both experienced a rise in hop agriculture in recent years.
Lagers Are Increasingly Getting The “Craft” Treatment
Bud Light, Coors Light, Budweiser, and Miller Lite have rested comfortably as the best-selling beer brands in the United States for decades. Craft brewers are finally catching on, adding tried-and-true styles like light lagers and pale ales to their portfolios to convert beer drinkers away from mainstream brands. Night Shift Brewing in Everett, Massachusetts, introduced “Nite Lite”, a light lager in 2016. “We’re raising the light beer standard and coming after macro light brands with Nite Lite,” they explain on the beer’s information page. “Craft drinkers deserve delicious light beer.”
Other breweries like New Glarus Brewing Company, Southern Tier Brewing Company, and New Realm Brewing Company have all added light lagers to their beer lists to compete with popular macro brands. House Brewing Company in Venice Beach, California went a step further and only brews a light lager.
Lagers made up 1,764 entries over 18 styles this year at GABF, or 18.6 percent of the total beers submitted. That’s an increase from 1,345 lagers last year, which totaled 15.8 percent of total beers submitted. “There’s a lot of lagers out there right now,” quipped Chris Swersey, the competition manager for the Brewers Association during the GABF awards ceremony. German-style pilsners were the fourth-highest entered category overall with 183 entries, which Swersey described as “a humongously competitive category.”
Fifty five of 2019’s lager entries were in the India pale lager category. Thanks to increased demand for craft lagers coupled with a continuous consumer craving for hop-forward styles, India pale lagers may rise in the coming months. Stone Brewing in Escondido, California released “Tropic of Thunder” in early 2019, which CEO Dominic Engels calls a “lager for IPA lovers”. “Lagers deserve flavor too,” says Engels.
Breweries Are Re-Defining “Beer”
Consumer demand for alternative drinks like cider, hard seltzer, and boozy kombucha has increased across the board as traditional beer sales have continued a slow deceleration over the past few years, according to Nielsen’s 2018 report. Herz says a 2018 Q4 survey revealed that approximately 40 percent of Brewers Association members have already added nontraditional brews like mead or hard seltzer to their portfolios in reaction to the changing alcohol landscape, and that over half would consider doing so in the future.
Despite this, the BA requested that participating breweries focus on conventional beers when determining what brews to bring to the 2019 festival (although they haven’t nixed the idea completely for the future).
Craft beer, according to the Brewers Association, already faces massive competition from wine, spirits, cannabis, and other alternative alcohol segments, but the rise of session beers and “sober curious” Americans could prove to be the trends beer needs to remain competitive, if not acceptable for daily imbibing. Swersey, for one, is eager to see what the future holds. “One never knows,” he says, “[given] the ever-experimental and innovative craft brewers at the helm of U.S. beer exploration.”
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Beth Demmon is an award-winning freelance writer that specializes in covering the culture of craft beer and cider. She’s a BJCP-certified judge, Certified Cider Professional, and winner of the 2019 Diversity in Beer Writing grant from the North American Guild of Beer Writers; her work can be found at Good Beer Hunting, San Diego Magazine, and many other publications. Her free monthly newsletter on Substack, Prohibitchin’, features interviews with women and non-binary people working in beverage alcohol.