If you started reading this thinking I’m going to tell you what the Next Big Thing is in American Craft Beer…you’re going to be disappointed. I don’t know the answer. And I retired my crystal ball, chicken bones, and Ouija board aeons ago. I know what I’d LIKE it to be and that, of course, is a very different story from what WILL be. More on that later….
I sent out ten emails, today. They went to ten craft brewing giants; folks whose names you’d know in a second if I gave them here. If they allow it, I’ll name them in the follow-up to this post but I wanted to ask, first. I also decided to make this a two-part posting for two other very solid reasons: 1) It’s a HUGE subject, with a lot of moving parts and 2) It’s far more your decision than it is any of these people I messaged.
The craft beer culture in the United States belongs to you, not the Brewers Association, not the brewery owners, certainly f__king not the huge corporate breweries (though they have yet to surrender the century-old communal delusion that it does), and not even the brewers – both Rock Star and Relatively Obscure – who actually produce the beers over which we all obsess.
Saying that it belongs to you, us, the American craft beer fan, is NOT – no freakin’ way – a figure of speech. I don’t say that the way politicians drone on about “you, the Great American Voting Public“, while thinking of us as sheep who need to be led. It is a quotidian reality. The folks who BUY the beer drive what sort of beers get made. It’s basic: nobody brews beers to just gather dust in their warehouse. If you, I, and the guy next door don’t buy them and then come back to get more, those beers will disappear because brewing, no matter how much we all want to focus on the Art/Craft aspects of it, is a business. No cash flow, no more ingredients, no staff…no brewery.
For the past decade+, what we have decided is our preference is the India Pale Ale, in all its bewildering variations. IPA, since 2011, outsells the next largest category of craft beer, the ubiquitous Pale Ale. ’11 was the first year since craft beer stats were kept that any style of beer exceeded sales of Pales. IPA outselling Pale Ales is exactly like what it would be like if Chocolate Ice Cream suddenly started outselling Vanilla. If Semillion overtook Chardonnay. If Dr. Pepper abruptly raced past Coke. Since the start of the ale as beer category in the US, it has always been the biggest seller. It’s the all-around ale; the one that any craft newbie – hell, even a non-craft drinker who’s handed a beer at a party – can drink without the mythical “Bitter Beer Face”. IPA has even, in many parts of the country, outpaced Seasonal Beers, the overall multi-purpose miscellaneous category that, anymore, includes a hell of a lot of IPA.
So, I’m here to tell you that, as an established beer style, the India Pale Ale is here to stay. It is NOT going to suddenly vanish or be marginalized by some upstart style of beer. But, inevitably and eventually, some other style – maybe one that isn’t even invented yet! – is going to come along and become The Next Big Thing.
I asked those ten brewing icons to tell me what they think will come next. They don’t know, either, but they’re the ones who listen to the customers in the taprooms and see the sales figures and rock the boat for new directions. I expect interesting responses and these are just the folks to give them. Let’s hope they all have a moment or two to do it.
I make no bones about saying that I fervently hope that the trends of American Sour Ales and experimental, infused, crafted beers using basic styles as Reference Only continue and grow and keep wooing consumers, who have finally, after a decade of seeing them, started to respond. Leading the way, of course, is Dogfish Head Brewing, where Sam Calagione‘s fearless experimentation and thinking ithat is not so much “outside the box” as “what f–kin’ box?” has done more to change the thinking about beer styles than almost any other American brewery. Sah’Tea, an Ancient Ale based on a 9th Centiry Finnish style of caramelizing beer wort with white-hot rocks, actually racked up a 96 point score of RateBeer.com, from young American beer fans who are usually otherwise completely in the clutches of The IPA Frenzy. Subversive types like Sam and Tomme Arthur at Port/Lost Abbey and Alex Ganum at Upright Brewing, and the mad geniuses at Jolly Pumpkin ride on massive public trust in their skills and judgment to insert new styles into the conversation. In the Sour Universe, Crooked Stave, Cascade Barrelhouse, Almanac, and Jolly Pumpkin are just the leading edge of a strong trend toward exploring and expanding the vocabulary of that original Flanders tradition. As a sub-set, Brett Ales are yanking at my taste buds awfully hard, these days, with their earthy, funky nose and palate. I’m not even sure that, as a brewing culture, the US even really completely understands how these are made, yet, but a LOT of our initial efforts are flat-damned delicious.
We need MORE of this wide-open exploration, not less. We do NOT, as has been the fact in my home state of Washington for practically its entire brewing history, need to simply beat the hell out of the core styles of the British ale tradition until each new successive wave of new beer fans comes to accept that that range of six or seven styles is All There Is in beer. That weariness factor is precisely why the tide is finally turning against the crushing strait-jacket that was corporate American Adjunct Lager and its knee-jerk hand-me-down persistence from generation to generation. Once kids stopped opening Mom and Dad’s fridge and seeing nothing but Bud and Pabst and Miller and Coors – i.e, the same beer over and over forever – craft beer took hold. And once they realized that beer doesn’t have to taste like grain water infused with shirt cardboard, the old guard was doomed.
Below is a short list of what I would like to see explored next. Some of it is being discused already. Some is the product of my fevered imagination. All of it is possible. Eventually, American craft brewers WILL hit the wall on what can be done with the basic concept of moderate malt core, tricky yeast variations, and clever hops combinations. We’ll have barrel-aged it to death, infused it with coffee and baseball bats and chamomile and herbs and citrus rind and chocolate nibs and cat fur and cream gravy, and fiddled with the alcohol level to make it “sessionable”, and run on past the current wave of Triple and Quad IPAs the way Gillette ran on past twin-blade razors to offer the twelve-blade model whose gravitational pull simply sucks hair right out of your face.
What I want here is YOUR ideas. Email me, write then in the comments below, post them on my FaceBook or Twitter pages, and don’t rule out anything, no matter how much of a drunken fairy tale it may seem. What would happen, you suppose, if one of my readers came up with a brand new idea for a beer style, posted it here, and some enterprising brewer, like Tomme Arthur or Sam C. or Adam Robbings or Larry Sidor or Garrett Oliver or Wayne Womble saw it and went, “Hmmm…”
1. The same experimentation put into some other existing styles as has been focused on IPA. I’d love to see a rethinking of what the term “Pale Ale” means. To say that we’ve exhausted the ideas for a style of beer that was basically unfiddled with for about a century – aside from our current Northwest Pale Ale (the emerging NWPA) – is ludicrous. The English Bitter or ESB has some room for creativity, too. I’m not sure what’s possible for the Amber/Red Ale, aside from maybe just managing to get it right, finally, but I’ve found a couple of Reds, lately, that showed some real envelope-pushing. Ditto for the Belgian and German categories, both of which have already been tinkered with but somewhat ignored by consumers.
2. Variations of bittering agents. Hops are, by far, the best things to use in bittering beers. There’s no arguing with that. It’s as if God said, “Ummm…your beer’s too sweet. Here, try these.” But as any Scotsman can tell you, t’was not always so. Gruit Ales, the ancient Scottish brews, were bittered with a frantic variety of plants like kelp, heather, berries, and even deadly Nightshade. (I have to wonder who was the guinea pig who tasted the first pour of that original batch.) Fort George Brewing made a memorable ale last year called “Surf Pine Heather” that was bittered like the ancient Scots did it: with whatever was growing nearby. I can envision several plants that could work and a great brewer would know even more.
3. The inclusion of other animal-based infusions besides oysters and bull balls. Yeah, I admit it: I love me some Wynkoop “Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout”, some Upright and 21st Amendment Oyster (not the testicular variety) Stouts. But where’s my Crawfish Saison? My peppered Beef Jerky Stout? My Shrimp-Infused Berlinerweisse? My Dungeness Crab Red? A veteran brewer would know far more than I do about possible problems with the proteins and their tendency toward taint and bacterial growth but it’s hard to conceive that more judicious uses of meats is not possible.
4. There are more nuts and grains, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your Pecan Porter…Chinquapin Amber. Wild Rice Pale Ale. Chestnut Brown…and why do the Italians seem to have the corner on this one nut? Farro, Kamut, Millet…TEFF? None of these is totally unexplored but all could use some serious research. Ditto for Guinea Pepper, Tiger Nuts, Beechnut, Butter Nut, Hickory Nut…there are possibilities out there…
5. “GRALE“…I made up that name as a suggestion for a catch-all term describing the tentative marriage of beer and wine, as in the Dogfish/Alexandria Nicole Cellars “Noble Rot” or Blue Moon “Chardonnay Blonde”. These two “Grales” (grapes + ale = “Grale”) are completely different processes, the former made with a base beer macerated on the botrytized must of Viognier grapes and the latter an actual linear process that simply subbed in Chardonnay for water in the brewing. I’ve asked at least one Washington winemaker about a hopped wine. Wine is all sweet until fermentation converts sugar to alcohol. Ditto for beer. Stopping the fermentation short and adding hops to the wine would produce…well, we don’t know. But BIG kudos in advance for the first vintner/brewer collaboration with cojones enough to find out.
6. Maderized beers. Madeira is made by setting casks of wine in the sun and letting them overheat. It produces one of the world’s truly distinctive wines; a mouthful of nuts and caramel and coffee and chocolate and other lovely flavors. Would beer yield similar results?
These are just the ideas that are non-crazy enough for me to admit to. I have others. But I want to hear from you, the adventurous soul, the mad scientist, the freakazoid homebrewer. In Part Two, I’ll tell you what the pros said. And if your ideas don’t involve the infusion of auto parts (or body parts) maybe we can make a marriage of the minds and create the future?
Stranger things have happened….