This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of EU Jacksonville.
Looking back, 2016 was a good year for craft beer—a great year, actually. There are now over 5,000 breweries in the United States with the segment experiencing a mid-year growth of 8% domestically and a whopping 16% abroad. But as it continues to grow, new challenges arise that require legislative reform both nationally and state to state. On the federal level, more than half of Congress supports the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, a piece of legislation that would reduce the excise taxes and regulatory burdens that small, independent breweries, distilleries, and wineries face as they attempt to expand their operations. Here in Florida, the Florida Brewers Guild is focusing their efforts on reforming distribution contracts and paving the way for self-distribution. Despite a few setbacks, things seem to be moving forward for the industry which is not only good for breweries, but beer fans as well.
In a not-so-strange twist of irony, craft beer’s original trend is new again. This time, when I say craft beer, I mean the actual artisanal craft of beer making, which relied solely on spontaneous fermentation because nobody knew what yeast was yet. As brewers developed their knowledge through practice, they developed new ways to better control the fermentation process, but meanwhile in the Lambic region of Belgium, they’ve been keeping the old traditions alive, allowing the night air and its entourage of wild yeasts and bacteria to inoculate their beers without aid from human intervention. This method is finding favor among a few farmhouse breweries around the country—most notably, Austin’s Jester King—but while production breweries won’t touch this trend with a ten foot pole, breweries looking to distinguish themselves in a crowded market may find success in surrendering to spontaneity.
Unfortunately, I don’t actually see this category blowing up. It’s solely out of selfish desire that I hope to see the milkshake or smoothie IPA become a thing. In fact, I intend to make it my next homebrew collaboration project as soon as I can convince someone it’s a good idea. While this particular style may not be ubiquitous enough to warrant a category at the Great American Beer Festival just yet, it is a thing that exists, I promise. We can credit the experimental Swedish brewery Omnipollo with its creation; their Smoothie IPA includes added fruit, lactose, an unfermentable sugar traditionally used to sweeten stouts, and oats, which lend a creamy body to a juicy IPA. The effect is a mouthfeel surprisingly not unlike that of a milkshake that lets the fruit additions play with the citrus and/or berry notes from the hops. It sounds weird and perhaps gross but will change your life, I promise. And I’m lactose intolerant!
Look, even the nerdiest of beer drinkers can only stomach so many imperial stouts and outrageously tart sours. At the end of the day, sometimes the good people just want a beer that’s easy to drink and won’t mess up the taste of their burger. In other words: lagers. There’s a good reason they’re the most popular beer in the world. Actually, there are two, and I already mentioned them. You can bemoan the lack of creativity and soul of a Budweiser, but you can’t deny that lager is a versatile and tasty beer that’s good for just about any occasion. Sure, the fizzy yellow stuff leaves much to be desired, but a well-executed craft lager is a thing of singular beauty and the result of some damn fine beer making. Anyone can load up a stout with coffee and vanilla and spice and make a neophyte’s eyes go big, but give a beer nerd a perfect lager and he’ll get lost in it (unless he’s fronting). You know who else loves lagers? Everyone else. So as craft beer continues to rise, smart breweries will create offerings that appeal to the masses while even smarter ones will make transcendent, complex lagers that draw from hundreds of years of inspiration and know-how.
Have you ever had craft beer… on weed? Hops are cousins of marijuana. Words like dank, resiny, and skunky have been used to describe characteristics of both, so it’s inevitable that the two will one day come together and finally kill those two birds I’ve been trying to nail with one magnificent stone. Now that eight states allow for recreational marijuana use, it’s only a matter of time before regulation opens up for breweries to start experimenting with cannabis in their beers. In fact, some have already infused their beer with CBD, a non-psychoactive hemp extract, but actual weed-infusing still isn’t legal. But you can bet that won’t stop creative homebrewers in states like Colorado—where craft beer and weed are life—from developing recipes that will no doubt hit taplines and perhaps shelves one day. What a glorious time to be alive!
As the American palate opens up to embrace bitterness and sour, expect brewers to get creative with more than just fruit additions in the future. Botanicals like hibiscus, ginger, rose, lavender, licorice, and various other roots, flowers, seeds, and herbs provide exciting new opportunities and profiles when used as ingredients in beer making. Whether as flavor additions in the case of a saison flavored with rose and hibiscus, or as a modern-day gruit (the pre-hop herb mix used to preserve beer) flowers and herbs are going to be finding their way into more and more beer recipes. Just look at Forbidden Root, a pioneer of botanical beers out of Chicago who set out to create an authentic, brewed root beer before Not Your Father’s ruined the party. With every beer geek’s personal hero, Randy Mosher, as alchemist, they are brewing beers with dandelion, burdock root, ginger, horehound, and the various ingredients early Americans were using to brew during colonial times, a practice displaced by modern-day carbonated sodas. If Americans can learn to love bitter amaros in the cocktail world, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for botanical beers to catch fire, too.
Cocktails are kinda like the sassy older sister of craft beer. But just as cocktails know how to let loose from time to time, little brothers will always look to their older siblings for guidance and inspiration, even if they intend to throw out all of the rules. As craft beer evolves beyond looking to food and dessert for inspiration, cocktails provide a pretty solid foundation of flavor principles that can be harnessed in beer recipes. This past year, Brooklyn Brewery released their Improved Old Fashioned which did a remarkable job of imitating the classic cocktail and of being a tasty beverage in and of itself. The aforementioned Jester King has brewed Coquetier, a Sazerac-inspired barrel-aged sour, while Terrapin and Tomoka collaborated on an interesting, but weird, mint julep sour. With so many more flavor profiles and styles to play with, not to mention beers themselves finding their way into cocktails, don’t be surprised to see the two worlds converge even further in 2017.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who hangs around places where craft beer is consumed whose ears still perk up at the mention of sour beer. Sours are no longer the relegated to the most obscure corners of beer geekery—they’re practically a mainstream phenomenon at this point. Most have tasted them by now, and many have found them to be enough to get them excited about craft beer. Sour beer translates well for those with a background in wine and cocktails because of their acidity, a profile missing from normal beer. Folks are asking for sours beers at the bar now, and aside from tiny pours and expensive bottles, the options have been pretty limited until recently. There are already more than a few Goses and Berliners to be found in cans but as the popularity and demand for sour beer continues to rise, enterprising breweries are going to start putting more of the sour stuff in aluminum. Mark my words.
Even if all of my predictions don’t come true this year, there’s still plenty to look forward to as craft beer shows no signs of slowing its momentum. We can only hope that the more creative brewers out there are already working on things we can hardly even conceive of yet. It’s going to be a fun year, of that I can be certain!