Jeff S. Baker II, Free Press
In is column, Jeff Baker looks to the future of beer. In this photo, people toast beer at Oktoberfest Vermont last fall.(Photo: FREE PRESS FILE)Buy Photo
We’re a month into 2016 and already the landscape of this year in beer is coming into focus. The craft beer market is maturing and brewers of all sizes will be settling in this year, releasing moderate innovations rather than paradigm-shifters. I expect that we’ll see a lot of variations on existing recipes and more honest consumer feedback.
Nitrogenated beers are nothing new: Guinness developed the technology in the 1950s as a way to simulate the cask beer experience on draught. The craft brewing segment has been slowly experimenting with different styles of “Nitro” beers, but they’re just now starting to pop. The Boston Beer Co., maker of Sam Adams, is, for some reason, trying to claim nitrogen as their own, with their “Nitro Project” marketing blitz. But the path has been paved by numerous small, independent brewers from across the nation. The last time I wrote about nitrogenated beers was in 2013, and I made a plea for Vermont brewers to embrace the technique. A handful, including Drop-In Brewing in Middlebury, have since released great examples. Looking forward into 2016, I can confidently say that you’ll be seeing a lot more locally produced nitro beers on tap at local watering holes.
Craft beer is going to go down the rabbit hole of “brand extensions.” Brewery X will take their standard IPA recipe and release versions infused with pomegranate, dragon fruit, guava, Meyer lemon and maybe even chamomile. Then will come the session IPAs, then the hefeweizens, then the porters and stouts. Craft beer shelves are going to resemble the Malternative section with crayon box color-coded packaging and every fruit flavor under the sun. Zach Fowle, a columnist for Phoenix New Times, thinks the trend will expand into the big breweries as well: “The trend will continue, and you’ll see some major breweries start to distribute new fruit- and herb-spiked versions of well-known classics.“
If you’ve been reading my column a long time you’ll know that I’m a big fan of fruit beers (if the brewer uses actual fruit!). But I think my interest in fifteen variations of the same beer with different fruits will wane by mid-year. I suspect that other drinkers will have the same fatigue and this trend will subside by next year.
I’m gonna say it: Lagers will finally have their year in 2016. Beer writers, myself included, have been predicting that lagers will gain the attention of craft beer drinkers for years now. But lager has been too closely linked in the eyes of craft beer drinkers to fizzy yellow beer put out by the Big Boys. This year, I think that will finally change. IPA will continue to rule the roost, but if you’ve noticed, there’s a down-shift toward session IPAs and away from tongue-shriveling bitterness. Drinkers are experiencing palate fatigue and I think subtle craft lagers can finally gain some traction.
In Vermont, we’ve been lucky to have von Trapp Brewing’s exquisite lagers since 2010. So far they’ve been the only brewery in the state to focus their efforts almost exclusively on lager brewing. Other Vermont brewers have put out some great examples, but their success has been rather muted. This year I think we’ll see a slew of new lager releases, here in Vermont and nationally.
The craft beer market is getting intensely crowded. What used to pass simply because it was brewed locally will no longer get a free ride. Consumers are becoming ever more educated on beer styles, brewing techniques and identifying faults, which means brewers need to step up their game. Local brewpubs got by on serving beer that tasted “fine” or “pretty good.” But this year I think consumers will start being more honest with their feedback.
Lying to a brewer doesn’t do anyone any good. Telling them you like a beer when you think it’s faulty will only lead them to brewing more faulty beer. There’s no need to be harsh or brutal with your opinions, but finding gentle, constructive ways to give brewers honest feedback will lead to better beer in your glass. Any brewer who is worth their salt wants to know your honest opinion of their product. Brewers who get defensive or offended by consumer feedback are probably the ones who need it most.
Jeff S. Baker II is the Curator of the Curriculum for Farrell Distributing. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @aPhilosophyOf.