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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Biggest Trends of the Past Five Years

Beer trends move swiftly--even in one-year increments they're pretty obvious. Look back on five years, though, and some are so well-established you forget there was ever a time they didn't exist. So, as a part of anniversary week, I offer my picks for the most significant trends of the last five year.


5. Reinheitsgephobia
This trend really only began in the last couple years, and I suspect it is only getting started: the use of non-standard ingredients in beer. The use of fruits and certain botanicals (coriander, orange peel, licorice, etc) has been around for a long time, even in American brewing. But breweries are now throwing in everything they can think of, like: chestnuts, blood oranges, prickly pear, coconuts, chiles, tulips, hyssop, lemongrass, apricot nut meat, peanut butter, and on and on. Some of these experiments have been flops, but many more demonstrate that the judicious use of adjuncts can enhance subtle flavors. It's a fantastic trend, and one that has the potential to radically alter the beer landscape.


4. Belgianization and Souring
I suppose we could break these into separate trends, but I think they're of a piece. Breweries have gotten much more excited about deploying Flemish techniques to produce new styles or tweak old ones. A few years back I noticed that farmhouse ales had become standard--amazing given that Michael Jackson declared them all but dead twenty years ago. The use of sugar to strengthen beers or yeast strains to funkify familiar beers (recent fave, Le Freak from Green Flash) is now pretty standard. Rare is the brewery without at least one Belgian-inflected beer.

And then there's souring. Google the phrase "is sour the new hoppy" and you get a sense of how entrenched this trend has become. Sour isn't the new hoppy, incidentally, but neither is it a flash in the pan. With breweries like Cascade, Russian River, Jolly Pumpkin, and Allagash, not to mention successful experiments like Deschutes The Dissident and New Belgium's Lips of Faith, sour is here to stay.


3. Barrel-aging
This innovation didn't start in the last five years, but it has become standard. Breweries have recognized the value of putting out barrel-aged specialty beers--ones that retail at SPEs of $25 bucks and more--and most now have a barrel-aging program. What I find hopeful about the trend is the growing interest in the organic potential wood exerts on beer rather than just the use of infusing a bourbon character. Pinot barrels and straight oak are making their way into breweries, and a few brave souls are even allowing native cultures to set up colonies inside their little woody ecosystems.


2. Imperialization
American beers have always been a little stronger than their European counterparts--and West Coast beers have been stronger than most American beers. (I was amused to see Full Sail release a beer called "Session" than was north of 5%.) The trend is only growing. It used to be surprising to see beers stronger than 7% on store shelves, but now you can buy regular six-packs that are 8% or more. I'm not excited about it, but the trend appears to be with us for the foreseeable future.


1. Fresh hops
While the other four trends could be applied to most American beers, this last one is unique to the Pacific Northwest. Fresh hop beers have been around well over a decade, but it has only been recently that they've exploded to become a regional celebration of the hop harvest. For three or four years, dozens of breweries across Oregon and Washington have taken to brewing fresh-hop beers, a phenomenon akin to the release of Beaujolais Nouveau in France.

What makes these ales so delightful is their evanescence. The good ones are transcendent when they're fresh and thoroughly mediocre after that vivid, green flavor wears off. I can imagine a time when tourists will flock to the Northwest in October to try these lovely seasonal offerings. Of all the trends I've seen come and go, this one seems to most fully express the quintessence of American brewing--fresh, green, vibrant hopping. And, while it seems firmly rooted in local culture, I think the rest of the world has yet to discover the joys of fresh hop beers. They will, they will...

Feel free to weigh in with your own observations in comments.

7 comments:

KeAloha said...

Good choice at #1. I look forward to the fresh hop beers more than anything else throughout the year.

Erik Huntoon said...

I can't disagree with any of those observations. I would say that the fresh hops movement is evident in the Midwest as well, but almost certainly not to the extent you'll see there in Beervana.

I would say a trend of the past 5 years is a much larger awareness and growth of craft beer in general. Here in Indiana I have seen grocery stores drastically increase the craft beer selection in the past 2 years alone. You can now find seasonal offerings and some stores even have a large variety of loose bottles allowing you to build mixed 6-packs right at the grocery store. There are no less than 5 breweries that have opened or are about to just this year in Indianapolis alone.

Another trend of the past 5 years is pricing steadily going up on craft beer. 5 years ago I would say it was pretty standard to pay about $7-8 for a good craft 6-pack. Now it's much more likely to be $10-11 here locally. Much of that can be originally blamed on the spike in gas prices a couple years back. But of course once prices go up, they don't go down even after gas drastically dropped for quite some time.

Soggy Coaster said...

Good list. I would quibble, however, with your characterization of fresh-hop beers as "unique" to the Pacific Northwest.

The PNW is certainly the cradle or epicenter of fresh-hopdom. But I've had fresh hop beers from Ska and Steamworks in Durango, CO, Pagosa Brewing in Pagosa Springs, CO, and even Boulevard out of KC.

San Juan Hop Farms out of Montrose, CO, is popular with our local brewers.

Hops grow well in lots of places, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the trend continue to spread geographically.


http://www.sanjuanhopfarms.com/

http://beerat6512.blogspot.com/2009/09/skas-hop-harvest.html

Sanjay said...

Great list Jeff. I'd also add canned craft beer as an emerging trend. A few breweries (21st Amendment and Oskar Blues) exclusively can their beers. Others (Boulder Brewing, Caldera, and Big Sky) use cans in addition to bottles. I think it's great and look forward to seeing more great beer in cans.

Jeff Alworth said...

Erik and Soggy, I should clarify a bit. I recognize that we have no corner on the fresh hops market. (In fact, we're seeing signs that commercial hop production may start up again in Wisconsin and NY--places that once boasted huge crops.) I expect to see breweries cultivate their own hops for just this purpose.

What makes the Pac NW unique is the sheer number of breweries that make these beers. The effect is like harvest season--any pub or brewery you walk into is likely to have one on tap (or several). There are fests and celebrations all over the region. We can do this because the breweries all have access to the commercial hop fields that are so close to waiting kettles. I don't expect that to change, nor for other regions to catch up anytime soon.

Shawn said...

I'm not sure how I feel about Belgianization and Souring being grouped together. To me, they should be separate. I *LOVE* Belgian beers, but I *HATE* sour/tart/brett/etc. beers. I understand the relationship between Belgium and sour beers, but sour is just one small, tiny fraction of Belgian beers. Strong Dark, dubbels, tripels, strong pale, quads, Belgian IPA, wit, etc., are all Belgian without being sour.

Bamster said...

While I agree that fresh hopping has begun to sweep across the nation, it is still the PNW fresh hopped ales that define the style. The good ones that I have gotten to try from midwest and east coast breweries all are still using west coast hops for their fresh hopping. New Holland's Hopivore from Holland, MI is a wet hopped ale that uses all Michigan hops. The result is a malt forward amber beer with a distinctively spicy hop character with hints of tart green apple. While quite tasty, it would never fit in with the general conception across the country of a fresh hopped ale.

I love that you put fresh hopped beer at #1. I could easily argue for barrel aging or even moreso imperialization to go ahead of fresh/wet hopping, but I don't see either of them having the staying power or the mass appeal. I think it fits right in with Oktoberfests and Marzens - super drinkable and generally loved by all beer drinkers. You cannot say that about any of the other four items.

Great list Jeff.

Ben

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