A few years ago, it was fresh hops; a couple years back it was sour beers, last year it was CDAs (or black IPAs or bitter darks or whatever). Like birds in flight, when one body inclines in a different direction, the whole flock changes course. What are the trends this year? Which birds are driving the flock? It occurred to me that the list I compiled for the Satori candidates does a great job of summarizing four of the more interesting developments in the world of beer. Here they are.
1. Strong ales
This is admittedly the most inconsequential of the year's trends, but one worth noting. With the release of Kingpin in six-packs, BridgePort solidified a trend that has been emerging over the past year or two: very strong beers released in six-packs at standard (that is, non-specialty) pricing. BridgePort had already scored success with Hop Czar, and Kingpin joins the lineup as another 7.5% giant. GoodLife Descender IPA (7%) and Boneyard Hop Venom (10%) are in the same vein. BridgePort is an appropriate marker for the trend because when they released one of the earliest IPAs back in 1996, they thought it needed to be a sessionable 5.5% to sell. They wouldn't make that decision today.
2. German Revival
When craft brewing started thirty years ago, the early pioneers wanted to work in a non-German milieu (except in the Midwest). German tradition--or its sad descendents--had dominated American brewing for over a century and craft brewers were looking for inspiration elsewhere. Folks like the Widmers had little luck exciting people about their rich German heritage. Lagers were commercial death (literally, in some cases--Saxer RIP). You might sneak a doppelbock into your line-up, but no one was interested in anything carrying the whiff of macro. With the arrival of Occidental and Fort George's delightful 1811 lager, there are signs people might be ready to give the Germans another go. (Yes, 1811 is based on a pre-prohibition American lager, but that style came from the breweries of the wave of German immigrants who remade the industry in the second half of the 19th century.)
I think I may have cited this as a trend in past years, but I continue to be amazed by how many saisons are on the market--and 2011 was another banner year. There were 65 entries in the saison category at the GABF, more than all but ten other categories (of 83). BeerAdvocate list 982 saisons ... and just 924 German pilsners. This is a staggering turnaround for a style Michael Jackson declared nearly extinct 30 years ago. It may seem crazy for someone to build a brewery on the idea of farmhouse ales, but Dave Logsdon is riding the wave of one of the hottest styles in brewing. I once thought there were a lot of saisons because brewers like them, not customers, but that's becoming harder and harder to believe. In fact, when I interviewed Avondale, a brewery that opened in Birmingham earlier this year (Alabama's fourth), I wasn't even that shocked to learn that their flagship was slated to be a 7.5% saison. Well, why not?
4. Strange Ingredients
Perhaps the biggest trend of the moment is using non-standard ingredients to make beer. We have two beers on the Satori list that are useful examples--Bend Brewing's Ching Ching, a pomegranate and hibiscus Berliner weisse, and Burnside Sweet Heat, an apricot and pepper wheat ale. (Throw Deschutes Chainbreaker in there, too.) American craft breweries--not to mention breweries over the span of history--have often wandered into the fruit, spice, and veggie aisle for added flavor oomph. But often, the additives were there to mask the beer. The current trend is an evolution in brewing where the beer's nature is accentuated and bent in the direction of fine cuisine. Not every experiment works, but those that do are helping to redefine the way we think about beer. I expect this trend to continue and fundamentally change beer. It could take decades, but I think it's irreversible and inevitable. Oh--and good.
I've had to consider the Satori hopefuls in light of these larger trends and I've come up with a winner, which I'll announce tomorrow.