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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Year in Beer

I understand why the year 2000 had such a pull on us and why, despite the math, we decided to celebrate the new millennium then. But I refuse to submit to the tyranny of the the masses and do a review of the decade in beer until next year--when it properly ends. However, it does appear we've come near the end of 2009, so here's a few observations.

The Crisis That Wasn't
Back at the start of the year, it looked like a sure bet that breweries and pubs were going to be in big trouble. I even ran a couple of polls (here and here) to see how purchasing habits were changing with the intention of tracking the trend by quarters. But at mid-year, the numbers started coming out and surprise of surprises--the industry was still growing. I don't doubt that some breweries--and definitely some pubs--saw business decline. But the category five hurricane turned out to be just a little rain.

Saison Season
Every year there's a mini-boom (a boomlet?, a pop?) in some style. Last year it was Belgian golden ales. This year, saisons. Locally, we had Upright doing a wave of them, plus a couple nice examples by Full Sail and Standing Stone. I saw lots of national versions too, from The Bruery's to Boulevard and Goose Island.

The Gose revival was constrained to just two breweries, but let's hope that's a preview of coming attractions.

Barrel Madness
It hardly bears mentioning the trend in barreling beers, save to note that it now looks like a standard practice, not a trend. I haven't run any numbers, but surely well over half the bottling breweries and a large percentage of brewpubs have barrel-aging programs underway (at least locally). One nice element of this trend is that it's expanding beyond bourbon barrels. In the last year, wine barrels were on the move, as were previously unused barrels (what do you call those, "fresh?"). Bourbon adds a wonderful note to some beers, but by no means all. Yet barreling a beer can add wonderful character, whether or not you're trying to leach residual alcohol into the beer.

Looking Forward
I mentioned in my Satori Award post that 2009 was in some ways a year of rest for the industry. A wise year of rest, given the uncertainty. But given beer's surprising resilience this year, I see signs of enthusiasm about new projects going forward. Right off the bat, we have something on the order of 8-10 breweries scheduled to open in 2010. One of them is focusing on gluten-free beers, evidence of some of the potential micro-markets within craft brewing. Look for a rock and roll year.

Finally, I'll leave you all with a prediction, one that is more advocacy than actual prophesy: 2010 will be the year of small beer. We've done big beer, we've done hoppy beer, we've done sour beer. Of all the extremes left to explore, small beer may be the final frontier. Let it be so!


  1. I'd love to see a wave of small, lower abv beers hit the market, but as long as the majority of consumers equate value with alcohol percentage it's going to be a tough sell.

    I'd also like to see more stratification regarding what breweries charge for their beer. It seems silly to line price all your six packs when anyone with an ounce of math skills and brewing knowledge knows that your IPA costs significantly more (ingredient-wise anyway) than your amber or pale. There are obviously fixed costs involved with packaging and whatnot, but why not lower the price on your low abv beers a bit and raise them on your monster beers?

    Long story short, if you go to the Deschutes pub and pints all cost the same amount you have no motivation (other than curiosity) to try their wonderful 3.5% bitter when you can get a pint of Hop Henge for the same price.

    If you're feeling adventurous you may try a pint of it, but once the curiosity has been satisfied most people start looking at which beer is a better value.

  2. I like the idea of lower alcohol beer; ~5%.

    I notice that at 210 pounds, I can not legally drive after consuming two honest pints per hour of most
    - 2X IPA
    - NW [2x] Red Ales
    - Imperial Stouts
    - Strong Ales

    What the fun of that?

    Imagine the problem if my BMI was in the 'healthy' range.

  3. Hear, hear. The artisanship in creating a well balanced and tasty "small" beer is quite significant. No excessive hops or strong alcohol or barrel flavors to mar the imperfections. At least locally, we have plenty of breweries capable of "getting small." I hope they take your advice, Jeff.