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Beer in 2020: Trends

I like to call it Survival Mode.

The phrase has more than a few applications in this surreal reality we call 2020. Certainly there are the hording assholes who gorge their shopping carts with toilet paper, soap, wipes, and sanitizer.

I’ve generally used Survival Mode to describe cloudy thinking I see regularly – people who struggle to drive their cars, those looking for ANYTHING to stay sane while stuck at home, and potentially a complete lack of interest in anyone else’s reality but their own. I totally get it, we’re all anxious & stressed out.

Survival Mode also describes how small businesses have pushed on to keep going in 2020 despite this reality. I cannot imagine handling the day-to-day operations of running a business during a pandemic AND ensuring the safety of your employees AND overcoming the constant changes to COVID protocols, all requiring so many pivots.

Welcome to the psychological landscape where this year-end series resides. It’s something I’ve wanted to write for months, though struggled to find context. It all seems a bit clearer now as we’ve hit another apex of this pandemic and conclude a year teeming with a wealth of oddities that aptly suit our dumpster fire reality.

The Headliner: Purée Anyone?

If 2020 were a beer, it’d be Smoothie Sour…

…or a Pie-inspired Sour with Graham Crackers, Cherries/Key Lime/Banana Cream, Marshmallow Fluff, and Lactose…

…or a Fruited Smoothie Hard Seltzer.

We have entered the Land of Fruit and I blame 2020. Honestly, this has been a thing for a few years (see “Over-Fruited Berliner Weisse”), yet we’ve not seen as many distinctly un-beer-like manifestations as we have this year. Beer brewed with Birthday Cake and Frosting, Sour Pickle Beer, Candy Bar Beer, Ice Cream Beer, Flaming-Hot Cheetos Beer, a gelatinous Cranberry Sauce Beer, Cheese Popcorn Beer, Mustard Beer, Peanut Butter & Jelly Beer, Chex Mix Beer, Stuffing Beer, Sour Patch Kids Beer, etc.

From what I understand, the sweet adjunct-forward phenomenon started back east as the hype of Milkshake IPAs and Fruited Sours converged into Sour IPAs and Pastry Sours. On top of that, you’ve got the popularity of Pastry Stouts – sweet, high ABV Imperial Stouts that requires no barrel time or extra space to produce and an excited young audience raised on Fruit Stripe Gum, Monster energy drinks, 4-Loko, and Frappuccinos… what did we expect?

So indulgent sweet beers aren’t anything new, though the pulp laced, marshallow-infused, sugar bombs have been a whole other story in 2020. Take a look at the top rated Sour – Fruited/Fruite Berliner Weisse categories on Untappd and you’ll find the hottest breweries in America right now – Mortalis (Hydra), Burley Oak (J.R.E.A.M.), The Answer (3 Scoops), HOMES (Deep Depths), 450 North (Slushy XL), Drekker (Braaaaaaaains), and The Brewing Projekt (Puff Tart XL).

Though the same could be said of the creations that put Great Notion (immediately) on the map in 2016. Yes, early on they’d steadily flown the flag of New England IPAs, yet were simultaneously creating “culinary-inspired” pastry beers and sours before most anyone else was. Both Double Stack and Blueberry Muffin were trendsetters upon their release in February of 2016 – the later definitely a pastry sour (sans lactose or vanilla) before the term existed.

Here in Oregon Great Notion has created at least 13 variants of their popular Jammy Pants (an Over-Fruited Berliner) since the onset of the pandemic. Even more, Eugene’s Claim 52 has seemingly devoted roughly half of their production, if not more so, to Fruited Sours, creating at least 18 of them since March with their THICC and Splash series.

Anyhow, the point here is that if 2020 were a beer, it’s only appropriate that it’d be a hot mess of fruit pulp, vanilla, lactose, and every other indulgent adjunct you can think of. Difficult times for breweries call for hype beers that fly off the shelves.

Ultimately a convergence of indulgent, hype marketed, Survival Mode slurries. “You know, for kids…

Under The Radar: Lager Thrives

On the other end of the spectrum, the popularity and growth of Lager has become undeniably clear. I mean, even the fruit peddlers have been canning up American Lagers and Italian-style Pilsners that are well executed.

Further, two of Oregon’s newly opened breweries, Hammer & Stitch Brewing and Foreland Beer, each released a Lager and a West Coast IPA as their initial canned offerings. While those in Portland and the greater PNW reside in one of the most mature beer markets in the country, it’s also true that breweries across the country who’ve established themselves as Houses of Hazy can now afford the space to Lager, opting to do that instead of adding wooden vessels. And considering the success of Fruited Berliners and Pastry Stouts, barrels might be be going the way of the dodo.

The rise of Lager seemed to be initially spurred by the popularity of the Italian Pilsner, the slow return of six-packs of 12 oz cans, and a backlash to the surge of Hazy IPA. Now it could be argued that lower prices and their sessionable nature has fueled Lager’s resurgence during the pandemic. Add to that the decline of the large format bottle, the prevalence of the 16oz can, greater shelf stability, and brewers’ inherent love of all things low-abv, and it only makes sense.

We are seeing more and more new breweries that are focused on clear beers and classic styles alone. Their stubborn dedication to foundational European styles is not only something to admire, but a welcome breath of fresh air for those of us looking for lighter, yet still complex options.

The Juice Persists: IPAs For Every Taste

While hot takes on the India Pale Ale, such as the CDA/Black IPA and Brut IPA, have effectively come and gone, the novelty of Hazy, Milkshake, and Sour IPAs has yet to wane. If only surveying the landscape here in Portland, you might think that the Hazy style has declined, though quite a few local breweries continue to find success with that Hazy approach which put many of them on the map. Not to mention the continued popularity of Milkshake and Sour IPAs back east.

Further, as I’ve noticed with breweries on the eastern seaboard, many are still cranking out a TON of Hazy DIPAs and Hazy Triple IPAs, even during the summer months. Reminiscent of the IBU Wars of yore, today’s Hazy or New England IPA brewers are seemingly more focused on packing them with as much tropical juice aroma and flavor as possible, some often minimizing or even discarding bittering hop additions.

The most exciting development in IPA I’ve seen this year has been a greater use of these same tropical hops, yet applied to cleaner hybrid or West Coast takes on the style. While this isn’t new, it seems that a number of breweries who’ve experimented more with this approach have stuck with this juicy yet cleaner approach, possibly in lieu of another new Hazy.

When all is said an done, 2020 will likely be remembered as that year we lived in Survival Mode, at any cost. Make what sells, get it into a shiny 16oz can, and adjust accordingly. With home delivery, on-site cans, and chain-store sales changing the way small brewers succeed amid a pandemic, they’ve also been forced to create new releases to stay relevant. In the end, despite the disruption of fruit beers and an increase in Lager production, IPA remains king, something unlikely to change anytime soon.

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