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What’s Next… or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Variety

“It doesn’t matter what they say in the papers ’cause it’s always been the same old scene, there’s a new band in town, but you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine, aimed at your average teen.” – Billy Joel

It’s rare for me to do karaoke without singing this tune.

I first started singing it in the karaoke bars of Dongducheon Korea, namely The Sonata Club (which probably doesn’t exist anymore), back in 1997-1998. I know it like the back of my hand; a sing-a-long even millennials know.

This bridge section is the song’s zenith with some hard truths about trends: fed by marketing, fads will come and go, which is just the way things are.

Much the same can be said about craft beer over the past 2 years. Many breweries have found success chasing trends, but are now investing in more tanks to create the beers they really want to drink – namely styles with clarity & sessionability such as Lagers, West Coast IPAs, and other beloved low-abv “shift beers.”

Chuckanut Brewery’s Skagit Tulip Ale, enjoyed on their P-Nut Taproom patio

Concurrently, quite a few breweries continue to revel and flourish in the hype beers that put them on the map. Today, most anything you could ever want is available in every state (that allows shipped alcohol). Look no further than Portland-based Great Notion Brewing or Richmond, Virginia’s The Veil, both of whom offer beer shipped directly to your door.

All of these things and more have changed the way the craft beer market operates. As a result, it feels as though covid broke our collective crystal balls.

Canning & The Tale of Two Breweries

Before the pandemic, Milkshake and Sour IPAs seemed to be dying, then replaced by Smoothie Sours and Fruited Seltzers, yet even these fads have begun to slow. One pandemic trend that’s stuck? Almost every brewery that operated as a draft-only brewpub or taproom before the pandemic was forced to begin packaging and most still are.

If you were brewing 10+ barrel batches, self-distributed, and weren’t in grocery stores, things looked pretty grim 2 years ago. With breweries forced to begin canning, some began local home deliveries, and others signed on to work with distributors. Those who did have survived and even thrived.

Two great examples of pandemic survival are Heater Allen Brewing & Baerlic Brewing. Both are self-distributed, both pivoted multiple times during the pandemic, and each has recently won awards, but that’s where the similarities cease.

Rick Allen of Heater Allen pours their Pils from a gravity keg at their 15th Anniversary

Heater Allen was forced to shut down their small taproom at their production facility, turning their focus instead to distributing more cans than ever before and shipping beers out-of-state, including to Southern California and Seattle-based Tavour. As a result, they’ve had more national press coverage (via Craft Beer & Brewing, among others) and just won their first World Beer Cup medal for their Pils – a gold no less, just last month. Their taproom is now back open and the brewery is still seeing success with it’s self-distro’d cans.

In contrast, Baerlic Brewing immediately focused on home delivery (which it still offers on their website), closed their two taprooms & furloughed staff early on, started a monthly IPA club, and built a name for themselves. As things slowly reopened, they created an outdoor beer garden, then took over the former Blitz/Ladd’s Taproom next door to their original location, including a new Ranch Pizza location. They’ve since opened another new location on Alberta, are still self-distributing, and recently won gold for their flagship Dad Beer Lager at the Oregon Beer Awards.

There is no doubt that packaging, specifically 16 oz cans, saved America’s craft beer industry during the pandemic, yet draft has already come back strong and supplies of aluminum and glass are still complicated.

Variety & Inflation

With more breweries shipping beer to new markets, both the general public and brewers are learning about, and now emulating, different styles they may not have even tried before. This proliferation of availability has effectively caused the diffusion of every brewing trend possible across America.

It reminds me of how much the music industry changed when physical media began to decline with the rise of the internet. When sites like Napster, Limewire, MySpace, and all those janky bit torrent sites became the way to find any music we wanted. Anyone could showcase their band online and learn or follow new trends in very specific genres, which vastly increased the number of artists vying for interested ears. Likewise, in beer, this universal availability has to some extent leveled the playing field for conceptualization, yet this alone can never replace skill, practice, and process.

La Tolteca Maize Lager by Entre Compas – now at República, La Fondita & Los Ponchos

So what now then? Everything new is trending everywhere now? Are there no new ideas and we’re content with the classic becoming new again?

<shrug>, yes, kinda.

Here’s what we do know… everything has become really expensive. As a result of supply chain issues, scarcity of materials, and fuel & raw material shortages due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, anything and everything is impacted by the highest inflation we’ve seen since 1981. That said, draft is back. Gatherings are back. Live music, live sports, bottle shares are all back.

Where Things Could Be Going…?

Inflation and special occasions aside, 2 years of a pandemic reality filled with excess have caused folks to seek out more sessionable styles at lower abvs, cocktail-inspired offerings, gluten-free alternatives such as cider, hard seltzers, and new non-alcoholic options.

Another developing trend is that barrel-aged sours have stepped back from the brink by diversifying. Many mixed-ferm/wild ale brewers have turned to cans for the first time, resulting in generally lighter and less acidic options. Doing so allows them to continue selling the special stuff in 750ml & 500ml bottles. Will this phenomenon result in the maturation of Smoothie & Kettle Sour drinkers? A new alternative for the Pet Nat & wine geeks? Maybe.

Some of the recently released cans from Seattle’s Fair Isle Brewing

Oh… and Pastry Stouts are still out there, though another trend that’s slowed this past year. A number of breweries have discarded their barrel programs, choosing instead to create space for Lager fermentation and might brew an occasional adjunct Stout. I can’t complain about that.

Of course all manner of Hazy IPAs are still a thing and Hazy Doubles are seemingly less so, at least in the PNW. The Cold IPA has steadily become another style that most breweries are trying on for size, at least once, and they tend to sell well. It’s certainly fairing far better than the Brut IPA thus far.

I suppose your everyday grocery store is still a place to buy craft beer, though I honestly can’t speak to what that looks like anymore. It’s general demeanor as a date code graveyard depresses me, so I won’t buy beer there, unless it’s an emergency.

Locally the sale of cans has slowed a bit the past month, though it should boom again as the rainy season soon ends (some day…) with backyard BBQs, camping, and hiking season beginning in earnest… also beer fests, music fests, and all the OG gatherings.

In the end, It’s Still Rock n Roll to Me… or at least bier flavored beer is still my jam and a continuing trend in Portland. Regardless, there’s more to explore than ever before and the craft beer market is crammed with variety, so if you claim to know what’s trending, hang out for a few months or head to another town or region and you’ll assuredly find something different is happening there too.

My best guess, right now? Variety, in any flavor you like, is king.

In Memory of Ryan Buxton

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