There was a palpable change in the dynamic culture of craft beer in 2016. The year saw mergers and acquisitions, further growth to the point of pre-prohibition numbers, and a swing in the balance between camaraderie and competition. Though my view is unavoidably focused, I do try to keep my fingers on the national beer pulse, and these changes are not unique to the Midwest.
1) Beer for [insert] drinkers
The assertion that craft beer will continue to broaden its scope and reach into untapped markets is never a risky one. 2017, more than any other year, will bring more welcoming beers for wine drinkers, and I mean this in a more literal way. Sours perform this function, of course, but this year we will see a nuanced incorporation of wine-making techniques, ingredients, and obviously, barrels, into beer practices.
West Coast breweries can often capitalize on a bumper crop of grapes, skins, or must. Locally, Schram Vineyards – which produces both wine and beer – is presenting these synergistic beers which blur the line between beverages.
In Minnesota, the legislature is holding us back from this gaining steam. Nationally, though, this is already taking off; Casey Brewing and Blending, Dogfish Head, and Cantillon are perfect examples. The growth of cider and graff has brought wine drinkers into the beer world through the back door. Now this is a perfect time to hook them.
Secondly, alcoholic kombucha will be on the rise. Areas like Portland (because, of course) have seen this already. The Midwest has not. How this will intersect with craft brewing remains to be seen. As it is not made of grain, it may be a beast all its own.
Last year was the year of the alco-pop. What began as alcoholic root beer morphed into a complete catalog of grown-up sodas which expanded their national reach. Is this the modern wine cooler? How many drinkers who prefer craft beer are dabbling here? The numbers aren’t totally in yet, but Not Your Father’s Root Beer alone outsold Boston Beer Company at the end of 2015. Prior to 2016, alcoholic sodas were rare, with Sprecher’s Hard Root Beer being an exception in the Upper Midwest.
The continued expansion of the craft beer market will eat into the macro drinking dollars more than ever, rather than simply leading to competition among craft. These flavored malt beverages may be a flash in the pan, but true beginner-type beers are not. To that end, craft breweries will continue to present “gateway” beers but they will become even more entry-level than in the past. An early example of this is Fulton’s Standard lager — it is marketed as a very distinct brand from the rest of Fulton’s line of beers, so much so that it’s hard to tell where it comes from.
3) Alcohol? Meh.
Where will ABV go in 2017? Sessions saw their heyday in 2015 and haven’t left. Big beers are here to stay. I predict a peaceful co-existence this year, simply with less attention paid to the number.
Consumers have a better beer vocabulary than ever before — even many casual drinkers can likely name a few hop varieties. Single malt and single hop offerings, often called “SMASH” beers, will expand.
The malty side of brewing will be examined more closely as malting technology continues to improve. The relationship between the malster and the brewer is stronger than ever, with some craft breweries valuing local grains, while others value consistency.
But the popularity of hops will never diminish. This fall will see a surge in wet hop beers due to the increase in small-farm hop production and the resulting increase in fresh hops fast.
On the other hand, yeast will likely remain in the shadows but the attention paid to East Coast strains like Conan the Barbarian may expand the drinker’s awareness of the contributions of yeast.