Top Ten: Craft Beer Themes of 2011


List of Ten by Bryan Kolesar@

PHILADELPHIA, December 16, 2011 – 2011 may not have seen much in the way of brand new industry-wide development or innovation. However, that did not stop the following list of themes from continuing to grow deeper roots and being taken to a continually widening audience.

10. Eat, Drink, Food, Beer

The concept of centering a dinner around a beer theme has grown over the past several years and seemed to explode across the beer landscape in 2011. Pizza shops paired Italian craft beers with a variety of pizzas. Fine dining restaurants and award-winning chefs created multi-course gastronomical affairs with some of the country’s leading brew masters. Cheesemongers set up tastings to highlight the more-often-than-not superiority of beer pairings than that of wine. From region to region and across the spectrum of dining options, the way in which beer is enjoyed is changing and the idea of beer and food compatibility has become more accepted and appreciated than ever.

9. Better with age?

Beer enthusiasts have stashed away some of their beers in hopes of discovering a drinkable product better than when it was first delivered fresh from the brewery. A blended Lambic beer like Boon Mariage Parfait from 2004 has a bottle stamp proclaiming it “best by” the year 2028. In recent years, the better beer bars of the mid-Atlantic – ChurchKey (Washington), Monk’s Café (Philadelphia), and Max’s (Baltimore) to name just three – have carved out a special nook on their beer menus to showcase their own cellaring programs and the wondrous potential of aged beer. Certain beers age differently and sometimes better than others; beer enthusiasts are having a blast trying to figure out which beers.

8. Keep it fresh, keep it local

Farm fresh and local are terms that are difficult to miss in the lexicon of today’s food and beverage. As the beer-drinking public becomes more aware that beer, in essence, is a food product, they have come to better understand the value of sourcing ingredients as locally as possible and that fresher beer is almost always (exception: see #9) better. Next time you travel, search out a brewery and sample their beer fresh at the source, then buy one from your local bottle shop at home and see if you can tell the difference.

7. Beer makes you more social

Once upon a time (in the old days of the Internet, circa 2005), I had high hopes of running a web-based service that would catalog all the draft beer available around the Philadelphia region and, eventually, beyond. The thinking was along the lines of “Who wouldn’t want to know, before hitting the town, where they could find a great beer during the night?” and “Wouldn’t publicans want this form of advertising their rock star beer lists?” Well, I never saw the idea through and perhaps I was just a bit ahead of the time. Fast forward to 2011 with Facebook and Twitter an integral part of many business marketing approaches. And in every other corner of the Internet, mobile apps, taplists/beer finders, beer rating sites, and other social media services have sprung up to tie together breweries, bars, and consumers like never before.

6. Collaboration, not litigation

Once upon a time, Russian River Brewing Company (Santa Rosa, Calif.) and Avery Brewing Company (Boulder, Colo.) put aside the less-than-human corporate side of their businesses and took a human approach to dealing with a beer that they each brewed under the same name: Salvation. Vinnie Cilurzo and Adam Avery joined up to brew Collaboration, Not Litigation, a strong and dark Belgian ale that is still on the market five years after it was first conceived. Lawsuits and threatened litigation over brand names, images, and the like have popped up a bit more in recent years than make many craft beer aficionados comfortable. But, collaborations have become even more common. Collaborations between star chefs and brewers (e.g. Jose Garces and Victory Brewing), between domestic craft brewers (e.g. Allagash and New Belgium breweries), and even between American craft brewers and overseas brewers (e.g. Stillwater and Denmark’s Mikkeller breweries) continued in 2011 to the delight craft beer lovers. Now if only our friends in Washington could collaborate as well on legislation.

5. Drink a sour beer to chase away the blues

Drinking intentionally soured, tart, or otherwise funk-ified beer might initially strike one about as odd as a grandfather’s attraction to limburger cheese and sardines. But, once the brain is wrapped around the idea that a beer can be, indeed, excellent when presenting flavors and aromas described as funky, tart, sour, barnyard, horse blanket, and yes, even locker room, the possibilities are endless for discovering some of the most amazing beers that many have never tried. Many of these beers have their roots in the open fermentation breweries of Belgium and some, particularly the tart ones, are considered good “gateway” beers for new beer drinkers.

4. When a glass jug is not just a jug

For years, the word growler, and derivations thereof, has been one of the top search engine keyword referrals over at my blog, The Brew Lounge. It has not been until recently that the little brown jug has gained more widespread recognition and acceptance. Cross-eyed glances used to shoot in the direction of a bar patron leaving with a 64-ounce brown jug of freshly-poured draft beer in hand to enjoy later at home. Now, growlers show up in any brewery or beer bar worth their hops.

3. Drinking with the seasons

India Pale Ales are still enormously popular in the craft beer segment. But add together Bock, Oktoberfest, Pumpkin, Fresh Hop Harvest, and Christmas beers under the umbrella term “seasonal” and it creates the largest sales segment of the craft beer industry. It underscores not only the popularity of the myriad flavors and aromas presented by beer, but illustrates the consumer’s willingness to vary their beer drinking preferences throughout the year.

2. Everything but the kitchen sink

Tying together #8 and #3 here into #2 is the practice of incorporating more ingredients and, hence, more flavors and aromas into beer than ever before. While perching a piece of fruit on the rim of the glass is, generally speaking, still verboten, herbs, spices, chocolate, salt, and more than just the traditional flavors from malt, hops, and yeast are filling the brewer’s canvas with endless possibilities. Apples, chocolate, cinnamon, coriander, elderflowers, figs, hibiscus flowers, honey, lavender, oak, orange peel, persimmon, rose hips, rhubarb, toasted pear wood, and white peaches give you just a few ideas from the creative recipe-bending that brewers are undertaking in 2011.

1. Growth upon growth

The large, industrial segment of the brewing industry continued its annual slide in 2011. Meanwhile, the craft segment (less than six million barrels of annual beer production) strung together another banner year. Well-established breweries like Brooklyn, Captain Lawrence, and Tröegs increased capacity and production in 2011, adding new kettles and fermentation tanks – and in some cases moving to new locations – while doing their part to boost local economies. However, the real eye-opener is the smallest niche of this niche industry: nanobreweries. While the term rankles some, it does convey that these are the smallest of small brewers. Brewers that often must keep their day jobs to make ends meet. After a roughly 10% increase in the number of U.S. breweries in 2010 over 2009, there are reportedly at least several hundred more in various stages of planning and development in mid-2011, many of them of the nanobrewery size (generally described as less then three barrel batches of beer at a time). How many survive remains to be seen; however, it underscores the spectacular growth that the craft segment of the beer industry continues to enjoy and opportunities that it presents.

After another strong year of craft beer growth, time will tell what 2012 has in store for the beer-loving masses. It should continue to be a wild, fun, and fascinating ride.

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