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7 Beer Blasts

Posted on  | November 18, 2015   Bookmark and Share
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Lower Octane Brews

Beers—craft beers, at least—aren’t as big as they used to be. Surprised? It’s a bit of a trick statement: While craft beer volume grows (up 10.2% while beer as a whole has risen only a paltry .6%) according to Nielsen, the style is moving away from big in intensity and alcohol. “I think there’s a bit of movement away from The high-gravity beers,” says Molly Gunn, co-owner of The Porter Beer Bar in Atlanta. So-called session beers—flavorful but moderate in alcohol so fans can drink more in a single sitting—are gaining, or regaining, their prominence in craft brewer portfolios.

It’s not just alcohol, but intensity, which can grow tiresome on the palate. For example, lightly sour Berliner-Weisse or Gose styles are featuring alongside the richer, barrel-aged sours that began surfacing a few years ago. “It makes sense that they’d try these styles; they are fresh and take less time to make,” says Gunn. A traditional Gose could have as little as 3-4% alcohol—eminently sessionable—and is gently seasoned with coriander and salt.

“We’ve been doing Gose for a few years now,” says Andy Hooper, Director of Operations at Anderson Valley Brewing in northern California, “and upped it to full scale two years ago. To make it larger scale took the course of a year to get it the way we wanted it, getting the salt level and sourness correct.” While these beers may not have the obvious bells and whistles of the extreme beers, they require just as much skill to make.

Lagers, too, pose great technical challenges, and today’s craft brewers are applying the skills developed stretching beer to its limits to these more subtle beers. “We launched the Helles Lager in 35 states and DC, and it’s being embraced at a brisk clip,” says Bill Covaleski, Brewmaster at Victory Brewing in Downingtown, PA. “There are two factors, palate fatigue and alcohol consumption. The Helles is 4.8%; a lot of beer is consumed on-premise, and people need to get themselves home.”


Soda: Taste of Nostalgia

Some of the brewers who are pursuing new “flavors” are looking to an alternative tradition: sodas. Small Town Brewery from Illinois hit the big time with its Not Your Father’s Root Beer, a beer spiced with sassafras, vanilla and anise, that took the brewery from nowhere to the sixth largest craft brewer in the U.S.; the beer was 3.3% of craft beer sales for the four weeks ending July 12th of this year, according to IRI. Success breeds imitation, of course. Sprecher’s, Rowdy Root Beer and soon Boston Beer Co.’s Coney Island Hard Root Beer are following in Not-Your-Father’s wake. MillerCoors is also diving into the alcoholic soda category with its Henry’s Hard Orange and Henry’s Hard Ginger Ale.


3 Mexican Magic?

Among the mass-market lagers (the beers that led craft brewers to pursue ales as an alternative a few decades ago) those from south of the border are thriving; Mexican beer is the only category keeping pace with craft beer in terms of growth. Corona Extra dominates, but Dos Equis as well as Negra Modelo are growing faster. Imports from elsewhere are seeking new footholds by diversifying.


4 Seasonals & Then Some

Newcastle started offering seasonal beers aside from its flagship Brown Ale a few years ago—to wit, the UK brewery, steered by the adept marketing hands at Heineken, fleshed out a lineup of Summer Ale, Winter IPA, Werewolf (red ale) and Founder’s Ale. Now Guinness has expanded their offerings as well. “Guinness has been making beer for 260 years,” explains Diageo Beer Director Emma Giles, “Arthur Guinness actually started with ales.” Guinness created the Brewers Project to explore that heritage, and the Blonde Lager, brewed using the same yeast strain as the flagship Stout, moved over a million cases after its introduction last year. The 1798 Ale will follow up on the 1759, an amber ale that also came out last year, and in September Guinness will also introduce a Nitro IPA, parlaying the company’s long experience with nitrogen draft systems. “We were looking at the IPA category and wondering what we can do with it that’s classically Guinness and different. It’s got that creamy mouthfeel and it’s made with five varieties of hops.”


5 Hi-Tech Drafting

Nitrogen draft systems are actually on the rise, according to Matt Meadows, Draft Beer Quality Chair at the Brewers Association and Director of Field Quality for New Belgian Brewing in Colorado. “Some people are into truly making a nitrogenated beer,” says Meadows, “some are not nitrogenating at the brewery, just putting it on a nitro tap. It takes a lot of work to do it the right way. A beer like the Left Hand Milk Stout is designed for nitro.”

On-premise, craft beer, nitro or carbonated regularly, is still a big draw. “The vast majority of our guests go for draft beer,” says The Porter’s Molly Gunn. “They’re searching for something they haven’t had before.”

Bigger brewers have driven a lot of innovation with draft of late. Heineken launched BrewLock, a 20L keg made out of recyclable plastic, in which the beer is stored inside an interior bladder. A small, customized air compressor exerts pressure in the area between the shell and the bladder, pushing the beer through the draught lines untouched, which keeps the beer fresh until the end and eliminates waste. BrewLock also made it simpler and cheaper for small restaurants to offer beer on tap without installing a full system.

Gunn notes that recyclable, single-use kegs like Key Kegs are helping build availability of rarer items, especially imports. “We have 50 draft lines and receive a good number of key kegs, but not more than 10%. We have recycling, so they just get crushed and go in recycling, and it’s easier not paying deposits [on returnable kegs].”


6 Grumbling About Growlers

Off-premise draft sales—that is to say, growlers—remain popular, even though many brewers have misgivings. “The growler is not the ideal way to consume beer,” says Meadows. “It’s a secondary vessel, and you’re losing carbonation and adding oxygen. It used to be brewers filling growlers; now it could be gas station attendants.” The Brewers Association has issued a two-page guide on how growlers should be used, and is pushing the industry to move to pressure-rated vessels to avoid accidents.


7 Quality Still Rules

Meadows says the big change in draft beer is not in beer selections, but in quality and consistency: “The Brewers’ Association Draft Beer Quality Manual was released in 2009; in the past six years we’ve seen a lot of progress.” The Manual was created by the Brewers Association together with the larger companies (including the recently conjoined AB-InBev and MillerCoors) and has set standards where before there were mostly opinions. Regulations in some states still make it hard for brewers to ensure their draft beer is served as they would prefer, but now the goal line is clear. 


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