Every year in beer seems to move faster than the year before, and 2017 was no exception. From heartbreaking acquisitions to whirlwind beer trends, a lot of big things happened in the beer world. When I did predictions from last year, I really tried to think big picture and outside the box. Even though I thought big, I’m fairly shocked at how much I got right and how much I got wrong.
First, I thought we’d see more evolution of the IPA. But really we saw little evolution, and the explosion of the New England India Pale Ale. The New England variant of the IPA style is noted for its hazy opacity, hop-forward aroma and flavor with no trace of bitterness, aiming for a “juicy” flavor and appearance (it literally looks like orange juice in a glass). The fight over the style has gotten heated (I will not say bitter): traditional breweries clinging to the idea that the beer is not shelf-stable, defies proper brewing techniques, and is an affront to good brewing practices. Meanwhile, hazy breweries are laughing all the way to the bank; these breweries will sell out of hundreds or thousands of cases of the opaque brew in a day, as customers line up around the block to pay $20 per 4-pack. Depending on how you do the math, breweries like Other Half in Brooklyn, New York, will do a quarter of a million in sales on any given Saturday. Maybe it is a trend, but most breweries in this vein are stacking the cash, upgrading their facilities, and planning for long-term growth.
Second, I pointed to young, hungry brewers working at new breweries showing new ways to start and operate breweries. This one, I really think I missed the boat on. True, there are a lot of good, young upstarts, but a significant number of older brewers left their long-term homes and helped create new breweries. Most notably, Peter Boukaert and Mitch Steele. Formerly of New Belgium Brewing, Boukaert was the brewmaster for 21 years and decided this year to leave and start a new project, Purpose Brewing and Cellars. Purpose sounds like it will start where New Belgium has meandered its way to: a lot of wood and barrel-aged beers, sours, and unique American takes on traditional styles. It seems like it’s a chance for Boukaert to really dive into the little side projects he was doing at New Belgium (BTW, his little side project of wood and barrel-aged beer has turned New Belgium into the largest wood beer producer in the United States). Steele was the brewmaster at Stone for 10 years before he left to help start New Realm Brewing in Atlanta. Even though he left Stone a year and a half ago to start New Realm, the brewery was supposed to open this fall (not gonna make it I don’t think) and will be ready to crank out beer from the get-go, with a 20 bbl system, packaging line, full restaurant and everything. On their website, you can follow along the build-out from the beginning and it looks amazing (wall-to-wall tile floors y’all!).
One of the next big trends I barely picked up on was the forming of smaller, more niche guilds and alliances. Sour Beer Guild? I totally nailed it! Except, being the super-cool group of brewers that they are, they chose a way better name: Sour and Wild Ales Guild (SWAG). The SWAG was formed during last year’s Great American Beer Festival. It was filled with the biggest names in the category, and hopes to expand and improve categories at GABF and advocating for brewers going the more traditional route in making sour beers.
As far as acquisitions goes, it was a slaughter. It was a super-sad year and really nobody cares. But, I do. It’s just such a bummer of a year. I don’t even want to report on it anymore, but I do want to make a point of avoiding naming breweries that sold and avoiding promoting their beers. So, if you see any of that beer from Boulder that used to be craft, just don’t buy it.
Robbie Wendeborn is the head brewer at Svendæle Brewing in Millerton, New York. He is also a former beer plumber at Ska Brewing.