I’m old enough to have a firm grasp on the former monoculture of beer. I’m also old enough to have my breath taken away by the pace of today’s change in the world of beer. Not too long ago beer preferences were much like car preferences, built around some point where loyalty to a brand became irrevocably established. Today, even an average beer consumer is peeling back the brand to find out what makes the beer tick.
On a recent voyage I managed to find myself at dinner in what appears to be one of the last exclusive light lager bars. When the waitress came for my order I asked if there were any local or craft beers. She apologized for their absence and told me she’d been pitching the owner to add some IPAs, a stout or even and Oktoberfest. The scene fixed that transformation in my mind. Between the offerings and the waitresses knowledge lays a transformation.
Take beer’s ingredients for example. One of the constants of beer for the past 400 years or so is the role that hops plays in the aesthetic experience. However, it seems that the end of Prohibition marked the beginning of the way on hops, when less was better. Even the average beer lover has become aware of the role of hops, and the hop wars among craft brewers. Brain Yeager wanders the hop fields and discovers the next generation of hops. Change is constant and rapid when it comes to hop varietals.
Furthermore, consider this sea change. I remember beer ads that focused on the bubbles, the more the better. Light lagers are even defined by their level of carbonation. Fizzy beers a friend calls them. However, recent research suggests carbonation has a flavor component that dramatically affects the profile of the beer. With today’s emphasis on draft beer, the role of carbonation becomes critical. No longer will one size fit all. John Holl takes you on a tour of carbonation’s role in beer aesthetics. Shall we call it the 5th element?
For decades the channels of distribution appeared pretty rock solid—beer worked its way through very consistent and predictable avenues. The locus of stress was the tension between giant suppliers and small business wholesalers. The past decade has seen a veritable revolution in the channels. Consolidation has created many gigantic wholesalers who are better equipped to go toe-to-toe with giant suppliers. Sweeping changes in the scale of retail has added another 800-pound gorilla into the negotiations. However, the ground zero for rapid evolution of the channels of distribution lies with the smaller craft and specialty brewers who are the cutting edge of growth for the beer industry and have unique requirements to facilitate the continued growth. Greg Kitsock takes a tour of three different routes to market giving readers a behind the scenes look at how that pint got to their hand.
However, all is not change. One of the seemingly intransigent elements of good beer enjoyment lies in the serving vessel itself. Rick Lyke takes us on a tour of some of the stranger and more peculiar ways we have enjoyed beer. I am sure everyone has heard of the cow horn or the boot or the yard. Have you thought about skulls or leather? What is surprising is the endurance of the infamous shaker glass. Although a few retailers serve beer in stylistically relevant glassware, nearly all have adopted this hard working, imminently practical, but boring, glass ignoring the wide variety of exciting and beer enhancing shapes and sizes—still one of our frontiers.
What will the shape of our passion be in another 10 years? Hard to say, but no doubt the pace of change will accelerate and beer lovers everywhere will continually be surprised at what is out there and what they can learn. I love change.
*originally appeared as my editorial in Nov. 2011, Vol. 32, No. 5