A few days ago, I listened to Moira Gunn interviewing an author on her public radio program, “Tech Nation,” about what technology to expect in the next 50 years. That set me to thinking: what will the craft beer revolution that we have so carefully nurtured be like in 2053? Before we get too far down this path, I should tell you that I’m one of those folks who don’t believe in time. I guess you can say I’m not responsible for whatever I write about the future, or the past, since my view is that there’s only the continual now, but I digress, don’t I? To see what may be in beer’s future, it might be wise to examine history. The ninth through 14th and 15th centuries saw the first great revolution in beer brewing: the conquest of hops. Bohemian King Wenceslaus decreed the death penalty for smuggling hops out of his country; and English King Henry VIII declared severe penalties to prevent their use. Nevertheless, the hop revolution had been fully successful across the world, even in England, by mid-18th century. Bavarian lagers and English porters were the great beers in that era. In the early 19th century, brewers learned temperature control in the malting process, and pale malts became possible. This initiated huge changes in brewing technology and brought to fruition the major beer style groups. Thus, the second great revolution: golden Bohemian-style cold fermented and aged lager beer. This style still towers over world brewing consumption. These less bitter, lower alcohol, attractive pale and mellow tasting beers became popular across the globe. Bohemian lagers, along with English pale ales (most especially, India pale ales), Irish stouts, and Bavarian doppelbocks dominate 19th century brewing accomplishments.
20th Century DisastersThe 20th century changed forever the way we view and enjoy beer, and maybe even the way we drink it. The first third of the century was disastrous for beer lovers. True, brewing technology had advanced far beyond the relatively primitive equipment in use across the brewing world. Brewers were finally gaining control over their product and had arrived at a point where the exchange of technical information was feasible. Then World War I broke out, accompanied by rationing, prohibition, and the resulting “dumbing down” of beer quality in every great brewing society. By the middle of the 20th century, marketers were in command, developing yellow industrial beer and yellow light beer, offshoots of the regal Bohemian style. Mass media advertisers were also having their effect. Dark, heavy ales, already an endangered species, were well on their way to extinction. The destructive effects of two world wars, 13 years of devastating prohibition, and history’s most severe worldwide depression were particularly damaging to American brewers, even though the United States was then on its way to becoming the world’s greatest beer producing country. By the second half of the 20th century, American commercial beer became the epitome of colorless tastelessness, with only one purpose: to enable one to reach drunkenness without having to bother with the taste of the stuff. We were, in fact, “out of beer.” Civilization had lost one of its most revered beverages. The very name “beer,” an alcoholic beverage with a long and honorable history, came to exemplify the new trash alcohol beverage.
The Third RevolutionThis situation, in turn, brought about the third great brewing revolution of the millennium. The craft beer counterrevolution is an ongoing phenomenon, signified by the reemergence of many rapidly disappearing Old World beer styles. We find ourselves becoming the “ark” of the world’s great beer styles. We entered the third millennia with all brewers having access to all of the great styles the world has developed. This was coupled with the possibility of developing a host of new styles for the coming era. So, whither now, beloved beer? As our industrial yellow beer axis, the BudMillerCoors group, invades the rest of the world, we find it gradually replacing the genteel Old World styles of England, Belgium, Germany, the former Czechoslovakia, and Austria. Right now, young people in many of those countries are embracing the yellow industrial stuff as though it were ambrosial elixir. This, even as their elders step back to gasp at this callous rejection of their true heritage. Will the European old-line brewers take this American invasion lying down? Well, no, but they are certainly leaping on the yellow beer bandwagon. Take Guinness, for example. Guinness, an elegant old world brewing company with a 250-year-old tradition, is now owned by the conglomerate Diageo (United Distillers Vintners). Don Russell, staff writer and beer columnist “Joe Sixpack” for the Philadelphia Daily News, has the story of this, one of the world’s most distinctive brews, settling itself in as a “light beer” to be chugged, thoroughly chilled at 38 degrees F, direct from a tall-necked bottle (you remember: the one with the widget to allow an Old World pour). If that doesn’t make you cry, consider Guinness head brewer Fergal Murray, who answered Russell’s questions by declaring, “You don’t have to drink Guinness warm…It’s true there will be some diluting sensation in the flavor (while drinking it cold)…but that’s balanced out by the refreshing context. You want to drink it fast, not sip it like you would a warm[er] beer.” Excuse me while I barf. It doesn’t take a prophet to predict that this particular conflict will continue along similar lines, probably centering itself in Europe, to the destruction of historic beer styles. Of course, that doesn’t mean that our craft brewers will be allowed to develop undisturbed. The Axis of Yellow knows that taste in beer is indeed the real enemy. What will happen if our young folk actually start to look for taste in their beer? What if they come over to us, the dark side?
Looking to the FutureAll that being so, what about the future of the Craft Brewing Revolution? Well, we can be sure that we have only lightly tapped the potential of beer styles across the world. The new Sam Adams Light (which I haven’t tasted) may be a forerunner of “light-beer-with-taste,” a sub-revolution of that style, whose time is well past due. Our craft brewers are developing a large base of heavy beers, but this has definite limits in our automobile-oriented society. You can only have one of those at your local. Unless you can rent a designated driver to get you home, you are in danger. We must, and will, develop what the British call “mild ale:” low in alcohol and heavy in taste. The only thing stopping this development is the fact that we have no name for such a beer type. “Mild,” “low alcohol,” and “light” are all discredited names. The session beer concept is in dire need of a name. And we must develop tasty beers. Hops are sure to gain strength in our beers. Here in Oregon, we have brewers throwing hops around like rice at a wedding. We have super-hopped up a number of styles as Oregon common beer, Oregon IPA, and delightfully hoppy Oregon red ales. But then, we are also demanding imperialness (imperial, as in hoppiness and strength) in many of our beers: imperial IPA, imperial pilsner, imperial porter, and I’m waiting patiently for my first imperial common beer. Then there is the “stout” category. Almost every competition brings new ideas: bourbon stout, chocolate stout, coffee stout, fruit-flavored stouts, etc. In Japan I found a Bavarian stout, that is, a stout brewed with Bavarian weizen yeast. I now look forward to some brewer producing a “Belgian” stout along the same lines: brewed with a good Belgian Trappist yeast and perhaps enhanced with a dollop of coriander or cardamom and a sliver of Curaçao orange peel. In the end, it will be our homebrewers who will actually pioneer the new beer styles for the 21st century. Brewing technology, of course, will change dramatically in the next 50 years. Brewers in 2053 will surely have full computerization of every step (even more than they have now), and that will be possible even for us homebrewing cheapskates, as it’ll be cheap, too. However, I can’t help but wonder if there won’t be a backlash against that much automation. We could easily see a renaissance of hand-brewed beers. That will probably take place just before the fourth great brewing revolution—the one leading back to tastelessness again.
Fred Eckhardt lives, writes and drinks beer in Portland, OR. He is the author of The Essentials of Beer Style and Saké (USA).