2015: The Year in Beer
Time is relative, and a year can both be experienced as a blink of an eye or a whole decade, creeping along. Casting my glance backward, I’m surprised to find a year of beer looks more like that decade; it’s possible that more change hit the brewing world in 2015 than any year since 1933. When the year dawned, for example, Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) had but three “craft” brands in its portfolio (as of this moment, it’s up to eight) and Lagunitas was still entirely independent. Most of us did not realize “alcoholic root beer” was about to be a thing—we still thought hard cider was a thing. Oh, and there were but a paltry 3,400 breweries in the country (we added more than 700 by the end of November this year). Seems like a lot, doesn’t it?
So, without further throat-clearing, let’s get to the review of a remarkable year.
If you wanted to put all the big trends of 2015 under one umbrella, you might title it “big flavors in little beers.” Going all the way back to the turn of the century, the beer-geek trend was for flavor and strength to move in one direction. The most popular geek beers were imperialized, soured or bourbon-aged, and drinkers yawned if they fell below 8%. In 2015, breweries offered a host of sessionable beers that were nevertheless flavor powerhouses. Could it be that link between strength and flavor was finally severed?
By two different measures, the hottest beer in 2015 was gose, a heretofore obscure (and for a time, extinct) Leipzig-based wheat beer made with equal parts salt, coriander and lactic zing. In American hands, it often included other fun ingredients like cucumber, hibiscus or basil. The Nielsen trackers observed this trend in sales numbers, and I can confirm that goses were nearly ubiquitous in pubs and breweries around the country as I toured this fall for my beer book. And if you need further evidence, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. put its imprimatur on the style when it announced its gose, Otra Vez, was joining the year-round lineup. (And as a personal note, I might nominate a lemon basil gose Schlafly brewed this summer, as the best beer I tasted in 2015.)
If you were spotting other trends, you had to contend, as always, with the sprawling category untidily captured by those three letters we most love I-P-A. Although they debuted before 2015, this was the year of the session IPA, the biggest trend in American hoppy ales. Their existence was made possible by a development over the past five years of infusing beers with more and more hop flavor and aroma rather than brute-force bitterness. It allowed breweries to ratchet the ABV all the way back to the mid-four percent without overwhelming their potions with violent IBUs. As a corollary, there was a mini-trend in IPAs that used actual citrus (grapefruit IPAs were the most common) to accentuate the emphasis on flavor rather than bitterness.
The final entrant in the big-flavor-little-beer category was Berliner weisse, which saw booming growth in 2015, and which points to the hottest brewing trend: kettle souring. It’s an increasingly-common technique in which breweries conduct a lactic fermentation on a batch of wort. It drops the pH of that wort, creating a clean, citrusy tart note that breweries can then use to acidify gose, Berliner weisse, saison or (another rising style) dry-hopped sour ales. Given that two of the hottest styles in 2015 used this technique, expect to see a lot more of it in coming years.
It’s a bit harder to track the decline of beers, but has any style seen more of a fall than the humble porter? Graybeards like me will recall a time when it was impossible to walk into a pub and not see a porter. A generation ago, nearly every brewery made one. Porters have now fallen to just 1 percent of the craft segment, and will probably soon fall off the tracking chart in the near future. As a big fan of the style, this is not my favorite development of 2015.
This is necessarily subjective work, but I would nominate alcoholic root beers for the title of worst trend. Although a brand or two existed when 2015 dawned, most of us had never heard of these things until Small Town Brewery launched Not Your Father’s Root Beer nationally this summer to roaring success. Had a national drinks company launched this product, it would have fallen into the (rightly) dreaded and scorned “flavored malt beverage” category—the one with hard lemonade and beers ending in the word “rita.” Instead, an ostensible craft brewery put it in front of a different audience, and it was met with near-universal acclaim. It does seem like the fad is already burning itself out. Ratings sites, where once praise was heaped on these drinks, are now loci of pretty savage reviews. Personally, I like my beer to, you know, taste like beer. It looks like others do, too, so this may be a short-lived phenomenon.
When we look back over the history of American brewing, 2015 may well be remembered as the year “craft” died. Not the craft segment, with flavorful IPAs, pilsners, and wild ales, but the very idea of a small, independent craft brewery making these beers in contrast to large, faceless multinationals that make only mass market lagers. In 2015:
- AB InBev revealed its strategy to knit together a network of regional craft breweries by adding Elysian, Golden Road, Four Peaks and Breckenridge to its existing portfolio that included Goose Island, Blue Point and 10 Barrel.
- Heineken bought a 50 percent stake in Lagunitas in a bid to enter the American craft segment.
- And Constellation Brands (Modelo and Corona) spent a shocking $1 billion for Ballast Point, the 31st-largest American craft brewery—in another foreign bid to enter the American craft segment.
For over three decades, it was reasonable to associate the size of a brewery with the kind of beer it made. Little breweries made more flavorful beers, large breweries made blander mass market lagers. That association has frayed ever since Coors (now MillerCoors) introduced the Blue Moon line, and it got weaker in 2011 when AB InBev purchased Goose Island. But now a glance at the largest U.S. breweries illustrates how faulty it is. The three largest breweries are still makers mainly of mass market lagers, but half of the next eight—all one-time craft breweries—are partially or entirely owned by large multinational beer companies. To add a cherry on top, Reuters recently reported that New Belgium was looking for a suitor to sell to.
There’s a silver lining to this watershed moment. For well over a century, the American mass market has been dominated by a single type of beer. It still is, but for the first time we have abundant evidence that the big beer companies don’t believe it will remain so. The “craft” segment, that category that includes everything but mass market lagers, is bound to become the mass market of the future. We know because those companies that specialize in the mass market are now spending billions on craft. Even our own editor, John Holl, declared an end to the word “craft.”
RELATED: How Craft Became Craft
As a final note, one trend to watch is cider. After amazing growth over the past few years, it hit a big bump in 2015 and sales actually began declining. This is partly because, after splashy releases last year, AB InBev’s Johnny Appleseed and MillerCoors’ Smith and Forge were in double-digit freefall by this fall. They were uninspired products rushed to the market with silly ad campaigns, so maybe that’s not surprising—but even industry-leading Angry Orchard had sales decline. Everyone keeps speaking of the B-word—bubble—but perhaps they got the beverage wrong.
City on the Move
I’ll leave you with one hot tip. Everyone loves running listicles about the best beer cities in the U.S.—with all the familiar names you’ve come to expect. I spent time in 24 cities this year, and two really surprised me. Nashville has a robust local scene with great beer available in most places and a number of excellent new breweries. But no one can touch Tampa, Florida, in terms of surprising quality and market saturation. Perhaps it’s the Cigar City effect, but there are now dozens of breweries in the region. (I heard a figure of 50-plus, but I haven’t been able to verify it; even half that number would impress.) My book event was at the recently-opened Hidden Springs Ale Works, and they were pouring beers that were remarkably accomplished for a five-month-old brewery in a city most of us would have figured for a Bud Light town. Tampa, Florida—go have a look.
And with that, I’ll leave you with a cheers; let’s hope 2016 is just as interesting.