The first witbier I ever tasted was poured at the Oregon Brewers Festival (OBF). It was roughly 20 years ago, and I was only beginning to realize that the country of Belgium had anything to do with beer. The witbier I had that day, from a brewery long lost to the mists of memory, was a bit tart and only lightly spiced. The milkiness of the appearance and the flavorful wheat body were a revelation, and for someone to whom Mirror Pond seemed exotic, it was downright radical. I couldn’t imagine a beer like that ever becoming popular, but it was about the same time that Coors’ Keith Villa was experimenting with the recipe that would become Blue Moon. Witbier no longer seems so radical—partly because of Blue Moon—but that’s how things evolve. What’s bizarre today is mainstream tomorrow.
This is one of the several delights of beer festivals: you find in them fragments of the future. I can’t predict what the next big thing will be, but I bet some version of it will be at the OBF this week. The reason? Brewers festivals are a good place to test out a beer. For breweries, a beer fest is like a little test market for their product. Or, if you prefer, a giant focus group. Breweries are rewarded by experimentation: if they hit on something wildly popular, they can try it in the real market; if their entry flops, they move on to the next thing.
This week, the 28th annual Oregon Brewers Fest kicks off in downtown Portland. It’s one of the country’s oldest and largest fests, and over the years has become a pretty good proving ground for future beer styles. As I do every year, I examine what’s on offer for clues. Picking out the future trends from the future duds is a mug’s game. (Seriously, would you actually have put any money on a witbier—a witbier—becoming the country’s best-selling ale? No—and neither did I.) This year, the fest boasts not just a mushroom beer, but a potato beer as well. Does this augur a stew-beer dawn? One can only hope!
More seriously, those potato and mushroom beers do point to one of a few major changes in the past decade: styles are collapsing, and breweries are experimenting with oddball ingredients more than they have since at least the great meat stout wave of the early 20th century. A few of the more interesting ingredients making an appearance: matzo crackers, vanilla and coffee (interesting because they appear in separate pale ales), kaffir lime leaves, Vietnamese mint, russet potatoes, candy cap mushrooms, cayenne pepper (in a strawberry beer), wild desert sage, galanga root—and all of that is in addition to more familiar spices like citrus zest, coriander, salt, lemongrass, as well as fruit, which is now regularly added to styles as divergent as Berliner weisse and IPAs.
One of the changes that has been happening for a few years is the steady drop in IBUs—though not, of course, in hoppiness. At the turn of the century, breweries competed largely on IBUs (and the residue of that trend continues as we continue to list bitterness units on labels and beer fest programs), but that has almost completely died. At this year’s OBF, just 7 percent of the beers have more than 70 IBUs. Alcohol strength is likewise trending down. Only 9 percent of the beers at the fest are north of 7.0%; a decade ago a quarter of the beers were.
In fact, that 10-year span is fairly instructive of broad trends. Have a look.
|Beer Styles at OBF||2006||2015|
|Beers with other ingredients||0%||18%|
|Beers w/ fruit, spice, other||8%||46%|
|Beers over 60 IBUs||26%||9%|
|Beers under 5.5% ABV||42%||47%|
|Beers over 7.0% ABV||27%||9%|
There are micro trends, too. In between 2006 and this year, Black IPAs had a heyday before going in decline. White IPAs appeared in 2013 and a few are returning again, and the big trend this year is session IPAs. There are more session IPAs than imperial IPAs—a big turnaround from a decade past. Some styles, like saisons and sours, made a showing some years ago and have held steady as niche styles. Along the way there have been little boomlets for gose, Dortmund export, Berliner weisse, and this year it’s radlers. These tend not to have staying power, though gose, amazingly, keeps plugging along. Looking through the beer lists is a bit like leafing through old yearbooks—you can recall when certain beer styles, like hairstyles, were once in vogue. (In a few years we’ll say, “oh yeah, the radler and shandy thing, that was big in the middle teens.”)
The time when a little-known style can be reintroduced as a national best-seller is surely past. (Though there is a Lichtenhainer—sort of like a smoked Berliner weisse—at the fest this year.) We know too much about beers for them to appear like witbier did back in the mid-1990s. New styles, however, may find their place. Session IPAs seem to serve a real need—vivid hop flavors, low-bitterness beers at sessionable strengths—unlike the black IPAs, which are essentially hoppy stouts. Maybe they’re a future fixture in the beer world. More likely, some ingredient or technique is a future star. The practice of hop bursting, or skipping bittering hops, has started to take purchase, and one brewery has a hop-bursted helles this year. The way breweries use fruit to accent extant beer styles is becoming increasingly impressive, and may hint at a fruitier future. Mushrooms and potatoes? Well, you never know.
Whatever the future holds, I should get a taste of it this week. If I find the next big thing, I’ll let you know.