Beer : The State We Are In

Jeff Alworth’s piece here makes for grim reading. He is in my opinion absolutely correct. Craft beer has over the last decade experienced massive growth but in doing so has I feel lost its way. Jeff explores the generational aspects of beer drinking which I think is definitely a major factor, one he is much better suited to tackle than I*. Also pertinent is that as an industry we have built our business plans on eternal growth, what happens when the growth dries up? We are about to see.
I come at things from the point of view of the beer in the glass. I know many others will argue its all about the number of breweries . I think the habits of each generation , the supply and demand and the sort of beers craft brewers have pushed and been pulled into making all have brought us here.

Growth at all costs

I have been drinking beer since 1992, drinking craft beer since 1998, I have written about beer since the early noughties , retailed and wholesaled it professionally and now of course I brew it professionally. Craft beer , or micro brewed beer or independent beer , the terms have shifted through the years, has been niche for most of the time I have been involved with beer. That changed over the last decade. Craft Beer started to burst it’s banks , people who wouldn’t normally drink beer started to discover it. This was of course a roundly good thing. Beer is wonderful , we want people to enjoy it and discover it.

If we cast our minds back to the early teens craft beer was in an extremist phase. Having steadily grown in the states since the crash in the 90’s, here our second wave of craft brewers were all growing confident enough to push the envelope. The IBU wars , ABV wars , and ridiculous adjuncts became features of a beer scene that wanted to test the limits. Extreme beer festivals popped up both in NZ and America. Craft beer fans were often also insanely hot chili sauce fans. This somewhat hard edged , largely male, scene needed to change and it did. You can only grow so far on the back of dry , flinty , bitter as all hell triple IPA. Craft swung back towards a softer less extreme place. The beers became sweeter, less bitter , then hazy. They also started to do something they hadn’t done since the US Craft boom of 90’s , they started to be flavoured with fruit essences, and extracts.  
As the craft beer river broke the flood bank and more and more people started to imbibe, it was clear that softer , sweeter , more tropical , fruit flavoured beers appealed to many people who didn’t used to drink beer. More of that easy going tropical juice the sales teams chanted! Increase the lactose contracts ! We need the sugar hit.

The inescapable river of history

Food has progressively been getting sweeter, softer and more easily palatable through the generations. Wild versions of vegetables are hard going, stone ground heirloom grains make breads you have to chew. Each technological development makes for easier to digest foodstuffs. The human urge is for sweeter , richer flavours. In the late 70’s and 80’s craft / microbrewed beer formed a little counter movement to that march of history. The beers were seen to be less sweet , more wholesome, the people involved in the scene were often also involved in the organics , slowfood , and wholefood movements. Beer was part of the revolution. What we have seen over the last decade is beer succumb to the tide. Beer has been pulled into line with the rest of food. Sweeter , richer, less hard edges . It is neither a surprise nor a coincidence that these changes have seen big growth for the sector.

Beer that tastes like beer

“Defend beer that tastes like beer!” Discussing things like this always opens up a risk of reducing beer down to what your Bud / Export Gold / Heineken drinking uncle reckons beer should taste like. Beer has constantly changed through the generations.  What you think beer is is different to what your great grandmother thought beer was to what her great grandfather thought beer was. But I do think there are some fairly big changes happening currently which mark this period of change out as being different.

Chameleon Beer

For the first time beers are being crafted to mimic other beverages and confectionery. Fruit juice , milkshakes, ice cream , chocolate bars , doughnuts , cakes , smoothies, pastries all inspire chunks of the beer world.

Beer gives up its trump card  

For millennia beer has had a trump card that makes it safe to consume. Its alcohol content has meant beer is a food source that will potentially taste bad if contaminated but will not support pathogens that will leave people sick. The recent trend for alcohol free beer puts pay to that. Without particularly low PH and heavy dosing with preservatives alcohol free beer is a particularly risky proposition.  We have already seen a global recall from Guinness of their alcohol free beer. Now small craft brewers who don’t have the QC and testing assets of a large brewer are getting into the action the potential for dangerous beer born illness is rife.  

Identity Crisis

The rush to brew seltzers  , the obsession with making beer into a confectionary, the alacrity with which beer has dispensed with alcohol , brewers have contorted themselves to appeal to people who don’t like beer. It’s hardly a surprise that a lot of those people are now rolling on to pastures new. There are still people who want beers with grown up flavours but there will be a painful period as the industry resets its expectations of how many of those people there will be.

*I on the other hand have always been a Gen Xer who drinks like a Boomer, what the hell do I know about what the kids want to drink?

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