There are more breweries in the US today than there were just before Prohibition. There’s an abundance of good beer, but that doesn’t mean breweries have become more diverse in what they put out. At times, it feels like the 6,000-plus American breweries are all brewing the same three beers. The craft beer scene has never been so exciting nor so dull.
The list of the Beer Advocate’s 250 highest rated beers contains products from 86 brewers. It currently has 92 pale ales or IPAs on it. It has 79 stouts, and 35 wild-fermented beers. Essentially, three styles of beer comprise four fifths of the top-rated craft beers.
Why this paucity of styles?
Let’s start with the caveat that Beer Advocate’s list is a reflection of consumer opinion. Consumers – even open-minded, discerning craft beer lovers – revert to the familiar: the citric flash of the IPA, the Imperial Stout’s coffee-cocoa delicacy, the puckery fruited sour. I’m inclined toward these styles myself. My fridge is full of hopped-up ales to quaff with savory meals. I stock up on funky/fruity ales during warm afternoons, and I have a basement closet full of high ABV stouts that I crack on special occasions.
If these ales sell quickly and gin up a lot of hype, brewers must see the value of making them. From a business perspective alone, it would be irresponsible not to. Consequently, young breweries with limited staff and scant production space default to creating these crowd-attracting ales. And often, the results are transcendent. Only a contrarian would wag a finger at Treehouse, Trillium or Other Half for focusing on IPAs, Sours and Stouts rather than Kellerbiers and Baltic Porters.
Now, I’ll concede that those three breweries release non-hoppy/un-chocolaty/funkless beverages, but these are more exception than rule. They rarely elicit the excitement of more, shall we say, trendy offerings. Additionally, I’ll acknowledge that a small brewer producing sour ales would be tempting fate to brew a non-sour beer in the same equipment for fear of insidious culture infiltration. So, there’s a legitimate reason why small brewers of sours might not diversify.
In this environment, though, I worry about the fate of the generalist craft brewer. When I consider the craft luminaries of the 1990s, I’m amazed at the variety of beers they have and continue to produce. Founders Brewing’s repertory includes a Wee Heavy and a Raspberry Ale. Bell’s Brewery still counts a Wheat Ale and a Porter among their most popular offerings. Dogfish Head has long eschewed traditional conceptions of style. So while they’re known for revolutionizing the IPA, they also bottle an Oak-Aged Pale, two Browns, an Ale-Mead hybrid, and a Witbier.
Indeed, there’s evidence that drinkers still crave variety. Just look at Beer Connoisseur’s 2016 ranking of the most purchased craft beer styles. Unsurprisingly, IPAs dominate, comprising nearly a third of all beer dollars. But what follows is more heterogeneous, with sales of Wits, Ambers, Bocks and assorted Seasonals yielding more than a third of the market. If this seems at odds with the Beer Advocate top 250, perhaps it’s an illustration that the drinker who reviews beers online, queues up for hot releases and buys hazy bombs by the case has different priorities than the casual-but-dedicated craft lover. The former may drive the conversation, but the latter still buys a lot of product.
Anyway, there is clearly still a desire for varied, flavorful beers, and in an era of narrow-focus, many young breweries still maintain a varied repertoire.
Take, for example, Denver’s Call to Arms Brewing Co. In a taproom designed to evoke an English pub, this brainchild of Avery Brewing alums Chris Bell, Jesse Brookstein, and Jon Cross pours styles you won’t find anywhere else. On any given day, visitors to this three-year-old brewery can enjoy brews ranging from crystalline crisp to chewable roasty. One of Call to Arms’ first beers was a Zoiglbier, an obscure German Dark Lager. They continuously tackle equally antiquated recipes, and their regular selections include a Vienna Lager and an Oatmeal Porter.
Brookstein laid out a guiding dictum: “We have a great deal of respect for the brewing traditions of Europe where so many beers were brewed for workers and families, to be consumed as a complement to life and not a beverage to knock your socks off.”
Almost all of Call to Arms’ brews fall into what we now call the session range. While this is partly a pragmatic choice – patrons can try several beers without getting obliterated – it is also about approachability. A beer may be uncommon, even esoteric, but it’s eminently drinkable.
Brookstein cites Ron Pattinson’s excellent “Fermented Culture” articles for Beer Advocate magazine when asked where Call to Arms draws inspiration. This recurring series exploring recipes of defunct breweries, the historical antecedents of modern craft beer. He credits it with prompting Call to Arms’ Dutch Kuit and Dark Czech Lager. He specifically highlights their Swedish Lager, Nine-Toed Woman, as his favorite Pattinson-inspired potable. This style of lager has a more robust malt profile owing to poor hop availability in Sweden. Call to Arms’ take according to Brookstein, had “lovely savory notes while remaining incredibly drinkable and offering a beautiful copper appearance … People are constantly asking us to re-brew that beer, which I’m clearly 100% on board with!”
Incidentally, Brookstein pushes back on the assertion that the brewery’s expansive selection is an end unto itself. They still brew IPAs, even hosting a “Hops for Humanity” event to raise money for Habitat for Humanity. Yet he specifically mentions two trends that they’ve steered clear of: hazy IPAs and heavily-adjuncted stouts. This, he asserts, is the result of their decision to focus on building a steady, vast portfolio.
In Gainesville, Florida – home of the University of Florida – First Magnitude Brewing has harnessed scientific know-how to experiment with a wide variety of beers.
“Beer in Florida has come a long way in a short period,” says head brewer John Denny. “And our customers appreciate the wide variety of beers on our 20 taps.”
Unlike Call to Arms, Denny and his team haven’t made a conscious decision to brew unusual recipes. Their repertoire includes a fair number of hoppy and confectionery brews, and they maintain a robust sour program. But their superseding interest is experimentation. First Magnitude, which launched in 2013, boasts a crew that includes PhD researchers, BJCP-certified judges, and alums of Hogtown Brewers, the 2016 American Homebrewers Association Rategast Club of the Year. They also maintain a close relationship with the university.
First Magnitude’s mission to develop and innovate often means adding complementary ingredients to traditional styles. Recently, the university provided them with fresh local strawberries to transform a one-off batch of their gose, Saltwater Intrusion. Even their recent New England style IPA, Win Win (brewed with Proof Brewing of Tallahassee for the Florida-Florida State football game), is a break from expectations. The collaborators added apricot to their ale, balancing its hoppiness with an assertive tartness.
This experimentation goes beyond the kettle. In an especially innovative co-venture, First Magnitude partnered with the Florida Museum of Natural History for an augmented reality beer project. First Magnitude brewed three releases – a stout, a bock and a marzen – each named after endangered local species of butterflies. The can label for the Miami Blue Bock could be scanned using the Museum’s AR application to reveal imagery and information about the eponymous butterfly.
When I asked Denny about First Magnitude’s drive to evolve with its beers, he acknowledged that there were prevailing, sometimes stifling trends. “Folks like high gravity, folks like barrel aging,” he conceded. “Mostly, though, they want to try what’s next.”
It would be a shame if brewers like Call to Arms and First Magnitude became the exception rather than the rule, if consumer myopia to drive brewers to contract instead of diversifying. When drinkers only show up for IPAs, big stouts and sours, it speeds the extinction of other styles.
This became achingly clear to me in March 2016, when Stone Brewing announced it was discontinuing production of its Smoked Porter. This was a gateway craft beer for me. I remember picking this beer up on a whim from a bottle shop in Kentucky and splitting it with a friend over some pulled pork sandwiches. The toasty, bacony malt tangled itself around the salty-sweet pork like octopus tentacles. It was assertive and flavorful but not overbearing.
That was nearly a decade ago, yet I haven’t drank that beer in ages, and it appears I’m not alone. Surely my apathy toward this brew didn’t aid its survival. The same can be said of Firestone Walker’s Wookey Jack (a Cascadian Dark Ale) and Founders’ Old Curmudgeon (an Old Ale). Those were favorites of mine that have seen their last bottle. Consider, too, how many of today’s beloved styles, like the Saison and the Gose, were all-but-extinct a decade ago before American craft brewers revived them.
I made a resolution for 2018 — this year, I’m making more of an effort to order beers not named IPA, Stout or Sour. No shade on those particular styles: I hope this piece will not be read as some kind of indictment. But we need to acknowledge that our dollars are our voice, and I’d hate to see a good Rauchbier, Kolsch, Amber, Porter, Tripel, Gruit, Cream Ale, Eisbock, ESB, Sahtee, or Hefeweizen disappear because of my indifference.