It’s hard to deny the beauty that is a nitro pour—the dense, pillowy head that caps a waterfall of tiny bubbles and rising waves of creamy foam. Commonly associated with Ireland’s popular Guinness stout, more American craft-beer producers are exploring nitrogenated beers. Nitro brews offer amazingly frothy heads and decadently thick yet silky mouthfeels. They’re a natural partner to rich styles like stouts, porters or ales, though breweries are becoming more adventurous in their nitro offerings, incorporating pale ales, IPAs and wheat beers. It’s becoming easier to buy these beauties, as more bars are dedicating nitro lines to independent selections. Breweries are also exploring packaging options to turn these traditionally draft-only novelties into retail-outlet regulars.
The craft beer industry is notable for its collaboration and camaraderie between brewers, but this takes it to another level. The cooperative model, in which organizations are owned by their members rather than by shareholders, is a unique option for passionate brewers and beer lovers. It allows the producer and consumer to join in local startups attuned to their communities. Co-op breweries often focus on the benefit of their workers and neighborhoods, rather than maximizing profit. They not only produce beers that meet local interest and demand, but often benefit their communities, like serving locally sourced foods or aiding regional charities or nonprofits.
Much like the nitro craze, cask-conditioned beers are also taking hold on the American craft-beer scene. Traditionally, cask ale, also called “real” ale, is an unfiltered, unpasteurized beer with naturally occurring carbonation, without using refrigeration, nitrogen or carbon dioxide. They are fermented as is, or possibly with the addition of extra hops, and then served cool from a firkin. With no forced carbonation, cask ales typically offer soft effervescence, which many argue provides a more authentic beer-drinking experience. It also allows the brew’s complex and nuanced components, including the fermentation characteristics and base ingredients, to shine. Some American brewers are adding fruit, herbs and spices to offer even more varied and layered selections of wonder to thirsty consumers.
By now, most people have heard of farm-to-table cooking, but the trend is now making its way into craft beers. Brewers are increasingly aware of where their ingredients are sourced. They’re selecting materials from local purveyors to make high-quality beers that, dare we say, highlight terroir. While many brewers source ingredients from nearby producers, others are building breweries on farmland, looking to craft “estate” bottlings that are unique and expressive of the land. The philosophy has especially taken hold in states that allow microbreweries to grow, produce and serve beer on agricultural land, a common right for wineries, but only a recent option for many brewers.
Yes, IPAs are still the king of craft beer styles, accounting for more than 26 percent of the market. That popularity is growing, with sales revenue up nearly 44 percent in 2015. Constant experimentation and innovation has keyed growth and sustained interest. The market is awash in exciting and varied options, from easy-drinking session IPAs to those using just-on-the-market hop varieties, cross styles (like white or wild IPAs) and SMASH (single malt and single hop) beers. Sure, there are still over-the-top, 100-plus IBU offerings for hardcore hop-heads, but there are also more restrained and focused selections, meaning there’s a Goldilocks IPA out there for everyone.
Mergers, Partnerships and Investments
There have been plenty of deals over the years, but recently, some of the most notable beer industry acquisitions ever have occurred. It could signal an alarming trend for craft beer producers. Some significant deals struck in 2015 include Anheuser Busch-InBev’s acquisition of Golden Road Brewing, Four Peaks Brewing Co., Breckenridge Brewery and Elysian Brewing Co.; MillerCoors’ purchase of San Diego’s Saint Archer Brewery; and Heineken’s deal to acquire half of California craft brewer Lagunitas. And don’t forget the largest deal of all: AB-InBev’s bid to acquire SABMiller for a reported $107 billion, a deal that would merge world’s two biggest brewers. While not yet finalized, it would give AB-InBev approximately 80 percent of the American beer market. So what does it all mean? The idea of “Big Beer” being interested in craft breweries is nothing new, but the visibility and distribution limitations these juggernauts can impose on small producers are very real concerns. Only time will tell how the quality and reputation of the industry will be affected.