Growth continues to define U.S. craft beer. While sales have slowed from the meteoric rise between 2012-13 (almost +20%) to a more reasonable +6% in 2016, other key aspects have increased without end in sight.
American breweries surpassed 6,000 in number towards the end of 2017 — an all-time high. And craft beer’s market share of the overall beer category continues to expand, after topping 10% for the first time in 2016.
Such broad, rapid growth means a greater variety of products and new trends — but also the risk of recession. There will be a bit of both in 2018 for craft beer, as younger breweries lure customers away from the old, trends rise and fall, and consumers continue to hunt down whatever is local, fresh, and newest to them. Here are 11 important trends we see in 2018:
1) ‘IPA Fatigue’ is a Myth
Ask a brewer or anyone heavily involved with the industry what they’re drinking and it’s unlike they’ll answer IPA. Among those who work every day in craft beer there is a noticeable fatigue for this popular style.
For the general consumer, however, it’s a different story.
IPAs are by far the preferred style among the crafty category’s customer base, and will again pay bills for brewers across the country in 2018.
“I don’t think IPAs are going anywhere,” says Sean Hale, GM of Barrel Republic in Carlsbad, CA. “They are the most popular craft style for a reason. India Pale Ales will always be the most attractive style for both drinkers and brewers because there are so many different flavor variations that are possible with the vast amount of hop varietals available to brewers.”
And there’s another reason behind the current success of IPAs: they’ve become more drinkable.
So argues Brent Ryan, president and co-founder of Newport Storm Brewery in Newport, RI. “Five-to-ten years ago we had all these big, super-bitter IPAs that would crush your palate,” he says, alluding to the likes of Palate Wrecker from Green Flash. “The newer IPAs are more aromatic, with hops added later in the boil, so that people can get more flavor out of them.”
Instead of demolishing palates, new IPAs are based on flavors over bitterness, and allow people to enjoy multiples in one sitting. That makes all the difference. “The market is driven by products that people can drink more than one of,” says Ryan.
2) IPAs Suffer When Rushed to Market
Every brewer knows they must make IPAs to compete. Especially newer breweries that have to catch on quick to survive. Stick an IPA in a can with a catchy name and cool artwork and you might just have a chance.
But too often now, these IPAs are low in quality. In the rush to generate sales, some brewers release product that’s unready for market.
“I’ve purchased cans before that after opening the first one, I realized they needed a few more days to settle in and let the flavors come together,” says Kyle Kensrue, director of operations for Randolph Beer in NY, NY.
In an ever-crowded marketplace, it’s become a bigger problem. “There’s too many IPAs out there now that aren’t up to standard,” says Chris Ciskey, owner of Yankee Wine & Spirits in Newtown, CT. But does this threaten the broader industry the way that subpar product helped pop the craft beer bubble in the late ‘90s?
“I don’t think it will damage beer overall, but those brewers are in trouble,” Ciskey says. “You can only fool people for so long. Just because a beer is local and artisan doesn’t matter when consumers find out that there’s something else that tastes way better. Inconsistency cannot last.”
3) New England IPAs Thrive — But Are Undefined
What began with John Kimmich of Alchemist Brewery messing around with hazy IPAs has blossomed into a national phenomenon. “There’s breweries in San Diego, Oregon and Colorado making the NEIPA style,” says Kensrue.
Consumers cannot get enough. Some of these low-bitter, hazy/opaque, juicy IPAs have become ‘white whales’, chased down by enthusiasts willing to pay top dollar. Even middle-of-the-road NEIPAs fly off the shelves.
But are consumers buying the real deal?
Kensrue does not think so: “What’s negatively affecting the NEIPA are brewers that approach the recipe for the beer from a purely aesthetic aspect (hello Instagram) rather than flavor. And you can tell when a brewery does that, because they really miss the mark on how the beer tastes. When Alchemist, Trillium and Other Half make their IPA’s, they’re not setting out to make a hazy IPA. The haziness is a byproduct of how they’re working with the hops and yeast. They set out to get a certain flavor and it happened to be hazy, not the other way around.”
In other words: hazy color does not equal New England IPA.
Try telling that to some consumers.
“We’re getting to the point now where people walk into the store and ask for anything that’s hazy and juicy, but they don’t always know what that means,” says Brian Hutcheson, Manager of Yankee Wine & Spirits. “They’ll name a beer and I’ll know that it’s either not hazy or not juicy. There really is no definition for New England IPA. Customers just think it’s cloudy and juicy.”
“When done well, the style is delicious,” adds Ciskey, of Yankee Wine & Spirits. “But too many places sell out their IPAs just because they don’t filter the beer and because of what they write on the cans. It’s bastardizing the category.”
With profits rolling in, the definition of NEIPA will likely stay hazy.
4) Premium 4-Packs Replace Bombers
Once upon a time the best beers came in large-format containers. Bombers and growlers where how craft drinkers bought their premium brews. While the larger format will likely never disappear, its time at the top has come to an end.
Enter the 4-pack of 16-oz cans.
Where expensive bombers now sit on shelves and collect dust, $14-$17 4-packs fly out of stores.
Part of the problem is that 22 ounces in a bomber is a lot of booze. Especially when that beer is high-gravity, as are many in large-formats.
“Yesterday with friends I opened a bomber of a beer, it was 10.5% ABV, and it did not get finished,” says Jeff Browning, brewmaster and partner of Brewport, a 12,500-square-foot brewpub in Bridgeport, CT. “Used to be that people saw bombers as a cheap way to package a product that you don’t make a lot of, and get to market at a rate you could profit from.”
But sales are not as consistent among bombers anymore. Consumers, especially those who cellar and age beers, increasingly see bombers as something you buy and keep around to open for special occasions.
“The problem there is that you’re typically not buying another one of those beers,” Browning says. “Brewers want you to come back and buy their beer every week. But if I come back and buy something that’s 10.5% every week, at some point my liver’s going to fail.”
In comparison, the 4-pack allows consumers to drink double IPAs or darker beers 16 ounces at a time — an amount easily shareable between two people. The format has been so successful that even lighter beers — lagers, sours, porters, session IPAs — now hit shelves in premium-priced 4-packs.
The advent of mobile canning lines, plus eye-catching artwork on labels, has also helped accelerate the rise of 4-packs.
5) Dark and Barrel-Aged Beers Suffer
What you don’t see as frequently in 4-packs is dark or barrel-aged beers. While some stouts and porters have made their ways into 16-oz. cans, this format trends heavily towards IPAs. Barrel-aged beers in particular have suffered from this packing movement.
“Five years ago, even when I called around, I couldn’t get people to sell me used-barrels to age our beers,” says Ryan of Newport Storm. “Now I have multiple people reaching out to me from the same supplier, trying to sell me barrels.”
Ryan points to tap lines at bars and restaurants as contributing factors. There’s a reason most taps pour trendy, easy-drinking IPAs, rather than heavier brews. One style sells better.
“People may drink one dark or barrel-aged beer when they’re out at the bar, but that’s not enough to have a significant impact,” Ryan says. “It becomes a volume thing.”
Still, darker and barrel-aged beers — and their typical bomber format — are unlikely to disappear. Rather, while sales may shrink, these brews should stabilize around a niche following.
“Yes, these beers are expensive, but they have created demand for a reason,” says Hale of Barrel Republic. “For those who love them, these beers play a different role than the typical supermarket options. People who spend the extra money for barrel-aged beers are usually not looking to binge and drink several pints. Instead, these beers tend to be treated like fine wines; they will be saved for special occasions and shared with friends or family.”
For that reason, some breweries will dismiss fears about unsold bombers and continue to release large-format, darker, barrel-aged beers. Prices will remain $15-$25 or more, which reflects their niche as luxury, celebratory items.
A new development for these brews in 2018 will be more coming out in smaller, 375-ml. bottles. Premium sours like Allagash and Almanac have already found success in this format, so it makes sense for premium dark beers to try this packaging as well.
6) Here Come Craft Lagers
For anyone who needs a break from IPAs, this new year will likely bring more craft lagers.
“For a couple reasons,” explains Kensrue of Randolph Beer. “One, they were always popular with the people making the beer. The number-one beer style brewers drink when they come to Randolph is pilsner. Two, a true, solid lager is hard to make, so brewers looking to show off their ability to make a great beer will show that. And three, for the consumer, we’re seeing a big shift towards drinkability. Consumers want a beer that has flavor but are brewed with a lower ABV and cleaner flavor profile, so you can have more than one. Lagers like pilsner and helles work perfectly for that.”
There’s another reason lagers appeal to brewers. It’s a craft style that macro-beer drinkers can understand. Budweiser is a lager and so too is this helles: want to try?
But is that a dangerous bridge to build? Browning of Brewport worries so: “With lagers, craft breweries are teaching new consumers that national-brand beers might not be that different than a microbrewery’s house lager,” he says. “They might buy that 4-pack of your lager, but they’ll know it’s still okay to buy that cheaper 6-pack of their macro lager.”
In other words, craft lagers might give newer consumers the wrong idea that craft beer is only marginally better than mainstream brews. Whether lagers unintentionally cheapen the reputation of craft beer remains to be seen.
7) White Whales Lose Prestige
True story: Two years ago I watched a customer walk into a store with superb craft selection and ask if they had Heady Topper. After the owner answered, “No,” the customer turned around and left.
Would that happen today? Doubtful. Selection has grown so varied and so high in quality that consumers can easily find comparable products to famed “white whale” beers.
For instance: when a customer at Yankee Wine & Spirits requests a hard-to-find (and out-of-stock) New England IPA, Ciskey points them towards Ransack the Universe, an American IPA from Collective Arts of Ontario, Canada.
“It’s tropically fruity, so it fits that part of the New England IPA,” Ciskey says, “though it’s not as hazy. But it’s always available. And if not, I have some other comparable IPA that just came in that week.”
And much of this time, these beers are from a local producer. “In today’s world there’s always another amazing beer around the corner,” says Hale of Barrel Republic. “This is especially true when it comes to IPAs, as so many brewers now have the ability to brew beers that are comparable to those that made big names for themselves in the past.”
When you can get top-quality beer so easily, why waste time hunting white whales?
“I just can’t see as many people thinking it’s a cool idea anymore to wait in line for three hours to be told that they can only buy four beers,” says Browning of Brewport. “Craft beer drinkers are getting older and smarter. More and more realize they can just get other terrific beers by a different name.”
Though Brent of Newport Storm foresees white whales retaining an important function. He recalls some years ago, during another stretch of fervor over Founders Kentucky Bourbon Stout. Everybody wanted to find KBS, but Founders was struggling financially. How come?
White whales generate hype — but not the sales volume to pay bills. What saved Founders was not KBS. The brewery survived thanks to All Day IPA, which grew into one of the top selling craft beers nationwide.
That’s an important lesson for brewers.
“KBS gave Founders the national cache, and then they came out with something that they could sell much more of,” Brent explains.
So while hype over white whales might ebb, breweries will continue positioning some products as buzz-worthy to generate a broader audience for more-macro releases.
And for some white whales, a permanent base of devoted drinkers always awaits the next release. “Barrel-aged rarities are special and dear to craft drinkers, and the rarest ones will still get lines out the door,” says Hale.
8) ‘Local’ Remains a Key Business Factor
Nearly every town in America now seems to boast a local brewery — if not several. Will this rapidly increasing number of producers push the industry towards a bubble?
It may depend on what business model these new places pursue. The question is whether breweries want to distribute — or focus on selling beers onsite.
If it’s the latter, then Browning draws a parallel between microbreweries and bakeries. “Every town in America used to have its own local bakery, and they all just made bread,” he says. And that should not overstrain the industry, so long as local breweries rely on their own consumer system. “Each one can have 1,000 people within walking or driving distance,” Browning says. “That’s enough.”
What put a dent in the independent bakery industry, however, was when corporate chains like super markets began making comparable bread for cheaper prices. If patrons of local breweries come to prefer national brands to local products, then microbreweries might start failing.
One advantage breweries have in this situation is their community atmosphere. They become a gathering hall for locals. And by selling alcohol products onsite, microbreweries are not that different from retailer and bars. “And how many liquor stores and bars are there out there?” asks Brent of Newport Storm. “A lot.”
“A lot of breweries in the past two-to-three years have built their business plan around making beer and having people come to them to buy it,” he continues. “They’re not looking to distribute it. For brewers on that scale, there is a lot of room to grow. Some of these breweries are happy just to be in business.”
This wave of community breweries — and craft beer in general — also benefits from a much larger trend. “We’re part of the local food movement,” Brent says. “Which is great for us. But if it goes away, a lot of these breweries could be trouble. That would take a newer, cooler consumer model for food. Like buying everything online or something like that.”
For now, as long as smaller breweries remain community-minded, there should be room for growth. But if many of them develop ambitions for distribution, then “I don’t know how the retail shelves and tap handles will absorb all that new beer,” Brent says. “We could have some real problems.”
9) The Boom Hurts Bigger Craft Breweries
In many ways, the industry already struggles with too many beers and not enough retail or tap space.
Brent recalls when Newport Storm was one of 10 craft beers available in a liquor store. “Now we’re one of 100,” he says. “And has demand for craft beer gone up tenfold? No, it hasn’t.”
Same for on-premise. Where Newport Storm was once the only craft beer on tap, now it’s one of 10, 15, 20 or more. “It’s indicative of what we’re all seeing,” says Brent. “It’s tougher now to sell large volumes of beer.”
Consumer loyalty has dissipated amidst the sheer variety of new, local, high-quality beer. Larger, older breweries across the nation have seen sales slip. One recent example is Smuttynose Brewing. Opened in 1994 during the first craft beer boom, and one of New England’s largest microbreweries, Smuttynose recently was forced into auction due to ill-timed expansion.
In 2014 the company opened a brand-new, $24-million facility, raising annual production capabilities to 75,000 barrels. But Smuttynose sales plateaued around 35,000 barrels annually. “The company’s financial models were based on 20 years of consistent growth but the explosion of microbreweries has led to changing dynamics in the marketplace,” says Smuttynose founder and owner Peter Egelston, in a press release.
In the Midwest is another example. Founded in 1986, Summit Brewing grew into Minnesota’s second largest brewery. But last year the company cut 10% of its staff, ceased distribution in six states, and reportedly plans to reduce output from 127,500 barrels to about 115,000 — all while Summit refocuses on local markets.
“I don’t see these problems slowing down for the bigger craft guys,” says Jon Davidson, Midwest market manager for St. Killian Importing of Everett, MA. “That’s nothing against them. It’s just so much harder to stand out from the pack now on retail shelves or tap lines if you’re not from around the corner.”
10) Influencers are Important Culturally — Not Economically
With an almost endless variety in craft beer, how will consumers know what they must drink next?
As with many decisions now, they’ll consult the internet.
Beer-rating websites will inform consumers, as will top bloggers and Instagrammers. “Influencers will have a huge affect, as they start a lot of the word of mouth,” says Davidson. That is why, for instance, consumers in Texas know to text friends in New England about cans of Sip of Sunshine.
While rating websites and influencers will help determine what beers are culturally “hot,” they are not as critical to breweries’ bottom lines.
“I always tell new brewers not to worry about competitions, medals, or websites,” says Browning of Brewport. “Allow your cash register to be your Untappd.”
To that end, the lowest-rated Brewport beer on Untappd is their Blood Orange Blonde Ale. Now guess Brewport’s top seller. You’re right: it’s that very same easy-drinking blonde ale.
“The users on those websites are white-whale chasers; they’re butterflies flitting from one popular thing to the next,” Browning says. “You cannot sustain a business thinking about those people. They’re not the people who are consuming your beer on a regular basis.”
11) The Term ‘Craft Beer’ Loses Meaning
The term “craft beer” may soon mean as much as “handcrafted” or “premium” in the alcohol industry. In other words: just about nothing. Overuse threatens to drain this phrase of serious definition.
Though a basic meaning will remain. “Craft is still just a word that denotes skill and artistry,” says Hale from Barrel Republic. Hence why “major breweries that grew from humble beginnings are still considered ‘craft’,” he adds, alluding to household names such as Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head, and Founders. The size of the brewery doesn’t matter as much as the quality of the product.
What complicates matters is corporate purchases. Big Beer in recent time has vacuumed up craft breweries across the country. Are these producers still considered craft brewers? According to the The Brewers Association: no, because they are not independently owned.
But do corporately controlled breweries still produce “craft beer”? According to their own marketing: yes.
So what is it? Are they truly “craft beer”? The answer is unclear.
Perhaps the better question is whether this occurs to most consumers. When drinking a Ballast Point IPA, or a Devils Backbone lager, what are the odds the average customer knows or cares that these breweries recently sold to Constellation Brands and Anheuser-Busch, respectively?
As long as the craft beer tastes good, most consumers are not bothered by who owns the brewery. As with IPA fatigue, feelings of scorn towards breweries that sold out remains mostly contained within the industry itself.
In other words, the term “craft beer” has little protection from corporate interests. Expect to see the term continue to lose meaning in 2018.
In its place could rise another word that differentiates between beers made around the corner versus those who share distribution channels with Bud Light.
“‘Craft’ no longer refers to the business side of beer,” says Kensrue of Randolph Beer. “There’s breweries out there that have large investments from investment firms and the like, but the brewer making the beer still approaches the process from a craft mindset and the beer tastes great. But they’re no longer independent. So we’ll start seeing the term ‘Independent’ used more to separate the breweries that haven’t taken a lot of money in from the corporate world.”
Kyle Swartz is managing editor of Cheers magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kswartzz. Read his recent piece The Journey of Clown Shoes From Contract Brewer to Corporate Partner.