There’s no question that the domestic beer market is still ruled by the giants. The number-one American beer brand, Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Bud Light, sold 509 million 2.25-gallon cases in 2013, according to the Beverage Information Group, the research unit of Cheers’ parent company. That’s more than double the cases sold by number-two Coors Light, and over 30 times more than Samuel Adams, the biggest craft brand.
But when you look at what’s going on in the domestic beer market, it’s all about craft. From category shifts to brewmasters on the rise to national craft events, there is a lot going on in the beer business. Here are a few trends.
Sweet on Sours
India pale ales have hogged the spotlight in recent years, but sour beers have started giving IPAs a run for their money lately. Although sour beer isn’t new, the style has just recently experienced an upswing in popularity in the U.S.
At Ormsby’s tavern in Atlanta, co-owner Michael Goot first introduced a sour beer to his menu five years ago, and remembers ordering a case every month. Now Ormsby’s features several sour selections, and Goot places orders for multiple cases each week.
Customer favorites include the Duchesse de Bourgogne ($8 for an 11.2- oz. bottle) and the Rodenbach ($7 for an 11.2-oz. bottle). Ormsby’s also carries New Belgium La Folie, priced at $26 for a 22-oz bottle. So why the sudden interest in sour beers?
“Sours are interesting and they’re different, and a lot of people haven’t tried them before,” Goot explains. “It keeps pace with the fact that people are looking for inventive beers. They want to try something new. They don’t even mind paying more money for it.”
Cambridge Brewing Company, the oldest brewpub in the Boston area, reports that its sour/wild ale A Picture of Nectar is one of the top-sellers on draft. Each beer barrel is doused with apricot puree during the fermentation process.
“I have a hard time imagining anything truly rivaling the popularity of IPAs in this country, but this sour beer of ours has been very popular ever since it went on tap,” says Jay Sullivan, head brewer at Cambridge Brewing Company. The brew is served in a flute glass and priced at $6.
Wheats, Ciders and Seasonals
Sours aren’t the only category gaining momentum, however. Many operators are seeing more demand for wheat beers as well. At The Brew Exchange in Austin, TX, one of the newest wheat brews on tap, Revolver Blood and Honey from Granbury, TX-based Revolver Brewing, has been a consistent top seller for the past few months, says co-owner Tim Womac. It carries an average price of $5.50 per pint.
Ciders are also a growing part of the scene. Cider consumption reached 16.8 million 2.25-gallon cases in 2013, a 66% increase over 2012.
The Ginger Man in New York has up to 10 ciders on the menu, up from just two or three a year ago, says floor manager Wally Jaczkowski, who also runs the beer program.
Popular cider options include Wölffer’s Dry Rose (priced at $10.50 for a 12-oz. bottle) from the Hamptons, and Northern Spy (a 25-oz. sells for $19) from Ithaca, NY-based Eve’s Cidery. Despite the slightly heftier prices associated with these beverages vs. conventional brews, Jaczkowski reports that he regularly sells out of the ciders.
The beer menu at The Ginger Man rotates on a regular basis. Jaczkowski notes that the amount of limited-edition seasonal brews has picked up in recent years. Pumpkin beers have become a big deal for autumn, and like retailers and Christmas, the fall-flavors season is starting earlier.
“People started trying to sell me pumpkin beer back in July,” Jackowski recalls. “It’s crazy how many there are. But we don’t like to oversaturate our selection with pumpkin beer or with other beers from similar categories. We try a lot of beer in an effort to make sure we’re only delivering the very best selections to our customers.”
Among the seasonal offerings The Ginger Man is rolling out this fall are Southern Tier Brewery’s Pumpking beer ($7 for a 13-oz. pour) and Elysian Night Owl (16 oz. for $7).
In addition to seasonals, domestic session beers have taken off. At Boll Weevil 53 in San Diego, one of five independently owned Boll Weevil locations, session IPAs are also becoming a staple among its clientele, says bar manager Will Fox.
With a lower alcohol content than a traditional IPA, Fox says that the sessions are more popular during the summer months, when guests seek lighter, more refreshing beer options. A popular favorite is Ponto SIPA from Pizza Port in Solana Beach, CA, available for $5 per pint. Fox says that one of his top-selling beers is Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA, which is available for $7 per pint.
Beer Cocktails and High-End Brews
Although some predicted that beer cocktails would be a passing trend, many operators are seeing continued customer demand for them. Ormsby’s was the first bar in Atlanta to offer a full beer cocktail list, which Goot reports has always been a hit with his clientele.
Ormsby’s is now revamping its beer-cocktail offerings to include new items such as an IPA-based Margarita and a Ginger Rum Shandy. All Ormsby’s beer cocktails are priced from $11 to $12.
The Brew Exchange maintains a separate list of beer cocktails, including the Steam Roller (St. Arnold Santo beer, Woodford Reserve bourbon, St. Germain, Cherry Heering, lemon juice), the Nectarita (Woodchuck Amber cider, Pierre Ferand Dry Curaco, Blue Nectar reposado tequila, fresh orange juice), and the Boardwalk (Lindemans Framboise, Absolut Hibiscus vodka). All beer cocktails are priced from $8 to $9. Womac acknowledges that the beer cocktail menu is more difficult to perfect than the general beer listings.
“We’ve rotated out a few different cocktail menus over the years, incorporating different things,” he says. “Some of them work and some of them don’t. Beer cocktails are just harder to catch on, but when a customer finds one that they like, they’ll keep coming back for it.”
In addition to branching out into the beer-cocktail realm, more consumers are becoming self-proclaimed “beer connoisseurs,” anxious to try the latest and greatest brews. They’re also not turned off by spending more money on a unique beer.
Boll Weevil has taken to adding some higher-priced items to their beer menu. An example is AleSmith Brewing Company’s BA Old Numbskull. A dry, barley wine beer, it is 11% ABV and is served in a small glass similar to one used to sell cognac. A 750-ml. bottle retails for $15, and Fox says it’s a popular menu offering.
“People see it and then they want to try it, because it’s so different,” he explains. “Price typically isn’t a factor.”
Moody Tongue Brewery launched in Chicago this past June and focuses on “culinary beers.” The brewery is devoted to taking cooking techniques and applying them to the art of brewing.
The result is a selection of intricate, flavorful beers that delight the palate—and deliver a major hit to the wallet. One of Moody Tongue’s creations, Shaved Black Truffle Pilsner, is available at select Chicagoland locations; it typically retails for $120 for a 22-oz. bottle.
But Moody Tongue brewmaster Jared Rouben says it’s all about producing a high-quality product, and that consumers are willing to pay for it.
“Not only do we hand-select the highest quality ingredients for these brews, but we contract with farmers to grow specific ingredients for us, just like people in the culinary industry do,” says Rouben, who was a classically trained chew before making a shift to the beer industry. “People are willing to pay more money for a quality culinary experience, which translates to brewing as well.”
Food Pairings and Beer-Themed Events
Once typically reserved for wine connoisseurs, operators are seeing more of a demand for beer-pairing dinners and other types of beer-themed events.
Boll Weevil 53 hosts beer-pairing dinners an average of four times per year. The restaurant generally pairs with a local brewmaster, who collaborates with the restaurant’s chef to create the menu based around the beer selections.
Boll Weevil 53 recently partnered with the Coronado Brewing Company on a beer-pairing dinner. Priced at $40 a person, the three-course meal featured an orange-glazed chicken wing appetizer, choice of entree (salmon sandwich or boneless short ribs), and a cheesecake dessert. Beers paired included Coronado Brewing Company’s Orange Avenue Wit (California wit beer), Mermaid’s Red (amber ale), and Stupid Stout (American imperial stout).
Cambridge Brewing Company offered a four-course beer-pairing dinner this past June. Tickets were priced at $100 per person; 80% of the profits were donated to a local charity.
Menu items included a curry parsnip and apple bisque soup (paired with Flower Child IPA); chicory, frisée and radicchio with warm poached egg (paired with St. Pepper, a farmhouse ale brewed with peppercorns); grass-fed prime rib (paired with wine-barrel-aged Bannatyne’s Scotch Ale); and “ale” poached pear (paired with Arquebus barley wine).
The Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas held an inaugural Beer Weekend in September. This three-day event was devoted exclusively to domestic craft beer. It included multiple events such as a high-end brewmasters’ dinner, a craft panel discussion, and a beer festival on the beach featuring nearly 30 breweries.
The event aimed to give a boost to the Las Vegas beer culture in general; plans call for Beer Weekend to become an annual event marketed to a nationwide audience, says Sarah Johnson, Mandalay Bay’s food and beverage director and Nevada’s first female certified cicerone.
“Nothing like this has ever been done in Vegas before,” Johnson says of the event that brought industry leaders together with the general public to learn about and celebrate craft beer. “Having all these big names along with many of our local brewers come together like this is very special.”
With the craft craze showing no signs of dying down, operators can expect to see brewmasters taking things to the next level by becoming even more innovative with their future beers.
“I see more hybrids, and smaller breweries becoming more inventive with their beers, using different ingredients that have never been used in beer before,” Goot predicts.
What about the steady pace of microbreweries popping up all the time? Will the industry be able to sustain this kind of growth? Womac thinks so.
“At least once a week I find out about a new local microbrewery opening, and that’s just looking at the state of Texas,” he said. “This is happening all over the country, but so far the customer demand has kept pace with the excessive supply. I see both of those things continuing on a very steady incline.”
Melissa Niksic is a freelance writer based in Chicago.