Has the turmoil of the past few years led to more nostalgic beer styles, a harkening back to simpler times? That’s one possible explanation for what appears to be a renewed interest in lagers this year for beer drinkers — among other beer trends in 2022-2023.
“Craft lager has reinvented the wheel and is making a big comeback,” says Grace Skarra, beverage manager at Harrah’s Resort SoCal in Funner, CA. Her guests generally look for more health-conscious and organic options. “I’m predicting low-ABV beers will trend,” she says.
Lighter beers also fit a shift in drinking habits because of the pandemic.
“Day-drinking on the weekends has become a thing,” says Greg Engert, beverage director and partner of Neighborhood Restaurant Group in Alexandria, VA. “The lower-ABV classic styles you can drink while you’re playing a game or doing other activities,” Engert adds, naming what’s popular. “It stands in contrast to the office-based happy hours and late-night drinking sessions in darker bars.”
People began moving toward sessionability again this past summer, says Jason Daniels, chief operating officer for the Poughkeepsie, NY-based retailer Half Time. Consumers were “able to consume a number of beverages, rather than during Covid, when they were drinking 16% and 18% beers and trying to forget that they were in a national pandemic.”
Indeed, Drizly data shows that “consumers may be starting to pull away from heavier, hoppy beers in exchange for something lighter and more refreshing,” says Liz Paquette, head of consumer insights for the online ordering and alcohol delivery platform.
On Drizly, light lagers gained two percentage points in sales year over year from 2020 to 2021, while IPAs declined two percentage points. In 2022, so far, the share for IPAs has remained flat at 9% compared to the same time in 2021, while light lager gained two percentage points.
This popularity of lighter brews is seen at bars and restaurants nationwide. But it just scratches the surface of what’s going on in beer, considering there are 9,247 craft brewers in the U.S. at last count.
“We’re in the thick of a beer renaissance,” says Steve Lewis, one of the owners of Union in Chicago. “And I say that in the sense of creativity, innovation, honing skill and using science to make better beers.”
Popular Picks and Beer Trends
The overall beer landscape remains a category divvied up between the high-volume mainstream brews from the big domestic and foreign brewers, and the more artisanal offerings from the thousands of local craft brewers.
It’s reflected on national platforms like Drizly, where the top-10 sellers are Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite, Corona Extra, Michelob Ultra, Modelo Especial, Budweiser, Stella Artois, Heineken and Blue Moon Belgian White Wheat, in that order.
But along with the low-carb Bud Light NEXT, the fastest-growing beer SKUs on Drizly in 2022 so far have been the flavorful and high-ABV Goose Island Tropical Beer Hug, and Night Shift Brewing’s One Hop This Time IPA Series. Some observers think that beer drinkers have grown a bit wary of the hazy IPAs that have been so popular, and are looking for more of the hop-forward flavors of more classic styles, such as West Coast IPAs.
That has been the case at Neshaminy Creek Brewing Co.’s taproom, located in Croydon, PA, says director of marketing Kyle Park. “You’re getting that because you go out to a store and it seems like all you see are hazy IPAs,” he says. “Lucky for us, West Coast IPAs are part of our year-round lineup.”
Neshaminy Creek added a Mexican-style pale golden lager to its year-round lineup in May 2020. Called Warehouse Lager, the brew launched in the chaos of the pandemic, but has found an audience.
“It’s been nice to see that beer take on a life of its own and become a top seller here in the taproom,” says Park. Warehouse Lager won gold this past spring at the World Beer Cup.
“I think because beer drinkers and breweries have maybe jumped the shark with off-the-wall beer styles, people are now coming back to wanting a really nice, quality traditional beer style, and lagers fit that category,” says Wyndee Forrest, co-owner of the Henderson, NV-based CraftHaus Brewery.
Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Engert has seen the same trend. “It’s a reaction to some of those sweeter, more-newer styles,” he says. “And the biggest among those are crisp styles, but more specifically, pale lagers like helles, pilsner, but then also, crisp, refreshing ales like kölsch.”
Engert says there has also been a renewed interest in nuanced lager styles like tmavé and polotmav. Cask ale has made a comeback as well, he notes.
At The Whale Craft Beer Collective, which has four locations in North and South Carolina, the top seller is Whale’s Haüs Lager, brewed in collaboration with Fonta Flora Brewery out of Morganton, NC. “People are coming in just to drink that beer because they know it’s the only place they can get it,” says general manager Nathan Ormand. “They are seeking more balance in their drinks instead of these full-blown, overly adjunct type of styles.”
IPAs not MIA
While IPAs may be fading a bit, they have built up quite a following in recent years and still remain popular. For example, at Austin’s Easy Tiger the top-seller is Electric Jellyfish hazy IPA from nearby Pinthouse Brewing, continuing its five-year reign as the number one beer in Austin, says beverage manager Stetson Strifler.
“You pretty much have to have that on tap in Austin, no matter what kind of bar you are,” Strifler says. “I sell probably 140 liters a week.”
Jarrod Moiles, corporate executive chef and director of food and beverage for Pacifica Enterprises, whose properties include Draft in San Diego, reports that his top-sellers are Seattle’s Elysian Brewing’s Space Dust IPA and San Diego-based Societe Brewing Co.’s The Pupil IPA.
“In Southern California, it’s a very broad mix of classic American beers and Baja-style lagers, as well as IPA and craft beers,” says Moiles. “I feel it’s a split: Some people are looking for simple approachable flavors, a moderate ABV, and everyday drinkable beer, and others are looking for bold flavors and new experiences.”
In fact, depending on where you are, there is still quite an appetite for creative brews with more mass appeal. For example, in the Las Vegas area, CraftHaus has had success with a strawberry mochi milkshake IPA called Sugoi. “It has a cult following,” says Forrest. “That one sells out within hours.”
At Ray’s bar in New York, a top seller is Filson Gold Rush, says Carlos Quirarte, a partner in parent company Authentic Hospitality Partner. He describes it as “a Rustic Gold IPA, starting with a crisp blend of pale golden malts and premium, hand-selected hops from the Pacific Northwest.” This IPA is dry-hopped and packaged unfiltered for a “bold, rustic hop experience,” he says.
Also popular is Filson Maritime, a gose beer, which Quirarte describes as “a tart wheat ale with notes of citrus, pine and fresh grass, and a dry, clean finish of pure Pacific Northwest harvested sea salt to evoke elements of both land and sea.”
Hazy IPAs are still in at Nemo’s Beer Shop and tasting room in Queens, NY, says owner Andrew Bronstein. “I still sell three times as many hazy IPAs as anything else in the store. It blows my mind sometimes.”
Bronstein, who also co-founded Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Brewery in 2004, says things have changed considerably since he started in the business. “It used to be about color and brightness,” he says, “and now it’s about aroma and soft juicy flavors.
Among the newer styles he is seeing are smoothie sours. “Fruited sours that aren’t sour,” he says. “They have lactose in them so they are, again, soft and fruity and juicy, and they don’t have the bite of an actual sour beer, but somehow they fall into the sour beer category.”
Alcohol-free Beer Advances
Non-alcoholic beers are “on-fire big time,” says Adam Wolloch, director of purchasing at Half Time. “More and more brands are coming out with nonalcoholics by the week, it feels like.”
Will this be the year when nonalcohol beer finally gains widespread acceptance? The sub-category had a run years ago and never really took off. But these products may be here to stay this time, thanks to new brewing methods resulting in better quality.
Sales have shown strong growth, albeit from a low starting point. “While the nonalcoholic beverage category remains small on Drizly . . . the growth in this category is significant,” says Paquette. “In 2022 to date, share for nonalcoholic beer has increased by 41%, compared to the same period last year.”
“I think it’s very big,” says Engert. “NA Beer was such an underutilized category for decades. They weren’t good — people didn’t like the way they tasted. They were typically old on the shelves and that probably stymied some of the development of the category. There is a lot of room for growth.”
Partake Brewing, based in Calgary, Canada, offers nonalcohol beer in 10 different styles, and at just 10 to 30 calories per can. “When we started in 2017, we were one of five or so craft nonalcoholic beers,” says Founder/CEO Ted Fleming. “Today, there’s probably 50.”
He says the audience for NAs has broadened into those who drink alcohol on occasion, but are looking for a healthier alternative — particularly on weekday occasions.
‘Tis the Seasonal
Seasonal beer remains a sure-fire way to please customers. Iron Hill Brewery, which has 20 locations on the East Coast, was preparing in August to launch its pumpkin and Oktoberfest lagers, “which we sell the hell out of in the fall season,” says Mark Edelson, one of the founders.
Further into fall Iron Hill rolls out its higher-ABV, fuller-bodied Double IPAs, while the holiday season brings out its Reindeer’s Revenge, a Belgian tripel with American hops in it. To get drinkers through the winter, Iron Hill fortifies them with its Russian imperial stout, only to lighten things up in spring with maibocks and hazy beers.
At Applejack Wine & Spirits in Wheat Ridge, CO, beer manager Ian Hanson says it seems like fall beers, such as pumpkin-flavored brews and Oktoberfest märzen, start appearing earlier and earlier each year. Other big sellers, given its location, are anything Coors.
“We’re out here in Coors country so Coors Lite is my biggest SKU,” Hanson says. “And Banquet does well since it’s brewed out here.”
Even near San Diego, where the weather is considered summery perfect year-round, bars and restaurants embrace seasonal. “I always look forward to all the summer takes on beer selections,” says Tipi Vryasith, food and beverage director at Hotel del Coronado. “What summer begs for are light flavors that capture the spirit of enjoying a beer without being weighed down.”
Her favorite summer beer is a shandy. “A beer expertly balanced with lemonade or fruit juices, when done right, is a great summertime trend on menus,” she says.
For the fall, Vryasith likes brews that evoke memories of apple picking and the fragrance of fresh apple cider donuts. “I look forward to all the autumn flavors: pumpkin, cinnamon, caramel, nuts and grains. I can’t wait to see how these flavors meld together with a stout, a big IPA, amber ale or a porter,” she says.
Glass Half Full
The beer category faces its share of challenges, however. For one, spirits sales are close to overtaking beer, according to the latest data from the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. And this was with hard seltzer included in beer category data.
Inflation also poses a problem. A recent survey of more than 1,000 Drizly users revealed that nearly a third (31%) say inflation has affected their alcohol purchasing.
But for now, many bars, restaurants and retail outlets across the U.S. have not experienced any noticeable impact in sales. Consumers seem eager to put to good use some of that money they have saved up during the pandemic.
Easy Tiger’s Strifler predicts the next big thing will be low-cal craft beer. “Right now, there aren’t really any options, but in the next two or three years, someone’s going to jump on that train,” he says.
And there is some evidence that gluten-free beers may be starting to proliferate. Half Time has seen a handful of nonalcoholic gluten-free beers. “I’ve got like three or four of them on the shelf,” says Wolloch. “We never really had that before.”
The renewed interest in lagers supports the notion some people have that craft beer has become too removed from mainstream drinkers. At The Whale Craft Beer Collective bar in Asheville, NC, they are trying to change that perception.
“Our biggest thing is serving people without pretension,” says The Whale’s co-owner Andrew Ross. “Really taking the pretension out of high-end beer, taking the pretension out of beer bars, out of bottle shops, and being a really approachable, neighborhood-focused place to learn about beer.”
Andrew Kaplan is a Queens, NY-based writer who covers the beverage industry.