2015: What a Year in Craft Beer

Not My Father's Beer beer flightGrowth. The word pretty much sums up craft beer in 2015.

The Industry

By the end of November, the number of U.S. breweries had hit an all-time high of 4144. In April, a record 11,000+ people attended the Craft Brewers Conference in Portland, Oregon. In September, at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, judges awarded at total of 275 bronze, silver and gold medals in 89 beer style categories. Amazingly, those winners were the top four percent of all the beers submitted for competition.

The craft industry saw unprecedented acquisitions and mergers. Firestone-Walker, Lagunitas and Dogfish Head all concluded deals with investors in 2015 and New Belgian announced Friday that they’re is looking for a buyer. The real newsmaker over the last five days has been Anheuser-Busch InBev. On Friday they acquired Four Peaks, Arizona’s largest craft brewery. Yesterday, it was Camden Town Brewery in London and today, Breckenridge Brewery in Colorado.

Ad in Dec/Jan 2015/16 Northwest Brewing News

Ad in Dec/Jan 2015/16 Northwest Brewing News

The Beer

And then there’s the beer. Hoppy IPAs continued their galloping growth. Nitro beers are bubbling up all over the place. All About Beer’s editor John Holl begins an article in the January 2016 issue saying, “There is no denying the popularity of nitro beers.” He goes on to cite craft breweries that have recently brought out new nitros. Guinness, the godfather of nitro beers, even came out with Nitro IPA.

For a lot of brewers these days, though, the action is in barrels. The craze is due, in part, to their variety of roles. They can be used to cask condition beer as opposed to keg conditioning. What happens inside a cask is similar to bottle conditioning where, upon bottling, a small amount of sugar is added to restart fermentation and naturally condition the beer. With kegs, CO2 is injected to carbonate the beer. Cask conditioned beer generally tastes less carbonated but a myriad of other subtleties can also occur.

Drinking AdventurouslyWhat so many brewers can’t get enough of is aging and souring their beer in barrels. Some are aging their brews two and three years. Listen to craft brewers talk and before long, words like ” souring” and “wild yeasts and bacteria” will probably pop into the conversation. The Belgians have been souring beer for centuries, but for American brewers, as Jeff Cioletti notes in his new book, The Year of Drinking Adventurously, “Sour is the new hoppy.”

For mainstream breweries like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch, consistently producing massive volumes of the same product is critical. Consistency is deceptively challenging to achieve. One key is the domesticated yeasts these breweries use. If bacteria or wild yeasts manage to sneak in during the process, you’ll likely be kissing your brew good-bye, and when you’re brewing, say, 600 barrels (18,600 gallons), that’s a lot of beer and money to pour down the drain.

Leslie with Deschutes' brewer Jeff Johnson in front of a foudre

Leslie with Deschutes’ brewer Jeff Johnson in front of a foudre

For many craft brewers, the attraction of brettanomyces (a yeast), lactobacillus and pediococcus (bacteria) is precisely the lack of predictability. Add brett, lacto or pedio to one brew then divide it into three identical casks, or wooden barrels, and when you finally tap them, you’ll likely have three different tasting beers. Barrels can range in size, with the largest foudres holding 1200 gallons or more.

Cask history is another piece of the sour puzzle. A brewer might use brand new oak casks, but used ones create additional levels of complexity. Imagine what happens when you pour the aforementioned brew into three barrels that previously held bourbon, wine and rum. How ever the beer turns out, you can be sure the results won’t taste anything like a Bud Light.

Leslie at Cascade Brewing Barrel House, Portland, OR with Hugo Patiño and Natasha Godard, Certified Cicerone and beer blogger

Leslie at Cascade Brewing Barrel House, Portland, OR with Hugo Patiño and Natasha Godard, Certified Cicerone® and beer blogger

If you want to try some great sour beers, Cioletti recommends Monk’s Café Flemish Sour Ale, Russian River’s Supplication and The Lost Abbey’s Red Poppy. If you’re lucky enough, travel to the sources–Philadephia, Pennsylvania Petaluma, California and San Marcos, California, respectively. Two other breweries serving up incredible sour arrays are Cascade Brewing Barrel House in Portland, Oregon and Jester King, outside Austin, Texas. These days, though, I’ll bet you can get your lips on a sour beer within a few miles of where you live.

2015 was indeed a spectacular year for craft beer. Thanks for reading “Not My Father’s Beer,” and please look for my novel The Brewer’s Justice, coming in February. Wishing you many satisfying brews in 2016!

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