It's about the beer
Gina Miller and Bill Keeper
Since we're entering a new year I guess it's appropriate to reflect a bit on a few beer things. First
off I'm sure you noticed that West Coast IPA once a defining beverage of the craft beer scene is
not a style that draws much attention anymore. The same can be said about traditional styles like
the English dark mild and other time-tested varieties that we both enjoy.
Sometimes I think that in today’s craft beer scene, excess is king. Sour ales, for example, have
burst into the mainstream with a good number being defined less as beer and more like alcoholic
fruit puree. Meanwhile, IPAs have turned as murky as swamp water, juicy sweet, and in a constant
fight to pack as much hop flavor as possible into each glass.
Don't get me wrong Bill. There is great merit to those opulent styles, but for I still thing there is
something lost in translation. Many of us still cherish traditional formulas, some of them centuries-
old mainstays from Europe. The trouble is, they don’t always sell.
I talk to many brewers and know that some find themselves at a crossroads of what they want to
brew and what is going to keep the lights on. They tell me that when they make classic styles
(pilsner, kolsch, etc.) the beers are not flying off shelves so taking the leap on more time-intensive
traditional beers like farmhouse ales for example is often a big risk.
During COVID especially, brewers can’t be spending their time on something that might work, or
might sell. They have to go for the sure shot, The way I see it is that 2020 was the year of the
need for cash flow without which you do not survive. It's as simple as that.
There’s myriad reasons traditional beer styles do not get as much attention in the craft beer world
as the newer styles, not the least of which is social media. Ultra-fruited sours are vibrant in color,
perfect for an Instagram post. Their often fleeting nature, with breweries constantly tweaking fruits
and other additions, also make for a bit of exclusivity. You either buy it, or you miss out on the fun.
You have to look good, you have to have good labels, you have to make a beer that’s thicker than
Don't even get me started on why we can't find cask ale anymore.
That's it from me, chug-a-lug, Bill.....see you next time!.
Hello Gina -
I can't remember the last time I enjoyed cask ale from a real hand pump. You hit a sore point
there Gina. Let me clear my head and wipe a tear away. Okay, now I'm ready.
That culture of excess you mention is deeply ingrained in American brewing. In the bygone
heyday of West Coast IPAs, breweries found themselves in a bit of an arms race to create the
most bitter beer possible. The same is now happening with fruit.In my opinion the difference
between then and now is that the bitter IPAs of old turned some casual beer drinkers off, while
the addition of excess fruit has attracted non-beer drinkers. In business, more is good, and
therefore, those fruited sours are a near requirement for the modern brewery.
I think it’s important that the beer industry continues to progress and push itself forward and try
things but I think it’s interesting that what was once ‘trying something new’ has become the
standard. Look Gina, I don’t want to see any new style of beers vanish. Rather,I think that there is
room for everything on the table, and the traditional styles don’t fall on the wayside to new
innovation. I’m not sure if it takes education, or if it takes curiosity,but I think people need to be
willing to try things, to explore new flavors, and be open to new experiences.
At a time when breweries are fighting for their lives, it makes no sense for them to turn to Milds or
Light Lagers to save them. They’re cranking out modern IPAs, flavored Stouts, and Sours to cast
their widest net possible—the things that sold well before the crisis. Rather than retreat to what
made beer “beer” decades ago, the Covid health care and financial crisis has—in a way—
amplified what was already happening.
All I can say is that it may be wise for small brewers to avoid the narrative of “everyone’s drinking
lagers and flagships now” and instead focus on making their existing fan favorites—whatever
style—accessible, discoverable, and affordable. Shifting their portfolio to Light Lagers isn’t going
to matter if they can’t be found on Drizly, in your local grocery chain, or on social media totuing
easy and safe pick-up and delivery.
As you know Gina, IPA is still #1 with a bullet in sales. After that come Pale Ale (#2), Wheat (#3),
and Seasonal (#4). Those three categories together barely sold more than IPA alone. IPA also
showed the largest percentage growth and raw volume growth of any style compared to the year
before Covid hit..This isn’t to say that it’s a wasted effort to explore styles and brands beyond IPA
or other hop-forward examples, but it does give extra weight to the idea that at a time when
people are looking for aspects of normalcy in their lives they are buying what they know—even if
that’s local—and also easy-to-understand beers, whether that’s an IPA or fruited Sour.
As I see it, in these times a Dark Mild from a brewery regarded for its Dark Milds makes sense.
One from a brewery with a reputation built on Hazy IPAs does not. Breweries have to understand
the marketplace if they want to survive.
Here's looking at you, Gina