Craft Brews and Their Masters Come of Age
Raise your glass, can, bottle or growler to the next wave of sophisticated suds. There’s no containing Americas’ thirst for the effervescent art of craft beer.
Think of it as the “Boyhood” movie, with brews taking their star turn. Evolving from childhood, when basement brewers cheerfully disrupted the established flow to become a startling different top beverage choice, craft beers are moving steadily up the growth curve. Entrepreneurs who launched brands on the thinnest of shoestrings, powered by nothing more than a heartfelt tale of origin and a passion for the brew, are entering adolescence – more experienced, better reasoned, but with a strong sense of adventurous rebellion underlying it all.
“These companies are now taking on significant debt, and are accountable for commitments made to their employees,” explains Patrick Gould, certified cicerone (beer expert) with Windy City Distributing. “Many are now queuing up to produce in larger capacities; they’re developing full-blown branding and marketing plans, and overall, paying much more attention to the business side.” Ah, the kids, they do grow up.
In keeping with the new level of sophistication, ultra-premium craft beer is poised to elevate the market with more nuanced flavors, high alcohol content and a well-tended legacy. There’s a proven track record from Belgian forebears, who were first to tap into the potential to treat beer as a high-end product, and not the blue-collar relative of wine and liquor.
“It’s a real curated experience, right down to the specific branded glass,” says Gould, “and customers genuinely appreciate the amount of research and time it takes to make beers of this caliber.”
Already on the ultra-premium bandwagon is Perennial Artisan Ales in St. Louis, MO, creating the unexpected with rye barrel-aged Imperial Mint Chocolate Stout, which spent 14 months aging in Rye barrels, and a wild yeast-fermented Saison aged on Missouri wine grapes in French oak wine barrels. Across the country, in Orange County, CA, former law student Patrick Brue is parlaying his brew obsession into offerings unique even among the restless palate set: sweet potato pie, Thai food, and freshly picked lavender all make their way into the Bruery’s highly imaginative beers.
Also still pushing the flavor envelope are sour beers, another specialty of the Bruery, which recently launched its Bruery Terreux line, and making several appearances in collector’s editions at the Penrose Brewery in Geneva, IL. Limited edition collections, made for a single-use or time only, are also fueling the upscaling of beer trend, intentionally creating scarcity to drive a brand’s sales. Cautions Gould: “These are tough to maintain because each release must be of the highest possible caliber. Anything less, any inconsistency in offerings, can be very damaging to a brand staking its reputation on this.”
Finally, the session is far from over; in fact it’s just beginning as IPAs (India Pale Ales) step up with lower alcohol-by-volume brands, ideal for sampling two or three glasses. Quicker to make, and very approachable, entire new brands are being launched around session IPAs, says Gould.
Is it Cider’s Year to Break Big
The explosion of fruit flavors has ignited the hard cider market, and both Gould and Ashby agree that 2015 could very well be the year this beverage grabs its fair share of the market. Bearing witness were the more than 400 industry folks who packed CiderCon in Chicago this winter, impassioned standard-bearers for the newest craft darling.
Defying easy categorization — does it belong with beers or wine coolers or hard lemonades? — cider doesn’t care which side of the aisle it’s found on, as long as it keeps the current title of ‘fastest growing segment of the beverage industry.’ Its trajectory is almost identical to its hipster craft beer cousin, offering the same strong sense of story, brand, locality and a history stemming back to America’s colonial days. Add to that a very approachable flavor profile, and naturally gluten-free bragging rights. Advises Ashby: “Bars and restaurants definitely want to consider having a cider option on the menu as a great alternative to beer. They range from really dry to really sweet, with lots of variety.”
In a sure sign of acceptance, the major players are already making a run at the cider market, like Boston Beer’s Angry Orchard cider, one of its fastest-selling brands. Angry Orchard is joined by a slew of local makers and orchardists who are on the brink of stardom. There’s Vander Mill in Michigan, whose owner went “all in on transforming a touristy cider mill to a producer of strong alcoholic cider that’s going gangbusters,” says Gould. Also in Michigan is the “godfather of organic,” JK’s Scrumpy Cider, pressed from apples grown fresh on his farm, and blended each year to taste from memory, according to Gould. In Salem, Oregon, Wandering Aengus Ciderworks offers a line of more traditional, locally sourced apple, pear and cherry hard ciders, and a small-batch artisanal product made from rare heirloom apples pressed just once a year.
Representing just one percent of the alcoholic beverage category, cider’s full-court press predicts significant growth ahead. Already boasting double-digit volume growth in 2014, according to Technomic, analysts estimate $2 billion in retail sales by 2020.