This year has been an incredible one for Maine breweries with over a dozen breweries opening, hundreds of new beers and collaborations produced, and at least a half dozen additional brewery projects in planning. But among the constant releases, one-offs and beer-related news, there is some signal within that noise that can give us some hints about what is to come in the next year.
It seems obvious that IPA styles will continue to be popular, but I foresee the style definitions continuing to fracture, blurring the definition of IPA. When the craft beer revolution kicked into high gear in the early 2000s, there were just a few different types of IPAs, and the extremely hopped West Coast style was seen as radical and strange compared to the more milder (and the original) English-style IPA. We’ve seen the rise of fruited IPAs, hazy and juicy IPAs and then their polar opposites, the dry and crisp Brut IPA. It is clear that these micro styles are going to continue to pop up. So, where is the style going? I predict a further bifurcation between the juicy styles that are tropical and highly hopped and styles attempting to react to that. I wouldn’t be surprised if clarity becomes a prized attribute again after the newness of the cloudy beers wears off. Perhaps brewers will attempt to create a very clear IPA with hardly any color in it. Are we overdue for a transparent IPA?
Around 2005, an extreme-beer craze started up, and it began an arms race for breweries to push the limits of all aspects of their beer, including its alcohol content. I’ve been grateful to the brewers that continue to supply us with low-alcohol beer that we can drink every day, but I’m seeing some hints that the extreme beers might be making a comeback. I’m looking specifically at the stouts. I was chatting with some beer drinkers who were lamenting that when they order a stout, they are likely to get a beer with 9 percent or higher alcohol content that’s heavy, rich and boozy. These high-test stouts, however, are not representative of what a stout was designed to be originally. Finding a stout that has not spent time in a barrel is getting harder, as everyone acclimates to the extra vanilla, oak and leftover spirit flavors that are now widespread in stouts. With that barrel aging usually comes an uptick in alcohol content, which not everyone is looking for. While I haven’t seen this alcohol-content creep happening as much in other styles, it is worth keeping an eye on that part of the menu this year.
In terms of packaging, there’s been a rapid and steady move toward cans as the technology to produce them has cheapened (among other reasons). However, there have been more packaging shifts that lead me to believe that the bottle six-pack may be extinct within the next few years. The most obvious culprit for this is the tallboy 16-ounce cans that are sold in four-packs instead of sixes, giving more beer per serving but fewer servings overall. I have mixed feelings about this move – for some reason, I always end up with the last ounce or two getting warm before I get down to drinking it – but the increased label art space and the good profit margin overwhelm personal preferences. The decreased shipping costs, the reduced paper waste and the ability for retailers to stock more side-by-side will continue to push packaging to its minimalist conclusion – mostly “naked” cans held together by recyclable rings.
One trend I’m excited about is the crossover between beer and other industries. Bars have been experimenting with more beer cocktails, attempting to broaden their audience to include spirit, wine and beer drinkers to some of the same venues. These concoctions can get craft beer fans to branch out from their comfort zone, or get a spirits drinker to get used to some of the prominent flavors in craft beer. There are also spirits made specifically with beer – sometimes with second runnings from brewery operations – and beer aged in barrels once used by local spirit makers. While Maine is still figuring out its recreational marijuana business, I would not be surprised to see some beer products being designed to mimic its flavor. Hops and marijuana are related plants, and some varieties of hops produce aromas that are similar. It is still federally illegal to use marijuana as an ingredient in beer directly, but there are certainly some Maine brewers who have their eyes on its future potential.