At some point this all out craze over IPAs is going to subside. Right now it’s driving growth and keeping more than a handful of mediocre breweries afloat. But the consumer is nothing if not fickle. At some point the preferences will change and another beer style will take the spotlight. Reference barrel aged stout’s and sour beers which were each belle’s of the ball for a hot minute. Neither of those styles are gone, but neither are in the spotlight they once were either.
Let’s look into the crystal beer glass and try to figure out what beer style is going to be hot next. Perhaps the past can help foretell the future?
We’ve had barrel aged and other big stouts be popular. Originally just an experimental style, barrel aged stouts take time to produce and age. They were then made popular by AB/Inbev’s (formerly Goose Island’s) Bourbon County Stout line and Great Divide’s Yeti line of beers. Over production seems to have made these less talked about, while still popular. At just about the same time a broader set of breweries started to experiment with sour beers. Those slowly built in popularity until they hit their peak. Sour beers also take time to produce and age when done right. Kettle sours made it quick to produce those sour beers but they lack the complexity of the spontaneously fermented and aged sour beers. This seems to have killed the enthusiasm for the broader sour style for many.
Then we come to juicy, dank, and cloudy IPAs, and specifically the Northeast IPA (NEIPA) made popular by Vermont’s Heady Topper. The first post-prohibition IPA brewed was Liberty Ale from Anchor Brewing in San Francisco in 1975. While still available today, it is really difficult to compare it to a NEIPA other than they are both cold and wet. NEIPAs take advantage of new very assertive hops that give off fruit flavors and that resinous dank weed-like flavor like nothing that was available in 1975. The addition of wheat or other adjuncts like fruit juices and who knows what give NEIPAs their cloudy look.
All three of these broader styles have been popular for many years, but they have all reached their peak of what I would call ridiculousness at the same time they reached their peak in popularity. They also reached their peak of market saturation about then. After that they have quickly been replaced by the next hot thing. If that holds, then NEIPAs which seem to be produced at every brewery in the world now are about to fall to a new king of beer styles.
So if we were to make and educated guess at what’s next, let’s set some expected boundaries based on the last few trends. Higher alcohol, the last few styles have had well above the average alcohol level for beer as one of the dominating characteristics of the beer. We may see that continue. One very strong flavor component. While not always the same component across the style popularity arc, one dominate flavor component be it bourbon, fruit juice, very assertive hop flavor, or strong sour flavor has been pretty predominant in the past few popular styles. Scarcity. The whale collectors will continue to collect these one-off rare beers only available in really small batches. And the online trade will continue as well.
All components of what made the last two and the current hot beer styles what they are today were not unique or new characteristics, but characteristics that were taken to new extremes based on newly or more widely available technology. We can expect the same on the next hot style. But, what will that style be?
I’d like to think it will be drinkable lager beers. Well made, locally brewed lagers of various styles. A lot can be done with lagers and a lot has yet to be done. Applying the new hop flavor components and increasing the alcohol perhaps? Or just making a damn quaffable, highly favorable lager in a 16oz can for the hot summer months? Time will tell. I’m probably wrong, but a beer geek has to dream or do something while waiting for the brewery tap rooms to open.