Beer Trends of the Year

[Note: if you haven't already, please consider filling out the Cascadian Dark Ale survey.]

Karl Jung would have something to say about the way trends emerge and evolve in the American craft brewing world. Somehow, without getting instructions from the head office, breweries nevertheless manage to pick up on invisible cues and create trends every year. Fresh hops, farmhouse ales, sour beers--all have had their moment. This year? Here are my thoughts.

1. Exotic Ingredients
The use of exotic ingredients (fruit, vegetables, spices, etc.) is as ancient as brewing, and craft breweries dabbled with them almost from the start. So on the one hand, you could make the argument that this isn't any trend at all. What has changed, though, is that these ingredients are no longer the purpose of a beer. Once, breweries made "chili beer" or "cherry beer" and there was no mistaking the adjunct. Now, breweries are tossing in extra goodies to draw out flavors already present in the recipe.

You tend to notice this a lot more at the fests. Winter beers have always deployed spice, but at this year's OBF, 40% of the beers had nonstandard ingredients (a partial list included dried tulips, ginger, grapefruit peel, hibiscus, hyssop, lemongrass, orange blossoms, and pepper).

It's a far more interesting way of brewing, and the results are more subtle and far more accomplished. In the old model, the adjunct was used to mitigate the beery-ness of a beer. Now brewers add ingredients to enhance it. (Actually, there are plenty of the old gimmick beers around, too.) This is how Belgians brew, and it's so common that the extras aren't regarded as anything special. Many times they're not even acknowledged. As American craft brewing continues to mature, I expect we'll see a Belgian attitude emerge. We're well on the way already.

2. Historical Revivals
If the use of adjuncts is a long-developing trend that has finally fully blossomed, the appearance of historical revivals is just beginning. It's not as if every brewery is awash in grätzers and roggenbiers. But the mere appearance of a grätzer or roggenbier is interesting. Combine that with the flood of goses and Berlinner weisses, and we can credibly call it a trend. In addition to the aforementioned grätzer, another--and a more traditional one--will apparently be on offer by Burnside Brewing when it opens next year. Block 15's Figgy Pudding Olde Stock gets credit for being a nice take on a traditional English old ale--replete with tasty brettanomyces. And, the fact that I found rauchbier and gose in Portsmouth suggests to me that this isn't isolated in Beervana.

3. Cascadian Dark Ale Goes Commercial
Until 2010, the term "Cascadian Dark Ale" was retrofitted to beers without their permission. Certain examples (many bearing the hated title "Black IPA") have been around for years, but the term hasn't appeared on bottles. Until this year. Widmer called their version "Pitch Black IPA," but christened it a Cascadian Dark in the small print. But then Oakshire, Deschutes, and Full Sail went the fully monty, no hedges.

I have no idea whether this style will survive and, if it does, whether the name will survive. But give Abe Goldman-Armstrong credit: he managed to get breweries to start using the name officially. As a secondary consequence, I think Abe may have inadvertently introduced "Cascadian" as a regional appellation for any style of beer that bears the hallmarks of the Pacific Northwest. I started to see it used as a way of claiming certain characteristics (alcohol heft, hoppiness) that are not unique to the region. The use of CDA is itself a controversy (other parts of the country take exception to the regional claim), and no doubt further extension of the word will create more controversy.

But hey, controversy sells beer, right?