Biggest Trends of the Past Five Years

Beer trends move swiftly--even in one-year increments they're pretty obvious. Look back on five years, though, and some are so well-established you forget there was ever a time they didn't exist. So, as a part of anniversary week, I offer my picks for the most significant trends of the last five year.

5. Reinheitsgephobia
This trend really only began in the last couple years, and I suspect it is only getting started: the use of non-standard ingredients in beer. The use of fruits and certain botanicals (coriander, orange peel, licorice, etc) has been around for a long time, even in American brewing. But breweries are now throwing in everything they can think of, like: chestnuts, blood oranges, prickly pear, coconuts, chiles, tulips, hyssop, lemongrass, apricot nut meat, peanut butter, and on and on. Some of these experiments have been flops, but many more demonstrate that the judicious use of adjuncts can enhance subtle flavors. It's a fantastic trend, and one that has the potential to radically alter the beer landscape.

4. Belgianization and Souring
I suppose we could break these into separate trends, but I think they're of a piece. Breweries have gotten much more excited about deploying Flemish techniques to produce new styles or tweak old ones. A few years back I noticed that farmhouse ales had become standard--amazing given that Michael Jackson declared them all but dead twenty years ago. The use of sugar to strengthen beers or yeast strains to funkify familiar beers (recent fave, Le Freak from Green Flash) is now pretty standard. Rare is the brewery without at least one Belgian-inflected beer.

And then there's souring. Google the phrase "is sour the new hoppy" and you get a sense of how entrenched this trend has become. Sour isn't the new hoppy, incidentally, but neither is it a flash in the pan. With breweries like Cascade, Russian River, Jolly Pumpkin, and Allagash, not to mention successful experiments like Deschutes The Dissident and New Belgium's Lips of Faith, sour is here to stay.

3. Barrel-aging
This innovation didn't start in the last five years, but it has become standard. Breweries have recognized the value of putting out barrel-aged specialty beers--ones that retail at SPEs of $25 bucks and more--and most now have a barrel-aging program. What I find hopeful about the trend is the growing interest in the organic potential wood exerts on beer rather than just the use of infusing a bourbon character. Pinot barrels and straight oak are making their way into breweries, and a few brave souls are even allowing native cultures to set up colonies inside their little woody ecosystems.

2. Imperialization
American beers have always been a little stronger than their European counterparts--and West Coast beers have been stronger than most American beers. (I was amused to see Full Sail release a beer called "Session" than was north of 5%.) The trend is only growing. It used to be surprising to see beers stronger than 7% on store shelves, but now you can buy regular six-packs that are 8% or more. I'm not excited about it, but the trend appears to be with us for the foreseeable future.

1. Fresh hops
While the other four trends could be applied to most American beers, this last one is unique to the Pacific Northwest. Fresh hop beers have been around well over a decade, but it has only been recently that they've exploded to become a regional celebration of the hop harvest. For three or four years, dozens of breweries across Oregon and Washington have taken to brewing fresh-hop beers, a phenomenon akin to the release of Beaujolais Nouveau in France.

What makes these ales so delightful is their evanescence. The good ones are transcendent when they're fresh and thoroughly mediocre after that vivid, green flavor wears off. I can imagine a time when tourists will flock to the Northwest in October to try these lovely seasonal offerings. Of all the trends I've seen come and go, this one seems to most fully express the quintessence of American brewing--fresh, green, vibrant hopping. And, while it seems firmly rooted in local culture, I think the rest of the world has yet to discover the joys of fresh hop beers. They will, they will...

Feel free to weigh in with your own observations in comments.