Considering Fashion

Yesterday afternoon, I had the pleasure of participating in the Upper Lip Symposium Bailey's Taproom has recently started. We were there to talk about the future of craft beer, so naturally I spent a lot of my time discussing the past. For me, guessing about what might be around the next corner is a lot easier if I can look back at all the past corners we've already walked around. That database gets a lot larger if you include Europe.

What cool looked like in the 1980s. (Photo: Karl Ockert via Brewpublic)

A lot could be said on this point, but here's one thing that has been on my mind lately. Humans possess a particular blindness about the future: we think whatever is on-trend is going to last, and whichever brewery most embodies that trend is built to last. But trends change. Craft beer and local breweries are going to be popular in the US for decades at a minimum—certainly longer than they have already existed. And yet, when we look backward, those decades reveal an incredible amount of change.

I was thinking about which breweries have been at the center of the Portland zeitgeist since craft brewing started, and it demonstrates that not every trend becomes a commercial hit, and not every brewery that rides a commercial hit to big success stays relevant—or even manages to hold their volume. Below is a impressionistic sense of the breweries I can remember that moved the needle on the beer we drank or the way we drank it. It's not meant to be definitive or exhaustive, just suggestive. Have a look:

1986: BridgePort (trendy: English-style ales)
1990: Widmer (trendy: American wheat beers)
1993: Full Sail (trendy: amber ales)
1996: Hair of the Dog (trendy: big, intense ales)
1998: Lucky Lab (trendy: brewpubs and the perfect ambiance for drinking)
2008: Ninkasi (trendy: first modern-style IPAs)
2010: Cascade (trendy: sour)
2012: Boneyard (trendy: softer sweeter, more aromatic IPAs)
2014: pFriem (trendy: pilsner/lager)
2016: Great Notion (trendy: hazy IPA, pastry beers)

We can tick off in our minds which breweries are setting the trends and leading the industry right now, and they seem to be the envy of their peers. But that’s something of a double-edged sword. Those breweries that are highly identified with a certain beer or style haven't always aged well. It's also interesting to think of a brewery like Deschutes, which was never precisely in the beating heart of the cultural discussion, but which has also managed to age gracefully.

We can't know the future. Having lived through a good portion of craft brewing’s history, I know from first-hand experience that most of the trends on that list were unforeseeable before they arrived. I suspect the number of major shifts in beer trends will be fewer than they were in the early years—culture brings stability—but there will be more to come. And it's certain that the breweries we think of as trendy at any given moment will have to figure out how to evolve when those trends inevitably change.