Craft beer 101
Beer has been a big deal since the beginnings of civilization. Most famously for historians, the “Hymn to Ninkasi,” written down around 1800 BCE, is both a heady song in praise of the Sumerian goddess of beer and an ancient primer on brewing science.
A brewing primer circa 2016 is a much more complicated matter. The most important beer styles can be traced to the venerable lagers and ales of Germany, Belgium and the British Isles.
Now, though, the United States is the nexus of the beer universe — boasting some 4,400 small, local and independent breweries (with nearly 2,000 more estimated in planning) that are combining tradition and innovation to create a dizzying array of new and hybrid styles.
Of course, globally produced light lagers like Bud Light are still the biggest sellers worldwide. But if you’re talking about growth and vitality — or what young people are drinking at happening beer bars such as Brick Store Pub in Atlanta, Lord Hobo in Boston or The Mighty in Miami — you’re talking about what’s commonly called craft beer.
In the range of craft beer products, IPA, a moderately strong pale ale with an assertive bitterness, is by far the bestseller. If the popularity of such a challenging style would have been surprising a decade ago, the recent rise of sour beers was utterly unpredictable, and sure sign of the diversity of current beer culture.
“The big question everyone has, is will sours become the next IPA,” says Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver. “Interestingly, a lot of people who have been producing sours for many years don’t think so. Many other people do think so.”
Whatever the future, Oliver understands the sudden appeal of tart, refreshing beers such as German-style gose and Berliner Weisse, which can also take a bit of getting used to.
“These are beers that can have a very nice acidity and flavor,” Oliver says. “But my favorite line from ‘Spinal Tap is ‘It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.’ And I think in sour beers and funky beers that definitely applies. Your average American is much more attuned to acid than they are to bitterness. Because of hops, most people don’t think of beer as sour, so it’s a surprise.”
If sour beers are a wildcard and hoppy beers are here to stay, the reprise of some tried-and true styles among many craft brewers may mark a predictable swing of the pendulum.
“I think we’re seeing a return to basics on some level,” says All About Beer magazine editor John Holl. “More brewers are embracing lagers and pilsners. We’ve seen this coming for a while but it’s catching on more now, with beers that are more accessible to more people.
“I think that’s important because the word craft itself is changing.I don’t know if consumers really care about the word craft. But they are certainly aware that there’s more choice and that there’s a local choice.”
Beyond what they’re drinking, Holl thinks that where they’re drinking it is changing, too, thanks to the growth of local breweries.
“I’m noticing more diversity at breweries and brewpubs,” Holl says. “They’re really becoming social hubs for all kinds of people, who are going to drink the local beer and hang out where it’s made.”
With all that, maybe the most exciting news is how much more beer has come to be associated with dining these days.
“In 2015, we commissioned a Nielsen survey that found that a majority of restaurant customers who order a beer are thinking about how it will pair with their food,” reports Julia Herz, the Craft Beer Program Director of the Brewers Association. “I think that’s compelling.”
Herz agrees that easy-drinking “session” beers such as lagers and pilsners are returning to the portfolios of craft brewers and that sour is what’s capturing their imaginations.
“Gose and Berliner Weisse are back to the sessionable trend,” Herz says. “And they’re incredible with certain foods because they have some advanced acidity compared to other beer styles. Acidity calms the richness of food, lessens salt and allows us to tastes flavors more prominently.”
Overall, Herz would argue that the state of the art of beer in 2016 is due to craft brewers who brought forth a diversity of flavors and styles.
“We shouldn’t take for granted that beer is this way now,” she says. “Part of making it this way is the small and independent craft brewer movement. We have local and we have global brewing. No one way is right or wrong. But craft matters because craft brewers matter. They put the flavor back in beer and took us to the wonderful place we are today.”
Four Beer Styles To Know Right Now
Berliner Weisse — This regional specialty of Berlin is a pale, sour, low-alcohol wheat ale that’s been embraced by American craft brewers as refreshing alternative to hopped up beers.
Try: Creature Comforts Athena.
Gose — Pronounced “gose-uh,” this ancient, low-alcohol German sour wheat beer is flavored with hops, coriander and salt, and has suddenly become an unlikely hit among beer geeks.
Try: Sierra Nevada Otra Vez.
IPA — The British invented India Pale Ale, a moderately strong pale ale with an assertive hop bitterness, and American brewers made it stronger and hoppier and a craft bestseller.
Try: Cigar City Jai Alai.
Pilsner — The crisp, clean, refreshing Czech and German style that became the global paradigm of American lager beers like Budweiser is enjoying a craft brewing resurgence.
Try: Victory Prima Pils.