The Great American Beer Festival is the biggest festival of its kind in the world. Held each autumn in Denver Colorado, 520 breweries offer 2500 beers to attendees with unlimited tastes for each 4 hour session. It is a great place to see the hot trends in craft beers, and find out what is no longer capturing the imaginations of brewers and consumers.
We were lucky enough to attend this year, as the culmination of a beery trip across the western USA. In truth, nothing monumental has changed in the craft beer marketplace since we left for New Zealand five years ago. Craft brewing has continued to grow, with more than 1800 operating breweries and another 760 planned for this year. It has taken almost 100 years for American breweries to exceed pre-prohibition numbers, and the stage is set for craft beer to reach 15 percent of all beer sold.
Compared to our last GABF, the biggest new trend was toward Saisons, which we were noticing in NZ before we set off, as well. We saw a lot fewer fruity wheats than in the past, and possibly a rising trend of nut beers – such as adding pecans or peanuts to medium or dark ale styles.
Hoppy beers are still the rage, with most breweries proudly pouring a range of pale ales, India pale ales and double or imperial versions as well. IPAs are now the second most popular type of US craft beer in sales volume, just behind seasonal specialties. A few breweries have begun dry hopping beer styles with traditionally low hop character, like golden ales, to differentiate themselves. We saw countless ryepa’s, hoppy reds, and hoppy browns and of course black IPA’s, which are a huge category unto themselves.
One other way breweries are coping with all the competition is the use of distinctive hops to create a point of difference for their product. Along with Citra and Simco beers, we were delighted to find many beers featuring New Zealand hops, and even a couple named Nelson. Admittedly the Nelson reference is more for the Nelson Sauvin hop variety than our fair city, but Nelson, a beer by Alpine Brewing in California, does feature a photo of The Cut on its label. Beers which prominently feature New Zealand hops may not be award winners, as the fruity profile is not aligned with established styles, but they were very popular with drinkers at the festival. We have heard, though, that a southern hopped style category is being created for next year, so the beers will be given their fair turn.
The other trends that have grown unabated are the barrel aging and souring of beers. Most breweries seem to have a program, though not all have mastered the craft. The trick is to create complexity without overwhelming the underlying beer flavours.
The most common barrel aged styles were the imperial stouts and Belgian strong ales, but breweries presented pumpkin ales, and even a red ale to attract jaded beer geeks. The barrels impart flavours ranging from new oak to the white wine or bourbon or tequila that was previously stored in them.
Sour beers and Belgian character beers in general are very popular, in part because they represent a technique (fermentation with special yeasts and bacteria) that can be applied to almost any style. The Belgian yeasts can add fruity and spicy flavours that fill in the drinking experience.
Sour beers can have a slight tang like a Guinness Stout, or, in many cases, be so sour that they are like drinking lemon juice. And though we like sour beers, we found many that missed the balance.
At the end of several days cataloging the variety of flavours put forth by America’s best, we feel that our local brewers though perhaps not as deeply committed to the current fashions, would fit right in. After all, they are experts in using New Zealand Hops.
Originally published in the Nelson Mail.