Award-winning beer writer Will Hawkes gives his views on what he believes will be the key beer trends for 2016, including the expected impact on the sector of the global hop shortage and the possibility of a surprise resurgence of fruit beers
There’s one major problem with writing about beer trends; there’s only one worth talking about. For the past five years, hops have been the only story in town. It doesn’t matter how much is written about sour beers, stout, gruit, Berliner Weisse, beard yeast or whatever other wacky trend is titillating the crafterati. Those little green flowers have driven beer’s recent renaissance, almost single-handedly.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Ask a brewer. Evin O’Riordain, founder and head brewer at The Kernel, confirmed to me a couple of summers ago that 70% to 80% of the beer his brewery sold was pale and hop-forward. Nothing has changed at The Kernel, or elsewhere, look at the huge success Beavertown’s Gamma Ray has enjoyed this year. Beer’s new customer base wants hops, and lots of them.
So the overall trend for 2016 will be much like 2015 and 2014: beers with a powerful, New World hop character will sell like hot cakes, particularly if they’re session strength (3.5% to 5% ABV).
And there this article might finish, were it not for one thing; the global hop shortage. Now it might be that this phenomenon has been overstated. The main problem appears to be in Europe rather than America or the Antipodes (where the harvest is in March). Indeed, American hop production was up by 11% in 2015, thanks to new acreage.
Nonetheless, demand has risen sharply too and plenty of breweries will find themselves short. This factor could provide the key driver for a number of 2016’s beer trend; brewers being forced to look elsewhere for flavour and aroma. One of the more interesting novelties may be the entirely unexpected return of fruit beers.
Fruit beers have a bad reputation. Many beer lovers regard them as not really beer, as one step up on alcopops. It’s not an entirely unfair assessment; a lot of them are sugary and nondescript. The only fruit beers that really earn beer aficionados’ respect are the Lambic-based Kriek (cherry) and Framboise (raspberry) of Brussels and the Senne Valley, and other beers that are made in their image.
That could be about to change. In the US, where most beer trends emerge, brewers are experimenting with using fruit in their beers. Ballast Point, a much-respected San Diego brewery that was recently sold to Constellation Brands, has enjoyed such success with a grapefruit-flavoured IPA (Grapefruit Sculpin) that it has produced a range of other fruit-flavoured beers, made with watermelon, pineapple and mango.
British breweries have begun to experiment too. When Magic Rock released an initial range of canned beers at the end of last year, two of the three included fruit: a gooseberry gose and, perhaps more significantly, a grapefruit pale ale. Grapefruit – and mango or pineapple, for that matter – are commonly used in this new breed of fruit beers because they replicate flavours that occur in many of the new breed of hops, like Citra, Mosaic and Galaxy.
Other breweries might deal with the situation differently. It’s worth noting Camden Town Brewery, which was bought by AB InBev in December, is a hugely successful business built on that least craft of all styles, pale lager. We can expect to see more pale lager in 2016: Fourpure, one of London’s most upwardly mobile new breweries, has honed its pils closer and closer to perfection in the past 18 months. Manchester’s Cloudwater – perhaps 2015’s most impressive new opening – is another lager-loving newbie. If a brewery has the resources to do it, and there are more craft breweries than ever in that category, then pale lager, be it hoppy or otherwise, seems a natural choice.
There’s a tiny brewery in east London that makes a pale lager – or, at least, the beer’s name is Larger. Actually, Larger, brewed by 40ft in Dalston, is a kölsch but forget about that: the brewery’s structure demonstrates another of 2016’s trends. It’s part-owned by Ben Ott, former head man at Truman’s and one of the most well-qualified brewers in the capital. He’s one of a number of brewers who are setting up on their own; there’s Mark Tranter, once of Dark Star and now at Burning Sky, and this year there will be Alex Troncoso, formerly of Camden and soon to set up his own brewery (Lost and Grounded, in Bristol) alongside partner Annie, and Phil Lowry – a hugely well-respected itinerant beer maker who has brewed on both sides of the Atlantic – with Breakwater in Dover. Good, highly qualified brewers are taking control by opening their own breweries.
It’s a trend that should drive quality, which is the current buzzword. Until recently, flavour was the obsession, and it’s still important, but with the preponderance of breweries (and some ropey beer, to be honest) the focus has shifted to quality, which can best be defined as a mixture of flavour and consistency. It’s an irony that, at a time when multinational breweries are taking craft beer seriously, smaller brewers are aping the big boys – in this respect, at least.
Could 2016 also be the year we see food and beer really take off? More restaurants are getting involved, and the lack of hops won’t be a problem: bitterness is not necessarily a benefit when it comes to matching beer with food. The hop problem might prove to be an opportunity for beer-loving restaurateurs, as well as fruit farmers.
Will Hawkes is a freelance journalist and was named Beer Writer of the Year by the British Guild of Beer Writers in 2013. He is the author of Craft Beer London