"Sour" beer is a difficult category to measure, which is why you don't hear a lot of statistics about it. When it comes to sales data tracked in major retailers, a significant portion of ''sours'' are incorrectly classified, or they cross over into another style and are housed there instead. In IRI, these crossovers include Seasonal, Special Release, Belgium Ale, IPA, etc., instead of the "Wild or Sour Ales" bucket. Lagunitas' Aunt Sally for example, falls under Seasonal. So a significant chunk of data gets lost, leaving you with a painful exercise to truly understand how well sour is actually selling in the US.
The American Wild Ale (AWA), barrel-aged/mixed fermentation, component is even more of a mystery, with most of its sales traditionally taking place direct-to-consumer through taprooms, or in small, independent stores not tracked by Nielsen or IRI. As a long time fan and someone who keeps close tabs on AWAs, I feel confident in saying that these high-end sours are hurting in sales, both in attracting new fans and maintaining the ones who bought so many cork & cages from 2012-2015. To confirm or deny my suspicions, I reached out to my friend Dave Hawley who owns The Beer Cellar in Glen Ellyn, IL. Dave and I met in 2014 while sharing a bottle of Veritas 014 from Lost Abbey, an oak-aged golden ale with cherries, so he was the perfect friend to team up with on this topic.
So what happened to the long lines and quick sell-through of AWAs? After polling a beer forum full of current and former sour drinkers, and retracing my own steps from the past 5-6 years, here were the most common themes:
So how do we turn things around and ensure that enthusiasm for American Wild Ales continues to grow?
"I think we need more approachable sour beers available," Hawley suggests. "Let's go back to Orchard Wit from The Bruery. Every novice beer drinker knows what a German Weiss or Belgian Wit is, even if they only know Blue Moon or Hacker Pschorr. I believe that lower price point, smaller format single bottles of fruited Gose, Berliners and Wheat beers will help the newer sour drinkers get into the category with a slightly different take on the styles they are comfortable drinking already."
Earlier, I mentioned Veritas 014 from Lost Abbey, which I shared with Dave nearly 5 years ago. Well, my interest in that series has continued all these years and just last weekend I opened a Veritas 021. This batch caught my eye because it deviated from their typical single fruit versions, or familiar combinations like Peaches/Apricots/Nectarines. V021 introduced two new flavors to the series, featuring raspberries, with vanilla and cinnamon. This blend knocked my socks off and rekindled my love of the series, which was beginning to feel a little stagnant. The last few blends had shown significant restraint on the acidity side, with 021 achieving another level with its evolution of flavor.
I understand anyone's skepticism around the concept of a "pastry sour" and how it may be construed as bastardizing the style and traditions. I also understand the doubt that fans of these "crazy" versions will venture into the more orthodox, traditional examples that many seek to brew. However, as Proximo said to Maximus in Gladiator: "Win the crowd. And you will win your freedom." Earn their respect, and they'll lend you their attention, visit your taproom and try other offerings that you're passionate about. Cave a little to the evolving tastes of the latest crop of beer enthusiasts that we are all still trying to figure out.
I've seen this work firsthand at Revolution, where we prefer our barley-aged stouts, barleywines, etc. to let the base and barrel do the talking. By still being willing to dabble in occasional single adjuncts like coffee, vanilla, and fruit, interest in the barrel program has grown exponentially while leaving the majority of the offerings adjunctless. In turn, our fans have seen how excited we get about the barrel-focused projects and have quickly grown to appreciate them as much as we do. Sour beer is a niche, American Wild Ales even more so. It doesn't take much for the style to fall into or out of favor with craft beer enthusiasts. As someone who desperately wants these barrel programs to continue to expand, I'm advocating for the following changes to become even more so the norm:
Big thanks to Dave Hawley for chatting sours with me. You can check out The Beer Cellar's great selection of packaged beer and drafts in the beautiful town of Glenn Ellyn, and just announced, his second location coming soon in Geneva.
Instagram has received a lot of well-deserved credit (and blame) for igniting the New England-style IPA trend, in part thanks to its bright, colorful, juice-like appearance that's typically accompanied by very attractive and 'gramable can art. We were brought up understanding that beer should be clear, but Instagram has been slaying the fundamentals of beer, one after another. We shouldn't be surprised, as Instagram has become a key source of advertisements, inspiration, and [gulp]...influence for all industries. We're watching a lot less TV these days, which is where we used to get our style and pop culture trends, whether intended or not. I wouldn't have gone through that baggy pants phase in 6th grade if it weren't for a combination of Joey Gladstone and MC Hammer. In those days, it was all in the hands of the largest corporations with the heftiest advertising budgets. Today there are few barriers-to-entry into the realm of content creation, whether you're a business or a fan. Instagram has become the epicenter for its simplicity and visual component, including trends well beyond just the Hazy IPA in beer. I point to this Facebook-owned App for pushing most trends in beer, for better or worse. Here are five reasons why Instagram is the cause of, and solution to, most of beer's problems:
Your Flagship Lost its Sizzle? Blame Instagram
Not into Appearance-Driven Beers? Blame Instagram
Missin' those margins from 22oz Bombers? Blame Instagram
Sexism in Beer? Definitely Blame Instagram...
Okay, let's end on a high note. Well, a high-calorie note at least...
Frustrated that Pastry Stouts Get All the Attention? Blame Instagram
During the Summer of 2013, Goose Island announced that it would be releasing a new brand extension of their Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS). Proprietor's (aka Prop) would be a rotating variation each year, only being sold in the Chicago market. The concept would keep the "home" audience and retailers engaged, while generating a new level of enthusiasm for the overall brand. "Prop 13" was a rye whiskey barrel-aged version, aged on toasted coconut and released on Black Friday of 2013. It wasn't just good, it was great, still ranked #4 on Untappd's World Rankings, with the following years' Prop '14 sitting at #1. There was only one problem...99% of the bottles were seemingly gone after the first day.
"As the craft beer industry has grown, word has gotten out about the ingenuity of BCBS, and its popularity has expanded, making these beers even harder to come by. On top of that, stores sell out fast, they limit the amount you can purchase, the prices are high and some of us simply canât get to the beer store by 5am," Stein wrote. "If you are one of the many who missed out on this years variants, or just cannot wait âtil next year rolls around, why not try replicating the variants yourself, or better yet, coming up with your own version? "
By 2015, Instagram had taken off as a popular medium to share beer experiences and engage with other members of the beer community. It provided more of an open canvas than Untappd and allowed users to incorporate other interest into their feed. Recreating allusive BCBS variants eventually evolved, as Stein suggested, into creating and sharing your own unique recipes. The French press experiments became a common segment at bottles shares, where groups of friends would create their own variants, then share with their followers.
I reached out to Jason, who now writes for HopCulture.com, to ask his thoughts on why we love sharing experiments like this to Instagram. "We are in a state of beer where excess is celebrated," Stein explained. "People want to show what else is possible and push the limits." The boundaries indeed continued to be pushed throughout 2015 and into 2016, which is when we saw a lot of breweries respond with commercial versions of what used to originate in a french press. The "pastry stout" as Don't Drink Beer coined it, was born and is still humming today. Thanks Instagram.
I hope it's clear that I'm using the word blame tongue-and-cheek. And when i say Instagram, I'm referring to all social mediums, though I find Instagram to be the clear winner. It has generated more enthusiasm for craft beer than any other tool out there, favors the younger demographic that the category badly needs, and squeezes the most creativity out of its users. It's not all rainbows and carebears, as there are egos and assholes lurking in the dark corners, but Instagram remains a positive outlet overall. As Stein said, its where excess is celebrated and the limits are pushed. The ability to show off what you've creatied, are drinking, or the brewery you are visiting helps spread interest, inspire new ideas, and keep consumers aware of that new new new that drives breweries crazy, but keep them relevant during this new era: the Golden Age of the Consumer.
What better way to get back into the beer blogging spirit than with some 2019 predictions to kick off the year! I remain positive on the beer industry and its future, but "the pinch" happening right now as a result of 7,000+ breweries and a seemingly flat consumer base cannot be ignored. So while some of these predictions may have negative undertones, I remain excited about what we're going to see moving forward as the cream rises to the top. I invited some industry friends from around the country to contribute a prediction of their own. So thank you to Chris, Kenny, Kate, and Danny for letting me include yours. And here we go...
1) Brewery openings continue to outpace closings, but barrels produced by 2019 closures will exceed barrels produced by the new openings
2) Criticisms for "chasing trends" die down as Survival Mode becomes an industry-wide theme
3) The "craft" lager/pilsner 6-pack will become an endangered species at retail
4) Reports of a quick death for the Brut IPA prove premature
A number of the larger, top 50 breweries were either late to the Hazy IPA trend, or skipped it entirely. Some may have underestimated the level of interest in the style, it's consumer, or the positive impact it could have on their business. Difference in brewing philosophy likely slowed down many larger craft breweries, while some may have flat out been asleep at the wheel. As beer sales slow and the demand for new continues to rise, everyone appears to have been ready for the Brut IPA to come along, and were quick to react. Their growth likely depends on it.
I've had quite a few Brut IPAs now and I'd give a strong advantage to the cleanness of examples produced by the larger breweries. Unlike a 6-pack of a salty Gose, Triple IPA, or Imperial Porter, the last few of these well-made Brut IPAs don't linger in the back of your refrigerator for months. Examples that were done right go down easy, aren't filling, and make it difficult to have just one. This will help significantly with re-buys, versus consumers buying just to try it, then moving on.
With the larger breweries jumping all over this trend, the smaller breweries are forced to take the style further in order to move enough 16oz cans at the margins they're accustomed to. You'll see them creating more Imperial and fruited versions as a point of differentiation. The few in this realm that I've had were not as desirable, or at least didn't leave me wanting a second pint. So while I agree that Brut IPAs will not be a beer geek or Instagram phenomenon in 2019, I do believe that they're about to penetrate the mainstream customer.
5) More variety packs, from the places you least expect...
6) Hazy penetrates further into mainstream, starts seeing some push-back from enthusiasts, balance of power begins tipping back to retailers
Celebrity Guest Contributions
7) Death of the All Sour House
8) "More of the same Hazy IPAs will open doors for those bold enough to do something different."
Those breweries that were daring enough to not put all their eggs in the juicy basket, and offered a variety of hoppy styles will be well positioned to fill tap handles at bars looking to supplement their existing NEIPAs on draft. I tend to think of a larger regional or nation breweries in this regard, who may reap some (much needed) benefit of a "retro" flavor profile that they will be seen to have been authentically sticking by all along. Breweries such as Odell, or Bell's, would fit this bill nicely. Or it could come from some contrarian newcomers who boldly stick their necks out from the get-go and zag while others zig.
Sadly, I can't immediately think of anyone who fits this bill - although I'm sure they are out there. Finally, if this type of stylistic return to form is to occur, I'm curious how it will be received when breweries known for haze start to dabble in "retro" IPAs. Will they be see purely as opportunistic, as many elder statesmen of craft beer were seen when pivoting to juicy styles? Or will their cache only enhance the growth of a retro resurgence, and perhaps even be credited to them?"
9) Further decline in prominence of the formerly ubiquitous flagship line-up of packaged beers
"Yes, there's still a place for really good and really reliable, but I bet in 2019 we see a further decline of the 5-6 packaged flagship beer line-up (the IPA, the pale ale, the golden ale, the porter...) offered by small to mid-sized packaging breweries. With the exception of maybe 1-2 core beers, agility and variation may continue to win over tested and true. In 2019, I'm anticipating even more style specialization coming from newer breweries."
"There were many complex sourcing factors that may have led to moments in 2018 when can-focused small to mid-sized breweries experienced bottlenecking when it came to procuring aluminum cans to package their beers in. Some breweries even took to wrapping labels over pre-printed cans. I wouldn't be surprised if this sourcing unreliabillity continues and encourages more breweries to return their focus to bottles for small batches and special releases."
Kenny Gould - Founder, HopCulture.com
Doug is a CPA with a knack for photography, design, and social media. Professionally, he is the CFO & Head of Communications for Revolution Brewing. Opinions are his own.