From Plodding Turtles To Hopping Rabbit

The once-stodgy beer world is suddenly drunk on trends

by Jason Foster

In many corners of the booze world fads are constantly coming and going, as consumers go through intense periods of fascination with some new thing or another — like Australian wine in the 1990s or mojitos a couple years back.

Beer? Not so much.

Beer has traditionally been the dogged plodder of the alcohol kingdom, the determined tortoise amongst a bunch of brash hares. The relatively recent rise of craft brewing has created some dynamism, but even then the trends are measured in multiple years — hoppy IPAs, for example, have been slowly growing in popularity for the past decade. Not exactly an overnight sensation.

But things might be changing. Maybe. Possibly. Well, okay yeah, they are.

The first sign was a couple of years ago, when tons of passing beer fans went bonkers for various lime beers. The demand was so high that stores couldn’t keep up. Sure, lime beer was just as quickly relegated to specialty sub-stream status (which is fine by me because they were uniformly mediocre) but it was the first time in a long time that the beer world could honestly claim to have a hot new thing.

It’s still not an everyday occurrence but there are definitely more buzz trends in beer than ever before. Here are a few of the biggest.

The first is that the Big Boy brewers are trying to make real beer. For quite a while now the corporate beer world has put out a series of pseudo-craft beers marketed as real craft beers, but that mostly didn’t work — because the taste quickly revealed them as imposters. This year, however, they’re taking a different tack and (gasp!) actually working to create quality beers.

In ABInbev’s (Labatt’s) case, they’ve released a pair of “single hop” beers under the Alexander Keith’s label. Single hop beers use only one variety of hops, and are designed to accent the flavour of that hop. Craft brewers have done this for years, usually with a pale ale or an IPA. A couple of months ago, Labatt put out Hallertauer Single Hop Ale and Cascade Single Hop Ale. They’re not particularly bitter (sorta the point with hoppy beer) but they legitimately showcase the respective characteristics of their hops. Plus, they’re decent drinking beers.

Molson, meanwhile, has used their ownership of craft mainstays Creemore Springs and Granville Island to leverage craft credentials for the past few years. But this year they’ve gone a step further. In Toronto they opened Beer Academy, an artisanal brewpub with a mandate for beer education. I was skeptical at first, but after a recent visit while in town I came away convinced they’re taking beer seriously, and trying to advance the cause of good beer. Go figure.

I’ve also been surprised at the speedy rate that Saison has become a mainstream beer style. Until recently this was a low-key, traditional Belgian farmhouse style, with a citrus flavour and a touch of pepper to accent — unusual, but oddly refreshing. For centuries it was an esoteric style mostly for the hardiest beer drinkers, but these days, every craft brewery worth its weight in hops has taken a stab at it. Today, it’s what Hoegaarden was 10 years ago — and quite the statement on how the beer market has shifted.

But if anything qualifies as “craze” beer these days, it’s a new style called White IPA. This hasn’t conquered Saskatchewan yet but here’s betting it will soon. Everywhere else it’s appeared in North America, it’s spread with the speed of an IKEA monkey YouTube video.

A White IPA is essentially a hybrid between an India Pale Ale and a Belgian Witbier — think Hoegaarden meets Paddock Wood 606 IPA. Sounds odd, maybe, but it’s sublime. This light-bodied wheat ale with both a sharp citrus and hop bite is an ideal summer beer for both casual and serious drinkers.

The style was born a scant three years ago, when Oregon brewery Deschutes did up a collaboration beer with Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing, looking to see what would happen if you brewed a witbier but dramatically increased the hopping level. They were so happy with the results that Deschutes added it to their lineup, calling the beer Chainbreaker White IPA.

In less than three years, more than 100 breweries in Canada and the U.S. have attempted to replicate the style, including B.C. brewers Phillips and Vancouver Island, Alberta brewer Alley Kat and the brewpub chain Brewsters. Holy crap — if that’s not a craze, I don’t know what is.

Okay: we’re not exactly talking Cabbage Patch Dolls or Pokémon levels of hype here, but there’s no doubt that beer is starting to take part in the hot craze market. I’m thinking this will only continue to intensify in coming years.

And if you’re a fan of beer, that’s a very good thing.

2013-08-08

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