brewing

The Evolution of Beer Drinkers

ZX Ventures Innovation Brewer, Thomas Hartman, has noticed a change in the way beer drinkers approach brewers and beer subject matter experts. What’s behind the change? Check out his views here!

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What questions do you normally get about beers and how are they changing?

I used to hear a lot of basic beer style questions. For example, what’s the difference between an ale and a lager? (In case you don’t know: it’s all in the yeast. These two styles use different types of yeast that prefer to be fermented at different temperatures and therefore take more or less time to do their job of converting wort into beer.) Now, though, while I’ll occasionally get a softball like that, I’m often asked much more sophisticated and nuanced questions that are truthfully difficult to answer.

Today’s questions often focus on differentiating between very similar types or styles of beer. What makes these questions hard? As experimentation has blossomed within the craft beer world, the lines between styles are blurring. Definitions are either unclear or are no longer strictly applicable (if they ever were).

What are some examples of those more nuanced questions?

I’m frequently asked about the difference between a porter and a stout. (Are they even different types of beer or just two points on a spectrum of dark beers? Is the real difference, if there is one, in their treatment of barley?) Why is a particular beer labeled as a session IPA and not a pale ale or vice versa? (It’s arguably a matter of balance and intensity: a pale ale should have a good balance between its different component flavors, whereas an IPA, even a lighter session IPA, should be more hop-forward.)

Another big area of questioning relates to specific ingredients. Which hops are represented in this beer, and what does each do for the flavor profile, individually or in combination? And, especially recently, where were these hops grown? I just sampled several batches of a beer that were made with the same hop variety but with the hops in each batch sourced from several different countries and climates. The resulting beers were wildly different in flavor and character. This is a fascinating area for future development!

What do you think is behind the changing questions you’re getting in the industry?

People who are drinking beer today definitely know what they’re talking about. Compared to other industries, these people are intensely passionate and have made the effort to educate themselves on beer. They’ve been exposed to a lot of different things, and have both a wider and deeper knowledge about beer in general. All of this is now reflected in the types of questions I get as a brewer. Craft beer has always waged this battle to educate consumers, both to justify the higher price tag of craft beer and to engage people with a deeper experience of beer. The growing education we see today results from several sources.

First, the internet is critical. Craft beer represents 12 to 15% of the beer market by volume and 20% by dollars spent, and these drinkers want to appreciate what they’re paying for. Fortunately, if beer drinkers want to know the difference between the flavor profiles of specific hops, they need look no further than Google. More and more they’re asking questions—smart questions too—and then researching and looking into the answers.

Second, there’s a growing recognition of beer-drinking as an acceptable hobby, accompanied by substantial resources for hobbyists. Paralleling the wine world and its sommeliers, the Cicerone program has developed a training and certification course for enthusiasts. To join the ranks of the 2,500 certified Cicerones worldwide, an applicant must pass a four-hour exam that includes taste tests and a written portion. Other large organizations are similarly dedicated to educating drinkers about their beer.

Finally, the homegrown local beer industry has contributed to the education of beer drinkers. With a whopping 5,000 breweries in the U.S. today, every community has some form of small brewery or local taproom where people gather. As people spend more time among their kindred local beer enthusiasts, they are learning what they like (and don’t like) and how to talk about beer in a nuanced and specific way.

It’s exciting to see the evolution of beer drinkers here in the U.S. and around the world. In terms of beer as a hobby, I can’t wait to see where we go next.

Summer Beer Trends

With summer heating up in the Northern Hemisphere, we sat down with Innovation Brewer Thomas Hartman to talk about the beer trends we can expect to see this season. Here’s what he had to say!

More Session and Sessionable Beers, Especially IPAs

The trend of making IPAs ever hoppier seems to have slowed, with the pendulum swinging back toward more mellow, drinkable session beers. In a session beer, brewers try to maintain the balance and flavor of an existing beer style while reducing the ABV (usually to about 4% or below). In addition to packing less of an intoxicating punch, sessions tend to be mellow in flavor. These are beers you can drink all afternoon.

It’s important to think about session beers as more than just watered-down versions of other styles though! A good session IPA, for example, is formulated with an eye toward specialty malts, mash formulations, and hop profiles that result in a less-overwhelming flavor, less bitterness, and a lower ABV while providing a distinct flavor that you’ll want to drink all afternoon. Look also for fruit flavors in some of these sessions and sessionable brews.

More Accessible Sour Beers

Just as the pendulum has swung away from outrageously hoppy, 110-IBU IPAs, the extremes of sour beers are receding in favor of a more accessible drink. The craft beer market is typically American: when we do something new, we start out really big! Early sours were mouth puckering, eye watering, and sometimes barely drinkable. Today both sour fermented and kettle sour beers are being developed in lower acidity, lower ABV versions. Blending with fruits, such as passionfruit, to balance sweetness with sourness is also a welcome development. Kettle sour beers, where the acidity is the byproduct of bacterial fermentation, are harder to control, but here too brewers are improving balance while maintaining the refreshing zing of these quintessentially summery beers.

More Local Ingredients and Local Variants

With the trend toward eating and buying local in other industries, it’s no surprise that beer drinkers are looking to drink local too. Small hop farms are popping up all over, with producers working to distinguish themselves with different and novel hop varieties. Both Michigan and upstate New York have vibrant hop-grower societies with an intense demand for their locally grown hops. The same is true of small malthouses providing locally sourced malts and other ingredients. Wine drinkers have known for years that the flavor of wines depends on where their ingredients are grown. Wine made from Malbec grapes grown in Chile is completely different from wine made with those same grapes grown in France. Similarly, Cascade hops grown in Yakima, Michigan, and Germany have distinct flavors and qualities. Expect to see more local ingredients and more regional specialties. The cloudy or hazy IPAs that are being perfected in New England are one delightful example of this regional specialization.

Non-Beer or “Near Beer” Options

With the uptick in local brewpubs and breweries as popular gathering places, there’s a growing demand for non-beer options for those who haven’t yet embraced traditional beer styles. This summer, look for more radlers: a 50/50 mix of beer and fruit juice or soda, generally light and crisp in flavor and only 2 to 3% alcohol. Some breweries are also developing malt-based “near beer” beverages, processing traditional wort in new ways to create drinks that appeal to a non-beer crowd.

Insights from our Specialties Team: Craft Beer Trends in the U.S.

Jerome Pellaud, Global VP of Specialties, maps out the impact of influential craft beer trends in the U.S. and how you can brew more than beer.

Jerome explains that you can brew beyond beer as long as you have yeast or bacteria, and a source of sugar and a process.

Photograph courtesy of The Muse

Photograph courtesy of The Muse