Every year I sit here in January and try to peer into the hazy future of craft beer for the next 12 months. A staunch supporter of drinking local but remaining open to thinking critical about my beer, I endeavour every time I write to bring a regular beer drinkers approach to what we see and taste when we sit down for a pint or two. The year ahead will prove once again to be filled with hazy IPAs, big and fruited up sours and the occasional bright and crispy lager, but there will no doubt be something new that grabs our attention, if only for a moment. Controversies, real or imagined, will happen, unnoticed by the world but making waves across the craft beer social media that will make it seem large and groundbreaking. The shiny and pretty influencers will continue to make lots of folks cringe, but breweries will seek them out as cheap and easy promotional tools to be used whenever something new drops, but have no doubt that their imagined reach and influence outweighs their reality. Taprooms will be even more important in creating an identity for new and old school breweries, the experience of visiting and beer road trips will make every customer through the door a potential convert and a vocal one at that. Let's take a look a little deeper at these and a few other things as the decade begins anew...
1. Hazy Domination
While I do poke fun at the Haze Craze, I am a fan of the dank and tropical IPAs that permeate the market, mostly outside of the LCBO and dominated by the smaller batch brewers like Badlands and Barncat. These fleeting and beautifully crafted beers do not have a long shelf life and fade like my will to live after Kat started watching The Bachelor last year. They remain the high water mark for many new and long time craft beer drinkers and will be going nowhere anytime soon. Look for bigger ABV, more new hop varieties and attempts by breweries to find a way to get them into the LCBO, despite the fact that they will often turn into a much lesser version of themselves after spending a few weeks or even months on the shelves at our local liquor monopoly
2. Sours and Satisfaction
The Haze will continue to be the big story, but the growing rise of sour beers, mainly kettle sours with fruity additions, will also be the reigning entry for a lot of people into craft beer. Turned off by typically bitter IPAs, beer that tastes like beer or macro lagers, the folks who's first foray into this world will often gravitate toward this style, reminiscent of sour candy, wine and even juice. They will feel comfortable experimenting and not having to be reminded of their dad's skunky Canadian that they stole sips out of in the past. The fact that this style can hide a lot of imperfections, perhaps even beer that just didn't turn out and can be sold at a premium makes for an easy spot on the taproom and bottle shop list for a certain number of breweries. Not a huge fan of the style myself, they tend to give me heartburn if I have more than 2 in a day, I completely understand the draw and see no let up in their popularity.
I think my love of lagers, pilsners and any kind of regular, old style 'beer that tastes like a beer' is well known. We joke every January that we will see more breweries making them and the industry swinging back to these kind of "normal" beers and then remember that the light lager and pilsner are the biggest selling beers in the world and craft beer was more of a wanting to leave that behind than anything else. The bland and tasteless Coors lights of the world are often what we hated and despite the fact that some of our craft brewers are making incredibly complex yet accessible lagers, a lot of beer snobs turn away at the mere sight of them. There is room for this style of beer and be it a blonde ale, kolsch style or pilsner, we will continue to see them as sort of a gateway beer for the expanded interest in local taprooms from folks who want to see what all the fuss is about and like to support local businesses.
4. Return to Style
Having said all that about lagers, I do think we will see a lean back into true to style beers this year. The flavour pendulum swings back and forth as the palates of consumers mature and the traditional brown ales, porters, lagers and even bocks can be just as enticing as any IPA when made right and given their place in the spectrum of beer. Lower ABV English milds, bitters and simple and accessible smaller cans will help to spring forth a new respect for the beers that built the base of what we see and love now. It is all about quality and attention to detail that will help bring about a full turn on the revolution and I think there are enough new and even older, craft beer drinkers that will respond to a brewer who bucks a little at the trendy sours and hazies to deliver solid, if not spectacular renditions of on point beers.
5. Shorties on the way
Short cans remain an enigma for some. Used to getting tall boys and the price points contained therein, the use of 355ml cans and the sticker shock of what some charge is difficult to communicate to a non craft beer drinker. No doubt there are some brewers that hit the dollar sign a little high despite the smaller container, I personally love them because it allows me to try a few different beers in an evening without getting wasted on 2 or 3 high ABV beers. Look for this format to expand further in 2020, people seem to like the smaller portion size and they respond in kind to a well made beer if it shows value for what you spend.
6. Retraction with Expansion
No doubt we will see an increase from 2019 in the number of actual brick and mortar breweries in Ontario, but I have some feeling that we will lose a few along the way as well. The easy money of a boom is followed soon after by the reality of the return on the investment made not hitting projections and that leads to cost cutting, quality issues and panic at the disco. There are places struggling out there even as others expand and grow. New and impressive additional locations for existing breweries will show up on the scene as the year goes on, tapping into the trust and confidence the public has in a company that is consistent in their product and delivers the goods every time. There is a feeling of peak beer, but I think we have some way to go before that happens. Ripples become waves eventually, but 2020 will remain an exciting time to be a craft beer fan in new places and old as well.
7. It's all about the Experience
There is nothing better than spending time in a taproom and experiencing what a brewery's character is all about as you sample their wares. You can tell a lot about a beer by sitting down and soaking in where it comes from, the staff, ambiance and even the food if it is part of the package, will reveal more than you think about what goes into your glass. Be they small or large, taprooms have become focal points in communities, towns and big cities and will continue to be a great way for a brewery to attract new customers to stop in and see what all the fuss is about. The importance of the margins in terms of sales is not to be lost in this discussion and with a fickle government agency gatekeeping many from their shelves, it is the only venue for most to move their product.
The world of Instagram continues to make old school folks cringe as breweries send product to influencers in hopes that they will take a pretty picture and help spread the word about their beer. I have been on the receiving end of my fair share of beer mail and while I have but once been asked to see what I write (hard pass), I am aware that some people curry free stuff and are light on real reviews or criticism because they don't want to stop the gravy train. My wish that those types of people would not be given any credibility by those who matter will no doubt fall on deaf ears and I'll just say I take most things I see with a grain of salt, while continuing to try and tell the truth about what I drink at every turn, good or bad. Influencers aren't going anywhere anytime soon and as long as they remain docile and pliant to only saying nice things, they will continue to be rewarded.
9. Beer Tourism
This is the biggest opportunity for craft breweries in the coming year. People now look to what breweries are close to their travel plans and many, myself included, make the visits a priority and often the reason for any road trip at all. Being family and dog friendly helps make the camping or cottage weekend include a stop at your brewery and with the rise of guided tours, people can safely visit many spots in a certain geographical area without having to drive at all. This industry is in flux as the economic model is difficult to make work, pricing and timing are everything, but the coming together of craft brewers in city or region and creating a cohesive plan together will help drive people to visit all of them when they may have only known of one will do wonders for all involved.
I could go on, I most likely will in the coming months, tracking trends and seeing changes I cannot even imagine. I have doubts as to if we will see any consolidation or Macro beer buying up an Ontario craft brewers, even with whispers around the edges that won't go away entirely. I look forward to finding a new style or variation of a current one that blows me away and I hope to visit far more places this year than last. The growth of craft beer in Ontario is still on the upswing and that also means we must remain honest and true to being vigilant about quality. We cannot be sucked into the only talking about the good things, we must hold our support to a higher standard when it comes to our choices in beer, otherwise we should just grab a 24 of Bud and be done with it.
This is my wish for 2020, that more people will think for themselves and be honest without fear of reprisal. Bad beer hurts us all, drives newcomers away and no doubt leads to more bad beer if we don't hold those who make it accountable for every sip we have.
While it has been a pretty incredible pace of growth as new breweries are opening in towns and cities across the province, it remains to be seen whether there is the consumer demand or that the quality of product will continue to drive market share up into the teens this year. But I think we are in for another great ride in the next 12 months, so pour a pint and come along!