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Peering Into the Crystal Ball

Peering Into the Crystal Ball

By Greig McGill

Happy 2020 everyone! I hope you’re all brewing up a storm and planning delicious things for this year. It’s certainly been a crazy time in the brewery for me, but the team at Brewshop have asked me to take some time out and talk about my thoughts on where the beer world is going this year. This will probably be a little light on homebrewing, but - spoiler alert - all you homebrewers might just be the future this industry needs! OK, without further ado, I’ll fire up the ol’ crystal ball. I’ll set it to backwards mode first for a quick recap of how we got here.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about where the industry is at. When a group of us founded SOBA back in 2006, we simply wanted more choice in beer. The goal was for any person to be able to walk into any bar in New Zealand and find a reasonable choice of great beer. We should perhaps have been careful what we wished for, as the monkey’s paw seems to have well and truly worked! In 2006, the percentage of the population who cared about good beer was pretty tiny. Of that percentage, some had travelled to the USA and seen the craft beer explosion going on there. Some had travelled to Europe and the UK and fallen in love with the historical and flavourful styles common there. Most had become besotted with beer and yearned to know everything about it and drink a better variety and quality of beer. Many of that group got into brewing… and the snowball started to roll.

As 2020 begins, that snowball is very large indeed. Somewhere along the way, good beer has become cool. Unfortunately, when things become cool, many people are only drawn to them because they are cool. The passion, the knowledge, the desire to be educated about beer has largely been replaced by FOMO and Pokémon culture - gotta drink ‘em all, and only the weirdest unicorn farts in beer form will do! Will it Instagram? This is driving some very disturbing behaviour here, and around the world. It’s also covering up some scary commercial realities, as more and more people decide to “go pro” with the ability to make a killer on-trend juice-bomb but without any knowledge of what got us all here. The immediate result is a ton of hype, a collapsing of style diversity down to three or four base styles, breweries just competing to see who can put the “weirdest” ingredients in those styles, and very little in the way of sustainable business practices.

So will it get better in 2020? I don’t think so. I think we’re all going to continue down this path for a while yet. The dominant trend this year will expand on beer that tastes like juice, and expand to beer that tastes like anything-but-beer. The slushy trend has begun in earnest in the USA, and look for it to take off here. Built around a base kettle-sour style, and with added fruit pulp and trendy hop varieties that nobody will taste under the onslaught of flavour, these are the new thing. The pastry stout has been big overseas, and look for it to be a thing here too. I suspect the only reason we’ve not really seen it yet is due to the crippling excise tax our delightful government imposes, which puts strong downward pressure on alcohol limits - homebrewers, you’re unfettered! Enjoy it!

On a broader level, this trend away from beer actually tasting like beer has left the door open to just drinking anything alcoholic and calling it “craft”. The alcoholic seltzer craze has hit with extreme swiftness in the USA, and there are signs of it becoming a thing here. For those of us (all of us, right?) who love beer, this has some troubling supply/demand implications. Imagine after all that time waiting to get good beer on tap most places, half of it gets replaced with fizzy flavoured alcoholic water? I don’t think we’re likely to get to that point, but it’s worth keeping in mind that consumer demand will always drive production and supply, and right now the consumers want trendy.

Having attended the Great American Beer Festival in Denver last October, and spent a fair bit of time judging beer and just hanging out with a lot of brewers, it was good to see a little push-back. For one thing, though it had been just over a year since my previous visit, already there were signs of the haze craze dying back a little. Hazy beers, in all their forms, were still everywhere. They weren’t quite as dominant though, as some tap balance was seemingly being restored to some traditional styles. Especially noteworthy was the rise of lower alcohol styles and classic lager varieties. I hope that trend catches on here! I love me a 12% abv barleywine for sure, but most of the time, I’d be very happy with a nice Northern German Pils, or a Vienna Lager. Speaking of which, another negative trend is the decrease in education among the consumer base. Many are unaware of beer styles entirely, or can’t name more than three or four. More than a few wouldn’t have any idea there were different types of lagers. There’s also a notable conflict bubbling in the industry, with a lot of the points I’ve laid out here becoming sore points with brewers and putting them at odds with management and their customers.

Wither Brut IPA? Gone as quickly as it arrived. I barely saw a single example in my travels, and there were even, tellingly, a few beers which used to be Brut IPAs having been re-tooled - same name, different style! I’ve certainly never seen a beer style disappear so swiftly from the public arena. Even the oft-maligned Black IPA took years to slip down to the occasional rare sighting. Again, trends in beer now come and go with frightening swiftness.

Also in the USA, the continuing push towards local is making an impact. Breweries who used to compete in national distribution space are pulling back into their local markets, finding those markets not big enough to sustain the company, and either vastly downsizing or going out of business altogether. Expect this to happen here in New Zealand soon as well, though probably on a much smaller scale, as many of the “breweries” flooding the NZ beer market are contract brewers, without any real expenses, assets, or payrolls, and thus able to sustain shrinking demand.

So, to summarise, in 2020, I expect to see:

  • More and faster beer releases, driving the FOMO/Pokémon consumer behaviour, but putting pressure on breweries to rotate stock and causing freshness issues.

  • More beer that doesn’t taste like beer, exciting those who drink beer as a fashion accessory/lifestyle choice.

  • Still fewer educated consumers who know beer history, and understand beer styles.

  • Hazy beer to die back a little but remain very strong.

  • The year of the Beer Slushy.

  • Some slow resurgence of classic styles, especially lagers.

  • Fewer Brut IPAs.

  • Some brewery casualties, BUT…

  • More local breweries/taprooms.

A lot of that felt very doom-and-gloom to write. Homebrewers though, you are the future. You’re unbound by taxation, able to thumb your nose at trends, generally well educated on and passionate about beer, and possessing many friends by virtue of always having beer to share! Some of you may have a desire to go pro. For those who do, great, just please do it for the right reasons. Plan your businesses well, and stick to your guns! For those who prefer to remain hobbyists, I truly salute you. Teach those friends well. Show them all that beer can be, not just what it is. Show them that innovation is more than just dumping something crazy in your latest hazy IPA. Evangelise, and make sure that every single one of my darker predictions is wrong.

Here’s to being wrong!