Last year, I did not ask for a shiny gadget or gewgaw for the holidays. Instead, I wished for a few corrections in America’s craft beer industry. While there are more than 2,100 breweries in the States and another thousand-plus in the planning stages, there’s always room for better beer. And happily, 2012 was a very good year for better beer.
Many of my wishes came true. Brewers began creating droves of flavorful, low-alcohol ales emphasizing balance, not bash-you-over-the-head flavor. (Witness the explosion of the session IPA category.) Breweries are increasingly dating their bottled beers, and Stone’s Enjoy By program is revolutionizing the notion of fresh beer. Old styles such as the grätzer are becoming more commonplace, and Twitter is de rigueur for any new brewery worth its salt. Beer is social. Social media is crucial for success.
Still, not every wish was fulfilled. Clean taps are still a concern, and many bar owners still embrace the better-is-more mentality of installing dozens of draft lines — and serving brews in penny-pinching 14-ounce “pint” glasses. And some beer drinkers still treat craft beer with a reverence that, much to my chagrin, calls to mind wine zealots. I’m a beer geek with the best of ’em, but a brew should accompany conversations, not dominate them. Here are my holiday wishes for the next year of craft beer:
1. Stop hunting for the white whales
What’s up, Captain Ahab? Yeah, I know that Cantillon is killer, and I’m super-proud that you have a Dark Lord vertical. But what did these brews cost you? And how much time did you spend seeking them out? Collecting beers like baseball cards is crazy. There’s plenty of excellent local beer on the shelves of your local bottle shop.
2. Make way for the craft lager
For too long, craft beer drinkers have shunned lagers in lieu of hopped-up IPAs and stouts as inky as 4 a.m. Now, craft brewers are returning to the much-maligned family of bottom-fermented brews, turning out crisp, nuanced lagers as refreshing as they are flavorful.
3. Embrace New Zealand and Australian hops
This year, every brewery seemed to catch Citra fever. The hop was the hottest flowering cone on the block, supplying its trademark tropical profile to brews like Kern River Citra Double IPA and Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA. But demand is greater than supply, leaving many brewers in the lurch. One alternative: Look to Southern Hemisphere hops such as Nelson Sauvin, Riwaka, Motueka and Galaxy hops. I bet they’ll blow up in 2013.
4. Enough with the IPAs
While IPAs are showing no signs of slowing down, it’s time for my taste buds to wave a white flag: enough with the bitterness. Too many IPAs are cookie cutters or ride down the middle of the road. Either innovate, or look to a less crowded style. May I suggest the ESB, Munich Helles or maybe a kölsch?
5. No more boring beer festivals
The last few years have witnessed an explosion of beer festivals nationwide. Normally, I’d cheerlead this fact, save for one little bit of truth: Most of these festivals feature boring beer and big price tags. If you’re going to run a beer festival, make it special. Follow the cues of Beer Advocate’s Extreme Beer Fest, or perhaps Shelton Brothers and 12 Percent Imports’ simply named the Festival, which featured all the brewers pouring their own beer.
6. Think beyond the bourbon barrel
I love a bourbon barrel–aged imperial stout as much as the next drinker, but I’m starting to get bored of the pairing. Instead, why not look to age beers in other spirit and alcohol barrels? Port, rum, chardonnay, aquavit — with wood, there’s a wide world of barrels awaiting the right beer.
7. Learn the write stuff
Too often, beer writers and bloggers simply repost or repurpose press releases, or perhaps they focus too deeply on the intricacies of the beer’s flavors or the ingredients. The real stories of craft beer are found behind the bottle. Focus on the passion, struggle and creativity of the brewers, beer drinkers and bar owners, and chances are you’ll have an interesting, original and engaging story.
8. Slow down on expansion
This year, North Carolina was on the lips of every craft beer drinker as New Belgium, Sierra Nevada and Oskar Blues all announced an expansion into the state. While these projects will doubtlessly bring fabulous fresh beer to the brewery’s fans on the East Coast, other breweries need to ask themselves a hard question: Do I want to be a national brand, or just the best brewery in my region, state or town? Smaller, more locally rooted breweries are the future of craft brewing.
9. Take better beer pictures
Instagram has made it incredibly easy to share images of every beer that passes your lips. But you know what? A picture of a beer bottle is pretty boring. Jazz up your images, my fellow shutterbugs, and watch your follower count skyrocket.