New Year, New Beer: Predictions for 2021

February 5, 2021 Updated: February 5, 2021

Despite all of us having so little opportunity to visit breweries last year, the percentage of craft beer drinkers in the country continues to grow—now 44 percent of those of legal drinking age, according to the Brewers Association and their analysis of Nielsen Harris data. That said, 2020’s dismal social options corresponded to a decline in production.

Following such an unusual year in beer, here’s a look ahead at trends, challenges, and hopes in the one to come.

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A sign of the times outside Ale Asylum in Madison, Wis. (Kevin Revolinski)

Diverse Tastes

The larger craft-beer population has diverse tastes, across categories of age and gender, but we still see dominant trends in beer preferences:

Sour or tart beers have become fairly common. As I’ve written before, this is a characteristic, not one style in particular. I’ve never figured it would catch on as it did, but as a fan, I am glad to see it. According to the Brewers Association, the younger drinkers and women favor it most.

Hazy and juicy IPAs are still the rage, and that popularity doesn’t seem to be waning at all.

A taste for crisp beers—pilsners and other lagers—is also growing, of its own merits and in reaction to those who “just want a beer that tastes like beer!

The demand for low-calorie, sessionable, and even non-alcoholic beers also continues. But some of the biggest growth among brewers might not be beer at all: Hard seltzers have exploded in popularity. Brewers have gotten a break meeting that demand. Seltzers are made by blending the alcoholic base with flavors, so with no need to ferment every batch, they lack the 15- to 30-day delay of the beer-brewing process. They can be taken to market in less than a week.

Challenges

Quarantines and health rules obviously had an effect throughout the year: not a lot of opportunities to gather in bars or beer fests, and a booming demand for carryout/curbside options. What did that mean? Unexpected shortages.

Toilet paper and bread yeast weren’t the only sudden disappearing acts in 2020. Aluminum cans became hard to come by, a problem that continues into 2021. The industry has been migrating to cans (better than glass, for a number of reasons), but now brewers either couldn’t get them at all, or had to purchase a full truckload of printed cans for each brand if they weren’t using the shrink-wrap labels. In 2021, you may see flagship brands continuing to seek the can, while the seasonals and one-offs go back to the bottle.

Craft-beer drinkers continue to ask brewers, “What else you got?” Established breweries are able to produce new things and reach consumers with their name alone. With in-house service either limited or unavailable entirely, the smaller, lesser-known breweries had and may still have difficulty finding drinkers for new brews: A buyer can’t sample at a grocery store, and may be more inclined to go with an untried new brew from a well-known brewery rather than take a chance on a whole six-pack of unknown taste and provenance. The challenge, then, is to draw attention in a crowded market without seeing them in the taproom.

Trending is Trendy

Charity-focused brands are likely to gain attention. Ohio’s Fat Head’s Brewery produced A Special Wish Ale, with portions of the sales being donated to the Cleveland chapter of A Special Wish Foundation. In 2021, Fat Head’s is collaborating with Portland, Oregon’s Breakside Brewing to release Special Hoperations, a hazy IPA dedicated to American veterans and benefiting the nonprofit Honor Flight Network, which flies veterans to their war memorials.

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Fat Head’s Brewery’s Special Hoperations. (Courtesy of Fat Head’s Brewery)

Some beer brands, however, are getting their legs simply from a clever or timely name. “Brewers are trying to hit on hot subjects,” said Scott Ebert, chief business development and financial officer of Brew Pipeline (not to be confused with an actual beer pipeline in Belgium). “Take Lakefront or Surly or Indeed or Revolution [Midwest breweries]. Their one-offs are flying off shelves in stores,” Ebert said.

Who hasn’t heard of Apocalypse Bingo cards, the gallows-humor game that divided all the possible disasters of 2020 into a bingo game so we could all play along at home in isolation? (Thank goodness we didn’t get Alien Invasion or Giant Asteroid!) Ale Asylum in Madison, Wisconsin, took advantage of the zeitgeist and released an Apocalypse Bingo series, the first of which, released late in 2020, was a hazy pale ale called MRDR HRNT (that’s Murder Hornets if you can’t buy a vowel). The brewery has at least two more installments in the series planned for 2021.

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Ale Asylum’s Apocalypse Bingo MRDR HRNT. (Courtesy of Ale Asylum)

Last fall, Morgan Snyder of Visit Indy alerted me to “a trend of beers related to civil liberties, the election, or the act of voting.” BrewDog Ohio released Every Vote Counts, and Sam Adams re-released a beer in honor of Ruth Bader Ginsburg upon her passing. The relevance of the brands came and went, but they did well in the moment. More timely brews can be expected in 2021, Ebert told me, but timing can be a challenge. “It’s hard to be fast and innovative,” he said.

Moving Fast and Far

Baltimore-based DuClaw Brewery released a curious collaboration with Diablo Doughnuts: Sour Me Unicorn Farts, a sour ale brewed with cherries, tangerines, limes, and a surprise in the mash: Fruity Pebbles cereal. And if that wasn’t enough, it is canned with edible glitter.

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DuClaw Brewing’s Sour Me Unicorn Farts. (Courtesy of DuClaw Brewing Company)

For some, this might sound like another square on that aforementioned bingo card, but glitter in beer is a thing. The beer proved to be good, and it sold out quickly, so it’s making a return in 2021—now even Fruity Pebblier. DuClaw distributes in 19 states, yet the beer will reach another 15 states besides. But how is that possible?

Enter Brew Pipeline, a “direct-access platform” that takes one particular brand from a brewer and works with distributors—large grocery chains, for example—to offer it in states in which the brewery doesn’t already have a distribution agreement set up. In almost every state these commitments assign exclusive rights geographically. But Brew Pipeline’s Guest Brewer Program can take a single brand from a smaller regional brewery directly into a bigger market than they might otherwise have for their flagship beers.

“Surly Brewing [of Minneapolis] is in 10 or 11 states, very regional and highly rated, but they don’t want to deal with distributor networks,” Ebert offered as an example. Brew Pipeline can expand their portfolio, taking one or two brands national: “perfect for collaborations and one-offs with brands that resonate.”

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Surly Brewing’s Coffee Bender. (Courtesy of Surly Brewing)

Massachusetts-based and lager-focused Jack’s Abby brews Hoponius Union, an India Pale Lager that nabs a 99 rating in that style at RateBeer.com. Previously, one could only find this brew in its home state and parts of New York. Brew Pipeline added 31 more states to that range.

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Jack’s Abby’s Hoponius Union. (Courtesy of Jack’s Abby Brewing)

The lengthy process of setting up in a new state with new distribution agreements and the commitment that comes with them can be reduced to a process that takes less than three months, commits just one brand, and lasts for a limited time, if desired.

Brew Pipeline is already starting to see competition with this model. So next time you are beer shopping, you may find some surprisingly timely beer brands from breweries a long, long way from home. Let that make your 2021 a bit happier!

Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.”  He is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and his website is TheMadTraveler.com.