The End of Extreme Beer

Unfiltered by | Jan 2013 | Issue #72

Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

“Innovation” has long been the watchword of craft beer. Enduring many phases, like a teenager experimenting with Manic Panic, craft beer has been quick to embrace the new. As the industry matures, trying to manage and sustain its popularity over the long term, craft brewers are starting to experience an identity crisis resulting from a single question: Can craft beer survive without innovation?

Craft beer lovers have enjoyed a golden age of experimentation and invention over the past decade. This revolutionary era has resulted in a revelation of the novel, including extreme beer, super-hopped IPAs, envelope-pushing alcohol levels and aging beer in all measures of wood barrels. We’ve also experienced a renaissance of Belgian beer styles and a growing interest in session beer. The dedication to change and pursuit of novelty has driven craft beer’s identity for nearly a decade. That era is now over.

If the last 10 years have been marked by limit-pushing and attention-seeking behavior, craft brewers have overachieved. The next five years will be defined by simply trying to make enough beer to satisfy the pent-up demand. This year’s Great American Beer Festival was noteworthy not for experimentation but by its absence, a departure from the rarified air of the past few festivals. A few die-hards remain dedicated to giving breath to the gasping era of extreme, which, in its death throes, is making White IPAs and over-hopped Hefeweizens. But these offerings are more iPhone 4S than any remarkable brewing achievement.

The new age will be defined by managing growth and scurrying to find sufficient capital to buy more stainless.

Even the serial beer magicians at Dogfish Head have been remarkably quiet over the past 18 months, with only the occasional beer release. Once actively courting the limelight, back home, the brewery long suffered from insufficient supply to satisfy distributor and consumer demand. In response, Dogfish turned its focus in 2012 to brewing enough of its core brands and getting local permission to expand the brewery to meet pent-up consumer demand.

Remember collaboration beers? Once seemingly everywhere, these quaint relics have gone the way of Amber Ales, Pete’s Wicked, and Redhook’s popularity. Who has time to travel when there’s beer at home to be made? These brewers continue to focus on their core markets, a trend that portends fresher beer and more consumer consideration—all positive things.

Even perpetual attention-seekers BrewDog have been surprisingly tame as of late, focusing on installing a new brewhouse and raising capital. While still promoting itself as your favorite “post Punk apocalyptic mother fu*ker of a craft brewery,” the company’s once boastful website now trades in such mundane business as hiring an HR manager and management accountant. Applications still being accepted.

Some craft brewers have recognized the changing era sooner than others, with the best example being Stone Brewing. One of the nation’s largest craft brewers, Stone also remains one of the most conservative operations. For all of its bravado and bluster, Stone has largely avoided the irrational exuberance of the extreme beer era, instead choosing to focus on a few core brands. Stop by the brewery and you won’t find tons of Stone one-offs and barrel-aged numbers. Eschewing the distractions of extreme, you’ll instead find a company focused on growing its core brands and meeting consumer demands.

The industry’s only remaining wild card is the still kicking nanobrewery trend. Greg Koch, of the aforementioned Stone Brewing, deemed their presence akin to a “Third World bus, with all these people hanging on to the roof.” While not entirely fair, parallels can be drawn to the mid-’90s, when a lot of well-intentioned people jumped into brewing because it looked cool. In going bankrupt, they learned that running a brewery can be very uncool. If these small players can scale up, and avoid making just another IPA, some may thrive.

Long defined by excitement and inspired by novelty, the next era of craft beer will be driven less by the whimsy of brewing adolescence and more by a passion for adult business practices.