Is Craft Beer Still Innovative?
I’ll just come right out and say it…
…churning out a new beer every week is not innovative
…adding pizza, fried chicken, or ghost peppers to your beer is not innovative
…it creates hype and it’s good PR, but it is not innovative
Both brewers and drinkers seem exhausted by these practices. Turning what were once small batch side projects into a mindset of pleasing new-money haze bros. Yet, for every person who stays home from some new whale release, two more get in line. I see a lot of comments about whatever the new multi-adjunct barrel-aged imperial stout that say “craft beer has peaked” and that it’s “all downhill from here.”
And for a while now, I’ve felt the same.
But I’ve realized that getting caught up in release cycles and trendy beers just made me overlook the true innovation happening in the industry. The bigger regional and national brewers are creating things to better the industry, not just better themselves. Innovation in this sense can open up craft beers to currently untapped markets, growing the category and beating out mass-market light lagers.
Dogfish Head is currently pitching an unreleased low-calorie IPA, called Slightly Mighty, expected to hit shelves this spring. On the surface, this looks like another “let’s release something new to release something new” release, but there’s actually a lot of science that went into creating what Dogfish Head calls a beer with…
“…all the flavor and tropical aromas of a world class IPA, but with only 95 calories, 3.6g carbs, 1g protein and 0g fat per serving.”
A typical IPA these days, the hazy New England variety, can be well north of 300 calories and 20g of carbs.
There are three parts that went into making this innovative beer:
- An enzyme that breaks down complex carbs that remain in the wort
- A yeast strain that eats these sugars
- Monk fruit
What is monk fruit? It’s a zero-calorie, zero-carb, zero-sugar natural sweetener. Since an enzyme has eaten away all the sugar, the monk fruit helps to balance out the bitterness of the hops in the beer that the sugar normally would do. While this beer hasn’t been released yet, the initial press reviews have been positive:
“…we are happy to report that the monk fruit work does indeed deliver a good, hoppy beer. … It isn’t as bold as a full-strength IPA with double the calories (calories are delicious, after all), but the tropical fruit flavor of the hops and mild sweetness of the monk fruit deliver a damn tasty beer. It’s still dry for an IPA, but that also makes it significantly more refreshing.”
Dogfish Head isn’t the only doing this either, Lagunitas just announced a revamp of their Daytime IPA, making it lower calorie.
Lock & Key: Gluten-Reduced IPA
Lock & Key is a series of gluten-reduced beers by Trillium. As with the low-calorie beer, Trillium isn’t the only one making gluten-reduced beer. They are, however, one of the few making it that are capable of putting out thousands of cases of it a week to some of the most invested craft beer drinkers. The concept of reduced-gluten beer is innovative in the sense that it’s bringing a whole new market into the industry.
According to WebMD (very scientific source), somewhere around 1% of the US population has celiac disease and up to 13% have a general sensitivity to gluten. That’s a whole lot of people who don’t have that many options when their friends want to go out for a beer.
Reduced-gluten is not the same as gluten-free, obviously, but most people who have issues with gluten should be able to have this beer. It is brewed to have less the 20 ppm of gluten, which is the commonly recognized value for where people begin to have reactions. As Trillium notes, you should consult your doctor if you have a sensitivity to gluten, but I think there’s a bigger message to this.
Brewing a beer that can be enjoyed by different markets (in this case gluten and non-gluten), you create a product that brings people together without reducing the experience for either party.
Full Circle Pale Ale
Stone’s Full Circle Pale Ale was a limited release a few years back, but the underlying message of what they were working to accomplish is just as relevant today. Brewing beer uses a lot of resources, especially water. From growing the ingredients, brewing the beer, cleaning equipment, and packaging it is estimated 20 gallons of water go into each pint of beer.
The drought issue in America doesn’t seem to be getting any better, and using 20 gallons of water to make one pint of a dehydrating liquid is definitely not environmentally friendly. Stone might have taken it a bit too far by using reclaimed sewage water to brew beer, but the technology there is easily transferable to other areas. Greywater, relatively clean water that doesn’t contain sewage, seems like a great match for future development.
A number of high profile lawsuits and C&D letters between breweries have made their way into the news lately. This is expected only to increase, as the number of breweries and beer varieties increases and the importance of branding doubles down.
That’s what makes Resilience IPA from Sierra Nevada innovative. They have a history of collaboration and relationship building in the industry via their Summer Camp variety packs, but Resilience takes a different approach to this.
A 180-degree change really.
Sierra Nevada developed the recipe and published it publicly. They invited every brewery in the country to brew it. They asked these brewers to donate the proceeds to the relief efforts for the Camp Wildfire in California. I don’t really know what the future is for beers like this, but I know it creates connections and develops a community in ways that Associations and Conferences don’t.
Another example like this is the Pink Boots Society, an organization for professional female brewers. Their Collaboration Brew Day is about more than making another “collab beer,” its goal is “raising the profile of women’s roles in the beer industry.”
It is certainly a precarious time for craft beer, competition is heating up and it doesn’t look like it’s going to ease up anytime soon. Brewing new beers on a weekly basis is what it takes to bring people in and keep the lights on. That said, talk to your favorite brewer and see what they’re working on and what they’re most proud of. That tends to be the best beer on the menu.
Also check out the Flagship February movement, recognizing the classics that have brought the craft to where it is, and helping give them the resources to innovate more in the future.
Originally published at Dan DeSimone.