Does Craft Beer Have Any Room Left for Innovation?
After decades of looking for innovation from within, the beer industry is increasingly turning outside for inspiration.
Back in the ‘90s, I drank a lot of beer. I’d typical opt for straight-forward brews like Miller Genuine Draft or Yuengling Lager. Until one time in California, I drank a beer that changed my life: Pyramid Apricot Ale. Apricots in a beer, I thought. Ridiculous! Ridiculously enjoyable actually. A lot of craft breweries cut their teeth making apricot beers around this time: Magic Hat, Dogfish Head and Ithaca come to mind. But by today’s standards, thinking of apricot in a beer as innovative is as quaint as ordering an MGD. Nowadays, the craft world has innovated to the point where sometimes it feels like there’s nothing new to be tried anymore—the classic artistic cliché. But has craft beer innovation really reached the end of its rope?
Numbers are a good way of representing change. They’re cold, steadfast and easy to understand. So if you’re trying to talk about how much the beer industry has changed in the past four decades, it’s useful to talk about the number of breweries then and now. According to the Brewers Association, in 1976, the US had 103 breweries; in 2016, it had 5,301. You can see this growth everywhere you turn: new taprooms, new brewpubs, new beers in bars and on store shelves. But though the rapid increase in breweries is easy to wrap your head around, the increasing pace of innovation within the brewing world is much more ethereal.
But let’s try to quantify it as best we can with a timeline. Again, in 1976, Jack McAuliffe opened New Albion Brewing Company in Sonoma, California, and began selling a West Coast hopped Pale Ale considered one of the first American craft beers. In 1995, another famed California brewer, Vinnie Cilurzo, was credited with taking the first stab at brewing an Imperial IPA, a new style that would eventually become Pliny the Elder five years later. Put another way, the craft beer world took about two decades to go from pale ale to imperial IPA.
Now, compare the speed of that stylistic leap to how quickly things have happened in the decades since. Every year, a new style seems to emerge as the hip beer du jour: Traditional styles like saisons, Berliner weisses and goses have all had their moment in the sun. The IPA has been tripled and sessioned and grapefruited. Seemingly every beer style on Earth has been put in a barrel and seemingly every ingredient has been tossed into a brew – from breakfast cereal to sriracha to fried chicken. With so many breweries, coupled with the modern increase in the speed of communication, as soon as one brewery tries something new, another one is right there to piggyback off that idea. It’s Moore’s Law for malt and hops.
So, how do brewers continue to find ways to innovate when it seems like everything’s been done before? For an answer I ask one of the guys behind that aforementioned fried chicken beer, Fried Fried Chicken Chicken, a New England-style double IPA brewed with fistfuls of Chick-fil-A. The strange brew was a collaboration between Virigina’s Veil Brewing and New York’s Evil Twin Brewing, the brainchild of beer savant Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergso.
As owner not just of Evil Twin, but also one of the world’s best beer bars, Brooklyn’s Torst, Jarnit-Bjergso has long been at the forefront of the craft beer world. But interestingly enough, when he seeks to innovate, he likes to break out of his beer circles. “[I] look away and get inspired by other things that have nothing to do with beer and to work with non-beer people such as chefs, cocktail makers, etc,” he tells me via email. “They have a different approach to creating flavors and that inspires me and is something I learn from.”
Sometimes he employs an even more unexpected technique: working backwards. “I often get ideas for new beers from the idea of the name, label, etc.,” he says. As an example, he cites a forthcoming beer called Even More JCs, which is a take on his beloved stout Even More Jesus. The new recipe is meant as a tribute to his friend JC Tetreault, founder of Massachusetts’ Trillium Brewing. “I thought about conversations JC and I have had and beers he had made and ended up doing a version of Even More Jesus but with lactose, coffee and vanilla,” Jarnit-Bjergso explains. “It’s a way to turn things on the head.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Trillium has a similar take on how it finds ways to innovate. “We continue to look for inspiration from outside sources,” explains Tetreault. “Collaborations with other brewers, food partners, and industry products have sparked ideas that eventually turn into new beers.” In general, a dedication to innovation is part of innovation in itself too. “Trillium started with a passion for brewing, with experimentation at the core of what we do,” Tetreault says. “We're always looking for ways to improve, learn, and innovate through research and education. From working with novel ingredients, brewing different styles, and utilizing new equipment, the unique combination of possibilities are endless and that’s what’s exciting for us.”
Graft Cider is another brand built on the idea of innovation. Though as the name suggests, the New York-based cidery isn’t entirely focused on beer, the brand has that “outsider” mentality, blending concepts from the beer world into its unique ciders. “Carving out a new niche within the American cider industry is our mission,” explains founder Kyle Sherrer, who focuses on dry, sour and funky ciders. Along with Graft’s more traditional ciders, the brand also makes beer-influenced gose and hop ciders. “For us we tend to innovate through simplifying everything down to its essence then building a concept (or flavors) on top of that single focal point,” Sherrer tells me.
Speaking to all three of these innovative producers, a common thread emerges—it helps to look outside of the beer world. Though potentially counterintuitive, where else are brewers supposed to look? For decades, the brewing world has built off itself. The origins of craft beer were as much about rediscovery of beer’s past as they were about building something in the present: reaching back to old, neglected styles, be it the obvious IPA or the more obscure grisette. But while the past is finite, the future is not. Innovating from within beer’s history has gotten the craft beer industry where it is today, but in the long run, the outside is full of greater possibilities.