Bigger is better. That's been the mantra in the craft beer business for the last 15 years (mirroring the trend toward ever-higher-alcohol wines). We've suffered as brewers have made beers hoppier and more alcoholic. The results have been brews that left you drunk and with a tongue stinging from bitterness, and a drink that didn't go well with food. There's still a place for strong beers, but the craft beer movement is starting to evolve in some surprising ways. Here's a summary of some recent trends.
For one, brewers are expanding their repertoire beyond malts and hops for flavoring. Witness Alec Stefansky's amazing creations at Uncommon Brewers of Santa Cruz, California. His Siamese Twin ale incorporates lemongrass and kaffir lime; his Baltic Porter incorporates licorice root and star anise. Stefansky's Rubidus Red (a seasonal ale to be brewed later in the year) uses foraged candy cap mushrooms. On the other coast, Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery has made a bacon-infused beer, as well as a beer inspired by the Manhattan cocktail that incorporated rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters. While such methods sound innovative, they're actually time-honored: For thousands of years, before the orthodoxy of modern brewing, people had been throwing spices, fruit, and even meat into beer.
Another current trend was old before it was new again: barrel-aged beers. Why age a beer in wood? Well, similar to wine, the process of micro-oxygenation (the slow transfusion of air through the wooden sides of a cask) will change a beer's texture, rounding or smoothing it out, making it silky. Also, wood aging can add flavor, especially since brewers are typically using repurposed barrels that had previously held things like wine or bourbon. In addition, the use of yeasts like Brettanomyces can add that "farmhouse" flavor or create souring. Masters of this technique include California's Russian River Brewing and Oregon's Cascade Brewing. Not long ago in Vancouver, I drank a cherry lambic sour beer from Storm Brewing that had been aged for 13 years in barrel. It was complex, delicious stuff, unlike anything I'd ever tasted.
One area that some beers are becoming more extreme in, though, is price. Whereas we might expect to pay $8 for a six-pack of Pacifico these days, some unusual specialty beers are going through the roof. Consider Samuel Adams's Utopias (a barrel-aged brew that tastes a little like gently sparkling balsamic vinegar; CHOW's Supertaster columnist enjoyed it): The 2011 bottling to be released in May will go for $150. Last year, Carlsberg's Vintage 3, a "pale barley wine," sold for around $400 a bottle. And a couple of years ago a London restaurant was selling a 12-liter bottle of a 10-year-old Belgian beer for around $1,000.
But a trend I can get behind is single-focus breweries. Rather than every brewery being all things to all people (making ales, lagers, stouts, wheats, etc.), it's nice to see the specialization that's going on in places like Portland with the aforementioned Cascade focusing on barrel-aged beers and Upright Brewing working specifically on farmhouse-style beers. It's also cool to see craft brewers continuing to can their beers, as aluminum cans provide better protection and are more environmentally friendly to ship.
But for me, the happiest trend is still, literally, the mildest: the return of attention to session beers, flavorful but balanced, restrained beers that we can afford and drink several of over the course of an evening.