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When Craft Beer Became Big Beer

July 14, 2021

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

photo: Raphaelle Macaron

Beer

When Craft Beer Became Big Beer

July 14, 2021

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

photo: Raphaelle Macaron

In the final installment of a three-part series, Aaron Goldfarb examines the 2010s, when rarity was king and the meaning of “craft” was called into question.

In the 2010s, some 30 years into the ongoing craft beer “movement,” it finally went mainstream in America. No longer were IPAs and stouts the domain of that one geeky bar or bottle shop; the sole microbrewery in the city’s warehouse district finally had company (and competition). In fact, if the decade began with a little under 2,000 craft breweries, 10 years later it could count more than four times that number, currently sitting around 8,900, accounting for about 13 percent of the overall beer market.

This craft beer explosion was detonated by three key sparks: ingredient-laden boozy stouts, fruit salad–packed sours and über-hopped IPAs. While craft beer had been built by providing drinkers with dozens—if not hundreds—of different styles and eschewing the fizzy yellow lager of Big Beer, the 2010s caused brewers to taper back to just three central styles. Good luck finding an amber ale!

At the same time, the industry leaned more on hype, rarity and the almighty dollar than anything else: ultralimited imperial stouts that necessitated a dedicated “release day,” hazy hop juice that enticed beer bros to line up for hours each weekend to nab cases, and hard seltzer that displayed no craft, but rather a desire to print cash.

This is the final installment in a three-part series exploring the major trends that defined each decade of the craft beer boom, beginning in the 1990s. This edition covers the 2010s to today.

Duck, Duck... Goose!

Big Beer had been hedging with an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality since craft beer began to surge in the 1990s (see: Blue Moon). By the 2010s, though, instead of simply joining them, multinational conglomerates realized it would be easier to just buy them. The first salvo occurred in 2011, when Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) picked up Goose Island for some $38 million. (For comparison’s sake, the Belgian-Brazilian InBev had purchased Anheuser-Busch in 2008 for $52 billion.) This was the shot heard round the world. Suddenly a feeding frenzy began as conglomerates bought any craft brands they could—ABI itself snagged more than a dozen, including Blue Point, Elysian, 10 Barrel, Golden Road and Wicked Weed. The culmination of this hysteria was Constellation Brands’ overzealous purchase of Ballast Point for $1 billion in 2015. Drinkers, turned off by its nationwide ubiquity (as well as its gimmicky releases), so quickly abandoned the once-beloved San Diego brand that by 2019, Constellation was forced to unload it for a piddling $100 million.

Release Day Madness

In 2002, a small Munster, Indiana, brewpub named 3 Floyds put on tap a 13 percent ABV Russian imperial stout brewed with Mexican vanilla beans, Indian sugar and Starbucks coffee. Back then, to add nonbeer ingredients to a brew was near-heresy. Dark Lord Imperial Stout, as it was known, became an immediate sensation around the brewpub, in a suburb just outside Chicago. In April 2004, 3 Floyds bottled Dark Lord for the first time, dipping the bombers’ neck in what would become its calling card wax seal. By August 15, 2004, it had ascended to Beer Advocate’s No. 1 beer in the world, revolutionizing what “rare” beer meant and how much hype these “whales” could garner. In fact, so many nascent beer geeks wanted to “tick” Dark Lord that by 2005, 3 Floyds hosted the first Dark Lord Day, an outdoor drinking and metal festival that doubled as the only place to nab the beer. Other breweries soon followed suit, offering their rarest, most hyped, and often booziest kitchen sink stouts on single days: Surly’s Darkness Day debuted in 2006, while in 2010 Cigar City created Hunahpu’s Day and Goose Island moved Bourbon County Brand Stout’s release to Black Friday, kicking the hype game into high gear and causing beer geeks to behave like frenzied mall shoppers in their pursuit of these rarities. (Naturally, a secondary market, similar to bourbon’s, also emerged.) Before long, hype was all that mattered: Any beer that necessitated standing in line—not just imperial stouts, but the cans of New England IPAs (NEIPAs) that would arrive by middecade—was immediately considered notable. Any beer that didn’t was easily dismissed as a shelf turd.

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A Heady Idea

The West Coast, specifically California, had been the undisputed epicenter of craft beer well into the 2000s. But by the 2010s, thanks to Vermont (the second-least populous state), that all changed. The Green Mountain State had always had an artisan, hippie culture that naturally led to some pretty good brewing, including Greg Noonan’s Vermont Pub & Brewery, Magic Hat and Otter Creek. But things began to change when a troika of ultramodern breweries emerged, in turn creating a new style that would turbocharge the industry. In 2010 Shaun Hill established Hill Farmstead on his family’s farm in Greensboro Bend; by 2012 it was considered the best brewery in the world, a title it holds even today. There was Lawson’s Finest Liquids, operating out of a 280-square-foot nanobrewery in a shed, producing beers like Double Sunshine, which out-of-staters would trek to the tiny town of Warren specifically to hunt. And, in 2012, after Tropical Storm Irene ruined its Waterbury brewpub, The Alchemist pivoted to selling only a single beer in silver-and-black cans. That beer was Heady Topper, and it soon became known as the best beer in the world. A soft, fruity, and hazy double IPA, it was completely unlike the bitter West Coast IPAs that had dominated since the turn of the century. This was the ur-NEIPA and it eventually became the most imitated beer style in the industry, first progressing to other parts of New England like Massachusetts (at breweries like Tree House and Trillium Brewing), then down to Brooklyn (Other Half Brewing) and eventually the entire world.

What is “Craft” Beer Anymore?

As craft beer evolved, it came to be defined by the inclusion of nontraditional ingredients. Stouts like Dark Lord—fairly restrained, in retrospect—gave birth to the pastry stout, in which brewers would add literal dessert, like Oreos, Count Chocula cereal or rainbow-sprinkled donuts, to the brew kettle. Spontaneously fermented wild ales evolved into quickly made goses, Berliner weisses and kettle sours sweetened with more puréed fruit than a shopping mall smoothie (which made them susceptible to literal explosions). NEIPAs became so overly reliant on oats, milk sugar and dry-hopping that they started to look like slurries of fresh-squeezed OJ rather than beer. Accentuating the un-beer-like quality of contemporary craft beer was the emergence of IP-mimicking (if not outright infringing) labels that featured Snickers bars, Fruity Pebbles boxes and Capri Sun pouches, and, perhaps more than anything else, “craft” hard seltzer, which breweries began producing within the past year. To many longtime craft beer fans, these beers (and seltzers) were anything but “craft” and antithetical to the damn-the-macros ethos that had started this movement in the first place. Luckily, an equal and opposite reaction was also occurring. While lager was once considered something only factory breweries produced, now every cool brewery worth its salt offers a crisp lager or two. Some breweries, like Suarez Family Brewery and Schilling Beer Co., are almost entirely dedicated to the style, giving serious beer drinkers well-crafted beer that, for the first time in a while, actually tastes like, well, beer.

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