Chuckanut Brewery’s many medals on display.
There are so many exciting, beer-related things going on in Whatcom and Skagit counties these days. Atwood Ales is cranking out some spectacular saisons, Aslan is building a barrel aging and tasting room, Wander is brewing spontaneously fermented beers using its new coolship, The North Fork is producing a stellar lineup of sour ales, Kulshan made one of the best goses I’ve ever tasted, Boundary Bay has been making some great new beers such as its delicious Citraweisse, Chuckanut continues to make some of the best lagers in the country, and all of our newer breweries – Stones Throw, Gruff, and Structures – have been making some mighty fine brews right out of the gate.
To add, Bellingham breweries brought home even more awards in 2016 from a variety of beer competitions, including the Great American Beer Festival, Washington Beer Awards, Best of Craft Beer Awards, and North American Beer Awards.
THE ‘BUBBLE’ DID NOT BURST (AGAIN)
Many media outlets and blogs continue to warn that the “craft beer bubble” is about to burst, but they’ve been saying that ad nauseam for so many years that I wonder where they’re getting their information from. Craft beer (or whatever you want to call it) is not a fad, or even a trend. It’s not a bubble and it’s not going to burst. Growth has slowed, yes. It might even level off in the future, just like every other growth industry out there. I expect it to happen at some point, especially after the meteoric growth craft beer has experienced over the past decade. That’s fine. But it doesn’t mean good beer is going away and we’re all going to start drinking Bud Light again, or that thousands of breweries will instantly close up across the country.
One thing these doomsayers fail to realize is that almost all of the new breweries opening up these days are small, neighborhood breweries, and most of them have no intentions of becoming the next Sierra Nevada or Stone or New Belgium. Many don’t even plan to distribute outside of their local markets. So, it’s not like they’re adding much volume to the market.
With increased competition for store shelf space and tap handles in a crowding market, the focus seems to be shifting to locally made beers, sold locally. And consumers seem to be supportive of this trend.
I’m also noticing increased attention to quality and innovation, which is great news for beer lovers. If new breweries today do not offer quality and uniqueness, they’re not going to survive very long. The bar has been raised, and with each new brewery that opens, it’s only going to be raised higher. That is, as long as beer drinkers continue to hold these breweries to high standards.
TAP TRAIL TURNED TWO!
Thanks to all the support from locals and visitors, the Tap Trail celebrated its 2nd anniversary this year. We now have 22 locations.
The Tap Trail also took over Bellingham Beer Week this year, which was a huge success. Thank you to everyone who attended the events and supported local businesses.
AB InBev IS INSATIABLE
AB InBev continued to acquire more craft breweries this year, including Devil’s Backbone, Hop Valley, and Karbach, as well as one of its bigger competitors, SABMiller. It even gluttonously slurped up Northern Brewer (and Midwest Supplies), one of the more respected homebrew supply companies in the country, which was shocking and cause for great consternation among homebrewers across the nation, including myself.
But, in general, do we really care anymore about these acquisitions? Or have we just become numb to them? Fortunately, even if your favorite craft brewery was acquired and you no longer buy its beer because you don’t want to support the multi-national anti-craft corporation, at least there are still countless independent craft breweries out there to support, including many local options.
There seems to be a newfound interest in making beer with local and unique ingredients beyond the main four (malted barley, water, hops and yeast). Of course, this isn’t a novel trend, as brewers have been doing this for thousands of years, but it’s new to many beer drinkers. In recent times, brewers have experimented with all sorts of nuts, chocolates, coffees, plants and trees, fruits, wild yeasts and bacteria, and even animal parts. Some of it has been gross, awful and/or gimmicky, but many of these experiments have turned out wonderfully, taking beer to new levels.
EQUIPMENT & PROCESSES
Barrel aging is definitely nothing new, but lots of breweries are starting barrel programs these days, and they’re doing new things with barrels and puncheons and foeders. Beyond whiskey/bourbon barrels, beer is being aged in barrels that once held all sorts of spirits, including tequila, wine, cognac, you name it. Plus, they’re employing methods from other industries (e.g., solera aging/blending from the wine/vinegar world) and countries (e.g., spontaneous fermentation from Belgium), and they’re adding fruit, wine grapes, wild yeasts and bacteria, and so much more – all of which blurs the line between beer and other alcoholic beverages, and it makes us rethink our definition of beer and its potential.
Nitrogenated beers are also on the rise. Most of them are in draft form, but after Guinness, Left Hand and Boston Beer Co. developed their own secretive, proprietary methods for nitrogenating canned/bottled beers, other breweries have been figuring out how to do it, and I foresee more to come.
As an aside, while I appreciate a good nitro mild ale, stout or porter from time to time, I don’t care for the increasing number of nitro IPAs out there. On at least a few occasions, I’ve tasted CO2 and nitro versions of the same IPA side by side, and I’ve always preferred the CO2 version. I just think its dryness and effervescence lifts hop aromatics better, whereas nitro tends to soften and mute hop flavors and aromatics.
INDIA PALE ALES STILL DOMINATE
Speaking of IPAs, they still dominated the craft market in 2016. I know, shock of the century. But, hey, at least they’re getting better as a whole. The IBU hops race is finally over, after all, and beer drinkers are embracing more-balanced IPAs. Some breweries have even altered their recipes to reflect this change in palates, such as Stone’s Ruination IPA.
In other words, the pendulum now seems to be swinging away from bracingly bitter, 100+ IBU IPAs and toward low-IBU, “New England / Northeast-style” beers full of hop flavors and aromatics. Structures, Aslan, and Gruff have all made delicious beers in this vein.
We also have many new hops on the market and more IPA sub styles from which to choose, so the category is still widening. I welcome some of these new sub styles, such as low-ABV session IPAs and “sour” IPAs (dry hopped sour ales), but I’m kind of getting tired of others, such as fruit IPAs.
I’ve really enjoyed many of the newer IPAs produced in Bellingham, especially Boundary Bay’s Cedar Dust, which won the Tap Trail’s 2016 Best IPA in Bellingham contest, as well as Aslan’s Illmatic, Kulshan’s fresh hop IPA, Wander’s latest On the Spot IPA, and more.
OTHER STYLES CONTINUE TO GAIN ATTENTION
Beyond IPAs, many other styles seem to be increasing in popularity, including saisons, farmhouse ales, and Brett beers, as well as lagers in general. Regarding the latter, craft lagers are still a niche within a niche, but there’s a growing appreciation for them and, more importantly, craft brewers are getting better at making them.
Sour ales also continue to surge in popularity. Even though most of the new sour ales on the market are kettle-soured Goses and Berliner Weisses, which are quicker, more controllable and pose less risk of cross-contamination with cold-side equipment, many breweries are beginning to create sour ales using more traditional methods which require much more time, space, equipment and skill, though they come with more risk.
CHEERS TO (THE GOOD PARTS OF) 2016
Even though 2016 was filled with negatives, at least we got to enjoy some great beers along the way. Of course, beer isn’t everything; there’s also family, friends, food, yada yada. But as one of life’s finer pleasures, good beer sure did help. Let’s hope 2017 is even better.