From brooding dark ales to crisp, refreshing lagers, beer is just as complex and compelling as its distilled and barrel-aged cousin, whisky. We chat with Lex Spasic of London bar Beer Rebellion to uncover the innovations, trends and transformative movements bubbling away in the beer industry…
Beer is booming the world over, and craft beer especially so. There are now more than 19,000 breweries worldwide, according to data assembled by global biotechnology company Alltech, of which 94% are classified as craft*. While the US is home to the most sites – a whopping 4,750 craft breweries in total – the UK boasts the most craft breweries per capita, with 25 breweries per million people.
With so much brewing going on across the globe, there’s plenty of activity to wet your whistle. Here Lex Spasic, operations manager at London-based craft beer bar Beer Rebellion, reveals the five key beer trends currently shaping what – and how – you drink…
Going back to basics
While there’s no shortage of maverick brewers playing mad scientist with wild yeasts and Brut IPAs, many breweries have arrived at a simpler conclusion: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. “Some breweries still specialise in using wild yeasts, but from what I understand strains such as Brettanomyces can be difficult to use as they are extremely aggressive – meaning even a residual amount left in a tank can infect a whole brew,” says Spasic. “The use of these yeasts and ingredients tends to reflect the experimental and restless nature of many small brewers, rather than any permanent changes.” In fact, if anything the movement has birthed the rise of an anti-trend – “a move towards producing lagers, helles, and pilsners,” says Spasic. “This may be either commercial necessity or as a reaction to the more experimental varieties, or both.” Instead, many sites have created dedicated barrel-ageing projects “as a more premium, longer term way of experimenting with ingredients and flavours”, such as Beavertown’s Tempus Project taproom and London Beer Factory’s barrel ageing site.
Producing beer requires a lot of water, gas and energy, and it creates a hell of a lot of waste. Over the last few years, breweries large and small have been exploring ways to reduce their environmental impact, be it through striving to reduce their resources, trialling creative methods for repurposing production byproducts, introducing recycled materials into their packaging or taproom, or exploring solar energy. Other breweries are philanthropic in their waste-reduction efforts. “We have recently started stocking Toast Ales on draft,” says Spasic. “They produce a range of beers brewed using leftover bread from bakeries and then donate the profits to charity.”
Style and substance
The industry has also largely shifted from bottles to cans, “touting the infinite recyclability of metal cans as one of the key benefits”, Spasic says; a move that has, perhaps inadvertently, modernised the category. “The rise of cans has also offered greater scope for design and artwork – this appears to be one of the biggest industry shifts in recent years,” Spasic adds. After Beer Rebellion fridges switched to exclusively stocking cans, they team noticed something interesting: the brightest cans sold the quickest, since they “offer far more options for bold and colourful branding than bottles”. Perhaps we’re not as immune to advertising witchcraft as we like to think. As for the next trend in beer marketing? Augmented reality, Spasic predicts. From can labels to supermarket displays, brands and breweries have already started dabbling with AR technology to create a more interactive and entertaining experience for the imbiber. Watch this space.
Low ABV = the new gluten-free
Purists might scoff, but non-alcoholic beer and low ABV beer appears to be on the rise everywhere at the moment, says Spasic. “Low abv seems to have a better variety at the moment, probably because brewers can still retain more of the flavour profile,” Spasic says – but don’t sleep on alcohol-free, which looks set to seriously take off over the next couple of years. “Gluten-free beers seemed like a real compromise for a long time, then all of a sudden it seemed that brewers cracked the magic formula, so hopefully this will happen with zero alcohol beers too.”
Breweries buying breweries
As long as craft breweries innovate, there’ll always be a conglomerate with deep pockets casting a watchful eye over the industry – whether they’re “buying up smaller breweries or producing their own versions of popular beers, as Guinness is doing, in order to get a piece of the market,” says Spasic. Ultimately, what does this all mean for the hops enthusiast? “The upside of this will hopefully be that breweries are forced to be even more inventive with their products in order to stand out,” says Spasic. Delicious innovation that drips down to your local? We can get on board with that.
*For the purposes of the survey, if a brewery had less than 30 staff or produced less than 5,000 hectolitres per year, or more than 50% of the business was privately owned, it was deemed ‘craft’.