Lotte Peplow, Brewers Association’s American Craft Beer Ambassador for Europe, chases down the latest trends in American craft brewing following her experience at the recent Great American Beer Festival
Mind-blowing, memorable and unique best describes the Great American Beer Festival, organised by the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade association for small and independent American craft brewers. A beer lover’s paradise, it’s the largest public beer tasting event in America and has been dubbed by Thrillist as ‘the one beer festival to try before you die’. This year’s edition took place 21-23 September 2023 at the cavernous Colorado Convention Centre in Denver and attracted 40,000 attendees who came to sample 1,800 beers from 500 breweries.
The Great American Beer Festival competition took place before the Festival and attracted 9,300 beers from 2,033 breweries judged over three days by 250 beer experts. There were 303 medals awarded in total to 263 breweries. Winning beers are poured at the Festival and create a huge buzz as attendees seek them out after the winners’ announcement. It was great to see US craft breweries who export winning medals because they are more likely to be obtainable by beer lovers in Scandinavia and included beers from Alesmith Brewing Co, Allagash Brewing Co, Belching Beaver Brewery, Breakside Brewery, Deschutes Brewery, Fifty Fifty Brewing Co, Firestone Walker Brewing Co, Hoppin’ Frog Brewing Co, Left Hand Brewing Co, Modern Times Beer, Oskar Blues Brewery Port City Brewing Co and Reubens Brews.
The Festival is a good place to pick up trends and hot new beers styles. However, the prevailing trend remains IPA in its many iterations as has been the case for the last several years. In 2022, the IPA category accounted for 43% of all craft beer sales in the US, up from 30% in 2017.Today, four in every ten craft beer sales in America is an IPA. The category has grown because it has changed and taken on new dimensions, offering options that depart from its original characterisation as bitter beer. Newer substyles exhibit more juicy/hazy, less bitter profiles that invite new customers in and help grow the category.
The driving force behind IPA’s continued growth is due to two distinct segments: the Imperial (or Double) IPA and the juicy/hazy IPA. The Imperial IPA caters to a discerning demographic who seek out high alcohol by volume, audacious boldness, pronounced bitterness, and robust hop aromas and flavours. There was much evidence of Triple IPAs at the Festival indicating an even greater trend towards hop bitterness. Juicy/hazy IPA, however, appeals to a fresh audience of beer enthusiasts with its subdued bitterness and velvety mouthfeel, and represents a more approachable experience for those new either to the world of craft beer or the world of IPA.
On the Festival floor Double and Triple IPAs were plentiful with brewers innovating through a variety of creative brewing techniques and ingredients such as a DIPA aged in Oloroso Sherry barrels at 15.4% ABV (it was incredible!)
Beyond the IPA craze, other categories performing strongly include fruit beers in a variety of iterations such as fruited classic or sour beers, and a collection of lighter, lower ABV styles like lagers, blonde ale, golden and wheat ale.
These trends were played out by the winners of the Great American Beer Festival competition with the most entered style categories being:
Juicy or Hazy IPA with 365 entries
West Coast Style IPA with 301 entries
Light Lager with 284 entries
German-Style Pilsner with 228 entries
American-Style IPA with 206 entries
New Festival Additions
In order to stay fresh and relevant Great American Beer Festival is constantly re-inventing itself with new additions, new experiences and new innovations. For the first time this year the Festival featured an international pavilion pouring 16 beers from familiar European breweries from Germany, Belgium and Iceland. Also new was the National Black Brewers Association comprising four black-owned breweries pouring 12 different beers and the Gluten-Free Garden offered 24 different gluten-free beers in one section.
There was a slew of ciders and hard seltzers for those seeking a change from beer and a Non-Alcoholic Oasis including 32 no/low alcohol offerings and hop water, adding a creative new dimension to the beverage choices.
What’s more, there were plenty of things to see and do to keep attendees entertained such as the Karaoke stage, the Silent Disco (always a popular spot!), the Backyard where visitors can hang out, play games, chill in a comfy chair and get some food or the Brewers Studio for learning and discovering from some of the most provocative personalities and innovators in the brewing community. Fancy dress was ‘de rigeur’ with a different theme every day and pretzel necklaces ranged from the basic to the bananas (literally!). Foodies can seek out beer and food loving heaven at PAIRED, where independent craft breweries unite with acclaimed chefs to produce mouth watering delicacies perfectly paired with 50 special beers not found anywhere else on the Festival floor.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly the beer range. Pours are only 1oz or 30ml to ensure ‘sampling’ rather than chugging back as much beer as possible. Despite a multitude of 1oz pours, after four sessions at the Festival I had barely scratched the surface and offer my survival suggestions which include sampling only…..
1. One style per hour – my plan was to start light with lagers, blonde ales and session ales then work my way up to the big hitters thus sampling as wide a range as possible of beer styles on offer. However, while my strategy should have worked in theory, it was easy to get distracted by something rare and amazing and I often found myself side-tracked by a beguiling, rare, unmissable beer eg Firestone Walker’s 2023 Collective Choice, a Barrel Aged Imperial Stout with maple, vanilla and hazelnuts at 12.5% ABV.
2. Beers with the longest queues which indicate a ‘hype’ beer or limited-edition release – breweries advertise when a beer is being tapped and the queue starts building hours in advance. While this strategy ensures you’ll taste the hype beers you’ll spend a lot of time queueing and less time sampling and if you wish to pursue this option it’s best navigated with a buddy who can stand in the queue while you sample something nearby and vice versa.
3. Medal winning beers –the Heavy Medal booth is where gold medal winners from past Great American Beer Festivals and World Beer Cups are poured and it’s worth seeking out. Then, as soon as the winners are announced be ready to seek out the winning beers (and be quick, they go fast!)
4. Beers with witty, creative or entertaining names – such as ‘Chai Ai Captain’, gold medal winner in the herb and spice category, the dark lager ‘Flek Me??? No Fleck You!!’ or rye beer, ‘Steamy Wonder’. The list is endless but requires dedication and pre-planning!
5. Experimental beers – like Belching Beavery Brewery’s Tropical Terps, brewed with terpenes – aromatic compounds naturally found in citrus fruits, pine trees, hops, and cannabis (although the terpenes used in this beer were not derived from cannabis!). It’s always fascinating to discover how American craft brewers are pushing the boundaries of creativity and experimentation.
6. Alternatively – don’t have a plan and simply go with the flow!
After three days of judging the Great American Beer Festival competition and three days at the Festival it was an honour and a privilege to sample some of the best American craft beers on offer. Should you find them in your market, be sure to try them!
Scandinavian brewers are invited to register for the World Beer Cup 2024, the biggest and most prestigious beer competition in the world. Registration is open 7 November – 5 December 2023 www.worldbeercup.org
The Brewers Association publishes a wealth of resources to understand and enjoy craft beer, downloadable free of charge from www.brewersassociation.org