My most prized brewing possession is a crumpled aluminum can. It’s white, slightly rusty, and bears but one big word: BEER. I often affix the can to a metal pole and lead beer tours around New York City—a Pied Piper toting people to the IPA promised land.
But there’s nothing simple about today’s beer market. As breweries spread across America like peanut butter and jelly, they jammed beer aisles with beers boasting every imaginable ingredient and yeast strain, hops lavished like rose petals at a royal wedding.
Excess is everywhere you look, and drink. Omnipollo’s Fatamorgana double IPA is “quadruple dry hopped,” while Bruery Terreux’s Bruesicle line of popsicle-inspired sour beers star the likes of mangos and marshmallows. Sweets-inspired pastry stouts evoke peanut butter cups, s’mores, tiramisu, candy bars, and even breakfast sticky buns.
When everything is outlandish, when rebellious beers become the rule and not the exception, how is it possible to stand out? The answer, increasingly, is for breweries to stop going wild and start embracing their mild side. To cut through the double dry-hopped clutter, breweries are releasing mass-appeal lagers with humdrum names and often humble branding, harking back to the simpler days when beer was just beer—a one-size-inebriates-all lager sold good and cold.
Down in Blanco, Texas, Real Ale Brewing recently uncorked Firemans Light, an easy-glugging, 110-calorie lager made for craft and domestic beer-drinkers. “We want to sell to the entire market,” Real Ale president Brad Farbstein says of the brand extension of its flagship Firemans #4 blonde ale. The light, straw-colored lager features a touch of corn for that subtle macro-lager sweetness, as well as fruity, floral Crystal hops. The beer is designed to “migrate domestic drinkers out of the domestic world and bring them into the craft world,” he says, noting the “potential to take share from the big guys.”
Against the Grain, in Louisville, Kentucky, is known for aggressively flavored and named beers like Citra Ass Down, a double IPA, and the Brown Note, a brown ale boasting a soiled paired of underwear on its label. In May, the brewery released a “super premium American lager” called A Beer, a direct shot against big breweries. “We all know Anheuser-Busch,” says marketing and media manager Katie Molck. “Well, A Beer is AB.”
The brewery sees its 4.5% ABV lager as an attractive alternative for folks that might, say, buy a 30-pack of domestic lager. “We want those people to get turned on by something that’s made by regular people, not this faceless, massive corporation,” Molck says. “You want someone to come in who’s maybe been afraid of craft beer for so long because it’s been unapproachable. Oh, a lager? I’ll give it a try.”
DuClaw Brewing, in Baltimore, Maryland, rides brewing’s trendy road in a car loaded with souped-up hazy IPAs, dessert-style stouts, and novelties such as the glitter-laced Sour Me Unicorn Farts. But as a sales rep peddled the liquids to stores, customers kept asking a simple question: Did the brewery sell any regular beer?
That question became Regular Beer, an American lager with a little extra flavor oomph. “We’ve gone to such far lengths in craft beer that I think where we’ll end up is that people will want regular beer,” says DuClaw brewer Mark Johnson. “But they want it to be better than the domestic beers they’re used to.”
Regular Beer is sold in 12-ounce cans with a white label, bearing the beer’s name and this slogan: “a beer that tastes like beer.” The tagline serves a reassurance to potential customers turned off by too much flavor, burned by a bad batch or two, or just simply overwhelmed by an overwhelming marketplace. Here, the can communicates, is something you know is beer.
Something you know is beer. Some four decades ago, America’s modern beer movement arose in response to a lack of choice and flavor. Would you like this lager? Or maybe you’d like this lager with slightly fewer calories? Buy a case! Or two! Just in case friends come over and would very much like the same beer that you like. Branding became king, and brand loyalty was most definitely a thing.
America’s decades-long surge of breweries made many beer consumers as curious as a cat—and just a loyal. They now flit from brand to brand, beer to beer, style to style, rarely resting to stay awhile. Today’s innovations are yesterday’s old news, an IPA’s lifespan now measured in days and not months. So breweries roll out an endless procession of beers, hoping they’ll march into drinkers’ mouths, Untappd accounts, and Instagram feeds, the appetite for the new and the next never, ever sated.
I’m intimate with being besieged by beer. I’ve been chronicling America’s fermented revolution for more than 15 years, dating back to those days folks got really excited about seasonal beer. A new beer every three months? How amazing! Now, fresh beers arise every day, every minute, and there’s only so much liver, taste buds and brain to process them all.
I was recently in Delaware on a beach vacation with my family, both swell reasons to drink beer. At a liquor store in Bethany Beach, I faced a fridge full of unfamiliar breweries and all-too-familiar styles: hazy IPAs clouding my field of vision. With some 7,500 breweries in America, I don’t possess a full mental Rolodex of each beer maker, much less their strengths and weaknesses. Should I get this one with the juice pun? Or that one with the hop pun?
A decade ago I would’ve bought both, embracing beers extending the extremes of good taste. But it’s tough to live life with the volume continuously cranked to eleven, dousing everything with flame-throwing hot sauce, ordering seven-scoop ice cream sundaes, adding a third patty to a cheeseburger. When excess becomes the everyday, what’s the point in putting another cherry on top? So the pendulum swings back, and embracing restraint and simple lagers, simply named, is so basic that it’s basically cool. It’s the circle of life, as told by the beer aisle.
In the end, I purchased the plainly named 2SPils, an unfiltered pilsner from Pennsylvania’s 2SP Brewing, priced around $10 a six-pack. The pilsner was simply refreshing, compelling without compelling me to think deep thoughts while I drank a couple cans surfside, the waves building and crashing on an infinite loop.
Illustration by Adam Waito