A few months back, a brewer I met in Bangkok shared a meme. Dubbed the “Evolution of a Beer Snob”, the image traces the taste of a primate-turned-man with the caption “lagers, IPAs, big stouts, sours, lagers.” I, like many craft-leaning consumers, could relate. But considering how many styles are competing for our attention these days, why have beer drinkers gone from crushing hop bombs and barrel-aged beasts to craving crisp pilsners that were long considered passé?
For me, the reason is two-fold. First, my wallet needed a break. It’s kind of crazy how the industry has conditioned us to be okay with $30 six-packs of whatever’s setting Instagram ablaze. Next is the fact that many of the bank-busting beers are riffs on the same melody. Do we really need 50 different variations of what’s essentially the same hazy IPA? I don’t, especially not when the industry is full of diminishing returns and complete misfires—recipes that were clearly rushed, whether it’s au courant IPAs that are tropical one month and bone-dry the next, stouts that drink like dessert, or limited runs that draw long taproom lines and a complete lack of dignity.
I’d like to propose an alternative: Find a favorite and stick to it for at least a few weeks. That’s what I did last month. I jumped on the #FlagshipFebruary bandwagon and fought the urge to pick up pricey sours and smooth, lactose-softened IPAs. Instead, I opted for throwbacks like Castle Danger's Cream Ale and Fair State's Vienna lager, which proved to be quite a relief for an overworked palate. They’re also far less embarrassing than the countless “small-batch” beers that sound like they belong in the candy aisle. Because when you really think about it, there isn’t much of a difference between a “craft” beer that mimics a malt shop and a cloying bottle of cupcake vodka.
People like candy, and they like drinking, and if you can combine the two, those people are gonna go nuts... lo and behold you have people chucking Twinkies into their mash tuns.”
“I think the pressure to go wackier and wackier is coming from two places,” says Fair State's head brewer Niko Tonks. “First: consumer demand. People like candy, and they like drinking, and if you can combine the two, those people are gonna go nuts... lo and behold you have people chucking Twinkies into their mash tuns. Second: increased competition and social media. There are so many breweries, and in order to stand out, it's important to be aggressively on trend and shouty about how bananas (literally, I guess) your beer is so that candy bros will pay attention."
Not everyone wants their beer to taste like a birthday cake, of course. Guy Harrison has worked the floor at The Ale Jail for the past two years and has noticed a resurgence of German and Czech-style craft lagers in the St. Paul bottle shop. Unlike the more experimental options on its overstuffed shelves, lagers "can't hide their imperfections under a ton of hops, mango, or habanero." But he’s quick to point out that the more outlandish styles can, and should, co-exist in a community as thriving as Minnesota’s.
"There seems to be two extremes and less middle ground," Harrison says. "We have our big, stable breweries like Schell's, Summit, and Surly, who have a standard lineup of beers they've made for years. Then we have 12welve Eyes, Junkyard, and Oliphant—nimble breweries who can respond to market trends in days rather than weeks or months. Peanut butter porter? OK. Boysenberry sour? Boom! Raspberry and blackberry sour with lactose, vanilla, coconut, and sea salt? Here ya go."
I'd like to think that we have built a reputation for both experimentation and quality, which is important, because in today’s market, if you have one without the other, you’re either boring or you’re making bad beer.”
It's fitting that he mentions Junkyard, a small but thriving operation in Moorhead. Located just over the state line from Fargo, it churns out cutting-edge crowlers—a "sherbert series" of sour IPAs, experimental New Englands, barrel-aged barleywine—at a feverish clip. Its releases are so popular, in fact, that some beer stores limit their latest to one or two cans per customer.
When I ask co-founder Aaron Juhnke how the brewery has managed to stand out in such a crowded market, he says, "Milkshake IPAs are getting easier to find, and that's because they're old news. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon because they saw the potential for growth, but they're too late. I think the majority of brewers are too slow to respond to trends and wrap their heads around the idea of doing something [truly] new.
He continues, "We want to do the best job we can with anything we're brewing. I'd like to think that we have built a reputation for both experimentation and quality, which is important, because in today’s market, if you have one without the other, you’re either boring or you’re making bad beer."
It was the least lactose-heavy of that style and drank like a regular IPA, but it seemed a lot like a middle-aged guy starting to use beard coloring.”
There’s an art to creating a beer that perfectly balances hops, barley, water, yeast, and nothing else. I first noticed it during a cross-country trip that uncovered traditional breweries like Austin's Live Oak and Denver's Bierstadt Lagerhaus. Both felt like a welcome counterpoint to the barrage of big flavors we’ve been whacked over the head with lately. At the end of the day, I’d much rather sip on a simple lager than the hard seltzers craft breweries have started to crank out for White Claw fans. If I wanted that, I’d smuggle a six-pack of Zima.
"We try to just focus on what we do," says Bierstadt's co-owner and head brewer, Ashleigh Carter, "but it is hard to ignore some of the things that are happening out there. I think it is all about intention and whether you're doing something weird just for the sake of doing something weird or because you actually think it will work in a beer. We've focused on traditional styles, because it's honestly what we like to drink."
Carter brings up a crucial point here: intent. It's pretty easy to tell if a brewery is toying with a milkshake IPA recipe because the brewers genuinely enjoy that style (see: Omnipollo, Junkyard) or if they’re merely concerned with market shares.
"The saddest example of this was a venerable Colorado brewery's recent milkshake IPA," says Harrison. "To its credit, it was the least lactose-heavy of that style and drank like a regular IPA, but it seemed a lot like a middle-aged guy starting to use beard coloring. Brewers are fully off the chain when it comes to what you can put in a beer. Personally, I am willing to give anything a try at this point. What is too weird anyway?"
Illustration by Remo Remoquillo