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05 Jul 2018

Desert Cicerone: Where's Beer Heading? To Answer This Question, We Picked Experts' Brains—and Looked to the Past

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Hazy IPAs are currently all the rage. Hazy IPAs are currently all the rage.

When I ponder beer history, two things stand out: the use of hops, and the invention of the drum roaster.

The former happened 800 to 900 years ago, give or take. Antiseptic agents are needed in the fermentation of beer to keep the good microflora in and the bad out. Brewers didn't know this—Louis Pasteur’s discoveries happened years later—but they did know that without certain things, beer could turn out poorly. Before hops became widely used, bitter herbs and spices were used for this purpose. Scotland has a tradition of using heather; in fact, you can still find some beers with heather on shelves if you go to the right places. Hops just wound up being more efficient and suitable for beer flavors. More about hops later.

As for the patenting of the drum roaster in 1818: Englishman Daniel Wheeler may have singlehandedly changed the course of beer history more than any other individual (outside of Pasteur, perhaps). Inspired by the process of roasting coffee, he set about adapting it for kilning and roasting malts using indirect heat. Before the roaster, malt was spread on a metal floor, and a fire (often fueled by coke, a coal residue, although wood and coal were sometimes used) was lit underneath. This led to grains on the bottom being scorched while some on top remained relatively green—with a lot of smokiness imparted into the grain. With Wheeler's invention, a variety of reliably kilned and roasted grains could be produced to augment the much more efficient pale malt used as a beer's base. This resulted in an explosion of different styles in Europe—so the next time you're drinking a nice stout, Vienna lager, Schwarzbier or almost any other style, raise that glass to Daniel Wheeler. 

This all brings us to the present, and current beer trends.

Hazy (or officially, New England) IPAs and pastry stouts are in vogue and don't look to be losing any popularity. The names of these styles pretty much tell the stories: The hazy IPAs are made hazy by the combination of an English yeast—which traditionally doesn't allow for dry beers, but has a light, fruity ester as a byproduct—with additions such as oats or wheat, not to mention the haze from the ridiculous amounts of hops added. Unlike many West Coast IPAs, though, they are usually only slightly bitter. The low-bitterness trend has leaked into the West Coast styles now, and I'm a huge fan of this. As with some crazes, things can get a little nutty; I've heard stories of people standing in line at breweries for hours (or paying people to stand in line for them as surrogates), only to promptly leave when the beer released announced is "only," say, a coffee porter. While I personally find many "hazies" and pastry stouts to be rather similar (I can't tell you how many times I've had some combination of cinnamon, maple syrup, coffee and maybe fruit in the stouts), they have excited many people who weren't all that into craft beer before.

Happily, lagers have seen a resurgence. Last summer, I discovered several very drinkable pilsners from breweries that mostly trade in IPAs, stouts and kettle sours. (Think Berlinerweisse—a light, tart wheat ale originating from Germany.) Mexican lagers have come along for this ride, which makes sense, because not only is this a cherished style of our friends to the south of us; the style is also very similar to a pilsner, with the exception of the use of corn or maize to dry the beer out and add a touch of their flavor. Firestone's Pivo Pils and Firestone Lager (a take on the Munich helles style) is leading this charge, and I'm all for it. Lagers are subtle and can be surprisingly diverse, but they are also much more difficult to get right and take much longer in a brewery's tanks to make. More time in tanks leads to less tank space for new beer, which leads to a potential loss of profit if not planned carefully. While a hazy IPA can take less than two weeks to reach your glass, a lager can take anywhere from six weeks to three months. As a fan of Old World beer styles that don't really get the time they deserve here in America, I wholeheartedly look forward to more of this trend.

Now comes the tough part: Predicting the future. To do so, I sought some help.

First, I turned to my friend and one of the most talented and knowledgeable people I know when it comes to beer, master brewer Chris Anderson.

"I think the IPA will continue to be the hottest style in craft beer,” he said via email. “I think more spin-offs of this most popular style on the planet will be the norm. Brut IPA and Southwest IPA are two relatively new styles gaining traction."

Julian Shrago, head brewer at Beachwood BBQ and Brewing in Long Beach (which I cannot recommend enough), agrees. “‘Brut IPA' is a new style that originated in the San Francisco Bay Area. They’re brewed with a special enzyme that allows them to be almost 100 percent attenuated. I like this idea, and it seems to be an interesting contrast to hazies."

I have personally not yet tried this "hop champagne,” but I am looking forward to this being a lovely, spritzy showcase for some of the incredible new hop varieties that keep emerging, as well as the old standby hops we love. The Southwest IPA style Anderson mentioned is an IPA using agave syrup to dry the beer out and possibly add some earthy notes; these beers often are made with Southwest-themed hops such as El Dorado and Amarillo.

Anderson also sees both uncertainty and excitement—not just the craft-beer industry, but in the alcohol and spirits industry in general: "The millennial craft beer drinker is most definitely not a loyalist like the previous generations were. On Monday, they may have a cocktail; Tuesday or Wednesday, a glass of wine; Thursday and Friday, a beer—but not the same brands from week to week. Throughout the weekend, maybe they will consume some cannabis and not touch any of the aforementioned alcoholic beverages when doing so. This will continue to fuel diversity in the varying alcoholic beverage industries and will also continue to make all of these sectors ultra-competitive."

A friend of mine who is the director of the hop division of a very large hop concern (who wishes to go unnamed for this article) weighed in.

"I feel that the consumer is now more educated in craft beers, thus being open to different styles and flavor profiles,” he said. “For example, I see sour beers gaining in popularity; perhaps it’s the refreshing nature, relieving the palate from the hop grenades of IPAs and pale ales.

“Furthermore, barrel-aged beers are on the rise, and people are willing to pay the $20-per-bottle price point for these complex, rich and sophisticated libations. Fruit additions are increasing as well, from powders, purees, concentrates, skins/peels to actual fruit; there are more and more of them on the tap or on the shelf."

When it comes to hops, he sees this fruity trend following—in the flavors and aromas of newer strains of hops. However, he sees the hop industry moving more toward bolstering pest and mildew resistance.

"A major focus of hop-breeding will be on pest/disease resistance varieties,” he said. “The grower is facing immense challenges from pest pressure, such as an increasingly pesticide-resistant mite, to new aggressive strains of powdery mildew. Growers are also conscientious of the need to reduce the use of conventional pest control chemicals (and move) to more biological/natural methods." This is where genetic engineering can really do some wonderful things, despite some people's irrational distrust of the technology.

While we’ve now examined beer’s past, present in future … one thing I didn't mention is glitter beer. That was intentional. There is one very easy thing about the future to predict, however: I’ll soon be at the fridge to get a beer to fill my glass.

Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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