2020: A Year in Beer
‘As bad as it gets’ is the first thing that comes to mind when everyone thinks about 2020. Maybe not “everyone”, but 2020 has really been a hard year for many of us. The same can be said for the beer community as well. The hardships brought on by 2020 have changed the landscape of the craft beer industry. Here is my take on what has happened and what is to come.
A new reality for the beer industry
The new rules and regulations meant reduced working hours for pubs/bars, and even complete shutdowns in some countries. Customers were less likely to visit bars especially those without a patio or a beer garden. Breweries had to find alternative ways of distributing beer that was typically sold through HORECA (hotels, restaurants and catering)…and find it they did. Many breweries launched their own web shops. Some beer shops moved their entire business online and introduced direct to consumer delivery.
More so, some US states eased the alcohol governing laws which prevented breweries from distributing their own beer outside the doors of their business establishment (i.e. delivery and selling through web shops). Another big change over the pond was the fall of Shelton Brothers, the most influential US importer of European beers, which had to cease operations due to liquidation by the bank. A couple of years ago Beer Advocate wrote a great piece on Shelton Brothers, so make sure to check out that story if you want to know more.
The first signs of the US craft beer industry consolidation were visible even before the pandemic. This process has been accelerated following the COVID outbreak. According to the Brewers Association survey 22% of craft breweries don’t expect to be operating by the end of 2021. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a similar effect in Europe as well, but to a somewhat lesser extent.
Beer bars are struggling as well, some of the most well-known establishments like ‘Tiger!Tiger!’ in San Diego, ‘The Well’ in NYC and ‘Craft Beer Co. – Ilsington’ are now permanently closed. As a matter of fact, while I was writing this piece the Moeder Lambic fund raiser was brought to my attention. A lot of the bars had to introduce growlers because sitting in was not an option anymore.
Although beer festivals were cancelled and travelling was heavily reduced it wasn’t all ‘sorrow and sadness’ for beer aficionados. For instance, special releases became more available than ever. The trend of US breweries distributing to Europe continued into 2020. A couple of years ago acquiring Other Half, Trillium or Fremont by a few clicks online seemed like science fiction. Even the great 3 Fonteinen opened a web shop which is delivering their lambics throughout Europe and in the USA.
The “haze craze” continues
When it comes to the beer styles, hazy IPAs are still going strong and it is very unlikely that we will see the end of the “haze craze” anytime soon. Nowadays it’s easier to find an imperial stout in European web shops than it is to find lower abv style stouts. This leads me to the conclusion that consumers are becoming more comfortable with intensive aromas and flavours that used to be considered extreme. As reported by Greg Avola of Untappd, sours have continued to become more popular year after year.
What about new breweries?
It’s hard to determine the exact number of new breweries opening and older ones closing but we’ve managed to come across some relevant data for Croatia. As expected, Croatia hasn’t seen any large brewery openings. According to Ratebeer 11 breweries opened in Croatia in 2020. Therefore, the data for last five years looks like this:
IPAs are still dominating the craft beer market in Croatia. Some IPAs that stood out for me were Medvedgrad Konobar, Nova Runda Tropical Yeti and Pulfer’s collaboration with Maskeron Death by IBU. Zmajska’s passion fruit sour named Bunny Passion was a huge hit among beer drinkers, but personally I was more impressed with their Bearly Strong, American Strong Ale barrel aged in bourbon barrels.
Every year I try to visit at least two large beer festivals. Last year I was lucky enough to visit Weldwerks Invitational (Greeley, CO) and Avery Invitational (Boulder, CO). In Europe we did our annual trip to Arrogant Sour Festival in Reggio Emilia and visited Nottingham Robin Hood Beer Festival. This year plans were made for an Arrogant Sour revisit and Mikkeller Craft Beer Celebration in Copenhagen, but much like most other festivals, they had been canceled.
The only beer event I managed to visit this year was a mini festival held at Zmajska Pivovara with a tap takeover from Maskeron. Virtual festivals started popping up, those from Untappd and Mikkeller caught my eye, trying to bring the beer lovers together.
Travelling was not easy either, but I managed to pull off a couple of trips to Italy, as well as the Germany beercation in September. A four-day road trip to Franconia included a visit to 15 breweries and a drive through the region of Hallertau during hop harvest. With all that said, I guess what I am trying to say is, “where there is a will, there is a way.” There is plenty of good beer out there to be drank and lots of people to share and enjoy it with.
‘Yes’ to tasting sessions
With restricted travelling, no festivals and more beer than ever in webshops I’ve focused more on tasting sessions. At these tastings, and unlike simply rating beers at Untappd or Ratebeer, we try to briefly discuss the characteristics of each tasted beer in addition to giving a rating.
To keep things interesting, we invite guests at each tasting so we can hear their views on the beers and possibly learn something new in the process. Our small tasting crew has done 24 beer tastings in 11 months during which we have shared 546 different brews from 34 countries. Most beers were from the USA (165), Belgium (62) and Germany (55).
Oddly enough the best beer I’ve tried this year came from Norway. Lervig’s Times 8 Bourbon BA, which is an exquisite beer that gives the best US imperial stouts a run for its money. Two other beers that are worth mentioning are Puhaste Trinity In Black Bourbon BA and Four Friends – The Blend, a collaboration by Burning Sky, Kernel, Oliver’s Cider and Mills Brewing. If you are one to judge quality based on the average Untappd score, we drank better beers this year (average Untappd score of 3.88) than in 2019 (average score of 3.80).
Tastings will continue in 2021, and as much as I enjoy them, I hope everything will resume back to normal so we can get back to festivals and travelling as soon as possible. If that happens, I hope to visit 3 Fonteinen Open Beer Days in September and do another self-guided “heritage pub road trip” in the UK. Fingers crossed.
Neven Sabic, cofunder of craft beer blog Pivarium