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Flavor-forward beer comes first for craft brewers

Keg Grove
Jeff Smudde
WGLT file
Keg Grove is one of six Bloomington-Normal craft breweries.

Craft beer is all about the flavor. Even after small brewers have found a niche, they keep experimenting, running test batches, and sometimes finding the next big thing their customers like. It's not so easy, though, to predict the next big thing.

Craft brewers are always reconsidering the products they make. Some research batches don't work out. When they do work out, they work their way into the permanent rotation. The tinkering with recipes is part of the reason they became brewers in the first place. They're also facing competition for younger drinkers who are moving to canned mixed drinks or sparkling hard seltzers.

A few years ago, old beer hands didn't think those would stick. It reminded them of a fad called Brut beers, which were sparkling. The name is supposed to evoke Brut champagne. Brut beers had a moment, but after a couple years they were gone forever. Destihl Brewing head of sales Bob Ryan said this time White Claw, Truly, and their ilk are not.

"It was looked at that way, but it quickly came to about 10% share of the malt beverage market and remained there. So, the growth may have slowed down but it remains a big chunk of business and doesn't look like it's going anywhere," said Ryan.

Brewers are responding to that competitive pressure in different ways. And if you ask three brewers what the next big thing is in beer, you may get six different answers.

"You never really know. Every time you think you know, someone creates a new subset of a style. The latest thing is cold IPAs which is similar to IPLs, India Pale Lagers, but not quite a lager," said Steve Fiala, brewmaster at Fiala Brothers Brewing and Beer Hall in Uptown Normal.

For a while the pendulum favored hoppy-tasting, high-alcohol IPAs. Illinois Craft Brewers Guild Director Ray Stout said along came Hazy IPAs which cut the bitterness and opened up the segment to people who are not ultra fans of beer. And now?

"Because everybody has to wake up and go to work now people have been gearing towards lower alcohol beers. The ABV (alcohol by volume) has been going down on a lot of products that people are buying. Lagers, especially lighter lagers, are something that has really grown. We are making a ton of great ones right here in Illinois. We have kind of become the lager hub of the Midwest. That is the trend that we're seeing," said Stout.

The core ingredients

Beer geeks swear by the German beer purity law called the Reinheitsgebot. It's more than 500 years old and decrees that beer must be made from water, barley, and hops — and only hops, barley, and water.

"I think you will see the Belgian beers start to pop again. The Witbier we make is our fastest selling beer," said Steve Fiala.

Fans may yearn for the return to popularity of Belgian and German style beers. Destihl's Bob Ryan said those will always have a base and a place, but market share not so much.

"With the proliferation of really expanding flavor palates with consumers and being more accepting of fruit and all kinds of things in beers, going off into directions of having milk shake beers and some really off the wall concepts the idea of traditionalism, I think people aren't really attached to that as much lately," said Ryan.

Some of those off-the-wall ideas include sparking hop water and no alcohol beer with a craft taste, that have begun to pick up. Another is adding CBD or cannabis to beer. You can't do that in most states. Ray Stout of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild said Minnesota is providing the great experiment for the rest of the nation.

Steve Fiala of Fiala Brothers said say it isn't so.

"I thought this for a few years now, but I still believe it. I think we're going to see a little bit of gravitation back towards classic styles just because in my opinion its kind of gotten silly with all the adjuncts that have been thrown into beer at this point," said Fiala.

Destihl Brewing's Bob Ryan said there is some movement back toward traditional American IPAs, not hazy, what he calls west coast style. He thinks as the pendulum swings brewers could go back to their roots.

Ciders made from fruit might seem to be an answer to the younger drinkers light and sweet craving they find in hard seltzers. Brewers at Fiala Brothers in Normal and Keg Grove and Casper Brewing in Bloomington say ciders are popular. But they have one or two on draft, and not four or five.

Bob Ryan said after the initial surge from larger brands like Angry Orchard and Woodpecker, that segment contracted and stabilized. It's a niche.

"And on the other hand, we do see some good craft cideries emerge. The do gain a foothold and they have wonderful products. They seem to build but what we don't really see is them getting beyond the level they have achieved," said Ryan.

The next five years

There are new frontiers in beer with ancient and new genetically tailored yeasts, though Fiala said it's hard to say whether any new yeast will be substantially different from a yeast that has already been used to make beer somewhere in the world.

"It's no different than the way malts and grains have been altered by genetics to make the process easier. That's all that's really happening there. They're helping cut down on off flavors that can develop in the fermentation processes and stuff," said Fiala.

Others believe the next five years of yeast development and re-discovery will be amazing. Dave Casper of Casper Brewing in Bloomington said some of the new Hazy or Juicy IPAs use genetically modified yeasts. They are thiolized strains. That means they can break down parts of the grain and hops to produce more intense flavors. And Illinois may be poised to lead in yeast exploration.

"We are very lucky to have some of the best yeast research in the country happening in Chicago at Omega Yeast Labs. There is a lot going on in the yeast-space right now, especially when it comes to avoiding off-flavors in beer or getting the proper haziness. All of that comes from the proper pitching of the years and the yeast strains," said Ray Stout of the Illinois Craft Brewers Association.

Some are also interested in heritage strains of yeast Dave Casper said particularly some from Norwegian farmhouse beers passed down from generation to generation.

"They ferment at temperatures that would normally spoil a beer. One that comes to mind is called Voss. It is a different genetic strain. It's not a lager or quite an ale. It's something else. These will ferment in two or three days all the way down to terminal gravity. You ferment them at 90-95 sometimes 100 degrees. And some produce very interesting flavors. Voss, for instance, when you ferment it very warm, puts off a nice orange aroma," said Casper.

Steve Fiala said Saisons and Farmhouse Ales are also trending.

All of these things may be part of the beer answer to hard seltzers and mixed drinks. But Bob Ryan of Destihl said sometimes craft brewers do have to play catchup.

"You know trying to produce some really nice craft seltzers, that sort of follow the line of what our fruited sours are, having a nice fruit presence there and a little bit of tartness, and joining them in the fray," said Ryan.

Destihl makes a strawberry lemonade sour seltzer which does fairly well, Ryan said, especially in warmer months.

However the next few years shake out, Dave Casper of Casper Brewing said you can find whatever you favor in Bloomington-Normal, from Hazies to IPAs, to Germans, Belgians, and Sours. None of the craft brewers in the Twin Cities are like each other. And Casper said that makes Bloomington-Normal an interesting place for a beer lover to come and visit.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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