One of the most exciting things about the craft beer world is its constant evolution. While there are certain flagships most breweries offer - like an IPA, a good porter or stout, or a solid Kolsch - there's an ongoing sense of experimentation that usually leads to new waves of flavors hitting each year.
2015 saw the rise to dominance of Session IPAs, something that will continue to expand this year. Similarly, sour beers began to edge their way into the spotlight, especially fruit-flavored sours. And brewers dramatically expanded their barrel aging programs, moving beyond just bourbon barrels and seeing how beers fared in the former housings of tequila, cognac and other spirits.
While things can constantly shifting in the beer world, a few trends seem to be setting themselves up to have a big impact on the craft scene in 2016:
"Hard" soda flavored beers - Not Your Father's Root Beer was just the beginning. As consumers have rushed to embrace 'hard' root beer, brewers have taken note and begun to expand their offerings. Coney Island Brewing Co., a subsidiary of the Boston Beer Co. (sam), has already rolled out Hard Ginger Ale and Hard Orange Cream Ale. Small Town Brewery, maker of the hit Not Your Father’s Root Beer, was offering tastes of Not Your Mom’s Apple Pie, Not Your Mom’s French Toast and Not Your Mom’s Strawberry Rhubarb at last year's Great American Beer Festival (and may roll some of those out nationally this year). Even San Diego's Mission Brewery has begun making a hard root beer.
We can debate all day whether these drinks are actually craft beer, but there's no arguing that it's a trend that's not slowing down.
Nitro-mania - Samuel Adams hopes to lead the charge to popularize a new style of carbonation in 2016 with its series of nitrogen-carbonated beers - a white ale, an IPA and a coffee stout. But it won't be alone. Guinness, whose stout is arguably the leader in nitro beers, will continue to promote its nitro-IPA, which it released last year. And Left Hand Brewing's recent expansion of its nitro offerings - adding Sawtooth Nitro American Ale, and Wake Up The Dead Imperial Stout Nitro to its already popular nitro Milk Stout - could boost the brewer's already notable popularity.
While it hasn't been hard to find a nitro beer at a bar or brewery, very few brewers have historically sold them in cans or bottles. That starts to change in 2016.
Craft Cider - Like hard root beer, there's an argument to be made that hard cider isn't beer. (It is, in fact, closer to a wine.) But it's a fast growing area in the craft world - and even a few brewers are looking into ways to incorporate it into their wheelhouse.
What's more likely, though, is small cideries will start to turn heads by offering a variety of styles. Dan Gordon, co-founder of Gordon Biersch Brewing Co., has launched the Aurum Cider Co. And New England's Bantam Cider expanded its territory into Chicago last year.
Crowlers - Canned beers are already hot - and that trend could begin to carry over to more growler stations this year. Rather than storing 32 or 64 ounces of beer in a glass container that lets light in and has a short shelf life, some shops are switching over to one-time use jumbo cans that allow buyers to store them for a longer time. It's quick, and convenient - and it gives growler fill stations a chance to earn a bit more per fill.
More Mergers - 2015 saw a fair bit of consolidation in the craft world. And it doesn't look to be slowing down. Anheuser-Busch Inbev certainly signaled this during the holidays, buying three craft brewers in five days - the U.K.'s Camden Town Brewery, Arizona's Four Peaks Brewing and Colorado's Breckinridge Brewery, the nation's 50th largest craft brewer.
Expect MolsonMillerCoors to start playing catch up once the AB Inbev-SAB Miller deal is done. And look for more craft brewers to band together as well.
Curious what some of these trends will taste like? We've had a chance to taste a few...
Samuel Adams Nitro White Ale - As you'd expect from a nitro beer, it's very smooth on the palate. There's no overwhelming hops or malt taste as this is a fairly light offering from Sam Adams, but it does carry a hint of orange and subdued spice. (ABV: 5.5%)
Bantam Cider's The Americain - It's like drinking a glass of apple pie. You're hit with rich spices up front (cinnamon is the dominant flavor). The cider itself is refreshing, and not overly sweet (which so many ciders can be). (ABV: 5.4%)
Mission Brewing's Hard Root Beer - This offering is nowhere near as sweet as Not Your Father's - and it's a lot stronger. There's a bit of an alcohol burn going down and a curious bitter note to it. It's closer to the craft style you may know and love and a step away from the soda you recall. (ABV: 7.5%)
Coney Island Brewing Co Hard Orange Cream Soda - You may pick up a little orange in this one, but it definitely leans much more heavily toward the cream soda side of the spectrum (which isn't a bad thing, by any means). It hides the alcohol adroitly and, like many hard sodas, is something that people who say they don't like craft beer will happily consume. (ABV: 5%)