The Next Biggest Thing in the Beer World Isn’t Necessarily Beer

October 13, 2019, 2:00 PM UTC

The White Claw effect was felt in full force at this year’s Great American Beer Festival.

While hard seltzers weren’t allowed on the show floor, there seemed to be an increased number of lighter alcohol options mixed among the bourbon barrel aged stouts and Belgian quads this year. And you can expect more in the year to come.

While the IPA isn’t going anywhere, today’s alcohol consumer has different tastes than those of a few years ago. And that has some brewers nervous.

“I’m worried the 21- to 29-year-old demographic, which is the volume alcohol-drinking demographic, is less excited about prioritizing craft beer than the 21- to 29-year-old of a decade ago,” says Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head. “There’s lots of reason why—the proliferation of wellness beverages, coupled with that generation is more health conscious than ours was, so they’re thinking about calories and how often they’re drinking beer. Legalized marijuana is [also] a component.”

Hard seltzers might not have been permitted on the GABF floor this year, but you didn’t have to search too hard to find a nonalcoholic beer. For the first time in 12 years, the Brewers Association gave awards in that category, with several “no-alc brewers” hosting booths on the show floor. And its manufacturers were there in force.

WellBeing Brewing, Bravus Brewing, Two Roots Brewing, and Athletic Brewing were just some of the nonalcoholic brewers on the show floor. And Blue Moon creator Keith Villa has launched Ceria Beverages, which makes both cannabis-infused and nonalcoholic beers. While the lines for these companies weren’t as long as some big-name breweries at GABF, there was definite curiosity among festival attendees.

Who’s the audience for these products? According to the brewers: everybody.

“It’s shockingly young, particularly millennials, who are thinking of drinking less,” says John Walker, head brewer and cofounder at Athletic Brewing. “It’s parents who are out with their kids. It’s people who want to have fun and be social and not pay for it the next day with a hangover.”

Bigger brewers aren’t planning to go booze free in their flagships, but they’re taking note of the trend. Avery Brewing, for instance, unveiled Pacer IP at GABF, a 100-calorie version of its hoppy mainstream offering.

The rush of companies looking to fill this space, though, could reduce the financial rewards each sees.

“Certainly the trend is for lower carb, lower calorie, better-for-you beverages, so the high-sugar, alcoholic lemonades are probably not going to be what resonates with the consumer,” says Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada. “I think those are here to stay, but whether it will continue to grow at the rate it has been is hard to say.”

Grossman says he expects to see the hazy IPA category, which has exploded in the past several years, to continue to grow. Hazy Little Thing, Sierra Nevada’s take on the style, is currently growing at over 100% year over year. And the brewer is looking to expand on that base next year.

“We’re making a wild version, a slightly sour version that’s on the way early next year,” says Grossman. “We’re doing a bigger version of Hazy as well [a double IPA]. That’s in the works right now and will be out next year as well.”

Beyond lighter beers and new offshoots of hazy, you could be seeing more fruit-forward sour beers as well. The Fruited American–style sour ale category was the third most entered at this year’s GABF awards (topping Pilsners and Double IPAs), with 215 entries.

Sours, though, typically appeal to a more narrow audience. Whether there is broad consumer demand for those beers or if they’re simply a style that has caught the fancy of brewers who are looking to make something different, that theory won’t be checked out for months to come.

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