Beer trends – what direction should brewers take?
The beer world has changed drastically this last decade. The competition between hard seltzers and craft beers, as well as between even stronger beers and non-alcoholic beverages has grown more intense than ever, and the disruptive impact of the coronavirus continues to shift the balance. All of this has many brewers asking themselves what direction they should be developing toward. Renowned brewing scientist Prof. Charles Bamforth describes the current situation and ventures a look at the future.
Through decades of research, British scientist Charles Bamforth has made a name for himself in the brewing world. Until December 2018, he was a malting and brewing science professor at the University of California. Afterward, rather than retiring, he took up the invitation of Kevin Grossman, founder of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, to advise the company regarding their quality. In assessing the beer market’s developments, he admitted: “I’d be lying if were to say that I’d predicted some of the developments that have played out before our eyes recently.”
Breweries and their products – yesterday, today, tomorrow
Cloudy beers: A recipe for success
In the 1980’s, I was proud to be working for the Bass Brewing Company headquarters in Burton-on-Trent. As the research department head, a team of more than 30 scientists reported directly to me. This was essentially basic research, but always strategically oriented.
At the time, if I’d suggested developing a truly cloudy beer, I would have had to find a new employer. Our main duty was ensuring that our beers were “crystal-clear” when poured, be it the famous, barrel-aged ales or our bottle-aged Worthington White Shield.
One of our employee’s doctoral thesis even concentrated on making the abundant yeast sediments at the bottom of the bottle as compact and adhesive as possible. Since then, the sometimes extremely cloudy “East Coast IPAs” have conquered a large market share in the United States.
Alternative beverage development
Back then at Bass we were also producing modern beverage concepts, with a tasteless alcohol serving as the basis for many different flavored beverages. Hooper’s Hooch was incredibly successful, an “alcopop” that tasted of lemon.
Another beverage called Coral tasted of passion fruit and Papaya, and was marketed with an image of inflatable parrots. Then came Flamingo, which tasted of strawberries and developed foam thanks to enzymatically depleted protein.
Numerous executives (including myself) were skeptical of these developments. If consumers drink these, then they’re not buying beer, which is the core business of a brewery. But the customer decides in the end, and it would have been foolish to ignore this potential.
Perhaps many consumers prefer a sweet and fruity beverage to a full-bodied British bitter (article exclusively in German). The former will more likely be consumed by young and less responsible people who are easily impressed.
Perhaps these alternatives will prove to be just a short-lived fad that can no more hold their own in the market than some of the hideous beers that have been foisted onto consumers in recent years. These include beers with offal, with absurdly high chili content, with peanut butter, and with bacon.
Let alone the shocking development of offering alcohol with marijuana. I’ve nothing against marijuana, though I’ve never tried it myself. However, I am uneasy that current mixtures – and other grotesque concoctions since thrown together by new development programs – will probably play directly into the hands of the newly awoken prohibitionists.
Substantial support remains for German Beer Purity Law
I hope the reader forgives me if I admit that I’m a big fan of many beers that don’t stick to the German Beer Purity Law. Even so, I maintain that many arguments stand in favor of malt, hops, yeast and water! For all of us passionate beer folks, it’s extremely important to celebrate beer and brewers together and strengthen the deeply ingrained societal role of beer. Initiatives such as the Beer & Cider Academy, the Cicerone program and the Brewers of Europe need to send clear, coordinated and responsible messages regarding beer diversity, food pairings and health awareness, as well as expand and deepen their offerings. However, we also must keep in mind that many brewers now have large capacities. If these are not used for beer, the brewers will consider how else their brewing kettles can be used, e.g. for alcoholic cider production.
Image change for alcohol-free and low-alcohol beer
Many brewers are also switching to alcohol-free and low-alcohol beverage production. When I worked at Bass, we had our Barbican. It wasn’t a big hit regarding taste, but it was truly alcohol-free (less than 0.05% ABV), produced via vacuum stripping. Personally, I’m not a fan of alcohol-free beers; to me they’re just like decaffeinated coffee. Why drink it? I am much more interested in low-alcohol beers with 1.5-3% ABV.
As an active sportsman during my time at Bass, I loved the lively pub banter after a match. And, as I had to drive afterwards, I’d order a little pale lager – of course from Bass (4% ABV) – mixed with some Barbican in a half-liter glass. For me, this was the perfect beverage. And we were actually considering producing a lower-alcohol beer.
But taxes thwarted our plans. All beverages in Great Britain under 1.2% ABV were tax-free. The low-alcohol beer we made in the end was 0.9% ABV (Tennent’s LA). It tasted much worse than a 2% ABV beer, but tax savings can be a tremendous motivational force.
A quick look at the future of the brewing industry
Let’s return to the central drivers of consumers: spontaneous joy, image, health and well-being, value for money and what I like to call “construction sites.” If we are to imagine the brewing industry of the future, we must focus on the following questions:
- What spontaneous joy does a product create? How appealing are its packaging and imagery? Does it meet every expectation regarding its external appearance in the glass? Is it pleasant to taste so that consumers will order it again? Is it appropriate for the drinking occasion? Is it thirst-quenching, for example after exercise? Does it pair well with your favorite dish?
- What impression does the drink give? Is it cool and trendy, as opposed to something that old men or women would drink? Or, on the other hand, does it uphold traditions and remain loyal to the brand?
- Is the beverage a good choice for my health and well-being? How many calories are in it?
- And then there’s the question of value for money. For my money, are my taste buds delighted?
- And finally, which construction sites are waiting to be uncovered? Does the brewer only use the finest genetically unmodified raw materials? How hygienic is the brewery in question? Is the brewer responsible towards its employees, customers, suppliers and the environment? How large are the breweries? Do they employ well-qualified workers?
All of these aspects must be considered in the context of global population trends and the environment. Very few people – with the exception of those blinded by the populists – deny the global warming that is threatening the availability of raw materials. You must take a two-pronged approach: On the one hand, you should combat climate change and, on the other hand, you should plant varieties that are highly resistant to heat and drought. Moreover, brewers must develop processes that reduce both water and energy use and emissions.
But this also calls for new technology. Developments of sensors, communication media and novel materials are likely in the foreseeable future. At some point we will also gain a better understanding of human sensory organs, which will contribute to product development and optimization. How can we develop a beverage that pairs perfectly with certain dishes? How do we specifically tailor diet (including beer) to the genotypic and phenotypic characteristics of individuals?
If we were sent back in time to a 17th century brewery, just the look and the smell of it would reveal that we were in a brewery. But if we fast-forward to the 26th century … would we recognize a brewery? I certainly hope so, but there are considerable doubts.
Want to share your developments and innovations in the beverage industry to an international specialist audience? Then we would very much like to invite you to partake in the next drinktec from September 12 to 16, 2022 in Munich.
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