What’s trending in US craft beer?

By Lotte Peplow

- Last updated on GMT

Denver style: attendees at the Great American Craft Beer Festival enjoy a silent disco (credit: images © Brewers Association)
Denver style: attendees at the Great American Craft Beer Festival enjoy a silent disco (credit: images © Brewers Association)

Related tags Craft beer Beer Low to no

Beer festivals around the world come in many different iterations but none push the borders of innovation and discovery quite like the Great American Craft Beer Festival (GABF).

The festival is held annually in Denver, Colorado, and organised by the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade association for small and independent American craft brewers. 

After a three-year pandemic-induced hiatus, the festival celebrated its 40th anniversary, beginning back in 1982 with 24 breweries, 47 beer and 800 visitors. The latest edition welcomed 500 breweries, pouring 2,000 beers enjoyed by 40,000 visitors, which is 25% less than normal due to refurbishment works at the Colorado Convention Centre.

It’s not only a beer lover’s paradise but a world of entertainment with crazy costumes, a silent disco, huge pretzel necklaces, a beer and food pairing experience, a games area, a studio for talks and tastings and much more but American craft beer is the star of the show.

Tickets are all-in allowing attendees to sample as many different beers one ounce/30ml pours in a 4.5-hour session as they like. Long queues develop for ‘hype’ beers. For example, Sierra Nevada’s new collaboration with Buffalo Trace’s Colonel EH Taylor Bourbon and its Bigfoot Barleywine that has been aged in Bourbon barrels for seven years and came in at 15% ABV. Samuel Adams launched the 2022 version of Utopias, a barrel-aged beer that consists of blends some dating back 16 years at 28% ABV. Fresh Hop beers were also in high demand following the perfect timing of the festival following last month’s harvest.

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In style

American craft brewers have long been considered the pioneers of the current craft beer world we see around the world today. Ground-breaking innovation and an unswerving commitment to quality are hallmarks of this industry and the festival had both in abundance. Top trends were as follows:

  • IPA

IPAs in their many iterations continue to dominate the American craft brewing scene with approximately one third of all sales. Well-made, high-quality, classic IPAs featuring punchy, flavoursome American hops were highly prevalent as brewers and drinkers sought a return to traditional flavours and styles such as Breakside Brewery’s IPA or Coronado Brewing Co’s Weekend Vibes.

The latest trend in the IPA world is for new-ish Cold IPA, a heavily dry-hopped ale/lager hybrid made using bottom fermenting yeast at warmer temperatures to give a clean, crispness with hop intensity and supreme drinkability. Gone is the pre-pandemic trend for Brut IPA, while milkshake IPAs were visible but few and far between.

Imperial IPAs are driving much of today’s growth and this was reflected on the festival floor.

Hazy/juicy IPAs were also popular but slightly less so than 2019 levels when some brewers offered three or four versions. Good examples included Melvin Brewing’s Back in Da Haze or Migration Brewing Co’s MoHazeIc.

  • Lagers and lighter styles

Lighter and more approachable styles were much in evidence with a return to less palate-challenging and more easy-drinking beers. Lagers including Helles, Pilsner, Oktoberfest, Festbier, Marzen, Bocks and more featured heavily.

  • Low and no

Alcohol-free beers account for a small but rapidly growing sector of the American craft beer with 0.5% of the total market. This may seem small but compared to other sub-sectors of craft beer, it’s a big chunk. There were more examples of low and no-alcohol beers than ever before with brewers showing high levels of ingenuity and imagination, such as Athletic Brewing Co’s medal-winning Lemon Radler.

  • Wood and barrel-aged strong beers

Pastry stouts were less of a thing this year but intense, high ABV, rare beers were much sought after, such as Firestone Walker Parabola, imperial stout aged in Bourbon barrels for a year and The Bruery’s Ivoire, Bourbon barrel-aged ale.

  • Weird and wacky

Although not necessarily a trend, American craft brewers love pushing the boundaries of creativity and here’s three examples of ground-breaking wackiness that all tasted better than they sound:

  1. Carrot & Turmeric Saison
  2. Gose with marsh salt and spirulina, a food-grade algae that gave the beer a green colour
  3. Peanut Butter Hefeweizen
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Award winners

The demand for IPA and juicy/hazy IPAs is mirrored in the results of the GABF competition, which ran concurrently with the festival and took place for the 36th time. This year 9,904 beers entered the competition in 177 beer styles. They were judged by 235 judges who awarded 300 members in total. As trends on the festival floor suggest, the five most entered style categories were:

  1. American Style IPA with 423 entries
  2. Juicy or Hazy IPA with 375 entries
  3. German Style Pilsner with 233 entries
  4. German Wheat Ale with 209 entires
  5. German Style Marzen with 207 entries

GABF competition director Chris Williams said: “Each year, the Great American Beer Festival showcases the best that American brewers have to offer. With 9,904 entries this year’s competition was the most competitive to date and truly demonstrated why the US is the best brewing nation in the world.”

Some of the medal-winning beers may make their way into export markets such as gold medal winners Deschutes Brewery’s Hachimitsu Mai, a lager brewed with puffed Jasmine rice, almost no hops and Chilean Ulmo honey or perennial favourite Allagash Brewing Co’s White, a Belgian style wheat beer that frequently medals in European beer competitions. Also look out for Sierra Nevada Brewing Co’s Sunny Little Thing, a wheat ale made with citrus, or Cigar City Brewing’s Maduro brown ale, both of which are available in the UK.

The UK is the largest export market in Europe and second biggest individual export market accounting for 8.4% of all exports.

Lotte Peplow is a beer judge and writer who conducts talks and tastings about US craft beer and has been involved with the Brewers Association, a trade association representing small and independent American craft brewers, for many years.

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