Pickle pilsner, tamale lagers, and carrot stouts. These were among the beers at the Strange Brew Festival in Reno, Nevada, last month, where competition in the American craft beer market has intensified.
Visitors at the Reno event could taste sweet beers made with Jolly Rancher candy and fiery ones made with garlic.
Beer makers are called brewers. They have long experimented with different flavors. Many hundreds of years ago, for example, Belgians put sour fruit into their beer.
But today’s American brewers have taken experimentation to a new level. They do this hoping to stand out in a market where everyone is trying to be different.
Growth in craft brewing
The U.S. craft brewing market has grown quickly. Last year, there were 7,346 craft brewers, up 93% from 2014. Craft beer sales rose 7% to $27.6 billion last year, about one-fourth of the total U.S. beer market.
Those numbers come from the Brewers Association, an industry trade group.
Jon Brandt is a beer lover who works for Washington-based distributor Madidus Importers.
“People are looking for ways to differentiate themselves and be the next big thing,” he said. “A lot of it is just about trying to get noticed.”
A beer with unusual elements can do that. Denver-based Wynkoop Brewing Co. appeals to customers with its Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout. The stout is made with specially cooked barley, seven different grains and grilled buffalo or bull sex organs.
Some beer lovers criticize the movement toward unusual beers.
Charlie Bamforth is a professor in the food science and technology department of the University of California, Davis.
“I personally am not a fan of ridiculous brews incorporating materials and gimmicks that have no historical provenance in brewing,” he said.
Bamforth said laws restricting some kinds of additives — like Germany has — might be going too far. But he would like to see some laws defining what can and cannot be called “beer.”
“If someone wants to explore bizarre components,” Bamforth said, that person should use the name “alternative beverages” in place of the name of beer.
Jess Lebow wrote the books The Beer Devotional and The United States of Craft Beer. He says the high level of experimentation is what makes craft beer so special. Lebow said he might only try a cow meat and onion beer once. It might be great, but even if it is not, it might lead to a beer that is a big hit.
“There are really only so many flavors you can create with water, malt, barley and hops,” he said. “At the end of the day, if the brewer is having fun trying new things, then I’m probably having fun trying their beer.”
I'm John Russell.
Words in This Story
distinguish – v. to make (someone or something) different or special in some way
ridiculous – adj. extremely silly or unreasonable
gimmick – n. a method or trick that is used to get people's attention or to sell something provenance
bizarre – adj. very unusual or strange