With the Great American Beer Fest right around the corner, we take a look at 2016's trends in Craft Beer

In today’s craft beer culture, the flavorful and popular India Pale Ale (aka IPA) is the long time undisputed benchmark style for brewers all across the country.  We all have the IPA to thank for turning an industry of mass-produced, watery lagers on it’s head and giving us the gateway drug we needed to explore what beer could and should taste like.

But the venerable IPA isn’t the only craft beer style in town anymore.  As we saw in last year’s annual Great American Beer Fest (GABF), there are other styles that are gaining ground in the American beer scene as well.  In 2015, the industry saw the rapid emergence of “Session” ales – named for their lower alcohol by volume (ABV) and easy drinkability.  With these “sessionable” beers came an opportunity for brewer’s to rethink the predominant Big Beers of 2014 and prior.

GABF is a lot of things to a lot of people, and it’s not just a massive collection of almost all of the nation’s breweries crammed into Denver’s welcoming Convention Center; it’s also the #1 place to expose your palette to some of the rarest breeds in beer today as well as try out trendy new ideas.  Here’s what we’re noticing as the trends of craft beer for 2016:

First off: Hops, Hops, and more Hops

Hops, and the vines they come from, are the cornerstone for many modern brewers since they can give just about any beer a variety of pronounced, artistic flavors.  This common ingredient is beginning to find its way into more and more styles where it used to not be found like Wheat and Brown ales.  We are even beginning to see them used in traditionally malt forward beers like porters and stouts – giving these sweeter, breadier beers some floral bitterness too.

Lighter tasting ales

Another tell-tale sign of the ongoing evolution of craft beer styles can be seen from the GABF’s very own judging categories.  Every year, more styles are added to the roster for evaluation by the GABF.  Leading the charge into new territories are spicy Chili Pepper beers (a personal favorite), mixed culture Brett beers, and Amber light lagers (think Pabst Blue Ribbon).  These easier drinking beers buck the trend of floral bitterness in favor of milder Pilsners and Kolsch’s.   According to the American Brewer’s Association – Blonde or Golden type ales have grown in popularity by 60% in recent years – outselling stouts, porters or Belgian ales.

Pucker up for more Sour Beers

Sour beers, for those who have not tried them yet, are exactly that: noticeably, obviously sour.  It’s a style of beer that, while tends to be polarizing, is growing in popularity.  This increase in demand had many brewers running out of supply before the last Beer Fest was over.  Not all sours are built alike though and there are a lot of ways to deliver the flavor, letting brewers imprint their own characteristic flair on them.  Along the sour spectrum, beer drinkers can find cherry, raspberry, and even grapefruit flavored beers to explore.

Barrel Aged Everything

With the poor malt and hop harvests of 2015, brewers are experimenting with their options – and barrel aged twists on crowd favorites are showing up more and more often.  Take Breckenridge Brewery’s Tequila Barrel Aged Ophelia – a small batch variation of their hoppy wheat ale.  Barrel aging swaps out some of the original beer’s sharper hop forward notes and replaces them with woody oak and earthy sweetness.  And similar to whiskeys, time spent in the barrel tends to mellow out whatever is put into it.

And of Course, The IPA

Good news IPA lovers, this mainstay is in no danger of being dethroned… but it is evolving.  It, at present, accounts for nearly 25% of all sales in the craft beer market (according to the Brewers Assoc.).  It’s a percentage of sales that continues to rise year after year thanks in large part to the increasing popularity of Session and Hazy IPAs.  Both of these variations on the theme offer drinkers alternatives to the classic IPAs strong bitter flavors.  The days of double and triple dry hopped ales are fading, with consumers preferring a softer mouth feel and lower levels of bitterness.

craft beer by the pitcher

Craft beer varieties served by the pitcher at the 2015 GABF