The beer industry as a whole has seen only modest growth between 2012 and 2017 with one outstanding exception. Craft beer production has skyrocketed with gains of nearly 14 percent each year during this time period. There are several reasons for this remarkable trend. One of the most important is the rise of microbreweries. They have taken production to the next level with innovations and new marketing strategies. Let’s dig into what is behind the phenomenon.
Types of Breweries
All breweries that produce and sell beer must adhere to federal, state, and local regulations that define anything from ingredients to alcohol to sales. The difference lies in the annual production amounts. A nanobrewery is on the low end of the scale. There isn’t a formal definition, but it typically involves just a few barrels. It could be an individual testing the waters to explore the possibilities without a huge investment.
The next step is the microbrewery. The federal government caps production at less than 15,000 barrels a year for this status. It’s a safe assumption that many started out as nanobreweries. From there, you move on to craft brewer. It has an annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less, as defined by the Beverage Association with two important caveats.
First, the brewer should maintain that craft quality, hence, the name. Second, no alcohol industry member can have more than a 25 percent stake in the business. Again, the emphasis is on the title of this facility and what it represents. That industry alone contributed nearly $70 billion to the economy in 2016.
The top level of breweries are the mass producers with familiar name like Budweiser, Miller Lite, and Coors. Microbreweries accounted for just under 21 percent of the total craft beer production. Let’s delve into the unique offerings that they bring to the $107.6 billion beer market.
What Is a Microbrew?
A microbrew is essentially a beer rather than a malt beverage, but that’s where they take a different path. First, they begin with the same basic ingredients of hops, malt, yeast, and water as described by federal law. That includes the sources of malt a brewery can legally use. They include:
- Any type of grain
They may also add some helper ingredients to supplement fermentation like herbs, fruits, spices, or other food products. Think of those pumpkin ales you see around Halloween and those refreshing lemon shandies in the summer. The catch is that these other flavorings cannot contribute more than 49 percent to the overall Alcohol By Volume (ABV). While the process starts with fermenting, it gets to the final product in different ways.
Second, while both may be filtered, your typical mass producer will heat it and pasteurize it. The microbrewery, on the other hand, places the beer into casks along with live yeast to continue the process. That brings a lot more aromas and complexities to the final products. These breweries may add other ingredients too during fermentation. They may also opt for specialty takes on basics like malt and hops.
More Than Beer
These breweries produce their products differently to capture another market segment. When you pop open your average lager, you’re getting something that tastes as you expect it. That’s part of the strategy behind these larger manufacturers. The object is to foster a sense of consistency and reliability. Surprises mean financial risks, especially on a bigger scale. The microbrewery views this task from another perspective.
Their job is to put the craft in craft beer. That means experimenting with new style and fermentation processes. It could be a seasonal offering with spices and flavors that match the time of year. They may try new blends of grains or other ingredients. You’ll often see these brews with higher alcohol levels, running anywhere from 3 to 20 ABV. Some aficionados believe it produces a better product.
It’s one thing to experiment with hops; it’s another to make a quality beverage. Taste, of course, is a subjective thing. However, there are several measures that can give you some basic information about its profile and what to expect when you take that first sip. Reading the description of beer on the website of a microbrewery will seem more like reading a wine list with its talk of aromas, taste comparisons, and finish.
Some will provide details about the beers including the types of malts, hops, and yeast used in the production. You may also see specs that may not mean a lot until you know what they convey. OG, for example, stands for the original gravity. It allows a brewer to estimate the alcohol content based on the amounts of fermentable sugar which give the yeast what they need to do their job.
That’s why knowing the ingredients is important because it gives you an idea how they may affect the sensory perception. Another figure you may see is the Standard Reference Method (SRM) which measures the color from pale to dark on a 1 to 40 scale. The higher the number, the deeper the color. It provides some valuable clues about the style, and, thus, taste.
A microbrewery can tweak the flavor of a beer by its choice of ingredients to enhance certain characteristics. If you think something like hops is the all the same, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. The flavors it brings to a microbrew can range anywhere from bright fruity to floral to bitter, but in a good way. The same can be said of the choice of malt. The amount of residual sugar varies with what is added to the mix. As with wine, beer strives for balance.
One way you can learn what to expect is from the International Bitterness Units (IBUs) rating. It can run anywhere from 0 to 100 or more. The higher the number, the more gripping you’ll find the beer. Of course, what is bitter to one person may be different from another one’s perception. Think for the difference between someone who likes their coffee with sugar and cream and one who prefers it black. The threshold varies.
If you try enough beers with this spec provided, you’ll be in a better position to learn about your palette and preferences. Another figure you may see is the bitterness ratio (BU:GU). As with cooking or even wine, sweetness can take the edge off of something on the other end of the spectrum. This number can provide an indication of the balance between the two.
Bear in mind that other factors can influence how you perceive bitterness too. A high alcohol or temperature may heighten the effects. If you don’t like this taste, you won’t enjoy the beer, especially with the amplified sensation. The foods you eat with a beer can also play games with your perception. You may find a mildly bitter ale undrinkable with something sweet even if it’s just a honey-based sauce on your chicken wings.
Breweries work with the things they can control about the sensory experience of a beer to create a pleasing blend of ingredients and fermentation processes. We encourage you to take tasting notes on the brews you try along with any details you can glean from the brewery or online reviews to help you home in on what works and doesn’t work for you.
Write down the obvious characteristics such as color and the foam, paying attention to how long the latter lasts. Consider how it feels in your mouth such as whether it makes you want to pucker up or enjoy another sip. Also, note how it tastes when you first drink it and throughout the finish. You’ll be surprised to learn how it changes with every gulp.
Seasonality and Retirement
Some breweries will release seasonal blends as part of the portfolio of offerings. They may sell them in limited batches sometimes at a boutique price. That’s part of the gamble for consumers. Another thing to remember is that some may choose to retire a particular run if it doesn’t generate the expected sales or if other factors make it problematic to produce. A myriad of other reason could cause a brewer to drop a particular product.
It’s one of the reasons that we suggest being open-minded when trying beers from these breweries. Unfortunately, not all brews are age-worthy with only a limited window for peak freshness. Our motto is to live in the moment and enjoy what we’re drinking.
Microbreweries have come a long way from their early beginnings. Now they are the high standard of beer, producing a variety of blends that showcase the talent behind the brewers. The industry as a whole has moved into the realm of craftsmanship. It is the ultimate reward for the individual who wants more out of their mug of suds than a thirst quencher. No longer does wine have the pedestal on fine taste. Beer has come into its own.
As Ben Franklin purportedly once said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” He may have been referring to wine, but with today’s microbrews, we believe he would have included them too.