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  1. Bars & Breweries

Craft beer got bigger in 2014; next year, it'll get better

Legacy One and Two were collaborations between Cigar City Brewing and Bern's Steak House, robust, high-alcohol after-dinner craft beers aimed at offering Bern's customers something distinctive and memorable at meal's end. [Bern's Steakhouse]
Legacy One and Two were collaborations between Cigar City Brewing and Bern's Steak House, robust, high-alcohol after-dinner craft beers aimed at offering Bern's customers something distinctive and memorable at meal's end. [Bern's Steakhouse]
Published Dec. 23, 2014

To end another year of beer columns with a statement saying that 2014 was a big year for craft beer is no more meaningful than saying that it was hot during the summer. Big growth is the norm for craft beer now — people expect it, and it usually happens in the ways we predict.

Speaking of predictions, I've gotten into the habit of making a few. Looking back at my 2013 and 2014 predictions for the craft beer world, I've got to say that I'm pretty happy with the way they turned out.

Last year, I predicted that we'd see more experimental hop usage. Experimental-hopped IPAs were all over the place in local taprooms nationwide, and Cigar City Brewing even put one into distribution: the Rock Brothers and Kyle Hollingsworth collaboration Happening Now, a session IPA (another beer trend that I expected to grow in 2014).

I predicted that lagers and saisons would provide the blank canvas for 2014's beer experimenters, and I'm a little disappointed that this didn't really come to fruition. IPLs (India Pale Lagers, a heavily hopped lager variant of the IPA) were popular this year, but diversity in these categories is still lacking. Get to work, guys!

My biggest prediction is one that can't be verified until the end of 2015's first quarter. I predicted that the craft beer market share would hit 10 percent, rocketing up from the 7.8 percent share it held at the end of 2013. The jury's out on this one, but with the Brewers Association's change of the definition of "craft" to include small brewers using adjuncts like corn and rice — which would include Yuengling — the 10 percent mark is a lock, if not a bit fudged.

But craft beer did hit a few interesting landmarks in 2014 that we can verify. In Portland, Ore., one of the country's biggest craft beer-swilling cities, craft beer's market share climbed to more than 45 percent, surpassing "Big Beer" — major domestic producers Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors. And, for the first time ever, Americans are drinking more craft beer than Budweiser, the juggernaut of domestic beer. Note that this is all of craft beer versus a single brand in the AB InBev stable, but it's an interesting shift in an industry that has been dominated by the iconic brand for decades.

So what about 2015? Well, craft beer is going to continue to grow, and it will still be hot in summer. But I can think of one particular issue that will stand out above all else next year, and that's a higher expectation from consumers of a new brewery's output. This is a somewhat vague prediction, but it's one that will have a greater effect on the industry than focusing on a new style, or finding new kind of barrels to age beer in.

With 1.5 breweries opening per day across the country, the United States now has more breweries than any point in history, including before Prohibition. While this growth has been steadily encouraged by the craft beer community at large, many have worried that quality will inevitably suffer as a result.

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I thought about this during a recent Brew Bus tour to its latest stop, Seminole Heights' Angry Chair Brewing. Although the brewery had opened less than a month prior, the beers were outrageously good — creative, well-conceived and spotlessly executed. This has not been the case for every brewery opening in the area, and consumers are noticing the difference.

My theory: Some amateur brewers pour their beers at festivals for years before going pro, and this is how Angry Chair got its start. When the brewery finally opened its doors, the beers already were thoroughly tested and vetted by the public. Other festival breweries hoping to go pro next year include Tangent, Late Start, Croxbone, Pinellas Ale Works, J Wakefield, Hidden Springs, Wild Oak and many others. I've had beers from all of these guys, and I can tell you that the bar is going to go up. "Good enough" may have paid the bills a year ago, but it won't cut it in 2015. And that's a good thing.

So rather than focus on a few trends that will be hot next year, let's instead focus on the prospect that craft beer is going to be not only bigger, but better, in 2015. Craft beer's market share rising above 10% is great, but it's even better when the overall quality of beer rises with it. Brewers, prove me right — it'll benefit all of us.

— jg@saintbeat.com

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