While many consumers may associate craft beers with the more bitter, hoppy flavor of India pale ales, some breweries are increasingly offering a wider array of more approachable styles.
Pilsner lager–style beers as well as low- and no-alcohol brews are increasingly in vogue as craft beer makers seek to expand their offerings without straying too far from their roots. Seemingly victims of their own success, some larger craft breweries are looking to connect with drinkers who don’t necessarily jump at IPAs and other more complex brews that originally made them stalwarts of the shelf.
“The most prevalent trend right now is moving towards lower alcohol or what we often refer to as session beers in a variety of styles,” said Tom McCormick, executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association, a nonprofit trade association representing the craft and specialty brewing industry statewide.
McCormick said session IPAs with lower ABV (alcohol by volume) fall into this category and have a pronounced hoppy flavor without the punch of a higher alcohol content.
“We want to offer people more choices for more occasions and experiences,” said Max Wertheimer, senior public relations manager for Petaluma’s Lagunitas Brewing Co. “That goes for current craft drinkers and then also folks who normally wouldn’t drink beer and so we have something a little more approachable for them.”
Wertheimer pointed to Lagunitas’ Daytime fractional IPA released earlier this year as an example. It clocks in at 4% ABV, compared with the 6.2% of its flagship IPA, which he described as “the beer that we hang our hat on.”
The brewery also offers a drink that is not a beer. Hoppy Refresher has no alcohol content, carbohydrates or calories but still has a hops flavor, according to the company.
“It has allowed us to expand our fan base essentially to where there’s … something that works for everybody,” Wertheimer said.
But refreshing takes on old favorites are not the only way craft breweries are looking to gain market share.
Pilsner-style lagers are also a way to ease into the craft category for thirsty customers who aren’t in the mood for a hop-heavy beer, according to McCormick of the California Craft Brewers Association. Given brands like Coors, Budweiser and Heineken already occupy much of this space, it’s not been an area where craft beers could gain much traction, he said.
But that has changed over the last year or two, McCormick said. The sea change is “being driven by consumer interest” and by “beer consumers who don’t prefer a more robust flavor profile that you would find in a pale ale or a porter or a stout,” he said.
McCormick pointed to Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which is based in Chico and known for its IPA, and Paso Robles-based Firestone Walker Brewing Co. as two craft shops that make high-quality lagers.
“Now that they’ve gotten their chops down on the ale-style spectrum they’re more comfortable taking on these lager styles,” McCormick said.
The style required a different brewing technique and yeast strain.
“There’s not a lot there to mask some of the off flavors and you really have to be spot on,” he said.
Despite the experimentation and expansion into other types of beers, IPAs haven’t gone out of style. And for some craft beer fans, East Coast–style hazy IPAs have become popular, according to Trevor Martens, co-founder of the recently opened Pond Farm Brewing Co. taproom in San Rafael.
New to the local beer scene
Thirsty? Here are the recently opened breweries and taprooms across the North Bay where you can slake your thirst with a Kolsch, IPA, and everything in between.
Seismic Brewing Co., The Barlow, Sebastopol (July 2019)
Old Caz Beer, Rohnert Park (June 2019)
Parliament Brewing Co, Rohnert Park (opening this summer)
Stone Brewing, downtown Napa (May 2018)
Pond Farm Brewing Co., San Rafael (January 2019)
Indian Valley Brewing, Novato (February 2019)