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What’s the latest buzz with beers? Beers minus the buzz

 Non-alcoholic beer in glass.
Brian Bull
A non-alcoholic beer made by Athletic Brewing Co. called Upside Dawn. It has less than 0.5% ABV and shares many flavor notes and characteristics of other beers on the market.

Craft brewing in Oregon and elsewhere has its ebbs and flows, so new trends with certain beers may leave some feeling a little less hoppy…or less sour.

In short, IPAs are taking a back seat to lagers, while sours are seeing less demand than when they first emerged about a decade ago.

Thomas Shellhammer, a professor of fermentation science at Oregon State University, told KLCC that IPAs and sours aren’t going away, but now the spotlight’s on lagers, including Japanese versions.

But Shellhammer said one market that’s really taking off is non-alcoholic beers, or NAs.

“And I think it's driven in part by health, and it's also driven in part by the brewing industry and consumers wanting a broader range or window to consume beer,” he explained. “If you want to have a beer with lunch, but you don't want the effects of alcohol, you have a very limited set of choices. So you either go to soft drinks or you go to tea or iced coffee. So I think the brewing industry sees that as an as a potential opportunity to sell more beer.”

Alternately, high alcohol IPAs with ABVs of 9% are finding followers, a trend happening concurrently with the NAs. But Shellhammer predicts non-alcoholic beers will expand in the next five years as people strive for a craft beer taste minus the effects that come with alcohol.

 Professor on Zoom call inside office.
Zoom screen capture.
Oregon State University's Thomas Shellhammer, a professor of fermentation studies.

An extended interview with Thomas Shellhammer, OSU fermentation science professor:

Bull: So Tom, when I was up there last week, I got into some good conversations with a number of people including you about the food and ag industry, and in particular, the brewery scene here. And I guess what I'd like to hear is simply what you're kind of seeing trending right now in terms of what are some of the more popular beers, alcoholic, non-alcoholic and maybe what's happening to things such as the hard seltzer market and interest in low and non-alcoholic brews among the Gen Zers as they were described. And maybe what you're seeing among your students there.

Shellhammer: So non-alcoholic is a growing area in the brewing scene in the United States. When you look around the world there's a very large proportion of non-alcoholic beer in different parts of the world. Take, for instance, Spain. I was at a meeting there a year ago, and their non-alcoholic beer market is 13% of their domestic beer market.

To put that in comparison, that's the same size as craft is in the United States. So that's a lot of non-alcoholic beer. And you see that in other regions around the world as well. And I think the whole world has been waiting for the U.S. to kind of catch up or engage. And so you'll see non-alcoholic beer coming out that people in the Pacific Northwest can see, offerings by Deschutes and by Crux and a number of others. And there are large craft brewers like Boston Beer, for instance, that are that are stepping into this quite well, in a big way.

Bull: What do you think is driving this Tom? Because when I was growing up in the 80s in rural Idaho, a lot of my classmates were all about going down to the river with a case of some cheap, really bad beer as a means to “getting wasted”.  It doesn't seem like this current generation is into that scene.

Shellhammer: It's really interesting. There's kind of almost like a dichotomy right now, the NA beer space is still very much in its infancy, in part because it's a challenge from a technological and scientific perspective. As a home brewer, you can scale up from home brewing recipes to let's say, a brew pub or a small brewery. without too much difficulty. That translates pretty well.

But the technology that's required for producing non-alcoholic beers requires a much bigger leap in terms of technological sophistication, as well as scientific understanding because of the inherent potential risks with microbial contamination, and the different technologies that you knew to produce NA beer whether it's produced doing fermentations that are low in alcohol to begin with, or actually removing alcohol.

So anyway, there's interest in the NA space and I think it's driven in part by health, and it's also driven in part by the brewing industry and consumers wanting a broader range or window to consume beer. If you want to have a beer with lunch, but you don't want the effects of alcohol, you have a very limited set of choices. So you either go to soft drinks or you go to tea or iced coffee. So I think the brewing industry sees that as an as a potential opportunity to sell more beer.

Similarly, the folks that are looking for on the health side, view NA beers in a positive light. Now they're not a health drink, but they're low to no alcohol, and they tend to be much lower in calories as well. And so they're less filling and they're obviously not intoxicating.

So that's one part of the sector. And the other part, which is growing in a big way right now are high alcohol beers like triple IPAs, 9% IPAs, and so that's interesting to see this, you know, these two different categories kind of moving in very opposite directions.

Bull: And the quality of non-alcoholic beers have changed a lot since my younger years. I remember you could sip it and could tell right away it was something that maybe had been brewed half-heartedly with the alcohol stripped out it. It just did not have that flavor or body of a regular beer.

Shellhammer: I agree, exactly. I grew up up in the 70s. Those NA beers were clearly an inferior product relative to a mainstream commercial lager beer. And now we're seeing quite an advance in quality from a flavor perspective and a diversity in flavors so people are making non-alcoholic IPAs and non-alcoholic lagers and a whole plethora of different types of styles that consumers can choose from. And it's going to continue to evolve. As I mentioned, there's a big leap from just scaling something up in your garage to actually trying to make NA beer work. In fact, you don't have the technology in many cases to do a garage-scale NA beer production.

Bull:   Interesting. Speaking of beer production, I remember hearing among the new brewers you’re working with, is that there’s maybe not so much interest in IPAs, that are typically very high alcohol and super hoppy.  Now there’s more of an inclination to turn towards some of the more traditional beers like the lagers and kolsches?

Shellhammer: So the IPA category is still a very strong category. For many breweries, it remains the number one beer style that they make. And I would say in Oregon, you see a lot of breweries, if they're not making IPA, they're also making other “hop forward” beers. So it's a range of different hoppy offerings to the consumer. But I would say over the last five to seven years, we're seeing more and more brewers experimenting and offering different types of lager beer. The lagers tend to be much lower in hop levels than an IPA. And initially, they these were sort of German or Czech-inspired pilsners. But I think you'll find if you go to many different tap rooms or breweries now you'll find craft breweries offering a whole range of different markers Japanese style lagers, and Italian style pilsners, German Helles, even American lagers.

And just like brewers have been looking for diversity in the hoppy space, they're looking for diversity in the lager space. And that's really cool to see. I mean, it's definitely a growing trend and we're seeing brewers make a larger scale of their business in the lager space, as opposed to them being just one-offs or experiments.

 Four small glasses of beer in serving paddle.
Brian Bull
A flight of four craft beers at Planktown Brewing Co. in Springfield.

Bull:  And it was also mentioned that sours seem to be kind of leveling off as far as the interest goes, and the hard seltzer industry is also kind of flattening out. No pun intended.

Shellhammer: Yeah, so 10 to 15 years ago, sour beers became quite the rage. Brewers were experimenting with those, craft drinkers were kind of having their eyes opened to the idea of having beers that had sourness to them. And there's a whole range of different types of barrel-aged sour beers and kettle sour beers. And while there still is that diversity of those beers, and the spirits have become really quite good in terms of quality, the demand for them is declining and the demand for lager beers is increasing, so we're not going to see sour beers go away. But it's not on an upward trend. If anything, it's on a downward trend for many breweries. Maybe not all but many breweries are seeing a decline in consumers interest in sour beers.

The hard seltzer market? Man, that has been quite a ride. 10 years ago with hard seltzers, I wouldn't say non-existent but they were a very small portion of the market share. And then up until a pandemic and going into the pandemic, hard seltzers then -we're talking things like White Claw, and Truly, those are kind of the two big market leaders in this category - they're making huge amounts, huge volumes of hard seltzer. Now in the last 12 months, we're seeing a decline in the demand for those. It's definitely not going away, but it's not as such a focal point of the industry. In responses in a lot of craft brewers responding by making hard seltzers and including a hard seltzer in their lineup, among other beers that we talked about sour beers and lager beers and hoppy beers. So I think the hard seltzer sector is going to remain I don't know how long it's going to remain, but it's not just a fleeting fad, given the size of the market, and it sort of established a whole new category that really wasn't there 10 years ago.

Bull:  Looking into your crystal ball, Tom, do you see anything trending on the horizon? Anything you think that might really take off in the next say, year to five years?

Shellhammer: Oh man, that's going to be the NA beer space. We're going to see a number of breweries innovating, coming out with increasingly better quality NA beers and the consumer awareness of these --not just because it's not alcohol, but because it has other pleasing aspects, is going to grow. So I would bet money that NA beers in five years from now we're going to be a much larger portion of the craft beer market.

As far as the individual styles got it's hard to say. I mean, it's interesting to see how it's fickle but just how much consumer interests move about and that's part of the challenge for crafters is trying to stay ahead of that curve and providing consumers choice with things that they that they're seeking now as opposed to, you know what they wanted last month or last year.

Bull: We've come a long ways though, from what was that European standard? The Bavarian Purity Law?

Shellhammer: Yeah, the German beer purity law, the Reinhetsgebot, was established on April 23, 1516. So it's been little more than 500 years. And while that isn’t the sole definition of what beer is, it has a strong influence on beer style and beer production. To this day, even in the U.S., many of the large breweries were founded by German immigrants. And that was somewhat of a narrow view on what beer is and what came out of that principally were, what the evolution was, you know, pale yellow beers with different levels of hoppiness. And now we see just a whole broad spectrum of craft beer the last 30 years in the U.S. We’ve seen just a tremendous growth in beer styles, over 150 different beer styles now and the beer competitions.

Bull:  It would be interesting to see what the crafters of the Bavarian Purity Law would think of cucumber sours and blueberry muffin sours ---

Shellhammer: Exactly! These pastry stouts and fruited beers.

Bull: Peanut butter stouts.

Shellhammer: Yes, exactly. I think they would be either rolling their eyes or turning away in disgust. But, you know, that’s a very single view of beer, right? The German lens. And if you look around the world, there's other approaches to beer-style and beer development. Classic historic regions, like Belgium and England have very, very modestly different takes on beer relative to the Germans. And then as we've just mentioned, the growth of the craft industry in the United States created styles that didn't exist before. So now we have these other formerly sort of historical places where people sought inspiration from right now, coming to the U.S. to look for inspiration of beer styles.

Bull:  Lastly, Tom, I was listening to OPB’s Think Out Loud recently and they were talking about how seven craft breweries have closed in Portland over the past month. And there is a belief that maybe the craft brewing industry is kind of leveling off and regressing a little bit. Maybe it's oversaturation? Maybe it's more interest in different types of beverages? And I was just curious to know what your impressions were of the industry.

Shellhammer: Yeah, I'm not a an economist. So you're getting this very much from an engineer/chemist perspective, and but also kind of an a casual observer of the beer industry and beer culture. I would say that right now it's tough to be a brewer. Particularly if you're a smaller scale brewery that is relying principally on draft sales or people coming to your particular brewery. The pandemic was really a challenge. The pandemic relief funds helped, I think that extended the life of brewers that were on the edge, but with those disappearing and craft sales had been really low throughout last year and even going into the beginning of this year. Those don't bode well for breweries that are really dependent upon on-premise types of sales. So it's not surprising in that regard that those haven't bounced back.

I don't know if that's a signal for future trends and like you mentioned the oversaturation, I think in the Portland area, and just in Oregon and the Northwest in general, we have so many choices for beer. You have to really be at the top of your game because you can't just be the local brewery. You need to be the local good brewery in order to be successful.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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