Don’t ask me how this all started. V3SEUN2PUDNR
Whether it stemmed from Mark Dredge’s recent visit from the land of session bitters, or an opportune encounter with Craftsman’s 1903 Lager, or those nine long, light-lager months down in Central America – I really can’t say. But I often feel like I’m continually parting ways with the “extreme” craft beer scene.
Perhaps that’s overkill. Perhaps I’ve had just one too many accidental fusel bombs, one too many bad examples of barrel aging, one too many “Imperial Weizens”, or one too many encounters with Tactical Nuclear nonsense. Have I waited in too many lines for limited releases? Have 12% hop bombs actually made me bitter? Perhaps I am, at twenty-eight, becoming a curmudgeon.
Don’t get me wrong.
American craft beer drinkers have never before had so many choices (if anything, it’s an embarrassment of riches), craft brewers have never been taking so many creative leaps, and American craft beer as a whole is thriving in a poor economy. The Brewer’s Association recently reported that small and independent U.S. craft brewers saw their annual overall sales grow by more than 10% in 2009.
Life is good. Disregard curmudgeons. Drink up!
But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment. It seems like every brewpub in the country as of late is making an imperial stout as well as a double IPA (or multiple incarnations of each). It’s become a challenge to pick out an American IPA under 7%. Many of the international session beers – German and Bohemian pilsners, premium lagers, bitters, saisons, hefeweizens, etc. – arrive in less-than-prime conditions or at less-than-sessionable prices. At the very least, the whole thing raises a couple key flags. Are we really moving away from drinkable beers?
So I started wondering a bit about ABV trends in the American craft beer industry. And what better place to start, than the Ratebeer database?
An admin friend of mine was good enough to dig up the information I needed: binned ABV data for new beers added to the Ratebeer database over the last ten years. The data basically took each beer added, rounded its ABV to the nearest whole number (4.5% to 5.49% would be rounded to 5%, for example), and then categorized each listing by ABV and the year in which each beer was first added. From there, I was able to separate U.S. ABV data from non-U.S. ABV data.
The first thing I looked at was the overall percentage of new beers coming out with more than 5.5% ABV (this seemed to be the most reasonable distinction, given the format of the raw data, to make between session and non-session beers). The graph below shows the overall percentages of U.S. and non-U.S. beers being released each year with alcohol levels at or above 5.5%.
Over the last ten years, about 30-40% of new international beers have had alcohol levels with 5.5%+ ABV, while the proportion of U.S. beers with this characteristic has steadily risen to nearly twice that. Today, more than 70% of new American beers are these bigger, bolder, less-sessionable beers.
One other thing that seemed rather illuminating to check out was the average ABVs. It’s possible, from the above graph, that the overall increase in alcohol in U.S. beers was actually very slight, just shifting a few percentage points past 5.5%. Average ABVs for new U.S. and non-U.S. beers are graphed below. (For those who find median values more convincing, this has similar features.)
(I’ve included linear trendlines in both plots, just for the sake of argument. I’m pretty sure one can eyeball the general trends of these graphs without them.)
In 2009, the average ABV of new U.S. beers rose beyond 7% for the first time. New non-U.S. beers, in comparison, have continued to hover around 5.5%. I should perhaps provide a moment of silence for all of this to sink in.
Twiddle your thumbs. Ruminate. Ponder away.
My fellow Hop Press writers have already written about higher-alcohol beers and the recent ABV race. None of this is going away anytime soon, and I’m honestly not sure if I would necessarily want it to. American craft beer is doing very well. American craft beer drinkers have never been happier. And there are still plenty of great session beers out there. But, honestly, it still kind of creeps me out.
I’m curious how other people will interpret the above trendlines. I’ve tended to tangentially allude to this in previous articles, but it’s somewhat concerning that many younger craft beer drinkers spend so much interest solely on these higher-octane, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink brews. It both does and doesn’t make sense. I mean, the core value system inherent to U.S. craft brewing was that it offered a more flavorful and more generous alternative to insipid BMC beers.
But we all know that there’s a difference between extreme beer and good beer. We’ve seen that quirkiness and creativity are not infrequently commingled with advertising. And many of the folks reading this can appreciate that we live in a country frequently defined by both its people’s seemingly boundless interest in innovation – but also in all things bigger, bolder, stronger, fattier, sweeter, and more obvious. Here’s to hoping we’re still headed down the path of innovation.
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