To the max
After almost a decade of travelling to the US, Matthew Curtis has begun to notice a change in the air
Thursday 28 November 2019
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A year ago, I didn’t even know what hard seltzer was. Now I’m standing in a supermarket stocking up the pantry at the start of my now annual two-week holiday in Fort Collins, Colorado and I’m loading up the trolley with something called White Claw.
This brand of self-described “spiked sparkling water” has taken America by storm in recent months. Its offer of light flavour – be that mango, black cherry or “natural” lime, for example – easy drinkability and low calorie count has made it an instant smash hit, particularly within the millennial and gen-z demographic. First introduced in 2016, it’s produced by Mark Anthony Brands, which is also responsible for other (no-doubt delicious) beverages such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade.
This sudden surge in popularity has resulted in White Claw drawing quite a few drinkers away from light lager brands such as those from Coors, Miller and Budweiser. It’s also, somewhat bizarrely, attracted the craft beer drinker, having the same refreshment appeal as, say, a gin and tonic, appeasing the more palate fatigued among us. Evidence has even emerged indicating people are transporting it to the UK in their suitcases in order to share it with friends.
And here I was in the middle of a supermarket turning my nose up at my own family doing the same. Then, for some reason, I went to the liquor store next door to buy a six-pack of Miller High Life and a bottle of Aperol.
This felt as jarringly unusual to me as it may well have done to you when you read that sentence. What the hell was I doing buying a domestic lager and a very sweet liquor that vaguely resembles a proper Italian Amaro? To make a new cocktail I’d read about in Bon Appétit called the “Spaghett”, of course.
The drink involves taking a bottle of High Life, pouring a shot of Aperol into the bottle, before finishing it off with a squeeze of lemon. Essentially it takes the fundamental concept of the Negroni cocktail and reduces it to its most basic state. It’s remarkably refreshing, if a little sweet, and an excellent mid-session drink if you’re six IPAs deep and need a livener.
Halfway through drinking my first Spaghett I was struck by a wave of fascination. What had led me to this point? Why was I drinking a High Life instead of indulging in the copious volume of incredible craft beer that Colorado has to offer? It soon dawned on me that this was likely the very same reason my partner was sitting on the patio chugging her way through cans of White Claw. And the more I thought about it, the more I believed it to be a sign of how our attitude to craft beer could be once again heading towards a period of change.
It then dawned on me that it’s not just me that’s changing, but the entire status quo of the beer culture we’ve all been contributing towards is shifting, slowly taking a new form. The next two weeks would be spent observing those in bars and brewery tap rooms, to see if I wasn’t alone. It didn’t take me long to realise that I wasn’t.
A long, long time ago
When I first came to Fort Collins almost a decade ago, it's fair to say the experience changed my life forever. In fact, that influence is what got me into beer writing, and how I came to be working on this very piece for you right now. It all began in 2010 when my dad, now retired but formerly working in plant breeding and seed development, was placed out here. That was meant to be for just three years. He still hasn’t left.
There were a lot of intensely moving experiences on that debut trip: my first sandwich at Choice City Butcher & Deli (seriously, go there and try the buffalo reuben), touring New Belgium Brewing (still the best brewery tour on Planet Earth) and driving up to 11,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park. One moment, however, still stands out as pivotal to my entire beer experience, and I can remember it like it was yesterday. I walked into Odell Brewing company that day a beer enthusiast, I left a maniac.
That first taste of their IPA, even though it was just a little four-ounce sampler on a tasting flight, was my very own beer “moment.” Call it an epiphany if you will, it still remains crystalline in my memory.
Subsequent trips were solely about beer and beer only, each one an attempt to cram in as many brewery and bar visits as possible. There was never enough time, as breweries were opening faster than I could tick them off. First it was the classics like Oskar Blues, Wynkoop, Great Divide and Left Hand. Then came the smaller folks like Equinox, Bootstrap, and Verboten. As the hype was reaching its peak breweries like TRVE, WeldWerks and Our Mutual Friend were exploding out the gates with incredible beers and wonderful, varied taprooms to drink it in.
On reflection, the latter is almost more important than the beer itself. As time wore on I slowly realised that while I loved the beer and indulging myself in new flavours, it was the culture in the taprooms that was more rewarding. Drinking at the source in an environment that had the revelry of a busy pub, along with staff who were willing to talk to you at length about ingredients and process was completely new to me at the time. Being somewhat frustrated with traditional British pub culture at the time probably amplified that experience. (Fear not, however, my love for a good pub soon returned with gusto.)
Eventually that taproom culture was exported to the UK, and is evolving in its own little way. At the same time modern British beer culture evolved into something resembling that in the US, as the energy from the American craft beer boom was exported all over the world.
I didn’t realise the effect this normalisation of the modern beer experience was having on me at the time, but the signs were there early on. A few years into my visits and suddenly the excitement of the flight had lost its sheen. I was still interested in trying all of the beers, but I wanted a whole beer, not a thimbleful-sized taste. Instead of seeking out new breweries immediately, I was giving them time. It only takes one or two mediocre experiences to put you off a brewery for life, especially when there are so many exceptional things happening all around them. So I preferred to visit tried-and-trusted breweries, instead of the new kids on the block.
As the years dragged steadily on this affected my drinking too. Have you tried our new sour, lactose-infused IPA? No, and I’m not sure I want to. I will just have your regular IPA thank you. Soon I realised that I was more interested in my next pint of Odell IPA or New Belgium Fat Tire than I was in the latest beer. And this is because modern beer culture can be overwhelmingly exhausting.
After my most recent US observations, I believe it is this fatigue that is driving the most current change in beer culture. Pass the White Claw.
So. Very. Tired.
I want to point out that I am not bored of beer. Beer is still the most exciting, stimulating thing in the galaxy for me. But when you’re immersed in that culture 24/7 there’s immense value in giving yourself a hard reset. That could be a pint or three of best bitter. Or a bottle of wine and some cocktails. Beer these days is so often a rush of brightly coloured cans and ideas that are often executed very well, and sometimes not so well. There is immense value in putting that to one side and going, “I’ll have a pint of the usual tonight, please.”
I’m not alone in this. In fact I’d wager anyone who has been along for the beer ride for five or more years might be feeling the same. It’s not just folks who work in beer who feel like this either, you might be too, to which I say: I hope you’re enjoying that refreshing pilsner right now.
In fact this was one of the most common threads I saw in many beer bars on my recent US visit. People drinking Pilsners, lots of them. From American classics like High Life and Coors Banquet, to some of the more artisanal options available, such as from Zwei Brewing in Fort Collins, or the zeitgeist-capturing Beirstadt Lagerhaus in Denver’s River North district.
If you were following any of the brewers or press at the recent Great American Beer Festival, held annually in Denver every October, you may have seen a glut of posts from Beirstadt. As well as being wholly Instagrammable, their Slow Pour Pils (which, as the name suggests takes five minutes to pour) was perhaps the defining fixture of the week—outside of the fest itself of course.
You’d think that a brewer would be more interested in trying as many new beers as they can, comparing them to their own perhaps, or seeing if their own recipes pass muster, all in the name of market research. In the past that was very much the deal. Now however, in between hectic festival sessions and a marathon of collaboration brews, relaxing with something simple has become the order of the day.
What’s more interesting is how I see this behaviour extending beyond simply those who work in the industry. We’re all a little tired of the constant onslaught of new releases and the constant need to invent styles such as IPA and gose by adding fruit or lactose. So when that all gets too much we turn to what we know and love. That could be a great lager or West Coast IPA, or a comforting pint of cask bitter. I predict that all three of these styles will see further resurgence in 2020.
Essentially I believe we are slowly, but surely, reaching something I’ve been calling the “maximum.” A saturation point for the glut of beer releases, events and collabs. When you reach your maximum, that’s when beer suddenly becomes less about the chase, and more about relaxation and conversation again. The beer once again returning to the footnote of the social experience it lubricates. The good news is that if you ever want to jump back into the rapid currents of the modern beer experience, that’s not going anywhere. Me, however? I’m more than content to float along the tributaries on my lilo, pint of bitter in hand.
Such is the impact of this shift in the modern beer experience, that on my latest trip to the hallowed grounds of Odell Brewing Company I was almost knocked away when I saw they had their very own hard seltzer on tap. Yes, that’s right, even the most venerable breweries are placating the needs of exhausted palates, and acknowledging that not everyone wants an intense hop bomb all the time.
It remains to be seen if the same plays out in the UK. I doubt it will. Hard seltzers might be more highly taxed than beer if brewers did decide to start producing them. And the British palate is a little more… nuanced than our American counterparts. I’m much more confident that we’ll see more lagers and bitters, as that’s what our tastes will dictate. I’m sure there’s a brewer out there with a hard seltzer in tank waiting to prove me wrong, however.
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