Michigan breweries were confronted with some of their biggest challenges in 2020. What can we expect in the craft brewing world here in the Mitten as move forward? Will adversity spark creativity? Are big changes coming to Michigan beer? Inquiring minds want to know.
“By and large, the craft beer world is a progressive world,” said David Ringler from Cedar Springs Brewing Company, when asked about trends in beer for 2021.
We reached out to a few experts in the beer industry to get their take on what might be coming in 2021. We found that while there some things they saw happening across the board, there are also a few interesting outliers that might prove to be bigger players in years to come.
Overall, a tone of very cautious optimism is happening across the Michigan beer industry. Last year was a game changer, and while the industry adapted and innovated as necessary throughout the year, they now are approaching the new year with perhaps a hint of trepidation.
“Tepid innovation,” is one trend that Ringler thinks we’ll see this year from Michigan breweries.
In addition to Ringler, who is vice president of the Michigan Brewers Guild, we also talked to other local experts:
- Isaac Hartman, the “Ambassador of Great Beer” from New Holland Brewing Company
- Guild President Annette May, a certified advanced cicerone and an instructor at Schoolcraft College’s Brewing and Distillation Program
- Kit Wanty Lambert, executive vice president of O&W Beer distributing
- Tommy Kennedy, owner of HOMES Brewery in Ann Arbor
They all shared their thoughts on what trends we might see across the beer beverage category in 2021.
They also almost all agreed it is incredibly hard to predict what might happen this year, especially after everything that happened in 2020. According to Hartman, “It’s been a weird year to try to predict trends. With no conferences, either national or statewide, it’s been hard to see what beers are trending.”
That being said, let’s see what might happen in Michigan beer in 2021.
New products? Maybe not this year. Or maybe a lot more.
There has been a ton of stress and challenges from the pandemic for our Michigan breweries. With so much change happening, and so many unknowns still out there, a lot of Michigan breweries might just stick with what they already know works for 2021.
“The buzz thing in craft beer has always been new, new, new,” said Ringler. “Make something new. But for small guys that are beholden to draft beer, and on-premise sales, that’s really hard.”
With indoor dining closed for most of 2020, draft beer sales have dropped off almost completely. As Lambert said, “That was just like, gone.” Many small breweries have started canning their beer for the very first time, in order to sell it to-go to customers. This demand has now created a can shortage, another problem facing breweries who need to move beer while it’s fresh. If you can’t get it out the door, why would you risk tank space, time, money and effort on beers that don’t have a track record of selling well?
“How do you put out five or six new beers, and nobody can come onsite, or only a fraction can, and it doesn’t move?” asked Ringler. “You want to try something that’s new or has the appearance of new, but you have to have the confidence that it’s going to sell.”
One way breweries might continue to offer a bigger variety of new beers and different flavors of beers is to take a page out of big beer’s book. According to Ringler, we might see more breweries splitting batches of beer, and then creating two or three different flavored beers from that one batch. “Maybe you make a batch or two of beer that you can then spike a couple of kegs,” he said. “You can flavor them, maybe add raspberry to one, something else to the other. That way you don’t have that much beer sitting there.”
Hartman agreed that “Breweries might not want to bring new products to the market that are innovative because they want to keep it local, with products they know will sell.” Michigan breweries have been in a completely different situation than the rest of the country over the last year, he explained. “Plans have been put on hold for many brewery expansions,” he said. The change and growth that we’ve seen in the industry in the past might be much, much slower this year.
For many breweries, especially smaller ones, bringing new products to the market might not make sense right now. But for some, it was the lifeline they needed last year. HOMES Brewery in Ann Arbor used the pandemic as a time to finally take the leap on a brand new product, and it has proven to be wildly successful. Smooj, a fruity hard seltzer the brewery makes under their company Troobado, was something that owner Tommy Kennedy had been thinking about for a while.
“We didn’t really have the bandwidth to play around with it until Covid hit,” Kennedy said. “We wanted to come up with something fun and exciting to come out of this thing with, so let’s really dig in, and put a lot of energy in to make this thing a possibility. We spent from March to June coming up with processes and the recipes that we were excited to get going with, and launched the first one in early June. No fanfare, new brand name, and we’re excited people found it, and were willing to experiment with it. Our first one sold out in about a day, the next one sold out in a few hours.”
The thing about Smooj that really made it different for HOMES is they designed it with distribution in mind. HOMES Brewery has always operated on a no-distribution model. If you want to try their beers, you pick them up at the brewery in Ann Arbor. They’ve always relied on the incredible local support for their beers.
“We never wanted to be in distribution with HOMES, because we wanted to stay small and flexible and didn’t want to be beholden to a staple beer,” Kennedy said. “We wanted to be able to keep experimenting, and always feel unstable about the state of things, and always keep challenging ourselves as a creative outlet.”
Unstable is a great way to describe 2020, and sometimes it can be too much. The pandemic really forced HOMES to rethink their business model. Although their local support has been incredible, “It was a lot to ask of a small audience,” Kennedy said.
“With Smooj, we saw an opportunity to diversify revenue streams, and have something that’s not HOMES. It’s a whole separate company, has it’s own different marketing strategy where we can be in distribution, and be stable through these ebbs and flows,” Kennedy said. “It just felt like a perfect pairing with what we were already doing.”
Will continued market instability force other breweries to pivot their business models and offer something completely new? Or will it force a major slow-down on new products being offered? Looks like it’s a split decision on this trend.
Seltzer will only grow in availability and quality.
Hard seltzers are the fastest-growing segment in the beverage market. What was originally sold and marketed on a national scale by big brands has trickled down to the Michigan beer market, and many of our breweries now offer their own versions. Hard seltzers are affordable to make, easy to customize, and offer something for customers who might not be traditional beer drinkers.
“You’ll also be seeing innovation from breweries that are getting into the seltzer, and trying to steal consumers from like White Claw and High Noon,” Hartman said. “It’s getting a non-traditional beer drinker into the category.” It’s a way for breweries to reach out to consumers they may have missed in the past.
Ringler agrees that we’ll see more hard seltzer offerings. “You’ll see people trying to push seltzers, and a lot of that is in desperation,” he said. “They’re very cheap, relatively easy to make. You’re using these artificial flavoring ingredients and it’s a way to expand your audience, because your cocktail drinker and wine drinker will drink them.”
“There’s so much innovation in the seltzer category,” said Lambert, looking at seltzers from a distributor’s standpoint. She’s watched the growth from national brands, and is starting to see it more in Michigan. Her company now offers all sorts of varieties of hard seltzer, and she thinks even more of this variety in the style will be arriving. “We have teas that are seltzers, lemonade seltzer, a limonade one,” she said. “Any innovation they can bring out, in a seltzer, or a ‘new and better for you’ beverage, will be received well.”
Odd Side Ales in Grand Haven went all in on seltzers in 2020, launching their line in April. The brewery purchased three new 60-barrel tanks this summer in order to keep up with the demand. They’ve released close to 20 different flavors since the launch, and they continue to be popular. In fact, this fall due to the can shortage, and the high demand for their seltzer, the brewery ended up rewrapping some of their beer cans with seltzer labels. “We had to wrap Dank Juice cans to support our seltzer line,” O’Leary said in an interview last fall.
Hartman has been impressed with what some of these breweries have been creating. “There is an element of complete innovation where there are other breweries doing these crazy, slurpy slushy beers,” like HOMES, he said. “A hard seltzer smoothie. It’s an example of them trying to be innovative with a style, but then grabbing someone who wouldn’t drink a traditional beer with four ingredients in it. They’re grabbing the cocktail client or the wine drinker.”
While seltzer might not replace beer completely, it certainly is wedging its way deeper into the industry, one zero calories, zero carbs can at a time.
Inclusive beers will continue to draw in new craft beer fans.
We saw many Michigan breweries participate in the Black Is Beautiful beer campaign in 2020. The beer was the brainchild of Marcus Baskerville, founder and head brewer at Weathered Souls Brewing based in San Antonio. Over 700 breweries participated in this effort to bring awareness to the injustices that Black people face daily. Bell’s Brewery was one of them.
“We all have some work to do, Bell’s included, and we are committed to that,” said Larry Bell, president and founder of Bell’s in an article on MLive back in June. “It starts on an individual level. We all have a responsibility to do what we can to continue this conversation and help drive real change.”
Bell’s has been brewing beers to support various communities through their Celebration series for years now. The beers have helped celebrate women, veterans, LBGTQ+, Black and African American groups in the past, and the brewery plans to continue to brew these.
These type of inclusive beers, and efforts at breweries to include more ‘untraditional’ beer drinkers, will continue to grow in 2021.
“Better for you” beverages will continue to expand in the marketplace.
“Anybody that can set themselves apart with an ingredient twist, or a connection to something that is ‘healthy’ will set themselves apart,” Lambert said.
While beer might not be healthy, per se, Michigan breweries are making a lot more options for lower ABV (alcohol by volume) beers, and are starting to experiment with non-alcoholic beers. We’ll be seeing more and more of these entering the market in 2021.
“We are seeing more and more people being more health-conscious, and want a lower-calorie beer,” Hartman said. New Holland Brewing introduced their beer Lightpoint in 2020. It’s low calorie and only has 3.7% ABV. “We wanted to make a lower-calorie beer that had some flavor to it,” he said. “And yet make it New Holland and make it craft. So that’s where we added some orange peel to it. We added some coconut water, which is a little bit different. I still think there is a segment of the craft drinker who wants a beer with flavor, but they want a break from the traditional full flavor, and the 6 to 7% beer.”
As for low ABV or non-alcoholic beers, May agrees that there will be more of them hitting the market. “I think we are going to see more of this, more because of technical stuff happening. It’s been proven in the last years that NA beers in craft beer is a thing now. Especially industry people, people are starting to understand how much alcohol can damage your system, and they want a break. More brewers are getting better technically at making them, and the more we are going to have, the better they are going to taste. With more research and accessibility to the right equipment that is needed to do this,” we will be seeing more of these types of beers.
Lambert refers to this beverage category as “better for you”, and believes it’s “just going to keep growing” into 2021.
Research will drive some beer styles
May, who is an instructor at Schoolcraft College’s brewing program, a member of the craft women’s collective Fermenta, and a certified advanced cicerone, said her trends come from the technical side of things, where research drives innovation.
We’ll see more non-alcoholic beers because brewers finally have the right equipment and knowledge to make them, she explained. It’s not easy to make them, and it’s taken lots of experimentation to find the right ways to do it. She feels Michigan brewers are on the cusp of really getting these right.
She also thinks that some trends won’t go away, and it’s simply because they are just too valuable as research tools. The last few years have seen an explosion in the popularity of New England IPA’s, and Michigan has certainly embraced the trend.
May isn’t one to mince words, and she explained that she isn’t really a fan of NEIPA’s, preferring traditional-style beers. Despite her personal feelings, she thinks this trend will continue, and for a very interesting reason why.
“I don’t think the hazy or the NEIPA or whatever you want to call it is going away anytime soon,” May said. “It’s not because they’re popular or because people like them. It’s because there is so much research going on into new hop varietals and ways to brew with them, and bringing out their aroma. There’s so much research going on, and people are going to be using this research. Doing experimental brews with experimental hops, and seeing how much aroma and flavor can come out of this hop through biotransformation.”
In May’s opinion, the unique flavors that brewers are able to extract from hops is the exact reason why this beer style will be sticking around. “We’re just at the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “The hazy IPA is the ‘showcase style’ for this type of hop research. It showcases all the benefits of this research with hops. Brewers are not going to stop experimenting. Hop producers are not going to stop creating new hop varietals.”
Which means, we aren’t going to see the end of NEIPA’s anytime soon.
What else might we see in the craft beer world in 2021?
Maybe a bigger return to bottles, simply because of the can shortage. Breweries are still hog-tied in Michigan over draft sales, so kegging isn’t a great option to get beer moving. We’ll see more of them return to their original bottle form in 2021, like Bell’s Hopslam release this January, and many of Odd Side’s beers last year.
Even if we reopen for indoor dining soon, it will be at severely-reduced capacity, and many people might still not feel comfortable dining inside. In Michigan, we’ll continue to see breweries upgrade and expand their patios and outdoor dining options, not just from necessity, but also because customers have embraced them. I think we’ll also see another round of innovative ideas from breweries on take-out options, whether it’s slimmed-down menus, take-out windows, or more crowler and can offerings.
Variety packs have proven to be immensely popular, and are also a growing trend. A 12-pack with three different flavors of beer in it makes it affordable to have something for everyone.
With supply chains sometimes interrupted from the pandemic, and with the focus being very close to home, expect to see an uptick of local ingredients in Michigan beers in 2021. Whether it’s local honey, fruits, hops, home-grown grains or even locally-sourced yeasts, we’ll see more breweries taking pride at incorporating Michigan grown products.
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