According to the Brewers Association, which represents more than 70 percent of the brewing industry, India pale ales continue to occupy a big chunk of the craft beer market, amounting to 26.5 percent of U.S. sales in the sector. It's a profitable product category, too, rising 43.9 percent in dollar sales in 2015.
Just because IPAs are top of the hops doesn't mean brewers want to leave well enough alone. From fruit infusions to barrel aging, innovation is the name of the game in the beer biz. Ask local brew watchers what's been hot in the past year and they tend to agree that drinkers are looking for something sour.
"The sour beer category as a whole is arguably the fastest growing craft segment. Within this category you have Berliner weisse, gose, barrel aged sours, sour IPAs and more," said Rob Landerman, "Sauce Boss" at downtown brewery Woodland Empire Ale Craft.
For the uninitiated tipplers, sour beers are notably a product of Belgium. Defined by high acidity, lending them a tart flavor, sour beers are actually anything but new. Prior to the proliferation of pure yeast and industrial, sanitized brewing operations, beers by and large contained strains of wild yeast and various bacteria—introduced mostly by accident.
Today, through controlled introduction of bacteria like Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces, drinkers can have the best of both worlds: a professionally crafted beer that features the unruly palate profile of a bygone age.
"I think it's just something odd you probably haven't tried before," said Lynlee Garside, sales associate at Brewer's Haven on Vista Avenue. "I call it beer candy, and I think everybody likes candy even when you're an adult. It reminds me of eating sour patch kids. It just makes you salivate and want to keep drinking it."
As sour beers have grown in availability beyond their traditional European stomping grounds, U.S. craft brewers have riffed on the style—adding to their popularity.
"They're more true to style across the big pond and we kind of experiment a little more here, like with cucumber sours," Garside said. "Each one is so different that you keep trying them."
Jordan Flynn, co-owner and bar manager at PreFunk Beer Bar on Front Street in downtown Boise, also characterized sour beers as "candy," noting they often boast higher alcohol content (from 6 and 7 percent and above) "so people really tend to enjoy them," he said.
As more breweries have been turning out sours, they've also been producing gose (pronounced go-ZUH), an unfiltered wheat beer style hailing from Germany that also delivers a kick of tartness.
"It's a mild, light, tart, refreshing ale—kind of salty and sour," Flynn said. "Those have been pretty popular in the past year and a half."
Not everyone is happy with the gose revival (the style is said to have originated as far back as the 11th century). In a February 2015 article, Thrillist declared: "Craft Beer is Dead. Gose Killed it." Describing its salty/sour flavor profile as akin to "sweat" and noting its low ABV, "It both tastes bad and won't get you sauced."
That may be a little dramatic—the legions of gose drinkers who have fueled the trend clearly find something to like about the style—but with the rising popularity of sours in general, it's inevitable there would be some pushback.
For his part, Landerman mourns the corner-cutting that some breweries have resorted to in order to keep up with the sour demand.
"Part of the sour trend, however, is focusing singularly on acidity and speed, not complexity and time. This is a real travesty, in my opinion, and something that points to the major trend in craft beer that has been building steam for the past five years," he said. "With the growth of craft you are seeing lines blurring between big beer tactics and methodology and sticking to the core fundamentals of craft beer, which is actually crafting something, not being crafty."
Specific to sours, Landerman added, rush production eschews the "myriad flavor and aroma compounds created through time."
"The same thing is happening with the majority of fruit beers," he said. "Fruit flavorings and extracts are being used in lieu of real fruit, and you can taste it. Many of these flavorings come in a base of propylene glycol that leaves a slickness in your mouth and has a chemical sort of flavor to it. That's not craft beer, and I really wish the consumer would wise up and say stop."
Still, there are exemplars of the sour style. Landerman recommended De Garde Brewing, out of Tillamook, Ore.; Austin, Texas-based Jester King Brewery; and Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co., in Gilbert, Ariz.
Flynn, at PreFunk, noted the "true sours" coming out craft beer grandaddy New Belgium, of Fort Collins, Colo.; Bend, Ore.-based Crux Fermentation Project; and homegrown Barbarian Brewing, which celebrates its one-year anniversary Saturday, Oct. 15, from 3-10 p.m. with a blowout bash at its facility at 5270 W. Chinden Blvd. in Garden City.
"I feel like every brewery has something tart," Flynn said.
Something else everybody has is a taste for local brews. With more than a dozen breweries in the Treasure Valley, Garside said the "local beer door" at Brewer's Haven is almost always open.
"There are some people who come in looking just for imports, but I think the bulk of people are wanting to try more local stuff because we are kind of booming in the market and they want to see what Boise's doing," she said. "We try get as much locally as we can."
Among the trends Garside has seen regarding tastes in local beers has been a turn toward more easy-drinking styles like lagers and seasonal brews like Oktoberfest ales—a step away from the big, bitter IPAs that have all but dominated the craft scene for years.
"It's definitely very seasonal," she said.
Flynn said he's also seen robust demand for coffee beers—both in IPA and porter styles—and pointed particularly to Newport, Ore.-based Rogue Brewery's cold brew coffee IPA made with Portland, Ore.-based Stumptown Coffee. Radlers, a German-born mixture of lager or pilsner with lemonade, have also remained popular at PreFunk.
"We've had Stiegl radler on since we opened. Now you can see it downtown all the time," he said, adding that Stiegl in the can—and canned craft beers in general—have experienced an increase in demand.
"Odell just started canning this year or earlier this year, and we've been selling more Odell because of that. Rogue is going to start canning next year, and that's going to be huge for them," Flynn said.
Landerman agreed that pilsners and lagers have been on the upswing, along with softer IPAs. Still, despite the many trends influencing craft beer, Landerman said the mission remains the same: always be innovating.
"We just released our wet hop beer for this year, a wet hop Super Saison. We just brewed our 100th batch of City of Trees, and to celebrate we are brewing a bunch of variant batches for an event in our tasting room," he said. "We have our third release of our seasonal beer—Crispy Apple Turnover—coming out at the end of October, made with 300 pounds of apples. We brew a seasonal Berliner Weisse called Set Em Wild, Set Em Free that is fermented with a culture of wild yeast and native bacteria that we have cultured up. Each batch contains a different fruit. The batch out now was made with chioggia and red beets from Fiddlers Green Farm. We'll have another batch coming out in December made with rye and juniper branches and berries that we forage in the mountains."
For Flynn, the ever-changing tastes and styles make it hard to predict where craft beer might go in the coming year.
"I get surprised every day by stuff," he said.