Craft Beer: Qualitative Insight into Emerging Trends

From the desk of Natanya Rubin

Every year, on the second weekend in August, 6,000 beer enthusiasts gather in Madison, WI, to partake in the Great Taste of the Midwest Brewing Festival (fondly referred to as GTMW). With close to 200 breweries represented, and over 1,000 beers available to taste, GTMW is one of the premier craft brewing festivals in the country, and for the last ten years, I’ve been lucky enough to attend.

What brings me back year after year? It’s the opportunity to be among others who share my deep passion for this product—both creating and consuming. And every year, I get a peek at the emerging trends in craft brewing, trends that are often mirrored in the greater marketplace.

What notable trends were on tap this year?

  • Gluten free products have earned a place at the table. Following a major food trend, gluten free has made its way into the world of craft alcohol. It has been striking to see the explosion of cider options featured at a fest that has traditionally been strongly beer focused. This year’s fest featured not only many ciders, but also a large selection of meads, a brewery that specializes in kombucha (a lightly alcoholic fermented tea product), and even a Madison-based brewery called ALT Brew offering a selection of five entirely gluten free beers.
  • Unexpected fruit flavors surprise and delight. Might watermelon smoothies be next? This year’s oddball fruit trend was watermelon-flavored beers. It’s a flavor I’d never seen before, but that was featured in no fewer than seven different offerings at this year’s fest, from cucumber watermelon to watermelon wheat.
  • Boutique brands lend authenticity to their corporate parents. At this fest that started as a celebration of home brewing, there were a striking number of breweries that have been purchased in recent years by multinational conglomerates. These well-considered craft breweries have continued to turn out creative beers under the umbrella of much larger corporations, but in an industry that values individuality there is a perceptible tension to the question of which companies continue to belong in the craft category. However, the long lines at the Goose Island booth (purchased in 2011 by Anheuser-Busch InBev) seem to indicate that consumers will, in general, continue to enjoy familiar local brands even after they’ve been acquired by larger entities, echoing movement in the larger market.

The creativity, growth, and surprises to be found at GTMW every year make me confident that I can look forward to many more years of learning, exploring, and of course, tasting! Cheers!