Beer Town: Writers talk trends in American brewing

It’s always a treat to travel to Boston to help judge the final round of the annual Samuel Adams Longshot American Homebrew contest. The winners will be announced soon and will have their beer brewed by the Boston Beer Company and distributed nationally.

Every year, it seems the quality of the homebrew gets better. This year, we tasted an outstanding beer that, the judges agreed, nailed its style category and was as good as any commercial example.

But besides getting a glimpse of the state of the art of homebrewing, Longshot gives me a chance to catch up with other beer writers from around the country who join Boston Beer founder Jim Koch in the tasting room.

The 2013 panel included: Christian DeBenedetti, author of “The Great American Ale Trail” and editor of Weekly Pint; Tony Forder, editor of Ale Street Journal; John Holl, editor of All About Beer; and Marty Nachel, author of “Beer For Dummies.”

After lunch, while we sipped a bit of barrel-aged Samuel Adams Utopias, I turned on the tape recorder and asked what they saw as trends in American craft brewing.

Being writers, the group had as many questions as answers and Holl opened the discussion by asking, “How much longer are we going to be using the term craft beer?”

“It’s become kind of meaningless,” DeBenedetti said.

“It’s like the term microbrew,” Holl agreed.

“Even if it’s meaningless now, the term microbrew served its purpose,” said Nachel. “Right now, we talk about nano brewing. In ten years, will that be meaningless?”

DeBenedetti, who recently moved back to his family’s farm in Oregon to start a farmstead-style brewery, had a particular interest in the topic of brewing on small, local scale.

“The term nano is much more specific to half-barrel or one-barrel systems.” he said. “At one time, the idea of doing actual commercial brewing on a half-barrel nano setup was unheard of. Everyone was starting with 10- or 15-barrel systems.”

“Well, back in the ’80s, there was no equipment for small-scale brewing,” Forder said. “People were using old dairy equipment and stuff like that and cobbling systems together.”

Holl thought that going local, in the way breweries flourished in America before Prohibition, would be the big trend in the next few years.

“I think it’s going to be the local breweries,” he said. “Ones that just serve a particular neighborhood or area.”

But what about the explosion of new breweries? Can there be too many?

“Does anyone ever complain that there are too many wineries in the United States? No, they don’t,” DeBenedetti said. “It’s going to be local, down to the water and the yeast strain, and that’s going to be evident in local beers. I think more and more people want to know where every ingredient comes from.”

Where does that leave the big breweries, I wondered.

“It also goes back to, does size matter, if they still make the same good beer,” Forder said. “It doesn’t seem to matter with Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada.”

“We used to say, ‘Drink no beer made by robots.’ But now there are 20-barrel brewhouses that are totally automated,” DeBenedetti said. “I don’t know if artisan is a better term or not. In wineries you hear distinctions that are about the overall style, maybe. But you don’t hear macro winery vs. micro winery.”

“When we talk about micro brewing and craft brewing, we’re basically making a distinction between the stuff we call full flavor quality beer vs. the big corporate product,” Nachel said. “And is it necessary to have a term to make that distinction or not?”

“I think we just need to start calling it beer at some point, because more and more of the bigger breweries are going to start falling out of the Brewers Association definition of craft breweries,” Holl said.