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The year in beer: 2021’s top trends

Published: April 2021

Beer industry bouncing back with new brews, inspiring innovation

For the beer industry, the forecast this time last year was dire: By the end of 2020, up to 50 percent of breweries could be closing their doors for good. How could a business model so tied to on-premise sales survive months of shutdowns and COVID-related restrictions?

Thankfully, those predictions did not come to pass. Despite an overwhelmingly difficult year for brewers, 2021 is already on track for growth, thanks to a willingness to adapt, innovate and pivot throughout the pandemic.

The results will not only affect what brews we’ll be drinking this year, but how we’ll be drinking them. Here’s what you can expect in beer in 2021:

Bringing beer to your door

This year, beer will be more accessible than ever, due to changes that began during the pandemic. As taprooms shut their doors last spring, breweries got creative, with curbside and drive-thru pickup as well as home delivery acting as a lifeline for businesses. These sales methods will be crucial as the industry bounces back.

Others adopted new technology, installing POS systems to make online ordering simple and fast. Experts say to expect continued growth in ecommerce – from both independent brewers and national websites –  through 2021.

Engaging customers

During the peak of the pandemic, brewers worked overtime to stay connected with customers, and many of those efforts will live on through 2021. Virtual beer events – from brewmaster-led tastings to full-on virtual beer festivals – brought the taproom experience home, connecting the beer-loving community and educating drinkers on new styles of beer.

On-site, breweries turned to canning for the first time, opening up a new revenue stream, ensuring fresh brews and causing an aluminum shortage in the process. And when on-premise tasting returned in the summer, drinkers discovered revamped taprooms, with welcoming outdoor spaces, QR code menus and spaced-out seating to draw in hesitant visitors.

Discovering new flavors

At the beginning of the pandemic, some industry experts predicted that, locked in our own homes with nothing to do but drink, we’d all be stocking up on inexpensive macro brews. In fact, the opposite has been true, with huge growth in craft, import and super premium beers.

That “treat yourself” mentality has also spurred the return of high-ABV styles – think barleywines, Belgians and imperial IPAs. With these boozy brews, less is more, so it’s easy to indulge in something that feels special.

While the pandemic had some drinkers turning to high-gravity styles, others have been cutting back in a big way, accelerating an explosion of low- and no-alcohol beers. From drinkable “all-day” session styles to truly zero-ABV varieties, these better-for-you beers are a guilt-free, “healthier” way to enjoy a brew or two. Even big-name brewers like Lagunitas, Samuel Adams and Brooklyn Brewery are getting in on the trend, which has also crossed into liquor and seltzers.

As for flavors, expect a mix of tried-and-true favorites and new profiles. The IPA will dominate once again, with the citrusy, easy-drinking hazy IPA soaring in popularity. We’ll also be seeing other riffs on the style – like the smooth and creamy milkshake IPA and heavily fruit-forward smoothie IPA. 

Drinkers will continue to hybrid styles like sours, fruit beers and barrel-aged blends. These distinct flavors are making beer accessible to even the most hop-averse consumer, and even though these styles have been around a few years, you’ll see them going mainstream in 2021.

The beer landscape is wider than ever, and we can expect even more creativity from brewers as the year goes on. There’s no telling what new styles and innovations will be born in 2021, but if the industry’s resilience during the past year is any indication, it will be exciting to watch.

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