If there's an organizing principle to beer making in 2019, it may well be that experimentation sells.
Or, at least, piques people's interests.
At the Strange Brew Festival in Reno, Nevada, late last month, ambitious beer drinkers could try tamale lagers and smoked carrot stouts and sweet beers brewed with Jolly Ranchers.
In 2018, the United States had about 7,346 craft brewers, which was up by 93% from 2014 (according to the Brewers Association trade group). Also in 2018, craft beer sales totaled about $27.6 billion or nearly 25% of the total beer market in the U.S.
"People are looking for ways to differentiate themselves and be the next big thing," said Jon Brandt, a beer aficionado who works for Washington-based distributor Madidus Importers. "A lot of it is just about trying to get noticed."
Here in the North Iowa area, brewers toggle between sticking to tradition and trying something new.
Jason Peterson, who runs 5 Alarm Brewing in Lake Mills, is an IPA guy himself but tries to stay realistic about his own menu.
"You still have to have some of your more creative ones," he said. "You have to have a mix."
For Peterson, some of his tinkering will produce blueberry wheat beers or honey kolsch or a sweet milk stout known as the "Breakfast of Champions."
The Lake Mills brewery, which has been open since 2017, has eight or nine core styles that it will offer variants on throughout the calendar year.
"There’s always room for creativity," Peterson said.
Fat Hill Brewing Brewer and co-owner Jake Rajewsky says that his brewery in Mason City never gets too far out there, but he has respect for people willing to throw things against the wall to see if they stick.
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"I know that a lot of people do it a lot of different ways and I think it’s awesome, even if it’s something that I don’t want to drink, if it’s something that gets someone who wasn’t traditionally a beer drinker to try a beer," he said.
Rajewsky, who has been running Fat Hill since 2016, says the brewery will keep its top six menu items on tap at all times and then have rotating, seasonal and experimental beers for the rest.
For Fat Hill, experimentation might mean a hibiscus-flavored saison beer or the Rongorongo New England IPA, which is a smoother, hazier beer that's accelerated in popularity over the past several years, according to VinePair.com, which covers trends across the alcohol industry.
If it were to be something a bit more ambitious than those options, Rajewsky knows that the execution is arguably more important than the vision.
"There’s a lot of technical skill that goes into brewing that people don’t see or think about," he said. "You have to have the basics down before you can start throwing Cosmic brownies into the mash tun."
Peter Ausenhus at Worth County Brewing in Northwood considers himself a traditionalist.
He says that of the eight beers that are on tap there is just one that's a fruit beer. Specifically, it's a passion fruit-flavored beverage. The rest of the menu items stick to the four main ingredients of beer: grains, hops, yeast and water.
Ausenhus has been brewing for about 35 years now and says that he just tends to make what he likes – it's not any kind of animus toward something a little bit kookier.
"If people like strange beers, more power to them," he said. "That’s what makes American brewing great is that there’s a great variety now."
Whether or not that trend is going to fade, Ausenhus isn't 100% certain.
"There will be some trendy new beers that come along and then fade but I think, in general, people are always going to at least like to try the new beers," he said.