Predictions are sometimes brilliant. More often, they are wildly off-base. But they serve as a good way to gauge what and how people are thinking about the future. In Colorado's craft-beer world, predictions are typically far afield because the industry changes so fast that it's hard to guess what influences will evolve into notable factors and which ones will simply fade away. There is no way I could have known, for instance, that Brut IPAs would become a thing in 2018 or that the Great American Beer Festival wouldn't sell out until the day of the event. And I couldn't possibly have guessed that Caution Brewing and Beryl's Beer Company would close or that the legislature would decide to allow every supermarket and convenience store in the state to sell full-strength beer.
But, hey, I can give it a shot, right? So, here are ten predictions for the Colorado craft-beer scene in 2019. A few are easy to see coming, while others might be totally wrong. But all of them are worth considering.
A Big Bounceback for the Bigger Craft Breweries
Many big and medium sized craft breweries have struggled over the past two years — not just in Colorado, but nationwide. They faced increased competition on store shelves as well as from the sheer number of small breweries popping up everywhere. But the new Colorado law that allows supermarkets and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer is going to help these breweries immensely by allowing them to sell much more of their already best-selling flagship beers and by introducing their brands to entirely new audiences. Avery Brewing and Great Divide Brewing, which have both been hit by flat or declining sales over the past few years, should benefit in particular. The two breweries have also introduced new packaging and strategies that should work out well. But the rest of the state's largest breweries will also benefit. These include New Belgium Brewing, Oskar Blues, Left Hand, Odell, Dry Dock, Upslope, Ska Brewing and Boulder Beer.
Lower-Alcohol Lagers (and Ales)
While it's been widely known — among longtime Colorado residents, at least — that since 1933, consumers could only buy beer that was below 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (or 4 percent by volume) in supermarkets, very few people knew that the opposite was also true: Liquor stores and restaurants were only allowed to sell alcohol that was above 3.2 percent ABW (or 4 percent ABV). It's an incredibly dumb rule — and one that wasn't enforced for decades until supermarkets, craft brewers and liquor stores began waging war in the state legislature in 2010. That all changed on January 1, when the 3.2 designation disappeared. But lower-alcohol beer? That's going to stick around. In fact, it may drop even lower than 3.2 percent. Why? For starters, many people like lower-ABV brews because they don't get you drunk as quickly and they're lower in calories. But there is also a growing low-ABV movement among craft breweries. Part of it is for the same reasons that Bud, Coors and Corona drinkers like the easy-drinking brands. But lower-alcohol craft styles, like tart goses and delicate pilsners, have become much more popular in the past two years (replacing the session ale trend in some ways). So rather than seeing low-ABV beers disappear, we will see them proliferate — especially since liquor stores and restaurants will now be allowed to carry them. Odell, New Belgium and Upslope already brew beers that flirt with 3.2 percent; many others will follow.
Breweries Will Diversify Into Other Alcoholic Beverages
On December 3, Oskar Blues announced that it would introduce a new line of hard seltzers, Wild Basin Boozy Sparkling Water, nationwide in 2019. Just over a week later, the Brewers Association revealed that it was changing its sometimes controversial craft-brewer definition and dropping the requirement that its members only make "traditional" beers. The two bits of news weren't coincidental. The BA's biggest member, Boston Beer Company, the maker of Sam Adams, has been relying on sales of hard iced tea and cider for several years now, and other breweries are beginning to explore that avenue as a way to diversify into hard root beer, hard iced tea and lemonade, hard seltzer, cider, THC beer, kombucha and other non-traditional products. It is a way to stay relevant, they say, as competition increases. Oskar Blues, not surprisingly, is a leader in this movement. Wild Basin will include five flavors (Classic Lime, Cucumber Peach, Lemon Agave Hibiscus and Melon Basil) of 100-calorie, 5 percent ABV seltzers in skinny cans. It's a good guess that other breweries will be following suit.
The ABCs of THC and CBD
Here's the Merriam-Webster Dictionary's definition of beer: "1: an alcoholic beverage usually made from malted cereal grain (such as barley), flavored with hops, and brewed by slow fermentation, and 2: a carbonated nonalcoholic or a fermented slightly alcoholic beverage with flavoring from roots or other plant parts." Well, I guess its fine for Merriam-Webster to have two definitions for beer, but my personal definition ends after the first. I'm probably in the minority, however. This month, former Coors superstar and Blue Moon Brewing founder Keith Villa will begin selling Grainwave, the first beer from his brand-new Ceria Brewing. It's non-alcoholic — but loaded with five grams of THC. But Ceria isn't the first — and it will be far from the last — non-alcoholic pot beer on the market: All of the major brewers ( the makers of Bud, Miller, Coors and Corona, etc.) are also involved in the industry, and will have products on shelves — if they don't already — by year's end. Oddly, cannabis-based beers that DO contain alcohol but no THC and just CBD are having a harder time gaining approval. While the new Farm Bill includes some hemp provisions, the FDA still doesn't like it in food — or beer. So 2019 could continue to see breweries like Dad & Dude's struggling with legal issues as they try to bring these products to market.
Innovation for Fun — and Profit
Innovation and experimentation have always been the hallmarks of the craft-beer industry, and while old-school innovators now wage curmudgeonly battle with new-school innovators, the drive to do something different remains. Creativity and inspiration, however, got a volatile new ally in 2017 and 2018: money. Brewery owners have realized they can increase sales by originating or staying on top of trends — and catering to drinkers who are always seeking the latest thing. The positive effect of that is fascinating or delicious new beers. The negative effect is that a brewery can stray from what it is good at — and what its brewers actually want to make. Brut IPAs, fruited sours, basic lagers and sour rosés gained popularity in 2018, and many were very good. The new year could see an abundance of unusual lagers, fruited goses, low-alcohol beers and who knows what else.
Brewery Taprooms Versus Beer Bars
This one has been brewing for a while. For many years, Colorado's breweries and beer bars existed in a mostly harmonious state. The breweries — most located outside of Denver city limits — would make the beer, serve samples or pints in their taprooms, and then sell kegs to the beer bars in the metro area. But taprooms have begun proliferating at a rapid pace in the past two or three years, and most breweries have realized that they can make more money by selling beer directly to customers rather than in kegs to bars. As a result, some of the beer bars and restaurants are beginning to chafe against what has now become competition from their longtime partners. The breweries, on the other hand, believe they are revolutionizing modern beer-drinking culture and reacting to the desires of their customers. Falling Rock Tap House owner Chris Black has subtly and not-so-subtly pointed this out in light of Oskar Blues, Odell and New Belgium opening taprooms in Denver, not to mention the ever-encroaching spread of the more than eighty breweries within the Denver city limits. The result could be a battle in the state legislature — similar to what happened in New Jersey in 2018 — in which restaurants and bars try to limit the ability of taprooms to expand. Let's hope things don't come to that.
Dissension in the Ranks
There are more than 7,300 breweries in the United States right now. By the end of 2019, there could be more than 8,000. Most of these are shockingly small, meaning they brew fewer than 5,000 or 2,000 or even 1,000 barrels of beer per year. A few are very large, brewing 50,000 or 150,000 or even one million barrels per year. And while they are all independent craft breweries, their goals don't always align. As a result, organizations like the Brewers Association, the national trade group based in Boulder; and the Colorado Brewers Guild, which advocates for craft breweries in Colorado, are having a harder and harder time keeping everyone together. In particular, in has become more difficult to convince small breweries to pay their memberships when it sometimes seems like these organizations are more reactive to the larger members — those who pay mighty big dues, sponsor festivals and offer support in other ways. There has been talk in recent times about the possible birth of smaller organizations and guilds to represent the smaller breweries. So far, not much has come of this talk. But as the number of little beer makers grows, things could change.
Mergers, Acquisitions, Closures and Sales
This isn't exactly a "bold" prediction, but it has to be included anyway. More than two dozen breweries have closed in Colorado over the past two years, and an equal number have been sold. A least half a dozen others, including Oskar Blues, Avery, Renegade and Funkwerks, have sold off a piece of themselves to investors. This year is likely to see that trend pick up speed as competition and changing consumer demands take their toll. Some of these breweries will simply close, while others will sell their leases and equipment or merge with other breweries. Still others will come up with creative strategies that we haven't even thought of yet. Who are likely targets? Well, just about every really small brewery is one late payment away from turning off the lights, but so are the larger ones. I published lists of buyout targets in 2015 and 2017 that list some possible candidates.
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Someone Big Is Going Under — And It Won't Be Pretty
The last twelve months saw the closure of some beloved Colorado breweries, but all of them were small — very small. That won't be the case in 2019, when heavy competition could kill a bigger brewery or two, possibly even a well-known or medium-sized beer maker. All indications are that the industry has reached a bit of a tipping point. Bars and liquor stores no longer have room for every brand, customers are becoming pickier, lenders are tightening their grip, and costs are always going up. The brewery that closes or sells its assets could be an older one or a well-known name. It could be a brewery that opened in the past six or seven years, grew quickly and then ran into any number of problems. Whoever it is, the news will be sad and stunning.
The Return of the West Coast IPA
Liquid Mechanics Brewing tapped a brand-new West Coast IPA on December 21 called Lucid AF — and the brewers there liked it so much that they're toying with the idea of using it in place of their current canned IPA, which is hazy. Fiction Beer Company, which primarily brews hazy New England-style IPAs, followed up with its own tongue-in-cheek reveal: "We decided to brew a historical beer style," it said on Facebook. "Rarely seen in this day and age. Be prepared to experience a beer that reached its height in popularity circa 2010...a classic West Coast IPA." The message here is clear. With so much focus over the past two years on sweet, murky, non-bitter New England-style IPAs, brewers and drinkers are beginning to rebel, and 2019 may see a resurgence of of clear, bitter IPAs that are brewed with some traditional hopping techniques. This rebellion could crystalize on March 23, when the Colorado Brewers Guild debuts a new blind-tasting event called The Big Reveal. The goal is to take brand recognition out of the equation in the form of a blind tasting that will celebrate the best Colorado beers within a specific style category — in this case, American IPAs, which are clear, bitter and more commonly associated with the West Coast style. Get ready for a battle of the coasts in 2019.