The most popular beer style purchased by American craft beer consumers used to be pale ale. It is now "seasonal," which is not a style but had to be counted somehow by the people who measure such things.
The most popular package purchased by the same group used to be the six-pack. It is now the "variety pack," which, again, isn't really a form of package. It's the equivalent of checking the category "Other" in any list of preferences.
But when "Other" becomes the leading selection for consumers, it really is illuminating. What we've learned is that craft beer drinkers are infatuated with variety. They love the selections that brewers present for limited times, and they love the choices provided when breweries put a range of styles in one carrier.
We shouldn't be surprised. It's only in the past couple of decades that beer has become one single flavor note year-round—and not a very nuanced note, at that. Instead of all pale lager, all year long, beer throughout history changed with the calendar, with styles appropriate to the weather varying just as the table menu varied with the harvest.
No wonder we're excited to see appropriate but transient beer flavors appearing on the shelves. And who better to cater to these shifting tastes than local breweries, which, being small and nimble, can adjust to local preferences season by season.
Among local breweries, the most popular style this autumn is an Oktoberfest beer, an amber lager that should deliver some rich, malty body.
Carolina Brewery (Chapel Hill and Pittsboro) is showcasing an Oktoberfest, due on taps next week. Carolina Brewing Co. in Holly Springs annually brews an eagerly awaited Oktoberfest. It's available on draft, and in bottles only from the brewery, which makes their weekly tours a great destination.
Already available on draft is the Oktoberfest from Winston-Salem's Foothills Brewing Co. Brewmaster Jamie Bartholomaus says his version is slightly darker than the traditional Oktoberfest beer, but still "within style parameters," which promises plenty of toasty malt flavor. The brewery scaled up production after an enthusiastic reaction last year. In mid-September, the brewery will issue its India Brown Ale. The beer takes its name from India pale ales, which are strong and bitter, and applies that style to a deeper brown brew, producing an American-style brown ale with an extra boost of bitterness and alcohol. Sip it gently.
Durham's Triangle Brewery is bringing back its Belgian-style abbey dubbel ale, a strong, fruity beer brewed in the tradition of the Belgian monastic brewers, due on tap in mid-September. Brewer Rick Tufts reports: "We've been letting it sit for the past month to get that nice raisin-prune flavor. Then, come about Thanksgiving, we'll be releasing our bourbon-aged version of the same beer."
At Lonerider Brewing Co., the seasonal addition to the lineup of banditry is Bootleg Brown. Co-owner Sumit Vohra calls it "a traditional American brown ale, with a little more hop bite." Deadeye Jack, the brewery's mellow porter, will make an October appearance on draft.
In Farmville, Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery, the company that bravely styled itself "the dark beer specialist" in a region not given to embracing dark beers, has gone to the shelves with one of the most enigmatic dark brews: a German schwarzbier. This is a black lager, as opaque as its ale cousin, stout, but disarmingly gentle and rounded in the mouth. It has the vigor of dark malts, but the smoothness of the lager tradition. Brewer Paul Philippon continues to enlighten the public about the unexpected aspects of beer: in this case, the fact that a lager can be something other than pale yellow.
Big Boss Brewing Co. in Raleigh is releasing Harvest Time Ale, its version of a pumpkin ale. It was draft-only last year, but it will also be in 12-ounce bottles this year. It is made with real pumpkin and pumpkin spices. Skeptics should try it, then prepare to stock up for holiday meals; this really is the right beer for the pie. Come November, watch out for Big Boss' dangerously sippable coffee stout.
Boylan Bridge, Raleigh's newest brewpub, is adding an India pale ale this fall. Also in the mix is the neatly named, dry-hopped We Support Public Transportation by Rail Pale Ale. The neighborhood bar keeps five year-round beers on draft, one of which is always served on cask, and rotates the sixth. Over the summer, owner Andrew Leager reports that the brewer had to brew the seasonals more frequently than they'd expected.
All sorts of surprises crop up when the public's favorite selection is "Other."
Julie Johnson is the editor of All About Beer Magazine, based in Durham. Beer Hopping appears the first Wednesday of each month. Reach Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.