The impact of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis on the drinks industry has been noted in articles, blog pieces, and research reports. Most that I’ve seen focus on sales dips, winners and losers for the new or enhanced ways to get product to consumer (online ordering, curbside pick-up, etc.), and regulatory challenges for pubs reopening.
Beer history, one of my beats, may seem distant from this new world, but it’s not, in many ways. A familiarity with pre- and post-Prohibition North American brewing contains lessons for the COVID world.
Specifically, I think it likely beer styles will diminish for the foreseeable future.
A 1935 article in the New York Post on a reopened, pre-Prohibition bar (Billy Condon’s) stated:
They used to pour forth new ale, musty ale, old ale, cream ale, stock ale, still ale, porter and stout from huge hogsheads at cellar temperature. They don’t make hogsheads that big any more; they don’t make the ales, and people don’t ask for them.
While some of these types continued to be made, it was negligible compared to the lager wave that dominated brewing after 1933.
Most of that beer was pale and fizzy light lager. In contrast, pre-Prohibition ads vaunted alongside the avatars of that style – Budweiser, Miller High Life, Pabst Blue Ribbon, etc. – dark treacly Munichs, heady blackish Kulmbachers, strong bocks, and eccentric steam beers. A good flow still of malty amber lager was sold, the type that preceded Bohemian in popularity.*
Add to this picture the exotic ales mentioned, as well as a couple of wheat beer (“weiss”) styles, an enviable variety resulted.
It largely disappeared with the winnowing of American breweries after Prohibition. The requirements of modern advertising and distribution as well as new regulations took their toll. Tastes too likely had changed during Prohibition, when bootleg beer could not offer the old subtleties and being wet and fizzy was enough.
After World War II, a narrowing trend continued, in Britain as well. The apex was reached in the 1970s, more so in North America but Britain was not exempt with its standardised keg ales and emerging lager. A reaction set in that put us on the path to now, but COVID-19 will wring changes for sure.
New beer styles and variations depend on the ceaseless movement of people in and around breweries and internationally. When that pauses, as recently it has, such innovation takes second place at best. The future becomes less predictable than the usual competitive pressures entail.
The main forms of I.P.A. will not go away any time soon but I doubt new forms will become popular. And lesser forms like black I.P.A., white I.P.A., Belgian I.P.A, and triple I.P.A. may wither.
Same perhaps for pumpkin ale, Gose, dark lager, brown ale, porter, and other lesser lights – in market terms – of the beer world.
It seems likely craft breweries will streamline their range for efficiency in production and distribution especially under increased cost pressures.
Ironically, more innovation and line extension may come from the big brewers who can support them with mass advertising including social assets.
From the standpoint of reasonable variety, I don’t think any of us need fear very much. A palette of beer styles is in existence to paint a fine tableau for 100 years, even if it halves, or quarters, in size.
If you asked me, I see Pilsener, three or four I.P.A. types, amber ale, a couple of porter and stout styles, and Saison powering the future. Possibly, too, some sour styles.
New hops will continue to emerge because that part is driven by the growers, so that will help keep a smaller range of styles lively.
If full recovery from COVID occurs by mid-fall, perhaps with a miracle vaccine in aid, the old days may return. Right now though this seems unlikely.
*The excellent Samuel Adams Boston Lager, a craft beer success story, was a recreation of that type. Our elucidation of the type appears here.