Finding Clarity in 2021: Beer Trends & Predictions

Beer Smack by | December 15, 2020
Photo by Todd Alström

The last time I consulted the Magic 8 Ball was in 2017. I asked, “What will 2018 bring to the wonderful world of beer?” The ball replied, “Outlook hazy, try again,” and 2018, 2019, and 2020 were indeed full of New England India Pale Ales and unclear paths. But as I look forward to the year ahead, I’m setting the ball aside as I believe that the beer community will seek and find clarity as it emerges with lessons learned from its most challenging year in recent history.

The Rise of the Craft Beverage Producer

Speaking of clarity, demand for hard seltzer (flavored sparkling alcohol water) isn’t slowing down. According to recent insights from Drizly, we can expect nearly two-thirds of alcohol retailers to make more room for hard seltzer going forward and they expect craft brands within the segment to occupy a solid chunk of the real estate. I’m already seeing the proliferation at grocery stores near me, wherein upward 20 percent of the cooler space is now dedicated to hard seltzer with prime shelf placement and strategic floor stacks versus a handful of slots this time last year. And what are these alcopops knocking off the shelves? Beer, my friends.

And like we witnessed with hazy IPAs, my gut tells me that we can expect more brewers to follow the dollars and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Brewers Association welcomes hard seltzer into its ranks as more brewers shift from being “craft beer brewers” to “craft beverage producers.”

Brewery-to-Consumer Is the New Norm

The stay-at-home (and beer-at-home) economy is here to stay. Beer consumers are now comfortable with contactless ordering online, grabbing beer-to-go, curbside pickups, or having it delivered to their door. Brewers have adapted. Restrictions are loosening. New business models and technologies have emerged to help fulfill new demands. None of this will be going away and we can expect it to become easier for brewers to sell directly to consumers.

“Consumers will continue to desire direct-to-consumer (DTC) shipping from breweries,” predicts Vinnie Cilurzo, Co-Owner and Brewer at Russian River Brewing Company. “I’m not sure about other parts of the country, but here in California, DTC became a life line for dozens of breweries and in the end became a big part and still is helping us get through COVID-19.”

And Trace Smith, CEO at Next Glass, agrees. “Consumers have become used to a relaxed regulatory environment that’s making it easier to get beer delivered to their doors. I don’t think that’s going away and direct-to-consumer platforms like Oznr help brewers break through the noise, connect with their consumers, streamline the process, increase sales, and provide a better overall experience.”

Buying Beer In Bulk

I’m hearing a growing number of consumers express their fatigue with expensive 4-packs of 16oz cans. People are looking for ways to cut costs. Buying habits have changed. Many have shifted their beer purchases from multiple times a week (stores, bars, restaurants, taprooms, releases, etc.) to twice a month (typically when grocery shopping to reduce their exposure). They’re stocking up. Buying beer in bulk. Forming new habits that save time and money. Habits that’ll no doubt linger long after the pandemic.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more 12-packs, and Doug Velinky, CFO at Revolution Brewing Company, makes a great case as to why every craft brewery should at least consider the format.

Back to the Basics

In general, traditional beer styles are far less expensive to produce than say a double dry-hopped New England Double IPA, a heavily-fruited lactose Sour, or an Imperial Stout brewed with Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte ingredients. As finances continue to tighten, I think more brewers and consumers will get back to the basics. Brewers will never stop innovating or releasing beers aimed at those who endlessly seek something new, but personally—and I say this every year—I’m hoping for more lagers. Yeah, I know that time (lagering) is money, but I remain hopeful.

Virtual Connections Will Persist

I recently wrote about how much I miss beer fests and touched upon some of the challenges that everyone involved face. Despite progress being made with vaccines, there are still way too many unknowns and risks, so I don’t think we’ll see in-person beer fests until at least Q3 2021. In the meantime, virtual beer events will continue to thrive, evolve, and bring new social experiences to beer enthusiasts well-beyond the pandemic. Here at BeerAdvocate, we’ve got our sold out Extreme Beer Fest: Cyberspace coming up on Feb. 5 and 6, I’m already mapping out two more virtual beer fests in 2021, and exploring ways to integrate virtual components into our in-person events.

Will Travel for Beer

Even when pandemic restrictions are lifted, many of us will still play it safe until the population is well-vaccinated and the number of cases significantly drops. Some might wait several months or more before hitting a beer fest or taproom, but I predict that many will be traveling and gathering en masse like it’s never been done before. People are mentally exhausted, feeling isolated, and long for in-personal social interactions that are enhanced by beer.

“So much of what makes beer the awesome beverage it is has to do with the journeys and places it takes us,” explained Tomme Arthur, Co-Founder and COO at The Lost Abbey. “Thinking of 2021, I get excited about the prospects of visiting my favorite cities, breweries and old friends. I can’t wait to hug and high five them and toast their resilience. It’s crazy to think how quickly we were deprived of impromptu drinking sessions in random places. So many of us have endured and the fact that beer will continue to bring us all together is amazing.”

Cheers to that, Tomme!

So what do you think 2021 has in store for beer? Leave your predictions in the comments.