Craft beer festivals have been taking over event spaces nationwide, popping up year round to offer the palates of beer connoisseurs new and unique ales and lagers for sampling. An ever-expanding industry, craft beer has been rapidly making its way into beer lovers' hearts and refrigerators over the past few years, replacing six packs of Budweiser with artisanal IPAs.
Come November 10th, 2012, the New York City Craft Beer Festival, Winter Harvest Edition, will take residence on Pier 57 to offer tastings of seasonal brews from nearly 75 breweries. Additionally, experts will be on hand to host seminars on topics such as beer and food pairings, just in time for holiday parties.
"We work to appeal to the serious beer nerd who wants to learn more about American Craft Beer," Robert Howell Jr., one of the planners behind the festival, states. "We stick to our NYC Craft Beer Festival mantra of 'Seasonal, Unique, Limited Release.' Our Holy Grail is if we can get all 3 of those characteristics in each beer."
"Our guests bring notepads and make tasting notes," Howell shares further. "Craft Beer aficionados have very sophisticated palates, and a deep desire to learn more about craft beer."
For a more in-depth understanding of the craft beer industry, I spoke to Jim Pickett, the NYC Craft Beer Festival's beer curator.
Stats show that there has been a 12 percent increase in the sale of craft beer this year. What sparked the revolution?
Only 12 percent? The last several years the industry has seen annual growth of 25-40 percent at times. Even in the face of a nasty recession. This revolution has been brewing (pun intended) for a long time. I believe it all comes down to three things -- 1) a much more sophisticated palate in a broader consumer base, 2) a desire for more "quality over quantity" food and beverage, and 3) a wildly creative, experimental and technical craft brew industry. As consumers, we now have an amazing array of great tasting and well-made beers to choose from on a daily basis. Consumers have recognized and are rewarding craft brewers who deliver this myriad of excellent choices.
Many craft beer aficionados are participants in the smartphone social media application UNTAPPD (myself included), where you "check in" the beer you're drinking, follow friend's selections, and gain suggestions and badges. Does social media have a large impact on the sales of craft beer?
Absolutely. Social media creates an uncensored forum of near immediate feedback on products. It not always un-biased, but there is so much input from so many sources that ultimately it levels out to great information at your fingertips anytime you want it. It is also (usually) very pleasing when you can connect with like-minded individuals. Social media allows people to do this with anyone around the globe. Social media also creates endless debate forums where people can promote and defend their passions and positions. In the past, brand information was dominated or controlled by big companies with big advertising and promotion budgets. Consumers were often misinformed or blinded by the smoke and mirrors or bells and whistles of traditional media. The Internet and social media have leveled the playing field and helped create a greater consumer democracy -- especially for small producers and craft products.
Will the recent New Jersey law Governor Chris Christie signed in favor of microbreweries have a positive effect on craft beer? Will other states follow suit?
Absolutely. Changing or -- better yet -- "modernizing" the laws in support of craft brewing can only help. NY and PA craft industries have exploded and NJ has a very similar consumer base. For the breweries, I think it is more about the direct wholesale sales and quality sampling opportunities than having multiple locations. A good brewery doesn't need multiple locations, just fair and reasonable ways to market and sell their products. Also, tax reduction for the first 1,000 barrels helps encourage new brewery entry because its lowers the early fixed costs.
What is the biggest challenge a craft brewery faces?
You would think that mainstream, watered-down, garbage beer and massive competitive marketing budgets would be the biggest challenges. I don't think that is the case. Most critical challenges are within the craft industry. I think there are two major challenges: 1) creating consistent, quality product with the ability to expand, and 2) establishing consumer awareness, a strong following and profitable volume in a marketplace that is rapidly becoming a hyper-competitive. You won't get past challenge two if you can't manage challenge one. Crap products will fade quickly. And the array of choices is staggering. Established craft breweries now make dozens of beers. Some breweries have brewed well over a hundred different beers. It can be overwhelming to consumers.
How do you see the industry evolving over the next few years?
I think a lot of the off-the-wall experimentation and "pushing the limits' of beer styles will continue, but maybe not as crazy as it has been. There is a movement now towards beers that are a bit lighter in alcohol, still very flavorful and much more "sessionable." This will offer some balance of options to all the Imperial and higher alcohol styles that have been popular in recent years. I also feel the industry is going to cross-pollinate more and more with the burgeoning craft distilling (spirits) industry. It's already happening with barrel-aged beers and the distilling of beer into whiskies and other spirits. Both industries are similar in passion and creativity and are natural fits together or side by side.
Sadly pumpkin beers are only available in the fall and since the NYC Craft Beer Fest is focusing on winter brews, will we still be able to sample pumpkin beers?
Yes. For very selfish interests, if you must know. I love pumpkin beers and think they should be available at least until Thanksgiving -- if not Christmas. They are released way too early in my opinion. Because of that, we will include the best of what is still available in our offerings at NYC Winter Harvest Craft Beer Fest. Our plan is to have the best available fall and holiday / winter beers garnished by a few staples from year-round offerings.
What are the main differences between a winter beer and an autumn or Oktoberfest beer?
Autumn and Oktoberfest style beers tend to focus a bit more on richer malt character in the beers, which can be sweeter, nuttier and roasty-er. Winter beers tend to be a bit stronger and focus more on spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, Allspice, etc. Pumpkin is kind of in the middle of the two, though it leans a bit more towards spice. I really like both styles, but feel that the winter beers give craft brewers the chance to showcase their creativity with unique ingredients that are either local or indigenous to the US.
Hopheads are plentiful these days. Are IPAs the main seller in the craft beer world?
As a style category, yes. But craft beer lovers are an experimental bunch. They often drink beer according to mood, the same way people order and consume food according to preferences of the season or moment. IPAs are clearly a year-round favorite and that is what drives their volume, but there is endless array of styles and quality choices to satisfy any preference at any time.
What are a few of your favorite IPAs?
My craft beer career started in 1993 and Anchor Liberty was always one of my favorites. Brooklyn, Dogfish Head, Captain Lawrence, Southern Tier, Smuttynose, Victory, Stone, Lagunitas, Green Flash, Bear Republic -- to name a few more -- all make IPAs worthy of my hard-earned cash.
There is an insurgence of breweries making their IPAs "extreme" by double imperializing. How did this trend start and do you for see it lasting?
I think hops are a very welcoming flavor and beer can be very enjoyable with more of it. So, I think it started as brewers trying increase the depth of hop flavor profile in the beers and it ended up yielding the higher octane "imperial" versions as a side effect. I think the trend to make more and more of them has somewhat peaked, but people like the style so I think it will stay and just level off a bit with the number of offerings.
What are a few microbreweries hopheads should keep an eye on?
San Diego seems to be the epicenter of hops lately. Previously it was Northern California, but most craft breweries offer at least a couple "hoppy" beers. Stay in the loop at your local beer bars and stores. Those folks get to taste a lot of the new stuff as soon as it becomes available.
What are the five beers everyone must sample at the NYC Craft Beer Fest?
Because of the nature of seasonal beers, we are still nailing down the best of what is available. These beers can come and go quickly and we are working closely with the distributors and breweries to secure the best offerings they have. We will be publishing our secured offerings shortly on our website and updating it regularly as we secure more. Keep your eye on that page and follow us on Twitter and we'll keep people posted. I suggest everyone makes their own Top 5 list, even with a festival that will likely sell out, odds are that no two lists will be the same.
For more information and to purchase tickets to the NYC Craft Beer Festival taking place at Pier 57 on November 10th, 2012, visit: http://nyccraftbeerfest.com
Due to Superstorm Sandy, the NYC Craft Beer Festival will now take place
on December 1st, 2012 at Pier 36. Please consider bringing a donation for the residents of Breezy Point who were affected by Sandy.
New Date: December 1st
New Venue: Basketball City @Pier 36. 299 South Street, in Manhattan, at the intersection of South Street and Montgomery Street (off the FDR Drive) just north of the Manhattan Bridge.
Sandy Relief: For more information on requested donations, please visit: http://nyccraftbeerfest.com/Sandy-Relief