One of the benefits of having nearly 90 breweries in Maine is that you can, at least in theory, satisfy a craving for any beer style without leaving the state. This maturing, critical mass of breweries is also large enough to begin reflecting the trends in style and technique happening nationally. Here are the four major trends I see on the horizon for this year.
1. Let’s get spontaneous
When Allagash installed a little shed behind its brewery, poured freshly brewed beer into an open, stainless-steel “coolship” vessel inside the shed and left it there overnight, with the windows open, some of us thought they were a little weird. But this traditional method allows natural yeast to settle on the sugar-rich wort and brings forth a bouquet of microorganisms, each imparting their own funky flavors. The technique is catching on. Oxbow Brewing Company and, more recently, Rising Tide Brewing have secured similar vessels and are experimenting with their own expressions of funkiness. The result will be a new class of hyper-local and wholly unique beers entering the Maine market, with flavors characteristic of the individual breweries’ airborne terroir. Allagash’s Coolship beers are released periodically and only available locally, so keep your eyes open. My favorite is Allagash Coolship Resurgam, a blend of old and new versions of a spontaneous beer, named after the motto of the City of Portland: “I shall rise again.”
2. Sessions are here to stay
In the early 2000s I spent time at beer bars trying to find lower-alcohol options, scanning menus that were full of 9, 10 and 11% ABV offerings, and lamenting the lack of brews that pack less of a boozy punch. But the trend of session beers – so named because you can have several in a single “session” – is here, partly in reaction to the high-ABV trend that preceded it. On a particularly cold day this winter, I was in the mood for a beer with a warming amount of booze in it, and was alternately pleased and disappointed to find that nearly everything on the menu was under 7%. In 2017, expect that local brewers of many styles (not just hoppy ones) will continue to dial the alcohol content down a little bit (and not just in the summertime). Try Dirigo Brewing Company’s Schöps for an example of a flavorful style (chocolate wheat beer) that is under 6% ABV.
3. Beer & liquor become better friends
The trend of aging beer in vessels formerly occupied by liquors is in full swing. Some Maine brewers are finding it difficult to source enough booze-soaked barrels to satisfy the demand. Yet this is only the most basic way that liquor can play with craft beer. Another trend, cocktails that blend spirits and beer, offers limitless variations.
Since swooning in Colorado over a creative cocktail consisting of gin and IPA, I’ve been on the lookout for local bartenders who’ve realized the potential of pairing the bold flavors and aromatics of beer and spirits. Steve Corman of Vena’s Fizz House, in Portland, has four Maine craft beer cocktails on the menu. Foulmouthed Brewing, in South Portland, also serves several such concoctions. The D.T.F. cocktail at Foulmouthed has whiskey, house-made grenadine syrup, lemon-and-honey syrup, and Dig the Fig, a Belgian-style amber ale they brew with figs and peppercorns.
4. Grown-up seasonals
The idea of seasonality – that you may want to drink something different in the depths of February than you do at the height of July – is not new in the beer world. Some of the first regional craft breweries of the current renaissance, like Magic Hat and Harpoon, were making seasonal beers in the early 1990s, but the concept seemed shallow. Summer? Add some blueberry to a wheat beer. Winter? Add some coriander or nutmeg to a brown ale. Over time, these “easy” seasonals have begun to lose their popularity, and more mature seasonal varieties are being offered. Look for more breweries to get into the rhythm of the seasons in subtle and interesting ways. Bunker Brewing’s Dark Wave is a satisfying seasonal – a well-balanced porter perfect for winter, no spices necessary.