It appears that 2014 will be another great year for beer consumers. With more than 2,500 breweries in operation and another 1,500 in planning, there has never been a better time to be a beer drinker. While brewers continue to push the innovation envelope, here are three things beer drinkers can expect to see in 2014.
Lower alcohol in session
Look for more brewers to balance out their portfolios with more sessionable beer offerings in the year ahead.
Although India Pale Ale (IPA) has dominated the craft beer market in recent years and consumers have adjusted to the higher alcohol volume that comes with this style, this year you can expect the alcohol pendulum to swing back toward lower alcohol-by-volume (ABV) beers, nicknamed "session beers" by many in the industry due to their less-than-5 percent ABV.
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As Dogfish Head Craft Brewery's founder and president Sam Calagione recently wrote on the company's blog: "From the day we opened in 1995, the average beer we've brewed has been 9 percent ABV. We love going big, but we also hear the calls for a more sessionable off-centered ale." To that end, Dogfish will be moving its Namaste, a Belgian-style witbier with an ABV of 4.7 percent, from a seasonal release to a year-round offering. Similarly, New Belgium Brewing is releasing a new year-round offering: Snapshot, a 5 percent ABV unfiltered wheat beer. Michigan-based Founders Brewing scored a huge success in 2013 with the March release of its All Day IPA, which has a 4.7 percent ABV. Although it was introduced as a seasonal product, consumer demand pushed the brewery to make it a year-round offering. Founders expects All Day IPA to account for nearly 40 percent of all sales in 2014.
An increase in IPL offerings
India Pale Ale (IPA) is firmly entrenched as the dominant style of craft beer, and don't look for that to change in 2014. But due to its popularity, brewers are looking to extend some of the IPA characteristics into other styles—namely, the India Pale Lager. The IPL is a hybrid: fermented cold, like a traditional lager, but aggressively hopped to impart a more floral and citrusy profile. Though not yet an official beer style by the Brewers Association, the IPL is gaining in popularity. Boston Beer Company's Samuel Adams brand recently made its Double Agent IPL a year-round release. Several other brewers, including Massachusetts-based Jack's Abby and California's Ballast Point, have also found success with the style. You can expect to see an increase in IPL offerings in the year ahead.
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A beer cocktail boom
Studies have shown a better beer selection can help boost a restaurant's bottom line. But as more restaurants increase their beer selection, it's becoming less of a novelty and more of an expectation for consumers. Look for restaurants to find another way to offer beer drinkers a little something different by putting the beer selection to use in beer cocktails. Whether mixing individual beer styles and flavors or combining beer with alcohol and spirits, beer-inspired drink creations will increase as restaurants seek to further diversify their drinks menu.
—By CNBC's Tom Rotunno. Follow him on Twitter @TomRotunno.