On Brewing: Beer buyers talk trends and big hits of the summer

By Eric Peterson | Aug 06, 2018

Brewing & Distilling Food & Beverage

Buyers at Colorado's liquor stores have their fingers on the pulse of the state's craft beer market. CompanyWeek checked in with four local beer buyers who are seeing a hazy summer as consumers increasingly looking for something new.

Amy Smith, manager and beer buyer at Bubbles Liquor World in Castle Rock

"Anything that has the word hazy on it is hot," says Smith. "Anything with the word rosé on it is hot." She says the store recently got a case of Lord Hobo Virtuoso and it was gone in 24 hours. "What does it say on the can? Hazy Double IPA."

Crooked Stave's Sour Rosé is another speedy seller, as is Dry Dock's Sour Apricot Blonde. Sours "are no longer a niche," notes Smith. "They're part of the market."

New Image's beers are also "doing very well," she adds, highlighting the Single by Choice series of single-hopped New England pale ales and Dyad Kombucha Brett Saison.

"The trend in the spring was gose," says Smith. "Now we're seeing -- which we haven't seen in a long time -- is cream ale. There isn't a lot to compete with."

Trends aside, Smith says IPAs remain the 800-pound gorilla of craft beer and account for 60 to 70 percent of the profits from craft beer at Bubbles. "We have an enormous amount of choices in Colorado," she says.

The coolers at Bubbles hammer that point home: There are 46 doors of coolers (including six doors to build your own six-pack, which is the store's single top-selling SKU), and then the "bomber room" with 1,000 different options. "People are so intimidated crossing over the threshold," says Smith. "Once you get in there, it's amazing."

Jared Stoke, operations manager and beer buyer at Pearl Wine Company, Denver

"People are either worried or scrambling to adopt the WeldWerks model," says Stoke, referencing the Greeley brewery's goal to release 100 different beers in 2018. "They send me two new beers every week."

WeldWerks delivers three cases to Pearl Wine Company every Thursday afternoon. "I would sell out in 24 hours. Now I'm selling out in two to three hours. It's actually beneficial for the retailer because I'm guaranteed to sell three cases of WeldWerks every week."

Stoke points to other breweries like Melvin, Odd13, and 4 Noses that similarly keep a focus on what's new. He says it's more about improvisation than planning out a plan for the year in advance. Brewers "are really playing it by ear and letting the market dictate how much they need to brew," he says "It's like a chef with a daily special. I think we're going to see more passion brewers and artist brewers who love what they are doing, rather than those who jumped on it for the money."

Adds Stoke: "It's created a divide between breweries with a foothold in the market and up-and-coming breweries. It has a lot of breweries scared that core beers are dying."

But he's quick to note that reports of core beers’ demise have been exaggerated. "Loyal Fat Tire drinkers are always going to be drinking Fat Tire," he says. "Even if you're drinking what's new, people want a comfort blanket. There's always going to be a home for those core beers."

Stoke sees some style trends as well. "I actually think kölsches are coming back in fashion," he says, highlighting Mike Hess Brewing's Claritas Kölsch, Elevation Beer Company's 8 Second Kölsch, and Prost Brewing's Kölsch. "They used to sit on the shelves for a little while. Now I can't seem to keep them in stock."

Black lagers are also hot. "People want a variety of lighter dark beers," says Stoke. Good River's Gunny, Eddyline's Jolly Roger, and New Belgium's 1554 sell particularly well.

Barrel-aged imports are also taking off, including "outside-of-the box" stouts and porters from Canada, Spain, and Austria.

Tony Doria, assistant beer buyer at Molly's Spirits, Lakeside

The Denver market "is on the cutting edge," says Doria. "What happens in Denver bleeds out to the coasts."

And Molly's showcases local breweries above all. "We have 65 cooler doors. One-fifth of those are dedicated to Colorado breweries."

Hazy IPAs are all the rage at Molly's. "Two years ago, it was a style that didn't exist here," says Doria. "It has exploded in the last couple of years." Molly's now stocks "at least a dozen to two dozen [hazy IPAs] at any given time," he says. It's emerged as "its own subcategory" of IPAs, which account for about a third of all beer sold at the store. Milkshake IPAs with lactose are another emerging subcategory.

Another big trend Doria is seeing is towards "less aggressive, more easy-drinking beers," including lagers and pilsners. (Molly's Director of Marketing Jaylee Adams calls them "dad beers.") "We definitely have seen some breweries release new lagers lately that are very well-crafted and well-balanced," says Doria.

Within that realm, Montucky Cold Snacks from Livingston, Montana, are in a league of their own. "They basically came out of nowhere and are now almost toe to toe with Coors Light and Bud Light," says Doria. "We did 600 six-packs in June." Adams calls it "a huge number for one month."

Collaboration beers are also on the rise. Molly's has taken an innovative approach by collaborating with Colorado's craft breweries on exclusive beers. Most recently, the story has worked with Aspen Brewing and New Image Brewing. (The former collaboration was a take on a California Common called Molly's Sip of Colorado; the latter was a hazy IPA, Better Together.)

Chris Lindbloom, beer guru at Applejack Wine & Spirits, Wheat Ridge

"The main trending beer style is New England/hazy/milkshake IPA," says Lindbloom. "Additionally, we are seeing a large rise in the popularity of radler/shandy beers."

He says New England IPAs from WeldWerks, New Image, and Odd13 are popular at Applejack. The store's top radlers are from Wibby and Great Divide.

IPAs continue to be the workhorse style, he notes. "Due to the expansion of the IPA category with things like Hazy IPAs, more and more drinkers are picking IPAs of one kind or another."

Lindbloom sees a few trends when it comes to packaging as well. "Bottles in general are becoming more uncommon as breweries are making the switch to cans," he says. "Furthermore, bombers (22-ounce bottles) are rapidly disappearing from our market as the beers packaged in this size bottle are transitioning to four-packs and six-packs."

"While a lot of styles may originate from places outside of Colorado, we are at the forefront of the beer scene. Our local brewers are among the best in the world and are constantly pushing the boundaries of what beer can be. Overall, there are not a lot of differences in trends between Colorado and other parts of the country as our local scene is setting a lot of trends that are taking off nationally."

Adds Lindbloom: "No huge news for us here, but we are always expanding our selection and taking measures to ensure that our beer staff are some of the most knowledgeable people in the industry."

Eric Peterson is editor of BreweryWeek and CompanyWeek. Email him at rambleusa@gmail.com.