What's the next IPA?
As a journalist covering craft brewing for the last decade or more, I've asked that question more than once.
There never was an answer: Sours were too niche. West Coast IPAs were still IPAs. Same goes for the hazy.
But the lack of clarity laid in the fact that there was never no single answer to the question. What's new and different was (and is) the next IPA. It's not one next big thing; it's many next variety-sized things.
Maybe that's how it's always been. Craft brewing has always been about creating an alternative to the monoculture of corporate beer. What's new and different is part of the industry's DNA.
Or you can embrace styles that are so far outside of the box that most people haven't even heard of them. Denver has emerged as an ideal testing ground for new ideas, with a growing and mature craft beer market that's got ever-escalating diversity of product.
Oenobeer, or grape beer, is one such product. In recent history, Cantillon in Belgium, Dogfish Head in Delaware, and several Italian breweries have dabbled with beers brewed with both grapes and grain.
But the concept actually goes back millennia: The Dogfish Head oenobeers were based on recipes created in conjunction with archaeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern. One was based on a 2,700-year-old concoction left in the possible tomb of King Midas in modern-day Turkey, and the other on a 9,000-year-old recipe found on pottery shards in China.
The first brewery in the world to brew exclusively oenobeers, Liberati Osteria & Oenobeers, which opened in Denver's Five Points neighborhood in October 2018. "Our mission is to explore the possibilities of beer made with grapes," says namesake founder Alex Liberati. "Our brewery is different than a normal brewery, because it is half winery."
He's dedicated to the craft, but there isn't a longstanding tradition to adhere to like other brewing niches. "In the world of brewing, there's a book on everything," says Liberati. "You want to brew an IPA? Buy the IPA book by Mitch Steele. . . . Same goes for the world of wine."
But there are red lines between wine and beer from a regulatory standpoint, and in drinkers’ minds, so grape beer is a relative blank slate. "There's not even a pamphlet on crossover between the two. It's uncharted territory to explore."
Liberati says Denver is world to the world's first grape beer brewery for a reason: "It's the people," he says. "The people were very welcoming. That's a big difference from Rome."
The native Roman says high taxes and unemployment and low wages made the concept untenable in Italy, but the idea has gained a fast following in Denver. "People have been receiving it very well," says Liberati. "There are some tastes and aromas that pop in with these that don't really appear in your usual beers or usual wines."
Liberati plans to start bottling and selling direct from the brewery at 2403 Champa St. in April 2019. Like wines, vintages will showcase the terroir of grapes, sourced from California, the Pacific Northwest, and Italy. "It's going to be a different grape next year," he says of annual vintages.
The market has responded to the concept. "I would say I've been pleasantly surprised by how people are approaching this," says Liberati. "People have been receiving it very well, especially brewers."
Both beer drinkers and wine drinkers are finding middle ground with grape beers. "People have been approaching this with their eyes open, without prejudice or preconceptions," says Liberati. "That has been the key. It's 'I like this' more than 'How does this fit in?'"
But he notes that the mature Denver craft beer market has undoubtedly catalyzed the business. "It's such a vibrant beer scene here and that's key. We're not speaking to a market that is used to industrial lager and that's it."
Liberati uses 100 percent brett yeast for some of the oenobeers. "It overpowers the microflora," he says. "You don't have any leathery, barnyard characters out of that."
Many of Liberati's oenobeers present grapes as more of accent: The Lupulus Vinifera IPA, with 20 percent pinot grigio grapes, offers a nuanced character that's unlike any IPA in Denver. But the Verba Volant, with 49 percent Sonoma Malbec grapes, is another animal: a red-forward beer that pushes the envelope into another zip code.
Five miles south at Dos Luces Brewery on South Broadway, Judd Belstock, co-founder and owner, has built a business model on ancient Aztec beers of chicha and pulque. Brewed with blue and purple corn and spices like cinnamon, chicha is sweet and crisp; pulque features blue corn and maguey sap for a sweet and sour character.
A Denver native, Belstock has been in the brewing industry since 2002. "I started my career up the hill working for the big boys at Coors," he says. After a couple of years, Belstock left Golden to go to Harvard Business School, then worked for Miller in Milwaukee for eight years before coming back home to Colorado in 2015. "I wanted to start a brewery in Denver," he says of the move. "Once I moved back here, I decided I was never leaving again."
After a year as Boulder Beer Company's director of sales, he left to start Dos Luces in 2016. The brewery opened on old Antique Row in Denver in summer 2018. "It's a fairly large and diverse population at this point," says Belstock. "There's going to be a large customer base no matter what you do -- that includes craft-heads and the Latino markets."
Plus, the brewing talent pool is notably deep. "Almost all my bartenders work in other breweries as well," he notes. "My assistant brewer works at multiple breweries."
Dos Luces has 10 taps, including several variations of chicha and pulque and two to three guest taps filled by rotating local breweries at any given time.
Pulque has a notably short shelf life. "It's best served fresh," says Belstock. "That sparked the idea of importing ingredients."
Belstock says his first six months in business were "pretty good," but he hopes to attract more new customers in 2019. "Almost everybody who comes through the door really likes it. It's usually the hop-heads who are disappointed and stick to the guest taps. I have no problem with that. That's why we have guest taps."
On the other end of the spectrum, he adds, "There's a good chunk of people who say this is the best thing they've ever tried."
He's looking at pursuing some draft accounts but his high prices and low margins present a hurdle. With maguey (agave) sap from Mexico and purple corn from Peru -- as well as malted blue corn from Colorado and its neighbors -- Dos Luces' raw materials cost about double your typical craft brewery. "Malted blue corn is expensive," says Belstock. "That's the challenge with selling kegs."
So is different and new the new IPA? "I think that's absolutely true," says Belstock. "We're a mission-driven company. Our mission is to change how people think about beer. The number of people who come in and say, 'This isn't beer,' is astounding."
He says the Brewers Association is changing its definitions of beer "to allow for more innovation." And Dos Luces is all about trying new flavors. "I'm doing 2.5-gallon batches of highly experimental stuff. Some of it's good and some of it's not so good."
In the end, beer isn't defined by barley, hops, yeast, and water. It can include corn and other grains, and a wide range of other ingredients. "We are finally moving away from that [mindset] as a community," says Belstock. "Thirty years ago, it was all about making an alternative to the fizzy yellow beer the big producers were making."
He now sees Dos Luces as part of "a revolution against the fact craft beer has become 80 percent IPAs," and laughs, "The most innovative thing in 2017 was the New England-style IPA."
Eric Peterson is editor of CompanyWeek and BreweryWeek. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.