These Craft Beer Styles Are Dying. Can They Be Saved?

Will the roggenbier or the English mild ever find a wide appeal again?

June 6, 2024 6:48 am
Dying beer styles
Will we soon be saying "rest in peace" to these styles of beer?
Danica Killelea

No one can accuse the American craft brew world of lacking choice — at least on the surface. With nearly 10,000 craft breweries now operating in the United States, beer lovers can drink a seemingly infinite number of styles and derivations, including mad-scientist concoctions like Crooked Hammock Brewery’s Frankenbooberrry, Hitchhiker Brewing’s Oreo Speedwagon and the Rogue Ale-Xicha Brewing collaboration of tamarind and pineapple blonde ale.

Clearly the American craft industry has no qualms about brewing outside the box. In fact, that may be the superpower that keeps it at the vanguard of the global game. Nevertheless, for all its diversity, the scope is becoming progressively narrow, leaving many beer styles out in the proverbial cold. While it’s easy to find half a dozen IPAs in nearly every taproom or corner store, styles like eisbock, roggenbier, bière de garde, Baltic porter, English mild and many more are almost nowhere to be seen.  

What are these styles and why are they so often left behind? Read on for the answers.

5 Hard-to-Find Beer Styles  

Many beer styles deserve a place on this list — far more than can fit here — but here are five often called out by brewers and beer lovers at Craft Beer Professionals when asked. 

English Mild

Despite the heavy influence of English and Irish styles on the American craft brew industry, English-style brown ales — including English-style mild and dark mild — get relatively little fanfare in the United States. 

Nevertheless, passion for the style by brewers like Josh Rein of Logboat Brewing Company in Columbia, Missouri has brought some examples to the tap, including Mamoot, the bronze medal winner in the English mild and bitter category of the 2024 World Beer Cup. “I fell in love with it,” he recalls. “It was balanced, simple, yet complex.” 

Indeed, that’s one reason he sees less interest in the style among consumers. “U.S. brewers have for years been all about producing bold flavors, and the drinking public has asked for more,” he explains. “Mild ales, with their subtle flavors and nuanced complexity, can be a tougher sell for a brewery. I believe a lot of brewers that offer these styles don’t see wide-spread distribution of it because the majority of drinkers are seeking out IPAs and bold, crisp lager styles.”

Roggenbier 

This dunkelweizen is made with rye rather than wheat, giving it a coppery color and a grainy, spicy flavor akin to pumpernickel. Examples are few and far between in the United States, but one can be found at Reuban’s Brews in Seattle. Adam Robbings, co-founder of the brewery, first made roggenbier as a challenge but ended up loving it so much that it became the first beer he brewed for his commercial brewery.

Robbings continues to brew it, but only once or twice a year and usually at the smallest batch size, owing to low sales. Robbings points to two main reasons so few brewers make roggenbier. On the technical side, the 50% rye grist can create stuck mashes. Next, because name recognition is so low, it’s difficult to market. “Few people know what a roggenbier is. So, it’s not the easy option for someone to pick, when compared to a pilsner or IPA.”

Bière de Garde

Translated as “beer for keeping,” this pale ale from northern France comes in blonde, amber and brown versions, all characterized by a malty sweetness. While still hard to find in the United States, bière de garde pours from taps at breweries like Ponysaurus in Durham, North Carolina, where it’s a top seller. 

Versatility is one of the reasons, explains owner Nick Hawthorne-Johnson. “Bière de garde is an incredibly versatile beer that pairs well with many dishes, making it a great addition to any restaurant menu and beer lineup,” he explains. As for its relative absence in the wider craft brew landscape, he points to the education factor. “Beer education is incredibly important, and beer drinkers often love this style once they are able to try it,” he says.

Eisbock

The strongest of all bock beers, this ice-distilled lager comes across as an intensified doppelbock, reaching ABVs of 10% and above. Its origin lies in a mistake, when an apprentice at the Reichelbrau brewery in Kulmbach, Germany left a barrel of bock outside sometime during the winter of 1890. While the water froze, the alcohol remained, creating a potent brew. 

It’s partly this freeze distillation that makes very few versions available in the United States, as it requires a distillery license, which excludes a lot of breweries. One that has it and makes an eisbock is Kansas City Bier Company, and it turns out 10-12 barrels of eisbock each Easter weekend. Stephen R. Holle, founder and owner of the brewery, points to the challenges of doing any more. “It would be difficult to do because it takes a really long time” — a month of freezing — “and you have to specially set up a tank to be able to get it that cold because you have to run coolant around the tank,” he says.

Baltic Porter

While porters are typically not too challenging to find in the United States, the Baltic version is. What puts the Baltic in it is the use of lager yeast and cold fermentation, creating a beer with the maltiness of a brown porter and crispness of schwarzbier, often with a smokey lilt. The ABV is usually higher, too, than a more typical porter.

Finding examples to sample in the United States may take some digging, but a Baltic porter is put out on occasion at Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, Ohio. Its seven-barrel system allows them to brew styles that may not necessarily have a huge draw but work well in the brewpub, where customers are more open to trying new styles. One challenge against wider appreciation is the perception that dark beers are “heavy,” brewmaster Mark Hunger points out. The lager element is another check. “It is also a lager,” he explains, “which, up until recently, was not hugely popular with many craft brewers, as IPAs have been the dominant style in the market.” 

Why One of Craft Beer’s Favorite Breweries Just Launched a Spirits Line
Trillium Brewing Company now offers more than just beer

To Thrive and Survive

For brewers trying to keep the door open and taps flowing, the primary reason for brewing any style of beer starts with economics. “The ones that don’t get brewed are the ones that don’t sell,” explains Bart Watson, VP of strategy and chief economist at the Brewers Association. “The more interesting question is why they don’t sell.”

There’s no single answer to this question, but several factors keep the styles above from becoming more available.

A primed audience

Just as algorithms drive consumers to related music, movies and products, so too do beer choices often follow a similar path. Established styles prime the audience to take one more step within it. People know and like IPAs, so they were willing to try double IPAs. The same goes for lagers, pilsners and stouts, making people more likely to try another version of it. Beers outside this algorithm face much greater challenges. 

A taste for every taste

Diversification within a popular beer style offers a flavor for nearly every potential tastebud. IPA offers the best example, as there’s an almost infinite variety available now incorporating a wide range of flavor profiles and ABV strengths that connect with different consumer preferences. Rarer beer styles lack this diversification, narrowing the bandwidth of the audience.

Technical reasons

Brewing beer is already a complex technical process, and beer styles that throw in further monkey wrenches can be problematic, especially if the system is already geared to certain styles. There’s also finite tank space and carefully crafted brewing schedules that rarer styles can throw off. Certain ingredients may cause issues in the brewing, raise costs and strain supply chains. Batch size can be another issue, as the minimal amount may exceed sales and distribution potential.  

Not your daddy’s beer

Before the craft beer revolution began in the 1990s, the lager reigned supreme in the United States. This pushed craft brewers to think differently and focus on pale ales, porters and stouts, as they were initially much harder to find. That ultimately helped steer the industry as a whole toward those styles when the cement was still wet. This also makes it more difficult to get customers to pay craft prices for styles of beer with much cheaper mass-market versions available.

The IPA impact

The explosion of IPAs in the market — especially “hazies” — has forced many other styles to the sidelines, if not off the shelf entirely. In fact, some brewers have reported that if they don’t keep a number of hazy IPAs on the taps, visitors won’t bother trying anything else. The marketing realities of this have then forced brewers to make beers they don’t even like and limit diversification. 

Casting a Wider Net

For craft industry thought leaders like Gregory Dunkling, founder and former director of the Business of Craft Beer Program at University of Vermont, the exclusion of less-common styles poses a distinct threat to growing the craft beer market and embracing new demographics. While this may make sense at an individual brewery level, at the macro-level this creates challenges for the overall craft sector.

“Many brewers have focused on making the next great IPA, not on creating beer products that attract new consumers like women, ethnic audiences, even regional audiences,” Dunkling says.

Furthermore, he notes, this comes at a time when new products, such as non-alcoholic spirits and THC seltzers, are nipping at the heels. 

“I’m interested in how basic beer styles such as blondes and pale ales, re-imagined, can pull drinkers from big beer into craft,” he says. “Clearly, breweries competing with one another in a zero-sum game of IPA wars won’t accomplish this.”

MEET US AT YOUR INBOX. FIRST ROUND'S ON US.

Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.