Interview: Michael Canton, Craft Beer Specialist in Los Angeles

Los Angeles Beer Specialist, Michael Canton joins us today to discuss the latest beer trends around Southern California and the industry as a whole.

So what do you do and how did you get started?

I am the Los Angeles Beer Specialist with a large west coast distributor, charged with the task of helping grow our expansive craft beer portfolio within bars, restaurants, and liquor stores, with a focus on sales, education, tastings, and draft beer troubleshooting. I came from the Food Service industry where I garnered many years of experience in craft beer, both behind the bar and in front of the customer.

What are some of the new trends in beer across the country?

I look at trends through two different lenses: trends for the average consumer, and trends for the beer geeks/enthusiasts. For the regular customer, IPAs, Wheats, and Lager/Pilsners are still “king”. People want to walk into a bar or restaurant and order a few beers that don’t overwhelm their senses or wallet. Beer geeks don’t necessarily care about the price tag; they care about the beer. For these consumers, the more rare the beer, the more fervently they’ll hunt it down. All big (in flavor, abv, and body) beers that are in limited quantities are the endgame. Like most things, if it’s hard to get, everyone wants one.

Is the craft beer explosion still going strong or is it tapering off?

I hear a lot of talk in some restaurants that the beer explosion is pulling back and people are caring less about craft beer. I don’t think this could be further from the truth. Yes, there are some styles that have slightly fallen out of favor as people search for the next best thing, but as for the beer explosion itself, you are more likely to hear about a new brewery/brewpub opening than to hear about a one closing. Also, some of the current, most famous and up-and-coming breweries are located in states that aren’t traditionally known for their beer, such as Cigar City in Florida, Toppling Goliath in Iowa, and Westbrook in South Carolina. As more and more people starting transitioning from Macro Lager drinkers (Bud, Miller-Coors) to craft drinkers, there will be a bigger demand to keep up with their thirst on the local, regional, and national level. All one has to do is dial in to the needs of their particular customers.

Do you have a favorite craft beer?

I’ve always referred to myself as a “beer nerd” to help distinguish from the loving title of “beer snob”, which many craft drinkers get tagged with. I’m very critical with beer and have a very particular palate, but I try not to judge others on their choices, hence the “nerd” over “snob” designation. During the week and at meals, I want a nice “sessionable” beer, which is something I can drink a few pints of without embarrassing my wife or myself, but also without sacrificing flavor. However, as I mentioned before, rare is still “king”. I could drink world-class Belgian Sours, such as Cantillon, all day long. I’m also a sucker for high-gravity, barrel-aged stouts, such as Cigar City’s Hunahpu and Founders’ KBS. The only downside is the limited availability of these wonderful beers, but if they were common, surely some of their luster would be lost. Absence truly does make the heart grow fonder.

What style of beer do you think is a sleeper that is going to be the next big thing?

I see a return to sessionable beers being the next big thing. People are getting burned out on drinking massive Double IPAs and 14% Imperial barrel-aged stouts, (though they’ll always have a place in my heart), and are searching out beers that still pack a ton of flavor, but aren’t going to floor you after drinking just one. Some styles that were almost lost are making a big comeback, such as Berliner-Weiss and Gose, (both lower abv sours), and we are seeing a lot more XPAs, which combine the nice hop aroma and taste of an IPA with the sessionability of a lighter Pale Ale. I expect to see more and more breweries starting to make beers that follow this trend.

Where do ciders find a place in the market?

Cider is a sneaky little beverage. Many beer drinkers flippantly dismiss cider’s presence, but the truth is that ciders are starting to take a bite out of the beer market. Just think of how quickly Boston Beer Company’s Angry Orchard (which is responsible for 20% of their total output) or Miller-Coors’ Crispin made their way into the market, and immediately showed up on menus alongside the craft beer list. They were just the tip of the iceberg. Craft Cider is a category that we will soon be seeing all over the country, especially with Cideries such as former Goose Island Brewmaster Greg Hall’s Virtue Ciders out of Fennville, Michigan, which is introducing Bourbon Barrel-Aged Ciders and Spanish Sidra de Nava to the masses. We will be talking more and more about ciders in the upcoming years.

Is this something that younger consumers are getting into?

Young consumers are getting heavily into both craft beers and ciders, simply because they are more commonplace than they’ve been in the past. With more and more gastropubs opening and convenience stores carrying local and regional craft, young beer drinkers don’t have to go far to find some great products. Whereas in the past, you had the option to choose from 6- 7 beers total (mostly Macro Lagers), now, you literally have thousands of fermented options. Also, next time you step into a beer bar, look at the staff. While you will still see some gnarled veterans that have seen the rise of beer, you will also see many fresh-faced newcomers eager to tell you what a Trappist Monastery is, or what type of hops their IPAs were dry-hopped with. Craft beer has a certain attitude that attracts young consumers and flavors that appeal to the taste buds of older drinkers.

Can you give me a few examples of beer and food pairings?

Beer is finally being recognized for its ability to pair with almost any dish imaginable. Because of the varied styles of beer, you can pick out elements that will play up some aspect or nuance of a dish. A dry, low-carbonated stout pairs phenomenally with oysters, as it adds a roasted silkiness to the delicate, briny oyster. Robust IPAs pair beautifully with sharp cheddar cheese, for they can cut right through that aged bite of the cheese. And a burger just isn’t the same without a good, malty Amber Ale to play up the richness of the beef and wash it down. Because of the different levels to which barley can be roasted, you have a huge spectrum to play with, from palate cleanser to a smooth, easy-drinking companion.

What is the strangest beer you have ever heard of?

As you can imagine, beer can get pretty “out there”, if for no other reason than to get noticed. The weirdest I’ve ever seen is Brewdog’s The End of History, which was not only known for clocking in with an abv at 50%, but more so because the bottle was showcased within the taxidermied body of a squirrel. Seriously. Google it. Pretty weird stuff. But still, the most bizarre beer I’ve ever heard of comes from our good friends in Iceland, who hooked up with a whaling firm to create a beer made with actual whale. That’s right; Steoji Brewery in Iceland made a beer with whale flesh as one of its ingredients. As you can imagine, every environmental group in existence is a tad bit upset.

What do you love most about what you do?

Simply put, I love beer. I love the history, the taste, the community, and how it makes you feel. Beer is part of our history as humans, and has a direct hand in how the world has been shaped. It is the cornerstone for the economies in many countries, and has the ability to bring friends together or serve as an ice breaker for new friendships. Beer can serve as a compliment to a meal or event, or stand alone as the main star. In some countries, beer has been a part of everyday life for centuries, and in The States, we are starting to understand how that happened. My job is to work with business owners to help identify who makes up their customer base and what type of beers will best-satisfy what they’re looking for, whether they know it or not. I love this industry and I believe that it’s only just beginning to blossom, not only out here on the West coast, but in The States in general. I’m very much looking forward to growing with it.

That concludes our interview.

Thank you Michael for your insight into an industry we all love and enjoy.