A blue raspberry Jolly Rancher sour beer is poured at the Strange Brew Festival in Reno, Nev.
A blue raspberry Jolly Rancher sour beer is poured at the Strange Brew Festival in Reno, Nev. (Haven Daley / AP)

Anyone for steak and onion Kolsch? Or a macaroni and cheese pale ale?

Those were among the flavors at the recent Strange Brew Festival in Reno, Nev., where competition for attention has intensified as craft beers have boomed.

Brewers have always experimented — from the medieval Belgians who stirred sour cherries into their beer to newer varieties like the white IPA, a marriage of Belgian and American styles that was developed about a decade ago.

But today's brewers have kicked it up a notch as they try to distinguish themselves from everyone else trying to distinguish themselves.

Visitors at the festival in Reno could sample a peanut butter and pickle pilsner, a tamale lager and a smoked carrot stout. There were concoctions from big brewers like Sierra Nevada and smaller local brew pubs, sweet beers brewed with Jolly Ranchers and spicy ones that tasted like garlic bread or mango salsa.

The U.S. had 7,346 craft brewers last year, up 93 percent from 2014, according to the Brewers Association, an industry trade group. Craft-beer sales rose 7 percent to $27.6 billion last year, about one-fourth of the total U.S. beer market.

"People are looking for ways to differentiate themselves and be the next big thing," said Jon Brandt, a beer aficionado who works for Washington-based distributor Madidus Importers. "A lot of it is just about trying to get noticed."


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A beer with head-turning labels or ingredients can do just that. Denver-based Wynkoop Brewing Co. lures a lot of customers with its Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout, which is made with roasted barley, seven different grains and grilled buffalo or bull testicles.

"It actually started as an April Fool's joke," said John Sims, Wynkoop's head brewer. "It's pretty popular."

Sometimes, Brandt said, a wacky beer is a way to get people to look at the rest of a brewer's lineup. "I'm making a beer for you to notice me, but I really want to sell you my IPA," he said.

There are purists who decry the trend toward wacky ingredients. "I personally am not a fan of ridiculous brews incorporating materials and gimmicks that have no historical provenance in brewing," said Charlie Bamforth, a distinguished professor emeritus in the food science and technology department of the University of California, Davis.

Others say experiments that stray too far get weeded out quickly.

"It has to be flavorful. It has to taste like beer," said Hal McConnellogue, cellar manager at San Leandro, California-based Drake's Brewing Co. "It's got to make you want another one. If it doesn't, then it's just gimmicky and you're going to be out of the spotlight pretty fast."

Jess Lebow, author of "The Beer Devotional" and "The United States of Craft Beer," says the experimentation is what makes craft beer special. "There are really only so many flavors you can create with water, malt, barley and hops. At the end of the day, if the brewer is having fun trying new things, then I'm probably having fun trying their beer."