It’s getting harder and harder to stand out in the beer world.
With big brewers getting bigger and the number of craft brewers now topping 7,500 (and another 2,000 to 3,000 in the planning stages), it’s no longer enough to make good beer or win a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). You’ve got to have a heaping dose of luck on your side to capture the loyalties of the beer world.
Once earned, though, those loyalties can launch a business into the stratosphere. Local and regional brewers can find their products in demand throughout the country. And their new releases become events.
So who’s on the verge of becoming the next big thing in beer? There’s a certain amount of guesswork with that, of course. Beer lovers can be finicky, and tastes change. But here are a handful of brewers who, based on industry chatter and lines at their GABF booths, are worth keeping an eye on.
Edmund’s Oast began as a restaurant in Charleston, S.C., in 2014, with an impressive beer list and a few in-house brews. It quickly became apparent the locally made stuff was special, and a separate brewery was opened two years ago. And this year, at GABF, the brewer took home its first medal (winning bronze in the Fruited American-style sour ale category for its Sour Blackberry Raspberry).
The beers are currently distributed in South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, New Jersey, and New York City. And while the sour might have won a medal, don’t discount this brewer’s hoppier offerings. Viridi Rex is an acclaimed imperial IPA offering a hop explosion that avoids the sweetness of a hazy IPA, but isn’t overly bitter either.
Orpheus might not have the award hardware of some brewers, but it captured people’s attention at GABF like few others, with an almost embarrassingly rich assortment of highly-sought-after beers. The Dark Everlasting, an imperial stout aged for up to 39 months in whiskey barrels with black coconut (toasted for a long time at low temps to change the flavor profile) and vanilla beans, was especially popular, as was Fragmentation of Silence, a lambic, and Under the Shadows, a wild ale aged in wine barrels for three years, featuring five pounds of blueberries per gallon.
Founded in 2014, Atlanta-based Orpheus made its name in sour beers before expanding its brand to complex stouts and IPAs. It offers four core beers, but it’s better known for its plentiful special and seasonal offerings. Environmentally minded, it’s also one of the few breweries that offers a discount to drinkers who return used plastic can carriers to the taproom.
Over the past several years, this brewer based in Greeley, Colo., has achieved a cult-like status. Distributed mostly in its home state (and very occasionally in others), its beers are highly sought after by traders. WeldWerks built its reputation on rock-solid IPAs (Juicy Bits and its offshoots), but it has built on that with two solid additional legs.
WeldWerks is a master of experimental beers that work—sometimes when they absolutely shouldn’t in theory (e.g., Hot Sauce Barrel-Aged Taco Gose, a sour wheat beer made with taco seasoning and aged in hot sauce barrels). And its stouts are world-class. At GABF, it poured Medianoche Premier, an astonishing blend of nine different barrels, from five different types of spirits.
WeldWerks will make between 7,700 and 8,000 barrels this year and is hoping to make 10,000 next year, but don’t expect the distribution footprint to grow.
“We haven’t been able to satiate the demand here in Colorado yet,” says Neil Fisher, head brewer and owner. “[So] no expansion plans in the works other than our Colorado Springs taproom in the next few months.”
It’s not uncommon for brewers to come up with clever names for their creations. And Cannonball Creek certainly ticks that box with beers including Trump Hands (a session IPA), Netflix and Pils (a pilsner), and Vladimir Brutin (a mosaic-heavy brut IPA). But behind the grin-inducing titles are very solid beers. Trump Hands won a silver award this year—and after a taste, people talked less about the name and more about the quality, before trying one or two of the other creations.
Jonathan Wakefield is something of a legend at GABF. Six years ago, before he had his own brewery, he was serving his creations (a Florida take on a Berliner weisse) in Denver at Crooked Stave’s What the Funk!? festival. In 2015, he opened the doors of J Wakefield (using crowdfunding to raise $55,000), and word has been spreading fast.
DFPF (Dragon Fruit/Passion Fruit) and Miami Madness Berliner weisse are ranked as the two best Berliner weisse beers in the world on RateBeer and BeerAdvocate. And Haterade—a fruity, tangy Berliner—was one of the sensations of the show. You can find the beers in Florida, Massachusetts, and New York, among other states.
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