They are holding a Craft Brewer’s Conference in Denver?! How do I get on that invite list?
What started as a simple question turned into five days of beer fueled presentations, conversations, and after parties. I joined 9,000 craft beer professionals from around the world for a conference like no other under the guise of a “Media” corespondent to see what beer people talk about when they are surrounded by other beer people.
The event technically ran from Tuesday to Friday but I had heard of several attendees who had arrived the previous weekend simply because Denver was a great beer town and they wanted to spend more than a four days there. As for me I took a short flight from Kansas City to Denver and arrived Tuesday afternoon.
An ungodly number of embroidered Dickie’s shirts half covered with beards that would make a Spartan jealous had already filled the Colorado Convention Center by the time I had arrived. Today was simply a check-in day with a couple of hospitality suites with free beer to hold over the attendees as they waited for the Welcome Reception bus to whisk them away to Mile High Stadium.
I skipped the bus and caught a ride with my buddy, Carloas, as I was able to score another ticket to the reception for him. We were greeted at the stadium the Denver Broncos play in by a marching band before being led to concourses filled with a whole delicious menagerie of finger foods and Colorado beer. Close to 60 different Colorado breweries were pouring 3 oz samples for conference attendees. The reception alone could rival several big time beer fests.
I had wondered how many of the people I had met during our beer travels would be here. The answer was, a lot. As we walked around the stadium I randomly ran into my friend Trace Caley (Head brewer at Dunedin Brewery), Ginger Johnson (Women Enjoying Beer), Brick and Tucker (23rd St Brewery) and many more. When we eventually ventured down to the field for a photo op, Carlos asked the guy behind us to take our picture. The guy just happened to be Jacob McKean of Modern Times Beer who we had met on our travels when he was in charge of social media for Stone Brewing.
This was a night for reunions when craft beer friends from far flung areas get to hang out and catch up. It was a jolly affair and less business oriented than the remainder of the conference. We sampled roughly 30 from 20 different breweries while gnoshing on chocolate dipped bacon, and Swedish meatballs before retreating for the evening.
Wednesday morning, as I would soon learn to be indicative of every morning during the conference, was a little rough. The thing about a conference for brewers is that there is beer everywhere. You can’t talk about efects of certian hops on beer without drinking…beer with different kinds of hops. From sensory panels on yeasts strains to the expo floor where there were beer stations placed in every row you were trying new beers. Heck, every attendee recived a 19.2 oz tall boy brewed specifically for the event by Oskar Blues that somehow every brewery in Colorado collaborated on.
As would be expected the presentation was full of rah-rah moments from events such as pointing the continuing growth of craft beer as a whole which rose 18% while overall beer was 2% showing that craft is gaining and big beer is losing. Craft beer now makes up 7.8% percent of all beer sold in the US and the Brewer’s Association want to make that number 20% by 2020.
However, the points of concern seemed to carry the most buzz. Primary of which was the issue of quality control in the industry especially among new breweries. After making “quality” the last three bullet points on his list of concerns, BA Director Paul Gatza, told a story of a beer fest he was at where 7-8 out of the 10 new breweries he tried needed improvement even though the brewer’s thought they were doing great. He summed up the BA’s concern perfectly when he closed with “many people in this room have spent a a lot of time and dedicated a good portion of their lives to building this community that we have today…so don’t fuck it up!”
The next few days were a blur of hops and hope. The previously mentioned 9,000 attendees represents a 40% growth from the previous year which seems to be a consistent rate over the last three years. There are obviously a lot of people interested in the craft beer industry right now and this is the perfect place to make the connections needed to get started or push your company to the next level.
The BrewExpo floor was a mad house of heavy machinery, kegs, bottles, and apparel. With 490 different vendors the huge space was bursting with potential and the brewers themselves were like kids in a candy store drooling over 64 head automated bottling lines, centrifugal filters, and kegging systems that making filling and cleaning a breeze. With full-on systems on the show room floor one had to wonder how they actually got a whole bottling line into the this space.
The international presence wasn’t necessarily something I expected but sure enough there was a distributor from the Netherlands asking if I was with Boulevard (my hat) and wanted to talk importing. Casual strolls from seminar to seminar were a lesson in identifying foreign languages. Conversation in French, Brazilian, Belgian, German, Italian and Swedish were all within ear shot but yet utterly incomprehensible to me.
I can’t say that all the seminars were great. After having attended conferences in a variety of industries I have an opinion on the benefits of attending trade conferences and rarely are the speakers the highlight. Primarily I am looking to network with my peers, secondly I am looking to get motivated by inspiring stories and ideas, lastly I am hoping to gain some new technical knowledge. Seminars by nature are hit or miss and rely on both a good topic and a good presenter. Take away either of those and it will be tough to get through. Take away both and I’ll probably have to leave.
The World Beer Cup awards acted as the closing ceremonies on Friday, the final day of the conference. The semi-annual event was a semi-exclusive ticket that I was afforded for my media status and was a pretty good event. Beers from all the entrants were being served while a cast of 1,403 entrants (4,754 beers) from 58 countries waited anxiously knowing only 282 medals were available.
The psychological effects of awards took effect from the initial skepticism to any sort of objective beer judging to the complete elation from a Brazilian brewery who jumping up and down with the vigor of teen age girl at a Justin Beiber concert.
As a beer traveler I was excited every time I heard the name of a brewery I have been to (48 to be exact) announced. None more so than when NoDa Brewing (Charlotte, NC) won Gold in the American Style India Pale Ale category. I had talked to NoDa’s head brewer, Chad Henderson, moments before the awards started and he had expressed concern that they wouldn’t have a chance of winning any medals let alone gold in the category with the most submissions. An hour later he was grinning ear to ear and throwing up a rockers horns with charlie Papazian.
In the end the United States dominated as usual (73%) but the percentage of foreign breweries winning medals had risen and several took home medals in American style categories.
The next day I was set to leave. Even though the event was over I had scheudled a shuttle to pick me up from the convention center. Despite the enormity of CBC 14 there were no signs that event had been there just 12 hours earlier. It had cleared out and been replaced with an auto show. Just like that the party was over and I was ready to get back to the RV and recover.
Well I still had one matter to attend to…the CBC collaboration beer was not going home with me. Airport beer achieved.