13 Apr 2010 @ 10:53 PM 

My original plan, like last year, was to give a full blow-by-blow of the whole conference as I went through it. Sadly, it didn’t happen. Various things conspired against me, not the least of which was the atrocious wireless and cell coverage in the conference center, but it also happened that I just know a lot more people this year and so spent a lot more time actually connecting with people and socializing. It was a refreshing change, even if it meant that I was out late and up early every day. It was a fantastic time. So what follows is my brief wrapup:

The first thing that I want to note is just how many people I’ve run into that are starting up their own breweries, or are trying to figure out how to enter the industry. Surprisingly (to me), I’ve also met more than 1 mother/son team working on a startup which, frankly, I find astonishing. No offense, mom, but there is pretty much no way in hell that I’d want to run a business with you.

Tuesday through Wednesday events, for me, were all about brewery tours and beer. I got the chance to hit Goose Island Clybourne, Revolution, Rock Bottom, Ram, Mickey Finn’s, Emmet’s Pub and Brewery, and the Lucky Monk. And that was all before the Welcome Reception at the Field Museum, which is worth mention because of this:

It’s just not every day that you get to have a beer with a dinosaur. There was table after table of brilliant local beer, local food, and even a local fromagerie. Just to give you an idea of the size of this conference this year, here’s a view of the Welcome Reception from above.

If I understand correctly, we’re looking at something like a 40% attendance jump from last year, and there could have been more if the Sheraton would have had more space. There are approximately 3500 people present.

The actual bulk of the newsworthy items in the conference happened at the Keynote on Wednesday morning. I didn’t take notes, so you’re stuck with gross generalizations, but the gist is this: Beer sales overall took a nosedive, but within that, craft beer gained sales. I took away that the macros are losing market share faster than craft is gaining it.

Where’s it going? I’m not entirely sure. Wine? Spirits? My guess would be spirits – if money is tight, people will buy value, and a $6 bottle of Popov vodka will get you drink quicker than anything else. Now THAT is efficient.

The general goal seems to be to get craft to a 10% market share, though whether that’s by sales (which we currently have about 7% of) or by volume (which were at 4.5%), I don’t know. We heard a lot about the initiative going through Congress right now to reduce taxes for small brewers, which would be a great boon for the industry. We also heard about the formation of the small brewers caucus in Congress – which is currently at 60 members, with a goal to reach 100 members by the end of the year this year, and 200 members by the end of 2011.

The panel that I went to at the end of that day proved to be interesting: Michael Lewis’s panel on Drinkability. Drinkability can be kind of a politically charged word for craft brewers, since we most closely associate it with Bud Light’s ad campaign.

Drinkability, said Lewis, is the quality of a beer in which, when one reaches the end of their glass of beer, they think to themselves, “I could drink another one of those” and then does. I’ve got to say, he’s a really compelling speaker. He had me chuckling, and, for the most part going along with him. He lamented the apparent demise of session beer, calling his perfect beer “a good pint of English wallop.” Where he ended I think really surprised a lot of people, though. The panel kind of wound around Lewis’s dislike for sour or Brett beers, which he called “infected” and landed squarely on his distaste for ‘extreme’ beers before moving onto a call for America’s craft brewers to work on making craft pale lagers, such as he found on his recent trip through Europe and the Baltic states. His opinion seemed to be: If you want to see craft brewers take off, then make pale lagers better than the macros do.

I think he has a point, but I’m not sure it’s the best way to make it. Far from energizing his audience toward his goal, I think he kind of ruffled the feathers of a lot of people there. For my point of view, I think that he’s probably right – at least a little – but is overlooking the fact that the market for these extreme beers actually exists – and it is many of the same people who will go buy a craft lager as well. If there’s anything consistent in the market, it’s that people like variety. Remember that old Craft Drinker survey in 2001? The that showed that people who feel loyal to their favorite brand of beer buy it once per month? Yeah – variety is king. Sure – craft pale lagers are probably a great thing put into the market, but it is the future growth vehicle of craft beer? I’m unconvinced.

That evening there was a brilliant, wonderful, stupendous event at Goose Island’s Fullerton brewery with a plethora of their barrel-aged beers and food from some of Chicago’s best chefs. I could go on and on, but Chris at DRAFT has already done that for me.

I won’t summarize the trade show floor, or ever panel I went to. I will say a couple of things about Vinnie Cilurzo’s panel Toothpicks, Garlic and Chalk: Three Key Ingredients to Any Brewery’s Barrel-Aged Sour Beer Program.

1) If there’s a technical pre-conference seminar about barrel-aged sours in 2011, I am so there.

2) Here’s what the title is about, partly because if you weren’t there you’ll never get it, partly so that I remember: If you have a leak in your barrel – meaning a little hole, not like a cracked stave – you jam a toothpick in the hole and break it off even with the outside of the barrel. Then you rub garlic over the hole/toothpick, and then chalk over the garlic. The garlic and chalk mix to make a little cement-type thing, and – voila – you have patched your hole.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about my own panel on Saturday morning. Storytelling 2.0: Social Media is a Conversation. Mainly, I want to say thanks to everybody who came. It was great to have a packed house, and fantastic to have such good feedback afterward. It was also an absolute pleasure to work alongside Sean Lily Wilson, Dean Browell and, of course, Charlie Papazian. I cannot thank them enough for their terrific insights.

If you made it to the panel, and want more, or have questions, feel free to post here – or hit me on Twitter or Facebook. If you didn’t make it to the panel, and want the 15 minute version from me sometime… well.. let’s get a beer sometime, and I’ll happily ramble at you.

I need to put in a plug for Jay Brooks’s writeup of the World Beer Cup Gala Dinner. It’s fantastic, and has lovely pictures, and info about the menu and everything.

Finally, I gotta say that it was great to actually meet a bunch of people in person, many of which I still only know via their Twitter handle. It’s always nice to turn contacts into real faces. Looking forward to seeing all of you again at another event.

Cheers.

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Categories: Brewers Association, industry
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 13 Apr 2010 @ 10 53 PM

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