2019 – Not Your Father’s Craft Brewers Conference

By April 15, 2019Featured

Having been an active part of the craft beer phenominon since the early 2000’s- when I started running classes at local adult schools on beer history, style and tastings, I guess I’ve seen a lot. I started writing about craft beer in 2004 on my website beerappreciation.com, and over the past 16 years I have had the pleasure of  meeting, interviewing and talking to many brewers about the early formative leaders of the craft beer “tribe”. I have pictures of many of them on my site’s “faces of beer appreciation” pages.

My first CBC was in 2011 in San Francisco – and it was an amazing experience for me, though I was already eight years into my formal craft beer journey. Here were my “rock stars” of western craft beer – in person, accessible, and happy to talk. I saw Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River talking with Fritz Maytag of Anchor Steam (caught the pic below) and later got to chat with Garret Oliver of Brooklyn Brewing who created that seminal beer and food guide “The Brewers Table”.

Vinnie telling Fritz “You da Man”…. which he was till 2011

Got to talk with Sam Calagione (Dogfish), Dick Cantwell (Elysian) and meet Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada). Later by luck I got to tour the Anderson Valley Brewery with Fal Allen and eventually I even got to drive out to some accounts with the mercurial brewer Brian Hunt of Moonlight Brewing.

In contrast with other industry events and conferences I had attended in my business career I was inthralled with the CBC’s air of “tribal unity” and the obvious shared passion for their lifestyle. There was an air universal joy that everyone seemed to share. In 2011 the keynote was from Delaware’s own Sam Caligione who energized the audience with the emphatic “you are my tribe”, and then “screw The Man and big beer”.

Later in the general session was a live interview of Fritz Maytag by Ken Grossman on stage – as Fritz had just sold Anchor Steam and was retiring from the business. Bottles of a collaboration brew “XXX” from Anchor and Sierra Nevada were passed out by hand to the audience of some 2,000 excited craft beer enthusiasts and we all raised a loving toast to Fritz together.

Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada and Fritz Maytag have a chat in 2011

There were about 1800 breweries then, and the CBC housed well under 3,000 attendees. Not only were “the stars of craft” in evidence but everyone was wearing their colors, and people were walking up to total strangers saying “I’ve heard of your brewery, I love your stuff – what do you think of the new interest in hoppier styles?, etc.” It was a very cool family.

This year the 2019 version of the CBC was a different experience.There are now north of 7,400 breweries in the US, with another three thousand in planning. This CBC attracted 14,000+ brewers, brewery staff and industry vendors. Based on my observation, far less than half of the attendees wore brewery garb, and very few of the industry “stars” from the past were evident – though the awesome Kim Jordan of New Belgium, who had preformed the CBC keynote in 2013, won the BA’s treasured “Recognition Award” this year.

I caught up with Kim the night before the at the conference reception and asked her what she thought about the new brewery crowd – and if she was concerned about the volume of new craft breweries.  She said – “There are so many…but it will all work out, if they don’t make good beer, they will be gone in time”.

Tap Rooms Showing 40% Growth in 2019

The opening general session of the conference started out with a video showing the diversity of the industry, the impact that breweries had on the economy and people enjoying craft at all kinds of venues. The music playing behind the video was inexplicably “Won’t Get Fooled Again” from 1972.

The keynote was by presented by Bruce Dickinson – lead singer of Iron Maiden, airline pilot (retired) and brewer. He opened up his presentation by saying “I am of the age where rock stars bits start to fall off….”. He reminded the appreciative audience that for Iron Maiden and craft brewers things are changing – “it’s not 1983 anymore”. (Its a pretty reasonable guess that the average brewer in the audience was born well after 1983). His stories about his life experiences were appreciated by the audience, and his appreciation for beer was real.

Throughout the general session, the commitment to the industry was clear, with speakers focusing on Brewers Association resources available to help new and early brewers with their craft, and the need to work with local and national legislature and regulators to protect and improve the business environment for the craft industry.

Unlike 8 years prior, there weren’t a lot of passionate “rallying cries” from the stage or displays of excitement from the audience. This is clearly a mature industry now, regardless of reminders from speakers that “beer is fun”.  The only notable reaction from the crowd came from an orchestrated cheer of “Boo Ya Beer!” – which got a rousing response. So there is still some fun in the audience this year, but the tone is now clearly business focused over all.

This industry has certainly matured, and broadened out from the small, edgy, counter culture tribe of passionate “beer-pirates” of just 8 years ago into a large, professional competitive business organization with focus on branding, bottom line and efficiency. More than half of today’s 7,400 craft breweries have started in the last 5 years, and those that started before 2014 are showing relatively little growth. In the last three years alone 3,200 breweries have opened. The median age of a brewery is now less than 4 years.

Young and diverse crowd at the CBC in 2019 – But try and find a beer shirt!

Most of the old guard breweries are still around, but those breweries that started more than four years ago grew only .5%. Larger regional breweries in general (larger than micro tap rooms and brew pubs) didn’t grow at all in 2018. The bulk of the growth is in the neighborhood craft tap room business model, these relatively small breweries and pubs are now 40% of the industry. Paul Gatza, SVP of the BA, suggested that the older, larger breweries facing this new wave of competition should consider “reinventing themselves”.

I talked to one of “my generation” at the conference that said “We used to say: ‘we aren’t worried about so many breweries openng up – look how many wineries there are. Now we are past the number of wineries, so now I guess we have to point out how many Starbucks there are out there’”.

Growth is great, right? Today there is a wide range of accessible education for start up breweries to follow, better and easily available brewing technology to employ, and plenty of capital and investors who want to be part of the industry. What was a dream even just 8 years ago is reality, and the resulting democratization of craft brewing has fertilized a industry the is sprouting everywhere in this country. More breweries are making better, more consistent quality beer. More good beer for all – and that’s a truly great thing.

Lots and Lots of New Brewers in 2019

I guess for us “silverbacks” that thought of craft brewing as an exciting lifestyle that was far from mainstream, it’s time to accept the “new normal” and get on with it. The subsuming of the old craft beer “rock stars” and homogenization of the old craft brewing values as the new normal for most people under 30 is an unavoidable result of the democratization and pervasiveness of craft beer.

Yes, the CBC in 2019 was the largest single industry conference in the US. But other than the ubiquitous facial hair, occasional beer logos (and random beer drinking throughout), the CBC appeared to be more like any other business’s industry conference than ever before.

I understand that if you look at the photos of the people depicted on the beerapprecation website in the “faces of beer appreciation” that if you are under 40 years old, you probably won’t recognize any of them. To me they still represent the start of what we see today in this vibrant industry, and without them their wouldn’t a tribe of 14,000 with 10,000 breweries working or in planning.

So lets all give a “Boo Yah” for them too! And there’s nothing wrong with leaving some room for the craft beer dinosaurs who still participate in the industry. But I don’t think you will see many more of them roaming the halls of the CBC, and that’s probably only natural. Maybe next year I will look into a Cannabis Brewing Conference?

The next “counter culture” is Brewing?