I’m back in good ole RVA, but my head is still spinning—and not just from some of the great beers.
The good vibes were so thick at the Craft Brewers Conference in D.C. that there were as many pats on the back as handshakes.
“Let me just say that you have kicked this thing’s ass,” Kim Jordan, founder and CEO of Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing Co., told the crowd of 3,500 during her keynote address. “We’re the best thing that’s happened to this industry since the repeal of Prohibition.”
The numbers bear out her enthusiasm. Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association (the trade association that represents small and independent American brewers), laid out these figures: Craft brewing grew by double digits in 2012 for the third straight year. Volume growth was 15 percent; dollar growth, 17 percent; dollar share of the total beer market stands at 10.2 percent.
Two more significant numbers—there are 1,254 breweries in planning stages, and the volume of craft beer exports rose 72 percent, a record. (Canadians in particular love our beer.)
Will all this success go to the heads of the craft brewing community? Well, one thing that impressed me in observing this record-setting assemblage of nearly 7,000 brewers, beer lovers and industry reps, is that there is still the sense of community that has distinguished the movement all along. The lovable, huggable energetic eccentricity of the craft beer image, the emphasis on pursuing passion rather than chasing bucks, seems to be surviving.
Jordan seemed to agree. “The overarching premise … is that we are a collective,” she said. “We own a brand together called craft brewing. … We are proprietors of a subculture that is vibrant, vital and quirky—just the way we like it.”
The trajectory of craft beer has not always been so vertical, and the giddiness of current success was tempered with a healthy dose of looking for potential wrinkles.
“It’s when you don’t hear the bats, that’s when the bats are coming,” said Charlie Papazian, president of BA and an iconic figure in the craft brewing movement.
Seminars on “Why You Should NOT Start a Brewery” and “Craft Continues Its Ascent, But a Few Clouds Form on the Horizon” noted the importance of quality, developing good business plans, tending to government issues and having realistic expectations with distributors.
Most of all, the bar has been raised.
“The benchmark used to be good beer. Now it’s great beer,” said Jim Schembre, national manager for the distributor Monarch/World Class Beer.
So be it. The challenge is there, and American brewers have shown themselves capable not only of meeting those kinds of expectations but surpassing them as well. Small breweries in particular—ones that emphasize being part of their communities, using local resources, giving back to their supporters and pushing the envelope of creativity—represent the strongest growth and the most excitement.
“Small is beautiful,” said one panelist.
The conference had an almost Woodstockian feel to it (I can make that analogy because I was there at Yasgur’s farm—it was a lot muddier). That sense was underlined by comments from Peter Bouckaert, brewmaster for New Belgium Brewing Co. In receiving the Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation in Brewing, he talked about how we live in a great place at the right time in history. In the span of a few decades the U.S. has evolved from being a brewing backwater to becoming the most innovative brewing country in the world.
“Never in history has something like this happened,” he said.