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Skating Away

As I write this, I’m 35,000 feet above the Rockies, on my way back from the 2011 Craft Brewers Conference, held this year in San Francisco. It was really an amazing experience for me, and for our humble start-up in Buffalo.  What follows are just some impressions I wanted to relate to our fans.

First of all, the broad overview. This year saw nearly 4000 attendees- quite a number of people! They ranged, of course, from brewery owners and brewers themselves (not always the same person) to representatives from other aspects of the industry: equipment manufacturers, product suppliers, advertising specialists and others certainly see the merit of attending the conference and especially the associated Beer Expo. For example, also representing Buffalo were a couple of guys from Certo Brothers distributing, and as well I got to spend some time chatting with Tom and Jeff of KegWorks. Of course, the media was also in tha’ hizzy. Despite the many domains of the industry in attendance, it was actually pretty easy to spot the brewers: look for the elaborate beards and sideburns, and you’re probably looking at a brewer! (Rudy… hop to it!)

"the mona lisa?"

Beard? Check! Brewer? Check!

At any professional gathering, libations are going to be available, but as you might expect, the Craft Brewer’s Conference means beer flowed like water.  That’s what you’d call an overwhelming understatement, in fact.  Simply upon registration I was given a four-pack of special, brewed-for-the-symposim beers and a nice tulip glass, but that was just the beginning. Many of the exhibitors at the expo were pouring complimentary beers, the hospitality suites were well-stocked, and even most of the sessions included a sampling. More than the fact of much beer itself, in many cases the beers presented were special in some way. Among the aforementioned Symposium Beers was a unique collaboration between Russian River and Sierra Nevada (A Flemish sour brown) while at another session we were treated to a rare 4-year-old lambic from Cantillion. Perhaps the most impressive feat of the conference was the pouring of what must have been some 3000 glasses of Sierra Nevada’s “Ken & Fritz’s” collaboration beer—a stout—towards the end of their keynote address, which we all raised in a toast to the venerable pair. All kinds of after-parties and other Conference-inspired events throughout the Bay Area’s best known craft beer bars only added to the huge amount of great beer being consumed- it was amazing to behold. Seriously, I’m not going to drink a single beer today; my liver is begging for mercy. Ok, maybe one; but that’s it!!

"The Mona Lisa?"

Smaller than CBW, actually

Yet, the drinking of beer was really beside the point. As with any proper conference, the goals were information-gathering and networking. I did as much of both as I was able to, but burnout was unavoidable. I attended sessions on brewery financing (timely!), yeast management, sour beers (a panel discussion between Yvan De Baets and Jean Van Roy (of Cantillion,) moderated by Vinnie Cilurzo; just amazing). Certainly the most inspiring hour of the entire conference was a session entitled “Micro-startup via the Nano route” given by Matt McClug who started Schooner EXACT on a 1/2-barrel system in a storage space in Portland in 2008.  CBW’s existence proof?  I’d say so, definitely.

As for networking, I did my best but I’m not really the most extroverted guy you’ve ever met- I don’t love going up to people apropos of nothing and I certainly hate to interrupt ongoing conversations. Still, I caught up with some people I knew a little bit before (Dan of Ellicottville and Phin of Southern Tier, for example) and managed to meet the dean of the current crop of nano startups, Mike Hess of Hess Brewing in San Diego. I figure two brushes with fame is not bad overall- I don’t expect I made any impression on either Charlie Papazian or Pete Slosberg, but I was definitely thrilled to shake their hands and thank them both for sparking the passion that is driving me & all the CBWers.

But the thing I most took away from the conference was the total camaraderie of the Craft Beer Industry. I’m coming into it from academics, so I can’t speak for the level of this in other businesses, but I can’t help but think that the CBC is one of the friendlier events in the business world. (Did I mention all the beer? Can’t hurt!) This was very well summed-up by Mr. Slossberg in our short conversation. I thanked him for Pete’s Wicked Red in particular and we talked a bit about the rise and fall of his brand. In parting, I wished him well on his chocolate endeavor, which he informed me he had just sold, so I asked “Are you going back into beer- is that why you’re here?” He replied “Oh, this is like Old Home Week for me; I just came to say hi to a lot of friends at once.” I look forward to seeing it that way myself, one day.

"THE Mona Lisa?"

More valuable today than on Jan 31st, 2011

CBW has a lot of work ahead, but the last 4 days confirmed that we’re all getting into the best industry in the world.  All the work will be so worth it when we can pour it into a glass someday for you, and—who knows?—maybe someday 4000 conference-goers as well.  Cheers!

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