Passion, inspiration, independence and a palpable sense of togetherness sum up the spirit of the Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America, an annual brewing industry event that took place in Nashville, Tennessee in May and attracted over 15,000 attendees intent on learning how to improve brewing quality and performance through concentrated brewing education and idea-sharing.
Presented by the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade body dedicated to small and independent American craft brewers, the 35th edition of Craft Brewers Conference (CBC), offered 79 seminars across 12 different tracks ranging from brewery operations to export to leadership. Running alongside CBC was BrewExpo America, a tradeshow featuring 726 exhibitors showcasing the very latest and best products and services the industry has to offer.
My first mission on arrival at ‘Music City’ was to ‘seek the seal’, the Brewers Association’s symbol for differentiating small and independent brewers from those owned by multinational conglomerates. I didn’t have to look far! Huge 15 metre high banners hung from the Convention Centre both inside and out proclaiming that ‘independence matters’ and I found the seal on everything from bottles and cans to tap handles and brewery doors.
As a first time visitor to CBC the scale of the operation was mind-boggling. With over 200 speakers it was impossible to attend everything but particular highlights included the Brewers Association’s Diversity Ambassador Dr J Nikol Jackson-Beckham’s speech on being inclusive and building diversity within the brewing industry. The packed room let out a collective nod of approval when she urged the brewing industry to grow by appealing to people other than only “white male dudes with beards!”
A collective spirit from America’s small and independent craft brewers as well as a sense of unity was utterly compelling during the Welcome Address to an audience of 6,000 as the Conference started in earnest. The rallying cry of ‘we are stronger together’ was so motivating I wanted to ditch everything I knew and become an independent craft brewer myself!
Aligned to CBC is the bi-annual World Beer Cup, which is widely perceived to be the most prestigious beer competition in the world and often referred to as ‘the Olympics of Beer’. It was started in 1996 and creates greater consumer awareness about different beers styles while promoting international brewing excellence. The staggering figure of 8,234 beers from 2,515 breweries and 66 different countries vied for brewing excellence in 101 style categories that were judged by 295 international experts. There were two Greek entries but, on this occasion, medals eluded them. Winners were announced at a lavish Awards dinner and medal ceremony attended by thousands and the look on winners’ faces when their beer was read out was one of total, unbridled joy.
Beer and food pairing is highly developed in the States and the Awards dinner comprised a three-course feast of expertly paired flavour combinations, the highlight of which was a milk braised pork shoulder with Nashville ‘hot’ Chicharron, blackberry reduction, pebble potatoes and collard greens with Left Hand Nitro Milk Stout. The stout’s silky smooth roasted malt notes imbued with a rich chocolate, coffee flavour was the perfect partner for the succulent, meaty pork and spicy Chicharron.
Staging a conference on this scale is no quick fix. Nashville was identified as a host city four years ago, way before it had become the thriving beer scene we see today. Nancy Johnson, Event Director at the Brewers Association and driving force behind CBC explains how the Brewers Association chooses a host city: “The first priority is size. We need an exhibit hall and meeting space that can fit upto 15,000 people with a room for the general session that can hold at least 5,000 and meeting rooms for 1,000 or 500 people. Also important is the attractiveness of the host city, the ease of flying in/travel arrangements and the available sleeping rooms/housing options. Perhaps most importantly we look at the craft beer scene in a particular city and whether we’ll be able to provide a memorable event for our brewing community. The state liquor licensing laws are a crucial starting point. Every state is different. When we first contracted Nashville there were seven breweries now there are over 20.”
Touring three of these 20 breweries in Nashville on the first day gave delegates a unique chance to get up close and personal with the brewery owners of Fat Bottom Brewing, Blackstone Brewery and Tailgate Brewery. Hearing their history, growth and development was inspirational and tasting their exceptional beers in their taprooms a real treat. The American craft brewing industry is a true entrepreneurial success story. There are over 6,300 small and independent craft breweries now in operation and the number continues to grow every year. With the passion and engagement for brewing evident in Nashville during my trip I can only surmise that American craft brewing is set for further success!
Next year’s Craft Brewers Conference will be in Denver, Colorado, 8-11th April 2019.