Last week 9,000 beer industry professionals gathered in Denver for the Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) and BrewExpo America. Attendance reached a new high for the 31st edition of the CBC, organized by the Brewers Association (BA), with 1,100 U.S. breweries represented.
Paul Gatza, director of the BA, advised a happily captive audience Wed., April 9, on the State of the Industry. Following notes on growth and trends, his most urgent concern was quality in craft beer. "Look, many people in this room have spent a lot of time and dedicated a good portion of their lives to building this community that we have today, so seriously, don't fuck it up."
Michael Pollan, author of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, spoke in his keynote address about the importance of beer and brewing in regard to human evolution and civilization. "Brewing is a part of the larger journey of cooking," Pollan said, "it defines us as a species."
Pollan explained that the ability to cook food - and "beer is food, we shouldn't forget that" - was arguably the largest change from great ape to homo sapien. The art of transformation involved fire, water, air and earth, all which are needed to brew. "Beer," Pollan said, "is at the very pinnacle of the human art of transformation."
Pollan also touched on the economy of local and sustainable food. According to Pollan, it's about more than carbon footprints and organic practices. It is about fostering community and establishing connections to farmers. "There is more to be done in reforming agriculture," he said. While grain comprises an enormous amount of domestic farming and agribusiness, it has not been the focus of legislative or cultural change. Pollan continued on agriculture in the beer industry: "The farming is not yet as special as the brewing. But it should be."
Which brings us to the three main things we learned at CBC:
3. Brewers must improve relationships with growers
The BA has a pipeline committee that monitors the supply of raw materials such as glass and aluminum, and provisions of raw ingredients like hops and barley malt. With this information they can anticipate shortages in supply and alert buyers of price increases. In California, brewers are not as closely connected to breeders, farmers and growers, because hops and malting barley are not grown in state.
In a seminar on Economics of Raw Materials, Eric Desmerais, owner of CLS Farms, where he has grown hops for over 20 years, suggested a looming decrease in the hop supply. He said with craft beer production consuming 40% of the acreage of domestic hops, future prices will likely increase. One of the best ways brewers can safeguard against these costs is to establish long-term contracts. This strengthens the relationship between the grower who will benefit from reliable income and the brewer who is ensured product.
2. Beer-to-go continues to grow
Each state has different growler laws regulating who can fill what kind of container with beer to be consumed off-site. In general, these growler laws are becoming more lenient, and consumers are taking advantage of the opportunity to take home fresh beer from a local source. Even the receptacle, typically a 64-oz. brown glass jug, is being made in different shapes, sizes and materials, and has already begun selling at non-brewing retailers.
For those who still prefer bottles, Bart Watson, staff economist for the BA, tracked the progress of cases and bottle packs. "Variety packs really seem to be taking away some share from seasonals," he said, suggesting that craft beer drinkers are evolving from wanting what is new and different, to wanting the right beer for the right occasion.
1. Quality through analysis is attainable at every level of commercial brewing
"If you are starting a brewery," said Mitch Steele, brewmaster at Stone Brewing Co., who accepted the 2014 Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation in Craft Brewing, "please, for God's sakes, hire somebody who knows what they're doing to brew the beer."
The criticism of established brewers may be difficult for new brewers to accept. Brewing companies account for quality themselves, and have to invest in outsourcing laboratory analysis or building their own lab and assembling a sensory panel.
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SHOW ME HOW
One seminar, Sensory Panel: Training, Validating and Motivating, presented by Lindsay Guerdrum, sensory scientist for New Belgium Brewing Co., detailed exactly how a brewery can put together a panel of beer tasters for quality control purposes. Start with a group of friends or regulars who are dedicated to your brew, then begin the training process. Guerdrum said using a panel of human tasters can be more accurate than non-human tests. When properly trained, people pick up on unwanted volatile compounds and can assess whether the brew is consistent to the brand.
The BA publishes guides for brewing and handling beer: The Best Practices Guide is available as a free download or in bulk for a small fee. As popularity of exports grow and the international craft brewing community develops, these educational materials are being translated to other languages, ensuring access for all.