“The world almost seems flipped on its side — a revolution has happened,” reported Benj Steinman, president of the trade publication Beer Marketer’s Insights, in assessing the state of craft brewing.
Steinman was addressing a crowd at the 2012 Craft Brewers Conference that unfolded May 2-5 amidst the gentle sea breezes and swaying palms of San Diego. Most of the news from the conference was good, often spectacularly so. Craft beer finished 2011 up 13 percent in volume and 15 percent in dollars, according to Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, which organized the event. There were 250 openings and only 37 closings last year, pushing the total number of breweries in the United States to 1,989. That figure has now exceeded 2,000, he added, joking that another two nanobreweries probably went online during his turn at the podium.
Under the circumstances, keynote speaker Steve Hindy, former AP Middle East correspondent and co-founder of the Brooklyn Brewery, could be forgiven a little boasting. “I’m sure you all had someone walk into your brewery and ask, ‘Did you ever imagine it getting this big?’ I answer, ‘Hell, yes!’”
The disturbing news was that, according to Gatza, there are currently 1,119 additional breweries in the planning stage.
There is fear within the industry that there might be a bubble about to burst, that the burgeoning number of new brands could push distribution channels to the breaking point. It scares at least one Mid-Atlantic brewer, who nevertheless was planning an expansion to keep apace with the competition.
But those worries didn’t spoil the party.
The BrewExpo Trade Show was rife with innovations in packaging, including a disposable clear plastic keg; a growler that resembles a milk carton; and a spout-top can with a resealable screw-on cap. The latter is “great for kickball; you can knock it over and not spill any,” said Chad Melis, spokesman for the Colorado-based Oskar Blues brewery.
Oskar Blues was certainly the biggest newsmaker of the conference, announcing that it’s opening an East Coast branch in Brevard, N.C. It will thus become the third western brewer, after Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, to move into the Tarheel State. The new facility, said Melis, will become operational later this year and be capable of churning out 40,000 barrels right from the start. It will include a restaurant and feature live music.
Local beermaker DC Brau made a splash by winning a “Canny” award (second place, best overall design) for its Corruption IPA. This beauty contest for aluminum containers was sponsored by the Ball Corp., worldwide manufacturer of beverage cans, and several other industry suppliers of packaging and machinery.
(Incidentally, there are now 179 craft brewers canning beers, stated Gatza. “A decade ago, there were zero.”)
The conference drew a record 4,500 attendees. Apparently none of the San Diego breweries could accommodate a crowd that size, so the BA held the opening reception at the San Diego Zoo. On subsequent nights, guests could slake their thirst at a gazebo outside the convention site offering 140 draft beers.
Washington D.C., which will host the Craft Brewers Conference next year, has a tough act to follow.
Postscript: Every other year, the CBC hosts the World Beer Cup, an international judging that this year attracted a record 3,921 beers from 54 countries competing for medals in 95 categories. Among the winners, posted during the wee hours of Sunday (it takes a while to read out 284 award recipients), was Vienna Lager from Devils Backbone Brewing Co. in Roseland, Va. The malt-accented amber lager, recently introduced into Northern Virginia, was the gold medalist in the Vienna-style lager niche.
Arlington’s Rock Bottom Brewery snagged a bronze in the coffee beer category for its Coffee Stout. Two other Virginia breweries with a local presence took home a silver: Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton for its Blue Reserve (American-Belgo-style ale) and Sweetwater Tavern in Centreville for its GAR Pale Ale (extra special bitter). Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick also earned a silver in the aged beer slot for its Vintage Horn Dog barley wine.
A complete list of winners is here (PDF).