What do you get when you cram 3,400 brewers, wannabe brewers, beer distributors, retailers, associated professionals and a Bavarian hop queen into a downtown Chicago hotel with unlimited refill privileges?
You get one memorable party.
The 2010 Craft Brewers Conference, which unfolded at the end of last week at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, was a sell-out show, a big-ticket blowout attracting brewers from 27 countries. "We've got more and more Europeans coming. We're now the epicenter of beer culture," crowed Ron Barchet of Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown, Pa.
Among them was Kjetil Jikiun, founder of the Norwegian brewery that makes Nogne-O Pale Ale, the most elusive of Beer Madness's final four contenders. Kjetil (pronounced "shettle") is a large, bearded, congenial fellow clad in shorts in spite of the 40-degree weather. An airline pilot when he's not brewing, he says he hasn't visited Washington in three or four years and is unfamiliar with Beer Madness, our bracket of matchups in search of Everyman's favorite brew. But, he insists, his pale ale is available year-round, and "there's more of it if our importer wants it." (The importer, Dan Shelton, suggests you harangue your local beer store or the local distributor, DOPS.) With an annual output of about 2,800 barrels, however, Nogne-O is a smallish microbrewery that can't fill a pipeline the way Guinness or Corona can.
The conference began with a Wednesday evening welcome reception, held at Chicago's Field Museum, where 28 mostly Illinois breweries had set up beer stations among two stuffed elephants, a couple of totem poles and a tyrannosaur skeleton.
Goose Island Beer Co., Chicago's largest brewery, has been marketing its Honkers Ale and IPA in the District since the Obama inauguration. Less well-traveled are Half Acre Beer Co., Revolution Brewing,Metropolitan Brewing and Piece (a brewpub/pizzeria), smaller operations that have set up shop in the Windy City over the last couple of years.
The Colorado-based Brewers Association, which organizes the conference, is feeling its political muscle. Nationwide, 344 congressional districts have at least one brewery, according to Charlie Papazian, the group's president. And for the first time ever, the conference featured a pair of congressmen as keynote speakers.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) is a long-time homebrewer and founding chair of the Congressional Small Brewers Congress. He drew a standing ovation by telling the audience, "You're growing, you're putting people to work. No one here says he's too big to fail, no one here is asking for a handout." Rep. Richard Neal (D-Massachusetts) is sponsor of H.R. 4278, a bill that would halve the excise tax on small brewers (those making under 60,000 barrels a year) from $7 to $3.50 a barrel. "I don't necessarily believe that all tax cuts will generate enough income to pay for themselves," said Neal, "but some tax cuts are better than others."
"Invite your representative to have a beer at your brewery," Papazian told the throng.
Attendees, could choose from several dozen seminars, including:
Building a Production Brewery from the Ground Up.
Regarding the latter: In addition to 1,542 existing breweries across the United States, there are more than 300 in the planning stage, estimates Brewer's Association director Paul Gatza. Most intriguing session title: "Toothpicks, Garlic and Chalk: Three Key Ingredients in Any Brewery's Barrel-Aged Sour Beer Program."
More than 180 exhibitors jammed the BrewExpo trade show. Helping to hawk German hops was Mona Euringer, hop queen of Germany's Hallertau Valley. Dressed in traditional ethnic costume and a silver tiara, Mona, the daughter of a hop grower herself, says this was her first visit to the United States. It's quite a week for her: She was preparing to celebrate her 23rd birthday in a few days.
One level above, CSX Transportation was trying to persuade brewers to ship their beer by rail. "This is a lot more fun than the potato shippers' conference," laughed the woman behind the booth.
Meanwhile, District resident Jonathon Lunardi was promotingBreweryFans.com, his new interactive site that allows beer connoisseurs to locate the nearest bar or retail store stocking their favorite brands.
There seemed to be a beer station around every corner. A key to surviving the four-day conference is not to accept every beer held out to you. But I made an exception for GUBNA, the new canned offering from Oskar Blues in Longmont, Colo. that's also making its debut in the Washington area. This imperial IPA has the earthy, musky perfume of English hops instead of the citrusy blast that characterizes most America beers in this style.
And the name? A companion suggested it was a tribute to Colorado craft beer pioneer John Hickenlooper, who founded Denver's first brewpub (Wynkoop Brewing Co.), sucessfully ran for mayor of Denver and now has his eyes on the Colorado governorship. Marty Jones, a former employee of Oskar Blues and current employee of Wynkoop, doubted there was any connection between the introduction of GUBNA and Hickenlooper's gubernatorial bid, but added, "The timing is interesting."
It was 20 minutes before noon, a little early for the day's first beer, but I shrugged: Everything in moderation. Including moderation.
— Greg Kitsock