Beer Bloggers Conference Part 2: Better Late Than Never!

I usually do not have a difficult time coming up with ideas for blog posts.  I like to write. I like beer.  It is usually that simple. (Obsessing over proper grammar and over-usage of certain vocabulary stresses me out a great deal, though.)  Despite the incredibly awesome experience that was the 2012 Beer Bloggers Conference, I am having an immensely difficult time condensing my experience into a blog post. What direction should I take?  How can I differentiate my post from the 120 other posts that will inevitably be posted (or have been posted) about this event?  I started off just doing a recap of each of the seminars but it just wasn’t that exciting to me or, I’m sure, interesting to readers.  I’m still not sure if this will be interesting but I have actually exuded energy on this topic thus far (hence the reason I am finally posting something even though the event was two weeks ago) and it would be a shame to just quit now.  So I am going to focus on the five or so instances that I found most inspiring and/or exciting.  This is not, obviously, an exhaustive list as most of the panels and interactions I experienced during the three-day conference fall into this category.  But I had to narrow it down somehow.  Better late than never, right?

Welcome Address by Julia Herz

Julia Herz, a true ambassador for craft beer and the Certified Cicerone who oversees the craftbeer.com division of the Brewers Association, welcomed us to the third annual Beer Bloggers Conference.  She gave us an overview about why she thought we were all here: “we’re like-minded beer lovers.”  She described her craft beer journey and said that it was probably similar to everyone in the room; she tried to further her beer journey by tasting as many beers as possible.  Her goal is to further the conversation with regards to craft beer.

Julia Herz

The most interesting part of her speech was her description of the ‘cultural shift’ towards localization in craft beer.  She drove her point home by showing a picture of the beverage menu of her local Noodles & Company restaurant in Colorado.  The wine list portion boasted wines from around the world; it was clear that the status of a wine depends on where it is from.  There was Argentinean Malbec, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, and a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. This global selection of wines creates a greater carbon footprint due to importing, and the “brand” was absent; none of them mentioned the specific winery, just the global location.  In the beer section of the beverage menu, however, it boasted “Beers from Down the Street,” focusing on localization and promoting the local beer brands that are available for purchase.  This was an extremely interesting distinction regarding the where the differences exist in these two beverage categories.

Keynote Address by Garrett Oliver

It is always a treat to listen to Brooklyn Brewery’s Brewmaster, Garrett Oliver, speak; he is extremely well-spoken and is usually impeccably dressed (today he donned a navy blue blazer with the Brooklyn Brewery ‘B’ logo on the breast pocket). His speech started by saying that we need to bring “reality back to beer.” I had heard him give a similar speech when he was in Chicago to promote the Oxford Companion to Beer but the message resonates no matter how much you hear it. However, the part of the speech that resonated the most with me was Oliver’s suggestion to tell a story with our blogs and dig into the human side about what it really means to brew.

“What dreams did they set aside? What degree do you have that you’re not going to use? What was the path to come do this thing?”  He stressed that rather than give beer reviews and focus on technical jargon that can alienate the general beer drinking public, we should tell the story of how the beer is made and who made it. “We need to have other ways about talking to people. We risk losing engaging the public with technical talk.  Tell the story.”  This, I feel, was some of the best advice I could have gotten at that moment. I tend to focus on the ‘human interest story’ when it comes to beer blogging and this inspired me to go further to properly tell the story.

Spiegelau Glass Session

Mr. Oliver also participated in Day 2 of the conference, but this time assisting the Spiegelau glassware representative.  In this panel, attendees were given a set of Spiegelau glasses and we compared the aroma and flavor of the beers in both a shaker pint and a Spiegelau glass.  The results were astonishing, with much more complexities of both aroma and flavor evident in the Spiegelau.  And Oliver didn’t skimp on the beer, either.  We started with Sorachi Ace, a Saison brewed with Sorachi Ace hops that exuded the aromas of lemon and dill. This beer is exquisite and when I saw a lonely, unopened bottle at the end of the session, I had no qualms about swiping it to take home.  We also sampled Local 2, a Belgian dark strong ale; Brooklyn Wheat; Brooklyn Pale; and the pièce de résistance, Black Ops, a barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout.  Such a fun panel that reiterated the importance of proper glassware when serving beer.

Distributors are not the Devil!

Being a beer geek, I tend to focus more on the beer and breweries rather than the distributor.  And in doing so, I’ve developed a bit of an aversion to this “middle-man.”  In my naïve perception, distributors have reputations of influencing bars and bottle shops to purchase certain brands rather than provide what consumers want.  Needless to say, I had a bit of an awakening during the Beer Bloggers Conference where I had a chance to speak with and listen to the expertise of some wholesalers.  A major lesson that I took home from this conference is that distributors are not as bad as I have previously believed; it fact, it is important to establish good relationships with your local distributors and allow them to help you.  World Class Beers, the craft beer division of Monarch Beverage in Indianapolis, has been a sponsor of the Beer Bloggers Conference for all three years it has been in existence and the managers worked tirelessly to bring the conference to Indy this year. 

The Three-Tiered System

The first panel on Saturday morning was about the three tiered system and included a brewery, a distributor, and a bottle shop worker.  Jordan, the individual who worked at the bottle shop, did not have anything controversial to add; he basically said that he has no issues with either the breweries or the distributors.  There was a bit of a heated debate between Dan Kopman, co-owner of St. Louis, Mo brewery, Schlafly, and Jim Schembre, National Manager for World Class Beer, a distributor and subsidiary of Monarch Beverage, though. Well, maybe that’s exaggerating a tad but there was a bit of tension. 

Dan Kopman, co-owner of Schlafly

 

This tension mostly focused around the statistic that Kopman stated regarding the challenges he sees with the three tiered system.  Specifically, he stated that consumers are paying 18-25% more in retail prices because there is this middle-tier profit center.  He also explained how wholesalers have equity in the craft beer brands that they distribute; they own a stake in the beer in the territory where they sell. And since new breweries have a lot of debt from starting up, and wholesalers have money after many generations of being in business, it is possible that the stake they have in the brewery’s brands is bigger than the equity the brewers/brewery owners have in our breweries. “That, on the face of it, kind of stinks but that’s what we have, that’s the reality of it,” said Kopman. “The licenses the wholesalers have to conduct business are worth tens of millions of dollars. Wholesalers weren’t created to add value to promote beer; they were put in place to add value to the regulators to collect taxes and enforce the rules.”

Of course, Schembre looks at these challenges a little differently. He says that wholesalers get no credit for buying the trucks, building the buildings, and paying people good money to go out and do beer education. “We’re selling an alcoholic beverage product that has restrictions,” said Schembre.  “It is a restrictive product that needs control.”  Schembre understand that distributors often get as bad rap and he encouraged the bloggers to learn the industry and get to know the distributors in their area.  This was an extremely enlightening panel for me as I did not know the history behind the three tiered system and its purpose.  I am going to keep an open mind about the distributors and hopefully talk with some distributors in the Chicago area to gain a better understanding about how this “middle-tier” functions.

Dinner & Tour at World Class Beer

To assist in our new-found appreciation for distributors, World Class Beer hosted us at their facility in Indianapolis.  They provided a buffet dinner and beer (including a keg of Bell’s Black Note!) as well as a tour of their warehouse.  Bob Mack, the social media guru of World Class Beer, was always a fan of beer and he felt that being a distributor would be his foray into the craft beer market.  He is a Certified Cicerone, BJCP judge, and all around nice guy.  Seriously, I really enjoyed getting to know him over the three days that we were in Indy.                

Warehouse at World Class Beers

 

“We don’t perform a very sexy, attractive service,” said Mack with regard to the public’s perception of distributors. “Truthfully, we would like you to think at least somewhat positively about us at times, which I know is difficult, but we want to show you what it is we do.” The tour was informative and I couldn’t get over the sheer size of the warehouse.  They even have robots!  Yes, robots! I am not technically inclined so I am not even going to attempt to try and explain what it is that they do. I know it has something to do with taking the orders from bars and stores, and then creating a pallet of beer specifically for each order.  Something like that…  Just know that it was really cool.

Beer bloggers on the run!

Lunch and Beers at Sun King Brewery

While this was not an official part of the Beer Bloggers Conference, the visit at Sun King Brewery was one of my favorites.  We arrived on Sunday afternoon after the hilarious farewell keynote address by Randy Mosher (if you ever get a chance to hear him talk, do) and were greeted by a couple tables covered with bread, cheese, meats, and other delicacies.  And then there was the tap line!  This has got to be the largest tap line I have ever seen. Unfortunately, it wasn’t completely full but the beers they gave to us were awesome.  I got to try a maibock that was aged in Pappy van Winkle barrels (yum!) and a double IPA.  The brewer even cracked open a couple cans for us including their award winning Popcorn Pilsner.  Now, when I first heard the name of this beer I thought that maybe it was a diacytl problem that they just decided to go with but that’s not the case at all.  They actually popped up a bunch of Indiana-grown corn and added this popcorn to the mash.  Apparently, popped corn has some sugars that can be extracted and eaten by yeast. Did not know this! 

To kind of tie this discussion of Sun King into the previous discussion of distribution, Sun King completely self distributes their beer and, in doing so, have control over the temperature.  According to our tour guide, the beer never reaches room temperature; they own refrigerated trucks and the stores that they distribute to sign a contract to always keep their beer in the cooler. If you are ever in the Indianapolis area, do yourself a favor and stop by Sun King.  The people are awesome, the beer is amazing, and I can’t wait to go back!

The taps at Sun King Brewery

Well, I hope this little recap shed at least a fraction of light on how awesome this conference was.  I didn’t get a chance to write about everything but below are some of the amazing pictures that my hubby took. The entire photo album is available here. Enjoy!

Green Flash Brewery’s @beerbitty with a Pipeworks Poivre Rose at Night of Many Bottles, Beer Bloggers Conference 2012

9 Responses to “Beer Bloggers Conference Part 2: Better Late Than Never!”

  1. Dan "On Tap" (@Newtype2001)

    Great shots in post! I especially love Garrett’s pose with his nose in the glass. Priceless.

    I totally relieved each segment in my mind while reading your coverage. Wish I could have stayed longer. I know there’s a ton of places I did not get to hit up.

    Reply
    • girlslikebeertoo

      Thanks! I know, there are certain things I wished I could have participated in more. Oh, well. There’s always next year! ;) Check out the rest of the photos, there’s a link at the bottom of the post. My hubby’s an awesome photographer. Cheers!

      Reply
  2. Bill Olson

    First, I appreciate you taking the time and effort to better understand the reasons why there are beer distributors and the role they have in the beer industry. I, because of limits on my time, will address only one issue on what distributors do. Independent distributors provide a means for beer to get to market. An independent distributor is in business to make money, but our money is earned by helping, in this case, small craft brewers. An independent distributor will distribute any brand that it can make money on. That is important because brewer-owned distributors, which ABI is trying to be allowed to do, has no incentive to carry other products – it would only cut into ABI’s market share and profits to do so. ABI is attempting to control four distributor licenses whose distribution area would cover over 55% of the state’s population – meaning new product entry would be more difficult. We sometimes overlook that Illinois and the U.S. have the broadest choice of alcohol products in the world. (I was told this and have no reason to believe the statement is wrong.) I know that there are many fine beers being made. We not only sell them to retailers, but we learn about the beer so we can properly promote it and place the beer in retailers that have the right “fit” for each beer. We have supported craft brewers in many ways but the most important was to lobby the legislature to create a Craft Brewer license which would allow those who qualified to self-distribute their beer. This gives new craft brewers the ability to “prove” their product. Let me explain: Any brewer, from the largest to the smallest, needs to do at least three things: 1. Make a good and consistent beer; 2. Create consumer awareness; and 3. Develop a consumer base (following). We can’t assess what beers will attract consumers, but any brewer can prove it with their efforts. There is one other thing that any brewer must provide if it wants to grow, which is an adequate supply. We can help get taps and shelf space, but we will lose the taps and shelves if we can’t keep it stocked. Distribution is, as you pointed out, a capital intensive business – as is brewing it. Distributors invest in trucks, build adequate warehouse space, hire and train sales staff (including becoming certified cicerones) and CDL licensed drivers, develop marketing/sales plans, etc. We worked closely with the small brewers who were going to lose their ability to distribute if legislation wasn’t passed. The legislation was needed because the judge ruled in ABI v Schnorf (Liquor Control Commission) that to treat all brewers the same (remove discrimination), that no brewer could self distribute, meaning the small brewers who had been distributing would lose that ability. Our interest in the suit was that ABI shouldn’t be allowed to distribute or own distributors. That objective was achieved with the judge’s ruling; but we didn’t think it was right for the small brewers to lose the ability to self distribute, so we supported creating a new Craft Brewer license which they would qualify for and allow them to continue to self distribute. This, admittedly, was also self serving because if more craft brewers could get started and prove themselves – we would have more distribution opportunities. Those brewers are now using distributors, even though they can still qualify to self distribute. They want to concentrate on brewing beers, creating seasonal beers, and developing new styles. We help them to be able to do what they want to do.

    Reply
    • girlslikebeertoo

      Wow, thank you for your comment! This is definitely an area I need to learn more about; I admit to being guilty of the “down with the man!” view of distributors in the past. But as I have learned more about beer and brewing over the last year, I am realizing more and more that it isn’t so black and white. Again, thank you for your insightful comment. Cheers!

      Reply
  3. Randy Clemens

    Just wanna take a sec to say what a pleasure it was to get to meet you and the hubby! It was great to get to share some beers and take in the views of downtown Indy on the Saturday morning run (that should’ve started at least an hour later so we could’ve slept in a touch!).

    If and when you find your way to SoCal, be sure to give me a buzz.
    Cheers,
    – Randy -

    Reply
    • girlslikebeertoo

      Hi Randy! It was so great hanging out with you in Chicago and Indianapolis! I admit, I totally didn’t realize you were the guy that wrote the Craft of Stone Brewing with Greg until the Beer Bloggers panel you were on. I can be a little dense sometimes. And now I am really kicking myself that I didn’t bring my copy of the book for you to sign! I will definitely let you know if I am in SoCal; I should be out there with relative frequency since my brother lives in Orange. Chris and I are hoping to do a West Coast beer crawl at the end of September but I don’t know if we are going to make it down that far south; we plan on starting at Firestone Walker and working north. If the plans change, though, I will let you know! And let me know if you are ever in Chicago! Cheers!

      Reply
  4. Aaron

    Excellent write up on the conference! Definitely got some more insight on how distributors effect the entire process. I’m hoping I can make it out to this at some point, it always looks like a good time. Appreciate the time and effort you put in, keep up the great writing.

    Reply
    • girlslikebeertoo

      Thanks for the comment, Aaron! It was a fun time and I hope I am able to attend next year. I think the short list of locations (at least from what I overheard) includes Asheville or Boston, both places I would love to go! Cheers!

      Reply

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