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.
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.
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.
“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.
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!
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!