Craft beer world comes to San Francisco

Every year, the center of the craft brewing universe shifts to a different city. Last year it was Chicago and this year, for the first time since 1989, it was San Francisco's turn. Some 3,900 industry professionals, including brewers, distributors, equipment makers and European hop vendors, as well as just about every commercial craft brewer in the  Bay Area, turned out for the Brewers Association's 28th Craft Brewing Conference, leaving the Hilton Hotel in Union Square awash in beer from March 23-26.
In many ways, the CBC is a lot like most trade shows, with session tracks discussing pressing industry issues--”What's Next in Sustainability Practices?” and “What the Hell Is Going On with Wholesalers?”-- along with keynote speeches from industry luminaries. At the CBC, however, these yak fests, no matter how fascinating and informative, were mere interludes to the real business at hand: consuming some of the most excellent beer in the country, if not the world. The numerous breaks in the program were happily filled with beer flowing freely from dozens of different bottles in three separate hospitality rooms. If that wasn't enough, beer frequently made an appearance during the sessions themselves, to prove a point by demonstrating the differences between European and American hops, say, or to show off special brews.
Bay Area brewing legends Ken Grossman and Fritz Maytag set the tone during the opening keynote by sharing their memories of rummaging through defunct breweries for equipment and hocking every cent to follow their dream. After sharing their stories, the American brewing revolutionaries shared their excellent collaboration stout with a few hundred adoring friends and fans, appropriately toasting the craft beer industry they helped to create.Then it was time for lunch and, you guessed it, more beer.
That's not to say that no work or real business gets done. Quite the contrary. These men and women might enjoy a good time, but they're also dead serious about their passion and their business ambition, and the halls fairly hummed with industry conversation lubricated by excellent ales. A lot of trade conferences would benefit from more great beer and cheese and fewer urns of coffee and lemon bars.
Like the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, the Major League All-Star Game and the Grammys and Oscars, everybody who is anybody in the industry makes a point of showing up at the CBC. Every way you turned, you could see a craft beer rock star: food and beer pairing savants like Garrett Oliver, just wrapping up a new book and completing another expansion at Brooklyn Brewing; Jared Rouben of Goose Island, which was just bought by Anheuser Busch/inBev; and beer and food guru Charlie Papazian, who has a new article in Craft Brewing Magazine about the flavor umami. Brewing heroes included TV star Sam Calagione, who also runs Dogfish Head; Greg Koch of Stone; Larry Sidor of Deschutes; Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker; Jason Perkins from Allagash; and Doug Odell of Odell. Not to mention local beer stars like Mark Carpenter of Anchor Brewing, Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing, Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada, Brian Hunt of Moonlight, Arne Johnson of Marin Brewing, Denise Jones of Moylans, Roger Davis of Triple Rock, Sean O'Sullivan and Nico Freccia of 21st Amendment and Ron Lindenbusch of Lagunitas. Perhaps the most popular beer celebrity turned out to be the charmingly Belgian Jean Van Roy, scion of the legendary sour beer institution Cantillon (more on him later).
They all had good reason to celebrate, for these are indeed heady days for American craft beer—maybe the best in our history, including pre-Prohibition. The Brewers Association, which represents the majority of U.S. brewing companies, reported that the volume of beer produced by small and independent craft brewers was up 11% in 2010 and retail sales increased 12% over 2009. That's a growth of more than a million (31 gallon) U.S. Barrels. Craft brewers produced 9,951,956 barrels of beer last year, according to the Brewers Association.
The number of craft breweries also surged by 8% last year compared with the year before, to 1,759 operating breweries. Craft beer continues to make a dent in overall beer consumption as well, representing 4.9% of beer volume and 7.6% of retail dollars of the total U.S. beer category. Craft beer sales brought in $7.6 billion last year compared with $7 billion the year before. Total beer industry sales represented about $101 billion, the Brewers Association reported.
Industrial beer, meanwhile, continued to decline, albeit a little more slowly than in previous years. Total U.S. beer sales were down about 1%, or 2 million barrels last year compared to 2.2% the year before. Production dipped to 203.6 million barrels from 205.7 million barrels in 2009. Imports were up 5% after slipping 9.8% in 2009. Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, also noted a rise in canned beer, saying, “We also found that 3% of craft brewer barrels, by volume, are distributed in cans, confirming a growing trend.”
Reflecting an industry clearly on the rise (attendance at the convention was more than 50% greater than last year and the event was sold out well in advance) growth-themed sessions such as “Craft Evolution in the New Era,” “Microbrewery Startup via the Nanobrewery Route,” “Maintaining Quality During Expansion,” and “Balancing Expansion and Relationship Management: Working with Distributors” dominated the conference program.
Ambitious young  brewers, eager to spread their wings commercially, lapped it up with gusto. Building a business around craft beer requires passion, intelligence and hard work, and the end of the tunnel often looks a long way off. Maytag recalled the stress and anxiety back in 1978 when he expanded Anchor Brewing. "Everything I owned was pledged," he said. "It was nip and tuck." He told his wife, "We could lose everything."
Buoyed by the tales of veteran craft brewing who had themselves weathered years of adversity, young brewers like Jen and John Van Houten of Marin emerged from the event full of energy and more certain than ever that their beer brewing dreams were worth pursuing.

Food and beer
As the craft beer industry matures, it's becoming apparent that food is bound to be a part of the equation. For craft beer to truly become mainstream in America, people will have to start considering beer as an option to wine and spirits in fine dining at least some of the time. Nowhere is this more true than in San Francisco, where chefs can be as adventurous with food as craft brewers are with beer., a site managed by the Brewers Association, celebrates beer and food with pairing suggestions and information.
Although the conference only featured one food and beer session, it was a good one. As Stone Brewing's Greg Koch; Adam Duyle, head chef at San Francisco's Monk's Kettle; and Jared Rouben of Goose Island pointed out, food and beer pairings have come a long way from such sturdy standbys as burgers, pizza and assorted fried pub grub. Beer complements cheese and charcuterie better than wine, for instance, since the broader palate of beer coaxes out some of the subtle characteristics of the flavors. Almost any cheese will go with any beer if the cheese is served at the proper temperature, said Duyle. Rather than specifically match beer with food, Koch urged serving an array of dishes with a variety of beers, and letting the consumers make their own choices about pairings.
But what's next for food and beer? Responding to a question from the audience, Rouben said that he'd “love to do more vegetarian.” Local cicerone Rich Higgins, the head brewer at Social Kitchen in San Francisco, remarked that most of the time how the food is prepared is just as important as the ingredients, if not more so. Higgins said that Social Kitchen holds vegetarian beer dinners where meat is an option. As the session moderator pointed out, “You don't have to pair to the frickin' protein all the time.”
Arguably the most poignant moments at the CBC--and the most heartwarming--took place during a panel session titled "Barrel-Aged Sour Beers from Two Belgians' Perspectives," featuring Yvan de Baets of Brasserie de la Senne; Jean Van Roy, scion of the legendary Cantillon Brewery; and Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing, who along with his wife, Natalie, played a major role in the success of CBC San Francisco. Gratitude flowed both ways across the Atlantic as Vinnie reflected on the warm reception extended by the Van Roy family, which generously shared the secrets of their lambic brewing techniques. Meanwhile, the Belgians graciously thanked Russian River Brewing and the American beer drinking public in general for helping to resuscitate the sour beer style that had long gone out of fashion in their native country. Van Roy also announced that work will soon begin on a Belgian beer museum in Brussels.
Passion never tasted so good.
Craft brewing is broadly considered a new industry, but historically speaking, the mass produced lagers that dominate today's global beer market are the newbies. Industrial beer is a 20th century phenomenon, whereas craft beer is based on traditions from England, Belgium and Germany that are hundreds of years old.
Where exactly our American beer revolution is headed and how it will ultimately fit into the history of beer is hard to say. America's thirst for flavorful beer has so far surpassed expectations and has confounded many supposed experts. We appear to be far from satiated. What we do know is that the industry has gotten where it is today largely because of cooperation and the sort of camaraderie that beer itself engenders. No one, it seems, has become successful without the help of others in the brewing industry.
The Brewers Association deserves a lot of credit for this, for standing behind and promoting craft beer before it became fashionable and by throwing first-class events like the CBC that bring the craft beer community together.

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