"Beer in Colorado" is dedicated to that divine elixir born of the marriage of water, malt, hops, and yeast as interpreted
by those living in Colorado. Follow the author as he visits every brewery in the state, creates experimental homebrews,
attends beer festivals, tries interesting beers from around the world, and spreads the good word of beer. Prost!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Boston Beer Bloggers Conference: Part 5

The Beer Bloggers Conference (BBC) kicked-off in the lobby of the Boston Park Plaza where we checked-in, received our name tags, and accumulated some sponsored schwag.  It was high-quality schwag, too—giant, pressure-holding, vacuum-insulated, Hydro Flask growlers; next to these wonders of engineering, the everyday, brown glass growler seems as outdated as a Model T.  Full disclosure: we swiped two extra growlers to give to our friends back in Colorado.  However, even on the last day of conference there were several unclaimed Hydro Flasks so it’s not like our growler hoarding caused anyone to go home empty-handed.
Hydro Flasks

After check-in, attendees crammed into the lobby’s restaurant-cum-trade-show where we all made our initial greetings and sampled an array of beers, ciders, and cheeses.  There was a lot of ass-to-ass sideswiping at the Trade Show as beer geeks navigated from booth to booth in the cramped quarters of the breakfast nook and, not helping the situation, an enormous table—better suited for a Viking mead hall—took up valuable space right in the middle of the room.  The standout beer of the trade show, in my mind, was Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Ovila Abbey Saison with mandarin oranges and peppercorns.  I personally thought that beer showcased a smoky flavor but I’m alone in this assumption, I’m sure.  I won’t renege on my supposition, though, because everybody’s palate is different and, by God, mine picked up some smoke!

Bumper-to-bumper traffic at the trade show (5 pts if you can spot me in the crowd)
The Brewers Association (BA), based in Boulder, Colorado, was also present at the Trade Show and I became a bit perturbed with them when I saw they brought a butt-load of Colorado beers; Nicole and I are Beer in Colorado, dammit, and we wanted to be the only ones bringing Rocky Mountain suds!  You stole my thunder, BA.  Fortunately for my ego, the BA rep had arrived late and was kept busy with logistics so I slipped behind the table and assumed the role of Colorado beer ambassador, giving the spiel on each beer to anybody that would listen.
Look at all the Colorado beer the BA brought!

After the Trade Show, attendees were herded outside and onto idling coaches and whisked away to arguably the best part of the entire conference: the private tour of Boston Beer Company (many mistake the name of the brewery with the name of their flagship beer, Samuel Adams, much the same way people say “Fat Tire Brewery” when they mean to say “New Belgium Brewing”).   

Before I re-cap the fun times at Boston Beer, I’ll give a quick shout-out to Zack of Raising the Barstool, my new East Coast beer friend.  Zack attends college in Boston meaning he lives close to the conference.  Ergo, he was able to stockpile a whole fridge full of cans, bottles, and growlers that he shared with his fellow attendees.  While everybody else was limited to what fit in a cooler, Zack was overflowing with local brews.  He made sure the few milliseconds of the conference that are usually void of beer (e.g. travelling between host sites) were filled.  Suffice to say, whatever bus Zack was riding was the bus you wanted to ride; while those poor suckers in the other buses endured a dry trip to Boston Beer, the passengers on Zack’s bus enjoyed Fort Point Pale Ale by Trillium Brewing Company and Saison Renaud Ale 16° by Mystic Brewery
Bus beer courtesy of Zack

Opinions abound regarding Boston Beer.  Some claim Boston Beer as the godfather of craft beer and, objectively, yes, they were among the original wave of American craft brewers.  Others, however, defame them for growing “too big for their britches,” going as far as to say they’ve outgrown the “craft beer” designation.  My take: size has nothing to do with quality of beer, it’s all about what goes in the brew kettle.  It may leave a weird taste in one’s mouth, seeing a craft brewery with national TV ads (that’s macrobrew territory) but that’s just faulting Boston Beer for being successful, a pretty silly thing to do for any so-called craft beer advocate.  I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the ubiquitous Samuel Adams Boston Lager but Boston Beer is responsible for many experimental, complex, and specialty ales, too, so don’t judge a brewery by its flagship (to make another New Belgium parallel, like Boston Lager, Fat Tire doesn't whip über beer geeks into a frenzy--but the Lips of Faith series does).  In sum, I’m a supporter of Boston Beer because they’ve paved the way for the craft beer revolution.  When in Colorado, though, I scarcely ever order anything from Boston Beer as I’m a “Drink Local” proponent—always drink beer close to its place of origin.

While a beer juggernaut, the original Boston Beer brewhouse is somewhat modest (compared to preconceived notions of the business, anyway), set in a brick-laden factory straight out of the soot of a Charles Dickens novel.  It seems the model building to embody the spirit of the Industrial Revolution.  We filed in and claimed one of the folding chairs that were set-up on the brewing floor, each beckoning conference attendees with a bartender’s key bottle opener and one of the newly-designed cans of Boston Lager laid out upon the seat. 

As per BBC tradition, Julia Herz of the BA gave the opening speech and, if you’re as embedded in the craft community as Nicole and I, told a familiar story but a story you nonetheless like hearing because of its upbeat nature: craft beer is growing, craft beer is more popular than ever, craft beer is nowhere near the saturation point…etc. 

Then it was time for our keynote speaker: The Man in Denim, Mr. Sam Adams himself, the founder of Boston Beer and the most famous face in craft beer, Jim Koch!  I harken back to an earlier paragraph when I propose that, no matter your thoughts on Boston Beer, it’s a rare and privileged honor to hear Mr. Koch speak live; the same people that blast Sam Adams on Twitter would kiss the ring on the hand that brewed it.  He truly is the poster child of great American beer.

Koch speaks to the crowd
Koch spoke on the history of Boston Beer, telling the story of how his brewery helped revive a neighborhood in a downward spiral.  Wynkoop Brewing Company is Colorado’s version of that story i.e. the story of beer rejuvenating a bad part of town.  Whereas Wynkoop’s hurdle was overcoming the local population of hookers, drug dealers, and muggers, Boston Beer had to contend with a sociopath who’d eviscerate stray cats and leave the remains impaled on a stick in his front yard.  Not a great place to raise a family, to say the least.

There was also mention of the brewery bust of the 1990’s, when the fledgling-yet-flourishing craft industry suddenly crashed leaving a few scattered survivors as the majority of breweries went out of business.  Is it an omen?  A harbinger of doom?  A sign the market is near a point of oversaturation?  Koch says “no.”  He attributes the crash to in-fighting; brewery owners, more business people than beer people, took a page from the macrobreweries’ playbook and, instead of supporting one another, attacked their craft brewing brethren.  It was an issue of ego—they wanted to crush the so-called “competition,” become the sole craft beer proprietor.  They didn’t realize diversity strengthens the whole industry; they played by the old school business model of undermining everybody in a similar trade.  Macrobrewery execs simply sat back with fingers tented à la Mr. Burns and waited as their enemies self-destructed and swooped in to re-claim their valuable customers.  This, among other reasons, is why beer geeks today become distraught when they hear of one craft brewer pursuing litigation against another—it brought down craft before, it can do it again.  Lesson of the day: play nice or face extinction. 
Fermenter/tunnel leading from reception to brew floor

Via Koch’s mention of in-fighting, I was reminded of the Strange v. Strange kerfuffle so, during the Q&A session, I asked Koch his thoughts on copyright infringement and how to best settle such arguments.  He’s very aware that, as a larger brewery, he runs the risk of damaging his businesses public image should he ever sue a small brewery; Sam Adams would suddenly go from patriot brewer to draconian overlord.  One must protect their intellectual property, though.  To find happy middle ground, Boston Beer has been known to pay name-encroaching breweries two-thirds of the cost of re-branding thus protecting the good name of Boston Beer whilst not bankrupting the offending party.  I’ve never heard of that negotiation technique; it’s clever, non-confrontational, and takes the sting out of a cease-and-desist letter.  Unfortunately, it requires more benevolence than I think many litigious folks possess.

After the speeches were done, the attendees split into two groups.  One group stayed behind to enjoy more brews from Boston Beer, eat, and chit-chat.  The other group followed Koch into the barrel room where he poured eager beer geeks a very special treat: Utopias.  At 29% ABV and retailing for about $190 per brew-kettle-shaped bottle, Utopias is easily the most powerful and most expensive beer I’ve ever drank (I’m sure everybody else in the room could say the same thing)!  Drinking a beer of that status, poured by the hands of Jim Koch, is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.  As for the taste, it’s super boozy—practically a whiskey—and it sends a not-unpleasant shiver down the spine.  It’s a complex beer and describing it would be akin to explaining modesty to Lady Gaga.  Once the first group exited the barrel room—euphoric grins plastered on their faces—the waiting group was ushered in to sip the elixir for themselves. 

Koch gives the spiel on Utopias

A barrel room full of very happy beer geeks

Avert they gaze, peasant! That's nearly $200 worth of beer.

Though some attendees had to be pried from the barrel room’s door jamb, we eventually left Boston Beer and stopped off at Stoddard’s Fine Food & Ale for the Heavy Seas Beer’s hosted Pyrates, Pints & Poets Party.  Any other time, I’d write a whole post just on this one event but, because BBC is chock-full of awesomeness, I’ll just say the Heavy Seas party was a raucous way to end the night and that I really appreciated the selection of ales on cask.

Cask ales at Stoddard's
Day One of BBC was memorable but Day Two was even more fun!  Stay tuned for more updates.



Display case at Boston Beer
Sniffin' some hops at Boston Beer
The King and I
Ha ha! Bung hole.