"Beer in Colorado" is dedicated to that divine elixir born of the marriage of water, malt, hops, and yeast as interpreted
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Monday, April 14, 2014

The 2014 Craft Brewers Conference: A Re-Cap

It’s okay to not be a beer geek but, like any group one is not a part of, it’s irresponsible to make assumptions about said group.  For example, I once tried to explain the symbiotic relationship between bicycles and craft beer, how there are many brewery bike tours and how brewers sometimes prefer bikes as a healthier (and safer) alternative to motor vehicles.  The person I told this to immediately presumed that brewers rode bikes because they had DUIs and lost their licenses. 

A sign of the times
Likewise, some of Colorado’s more unenlightened cannabis advocates might decry the horrors of alcohol, that more breweries means more drunk driving, more spousal abuse, and more rapists—basically the beer-version of Reefer Madness  (DISCLAIMER: not all cannabis advocates have such an acidic personality but there are enough that do for me to notice).  These foolish folks don’t realize craft breweries attract a different sort of crowd than a college frat party; beer geeks are more passionate about the beer than about its drunken effects and more breweries doesn’t necessarily mean more drinkers, it means the drinkers that already exist have more options.  Perhaps it also means these drinkers have less of a distance to bike to get to the libation they so love. 

A less detrimental stereotype of brewers is that they’re party-animals--no work, all play.  In fact, brewers are business-people like any other and, as with any business, brewers must always be educating themselves, improving their craft, and staying on top of their game.  Indeed, fun is usually had at a brewery but it’s interjected with serious business.  That good times/nose-to-the-grindstone hybrid is what Craft Brewers Conference (CBC), held in Denver’s Colorado Convention Center this past week, is all about.

Organized by the Brewers Association (BA), the CBC is a vast gathering of brewers from all corners of the nation (and quite a few from abroad, too).  It’s a place to network, to discover the latest innovations, to hone one’s skills, and, yes, to have a beer or two.  I was lucky enough to attend this year’s CBC, attend a few seminars, and walk the trade show floor.  Unfortunately, it’s such a massive event that I saw but a fraction of what CBC had to offer.  However, everybody only gets to see a fraction of CBC; it’s the nature of the beast what with several seminars all booked for the same time.  Regardless, I got a peek at the goings-on and this is my take on it.

Colorado in a can
Immediately after picking up my badge, I received a goodie bag full of press releases, schedules, and, most importantly, a royal pint can of Centennial State Pale Ale, a collaborative beer sponsored by the Colorado Brewers Guild brewed specifically for CBC attendees.  I actually had the opportunity to witness this beer being made and it was a treat to follow the beer from birth to death (i.e. me drinking it).  It’s a fantastic beer, too!  It’s a perfect example of how a hoppy beer doesn’t need to be a bitter beer.  Centennial State is full of tropical, pineapple aromas that fade to strawberry as it warms.  Those scents carry over into the flavor with a hint of peach accompanying.  It’s not a fruit beer, though; it still retains its pale ale status.  It’s just a very complex and unique interpretation of pale ale. 

The first class I took at CBC was the MicroMatic Dispense Course.  This 9am-4pm class covered everything (yes, everything) anybody would ever need to know about draft systems.  From every piece of equipment and how to dismantle it, to installation, to proper gas blends, to trouble-shooting tips, no stone was left unturned.  It was a brain-drain of information but a few points stick out in my mind.

·         100% CO2 systems are for chumps and amateurs; the pros blend it with nitro and not just for “nitro beers” like Left Hand’s Milk Stout, even regular beers have a touch of nitro in them.  CO2 alone has restrictions as to how far you can run the lines.  Also, there’s a really complicated algorithm that helps determine the exact blend of gas for any particular beer but, when my eyes saw all those numbers and calculations, my brain shut down all functions until we had moved on to something a little more comprehensible.
Quite an array at the MicroMatic course
·         Why on God’s green earth somebody would do this I do not know but, in case you ate a lot of paint chips as a kid, don’t, for the love of all things holy, store your CO2 tanks inside a walk-in cooler.  Sure, they’ll still technically work but the cold temperatures screw up the gauges.  Besides that, CO2 is poisonous.  If a tank were to spring a leak out in the open, the fumes would dissipate into nothingness.  No harm, no foul.  If, however, they leak in an enclosed space like a walk-in cooler then, buddy, you got yourself an unintentional gas chamber. 
·         Brewers take note: your glycol chiller, the contraption that keeps beer at a constant temperature when sitting in the lines, should be at eye-level and in a place you look all the time.  Why?  Because those suckers need to be clean for them to work.  If they’re stuck up in the ceiling (as many of them are), they’ll turn into giant dust bunnies.  Worse yet, you won’t know they’re giant dust bunnies because, as the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind.” 

The MicroMatic course was held on the first day of CBC but it was the next day that the event really kicked-off with the keynote and general session.  This was a time for BA representatives and other beer folk to speak to the crowd, update the brewers on the state of craft beer, and basically get everybody psyched-up about being in such a cool industry.  A few key moments from the speeches:

When The Hick speaks, people listen
·         “Get your ass in gear,” says Gov. John Hickenlooper.  The beer geek’s favorite politician made a point that, aside from the historical Sam Adams, he’s the only brewer to have advanced to the gubernatorial level.  He challenged the crowd to get more involved in the world around them, run for election, and make a change in their community.  He argued brewery owners are uniquely qualified for the position: they have customer service skills, they’re collaborative, they care about quality and virtue, and they’re pragmatic.  I’d certainly like to see more brewers get involved in government because The Hick is right—brewers are of the people and they fight for the average, hard-working American.  Who will follow in Hickenlooper’s footsteps?  Mayor Chad Yakobson?  Senator Kim Jordan?  President Dale Katechis?  We’ll see what the future holds.
·         There are more breweries opening than closing but, with exponential growth in the industry, it’s only a matter of time before the number of closing breweries begins to rise.  Paul Gatza of the BA referred to the great brewery die-off of the 1990’s, claiming those with a passion for beer survived whereas those focused solely on making a buck closed shop.  Keep your humanity, brewers; don’t get spellbound by the Almighty Dollar and your business will last longer.
·         Gatza mentioned quality as a main concern for today’s craft brewer.  With so many new breweries opening, how many are actually good?  The industry as a whole needs to have high standards lest drinkers revert to corporate brewers; why spend the extra dough on craft when the quality isn’t there?  After visiting several new breweries at the most recent Great American Beer Festival (GABF), Gatza said 7 out of 10 of the beers he tried could, at the very least, use some tweaks.  Please, always be educating yourself brewers, and practice your craft until the day you retire.  Craft beer has come too far to start losing customers due to sub-par beer.  This plea goes out not only to the small and new brewers but to the big, well-established ones, too; anybody can become complacent.
·         The keynote speaker was Michael Pollan, a writer and foodie who, while not necessarily a “beer guy,” is an expert on all things consumable.  He doled out fascinating facts about beer and alcohol, discussed the science and history of the topic.  Some thought-provoking tidbits of information included the fact that squirrels bury acorns not in an effort to hide them but to ferment them.  This is probably done more to soften up the nut than it is to catch a buzz but it does make squirrels the only known animals besides humans that process their food before they eat it.  Pollan also said elephants have such a craving for alcohol that, in India, they’re known to tear down the walls of distilleries to get to the good stuff.  Brewers beware: if a circus train derails near your brewery, vacate the premises; Dumbo’s coming for you!

The BrewExpo America Trade Show was held in the same space as GABF and was just as overwhelming: rows upon rows of vendors all hawking their respective wares.  These included hop growers, malt farmers, yeast cultivators, canners and bottlers, equipment manufacturers, apparel companies, distributors, and representatives from every other possible niche in the brewing industry.  There were also beer pouring stations throughout the room; one needs a beer after being taken aback by the awesome sight that is the CBC trade show.

What is that?  I want that!
Walking the trade floor, I made a point to stop and sniff at all the hop farmer tables.  I love hops in my beer, of course, but just to take a handful, rub them together, and get a big whiff is a most pleasant olfactory experience.  For a visual spectacle, though, you can’t beat the Rube Goldberg-esque machines on display at the manufacturers’ booths; canning systems, bottling systems, automatic cleaning jets, robotic, keg-lifting arms were all operating and dazzling the crowd.  Watching those machine work, with all the whirling frenzy of moving parts is quite hypnotic.


The next seminar I attended was the Craft Malt Sensory Workshop wherein maltsters (the title is derived from “malt stirrer”) from across the country explained the status of today’s malt farms and how geography has a fairly large impact on the aroma and flavor of any given malt.  To showcase the diversity of malt, everybody was given six, simple beers that were exactly alike except the malts came from the far-flung farms of the six presenters.  Geography certainly does matter; some of the variations among the beers were slight, some obvious.  I’ll say one thing, though: gluten-free brewing grains will never stack-up to traditional malts.  I feel bad for people with celiac disease.  They drink a gluten-free beer and think they’re drinking beer but it’s not remotely the same.  To me, gluten-free beers have a dirty vegetable-like flavor and that icky taste really showed through at the sensory workshop where hops and yeast weren’t clamoring for attention.  My suggestion for casual gluten-free drinking: go with gluten-free hard cider—much better than gluten-free beer.    

Six malts from six maltsters
Lastly, I attended the OSHA seminar on brewery safety and how brewers can best mitigate the financial blow and social stigma of undergoing an OSHA review.  Some startling data was presented at this seminar:

·         The injury rate in the beverage industry is 6.5% whereas the national average is 3.4%.
·         Breweries are seven times more likely to be inspected than the national average.
·         The average OSHA brewery walk-through results in three citations and a total financial blow of $11,500 (although 22% result in no violations whatsoever).
·         40% of all OSHA inspections come as a result of employee complaints.  Brewers, listen to your employees; if they take issue with something, fix it before OSHA gets at you.
·         Be smart should OSHA come a’knockin’.  Keep the inspector focused on the task at hand.  If the complaint was about slippery floors in the brew space, don’t walk them through the distribution warehouse where they might find even more problems.  Brewers are also within their right to not re-enact day-to-day operations, one must tell, but not show.  If, say, a brewery tells a brewer that they carry sacks of grain from one room to another, that’s a vague but sufficient description.  If the brewer acts out the scene, the inspector might notice a stupid little detail (e.g. a small amount of grain falls out of the sack making for a hazardous walking area) that may result in a few hundred dollars in fines.

Although I did not attend, the biannual World Beer Cup (WBC) recipients were announced on the final day of CBC.  True to form, Colorado came out on top with 24 total medals (second most) and 10 gold medals (the most).  The closest competitor, California, walloped the field in the overall medal count with 35 but, with only 9 gold medals, Colorado eked them out in top honors.  Silver and bronze are nice but, as Ricky Bobby said, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” 

These results mirror those of the 2013 GABF which begs the question: why do we still bicker about which is the best craft beer state?  There’s no argument.  Colorado is the best.  California and some other states have a larger quantity of breweries but that’s not the same as quality.  That’s how California gets so many overall medals—lots of breweries equals lots of competition submissions equals a better chance at snagging a prize.  But not necessarily a first-place prize, which are the ones that really matter.  If Colorado had achieved the most gold medals and no silvers or bronzes, I’d still say Colorado is the best. 

There are different ways to assess the quality of something so subjective as beer but the closest we’ll ever get to a scientific evaluation is with the WBC and GABF—they’re conducted via blind taste tests with trained and certified beer judges.  There’s no bias involved and judges’ palates are acute to every minute detail.

Some may argue WBC and GABF are flawed because not every brewer sends a beer in to be assessed.  There is a hefty fee associated with each submission and that can be a deterrent.  That’s no excuse for one state winning fewer medals than another, though; if a brewer has something really special on their hands, they’ll pony up the dough.  The submission fee is mere pennies when compared to the reputation gained through a WBC or GABF win.  Many brewers wisely hold on to their money because, while their beer may be quite tasty, they know it’s not going to break the top three.  Lack of entrants does not mar the results because the best of the best always comes ready to play.

So, Colorado is the best.  End of debate.  Other states make great beer, too, but there can only be one champion.  The guy who comes in second to Usain Bolts is one quick S.O.B. but he doesn’t get to stand on the highest podium.  Maybe the standings will change in coming years, maybe other states will start winning more gold medals than Colorado, and, when that happens, Colorado will have to abdicate the throne.  Until then, however, we’re top o’ the heap. 

Again I say, my time at CBC was a mere slice of the whole.  Other attendees may well have had a completely different experience than mine but I guess that’s the beauty of CBC; it forces the brewing community to come together, share their experiences, and teach other brewers.  It opens a dialogue and, eventually, all the knowledge and information from CBC gets around to everybody.  That is how I like to view the craft beer world: open, honest, helpful.  Thank you, CBC, for promoting that communal culture.



P.S. Please enjoy these additional photos from the trade show.

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