The Hustle

#CBC16 — A City of Brewery Love

I hope I'm the 100th person to use that headline. 

There's a few GBH people on the ground in Philly this week for the Craft Brewers Conference. This is our weird attempt at keeping up with it all. We're longform people, so this is a bit outside our comfort zone, but whatever. In between some speeches, seminars, and copious pints, we're going to attempt to capture the salient moments that make CBC what it is—at least through this impossibly narrow funnel of a couple people. Check back often.



From Matthew Curtis, London Storyteller

The marketing seminars I attended on Wednesday were aimed at the most basic skill level within the industry. I’d wager that many people in those audiences haven’t even started brewing yet. On Thursday I decided to check out some of the advanced seminars, starting with a technical look at sour beer with New Belgium’s Kelly Tretter and Avery’s Rob Christiansen (now also joining New Belgium).

This seminar was deeply technical and the room was packed. It was standing room only at the back. I managed to squeeze in to the front while Tretter and Christiansen got deep into the science of sour beer. An hour was simply not enough for this level of information. 

Left to right: Michael Kiser, GBH; Lauren Salazar, New Belgium; Jay Goodwin, The Rare Barrel; Brandon Jones, Yazoo; Andrew Emerton, New Belgium

Left to right: Michael Kiser, GBH; Lauren Salazar, New Belgium; Jay Goodwin, The Rare Barrel; Brandon Jones, Yazoo; Andrew Emerton, New Belgium

I remained rooted to my spot while I waited for the next session: an open forum hosted by our own Michael Kiser featuring Lauren Salazar & Andrew Emerton of New Belgium, Brandon Jones of Yazoo & Embrace the Funk and The Rare Barrel’s Jay Goodwin. This forum’s purpose was to debate the term sour beer and begin to open a dialogue on better ways to describe the myriad array of sours that now populate tap and shelf space. The room was a who’s who of young, innovative craft brewing: Brewers from Almanac, Societe, Jester King and even the UK’s Siren all made up the audience. 

Not much consensus was gained (no surprise) — more importantly it began to open a dialogue that I’ve no doubt will slowly create waves that shape how we talk to drinkers, and even each other, about sours. 

Like Siren, there were a lot of UK brewers present at CBC, way more than I expected. But I wasn’t surprised – my biggest takeaway was the scale of the event and how much knowledge and relationship building is there for the taking. Not just at the conference itself but at the many fringe events were occurring all over Philly. The UK’s brewers seemed desperate to grab a slice of this. 

We have nothing like CBC in the UK, at least nothing on this kind of scale. We need something though, not just to sustain our own industry but to help drive it forward. Until then I enthuse to all UK brewers to make sure you’re on the plane to D.C. next year. I’ll see you there. 

from Mathew Curtis, London Storyteller

“The rising tide no longer floats all boats.” These were the words spoken by BA Director Paul Gatza at the State of the Industry address this morning - completely at odds with what BA President and CEO Bob Pease told me at GABF last year. Gatza is right though and I respect this honesty — the marketplace is becoming ever more crowded, not just with new breweries opening but with existing breweries dramatically expanding capacity — 25% of US craft brewers expanded capacity by more than 50% in the last year alone. With decreasing amounts of available taps and shelf space the industry is now faced with greater challenges than ever before. However with an increasingly diverse set of new startups entering the sector, each with their own new and diverse ideas maybe it’s time for the big guys to take a closer look at the little guys in order to work out the next direction for their business. 

At the address, Pease’s message to breweries was simple: “Everybody needs to bring their A-game, each and every day.” His message not just referring to the craft sector, but to the AB-InBev/SAB Miller merger he’s been working tirelessly to prevent. When, and that’s when, not if, the merger goes through, this new conglomerate will own 59% of the US beer market, that’s mind blowing. Especially considering that the next biggest competitor will be Heineken, who own 11% and following that a withered Molson Coors will own ‘just’ 2.9%. 

The merger is also the first thing Pease brings up at a later press conference, stating that “reduced access to market for craft breweries will result in reduced access to choice for the beer drinker.” His concern on the impact of the merger to the craft sector is palpable but as I said, maybe it's time for the established craft breweries to look at what the new guys are bringing to the table. Here they might find the answers that will lead to a continued sustainable marketplace.

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From Michael Kiser, GBH Founder

My final rounds at CBC involved some really gratifying moments. With most of the obligations behind me, I was free to roll the dice and go wherever the evening took us. Each stop was a chance to mix things up, as half the crew would shed and others would join, and the entire city was one big ongoing Irish Exit. 

Allagash hosted a private party at Olde Bar, inviting friends to swing by and have a few in a casual, relaxed setting. I crashed it pretty hard with a few extras in tow (Andres Araya from 5 Rabbit, Michael Roper from Hopleaf, and Andrew Emerton from New Belgium, among others). We recently visited these guys in Maine for a feature, and this was the first time we were able to stand back and appreciate what a great story that turned in to from Cory Smith. 

At Good Dog Bar, Brooklyn Brewery's Garrett Oliver was on-hand (first we've seen him since our podcast last summer) to share a beer he's been working on for some time with the UK's Thornbridge Brewery. Project Serpent is a strong Belgian ale fermented in Four Roses Bourbon casks on cider lees, resulting in a bright, fruit skin finish with an appropriately oxidized base of strong ale, not unlike a fortified wine. Small samples in red Solo cups were passed around, because reasons.  

Oh hey Paul.

Paul Jones from Manchester's Cloudwater Brewery was there too (this was a lot of British in one place). A fast friend of late, since our Critical Drinking interview and full brewery profile this past year. He's signed on with Shelton Brothers, and has a few things lined up, like a collaboration with Forest & Main in Philly's burbs, and a tap takeover at D.C.'s Blue Jacket. 

At the World Cafe Live venue on the west side, a host of Philly faithful, alongside folks like Sam Calagione and Dick Cantwell, performed live karaoke with Cracker backing them up. Fergie of Monks Cafe took over the stage like a lion. Others swung their hips in drag. Still others ditched the clothing altogether. The best part? Watching Peter Bouckaert of New Belgium dancing to a band he's never heard of with a Dogfish Head 60min in his hand. 

My final CBC stop was Martha in north Philly. I was looking forward to this all week as a chance to see most of my crew in one place, and we invited a number of others to join us. It was also the beer I was most looking forward to drinking all week, from Jester King, Tired Hands, and Green Bench. We posted up in the center island and a rotating cast of folks filtered through all night long. The teams from Treehouse, Stoney Creek, 5 Rabbit, Pizza Port, Creature Comforts, Transmitter, and colleagues like Joshua Bernstein and Randy Mosher. It was one of the most consistently exciting nights I've had in a long time. I stayed late until the Green Bench Beemo kicked. 

And thats what CBC has become for me. A place to engage intellectually on serious topics throughout the day — helping groups like the wholesalers dig in to brand building, and producers contemplate the future of sours — then heading out in to the night for a deep dive in to the culture and personal relationships that make the industry go 'round. 

And to top it all off — Jean and friends were up in the mezzanine tweaking and turning the music that created the vibe of the whole experience. Helluva night. 

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from Matthew Curtis, London Storyteller

It’s 8am and I’m back within the savory confines of Reading Terminal. GBH’s Michael Kiser is determined to get me to try something called scrapple, a mush of pork scraps and cornmeal smashed together, which is then fried. I guess the closest thing to this back home is haggis, but this isn’t like any haggis I’ve seen before. The greasy meat slice sits between two pieces of toast with an egg and melted cheese its companions. It’s heavy going, but between each mouthful of scrapple interspersed with sips of coffee my hangover gradually begins to subside.

Last night I took a stroll around downtown and checked out a couple of local bars. My first stop was Jose Pistolas, a cosy beer joint with a Mexican inspired menu. As I bellied up to the bar I immediately felt at home as I almost instantly got into conversations with some colourful locals - who spent the entire time attempting to talk to me in British accents and asking me if I knew the Queen (I don’t). Belgium’s Brasserie De La Senne were hosting a tap takeover so I instantly ordered a Zinnebir, this light, refreshing Belgian Pale being exactly what my palate craved. 

After this I moved on to a Bagby Goon Brigade IPA which washed down a pair of catfish po’boy tacos. The Californian brewery were also sharing the taps at Pistolas and I was impressed with the sharp, piney hop nuances in this beer. Afterwards I strolled a couple of blocks to a basement bar called U-Bahn, where Michigan’s New Holland Brewing were hosting a party, complete with live bluegrass band and stilt-walkers. 

Eventually I make it through the crowd and to the bar, where my friend and fellow journo Melissa Cole hands me a glass of Dragon’s Milk - New Hollands imperial stout. The heavy, viscous liquid was’t what I was in the mood for but I didn’t waste it nonetheless. Here I partied with several other journos who were lapping up the Philly nightlife, including Joe Stange, Andy Crouch and All About Beer Editor John Holl. Eventually as that crew tired of beer and headed into the night in search of negroni’s I beat a hasty retreat. And where else would I head but Monk’s Cafe - I squeezed through the throng to the bar where I bumped into the crew from London’s Mondo Brewing Company. I enjoyed a couple of Pliny’s and then decided it was time to hit the hay, so I headed back to my hotel - via a 7/11 for a highly questionable cheesesteak.

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from Michael Kiser, GBH Founder

It's been a blurry week as I Ubered around Philly with the impossible goal of hitting every rad event. Some real gems fell by the wayside. But let's count our victories instead, shall we?

Fountain Porter in South Philly was my first leisure stop. No event that afternoon, but this place requires none to be worthy of a visit, even during CBC. I drank a few Pizza Boy grisettes and a Half Acre Pony Pils before disappearing the house burger — which is perhaps the simplest and finest burger you'll find in Philly. If this was my neighborhood bar, I'd practically be a shut-in.

Back in near North Philly, we hit 2nd Story Brewing, a big brewpub in the old part of the city on Penn's Landing. And I drank a helluva British mild — something I'm seeing more often these days and it's a welcome sight. But nothing prepared me for how fun it was going to be to call for a Hopollo Creed. Now, I'm pretty uppity when it comes to hop puns. And I've mentally written off a number of beers because I refuse to shout a terrible pun out loud. But the moment the phrase "Hopollo Creed" left my lips, I felt like dancing a little corner-of-the-ring jig. 

In the Union Transfer building, one of the city's best venues, Sierra Nevada set up camp for their collaboration series. For many of these folks, it was the first chance to taste the beers they'd piloted with their regional colleagues in Asheville earlier in the year. "Oh damn, thanks for dialing that in, Sierra," was a sentiment from one appreciative brewer who tasted a few improvements in the final batch. 

Monk's Cafe is the cornerstone of so much Philly beer. And one of the reasons it's maintained that respect is it's loyalty to breweries like New Belgium. In the back bar, they hosted Lauren Salazar for a tasting that took the drinker on a journey through the blending process, including the base beers — a rare opportunity. Lauren also gave the floor to the guys from Foeder Crafters based out of St Louis who recently dropped off a new wooden vessel in Fort Collins for the New Belgium team to start experimenting with.  

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from Michael Kiser, GBH Founder

Over lunch today, we hashed out the particulars of how we want to approach the open community forum on sour beer this afternoon. Myself, alongside Lauren Salazar + Andrew Emerton of New Belgium, Jay Goodwin of The Rare Barrel, and Brandon ones of Yazoo + Embrace the Funk each shared our points of view on the opportunities and challenges in sour beer making, sales, and communications today. Unlike IPA, which had decades to develop from "hoppy beer" into the wide variety of variations we know today — each with their own value proposition, vocabulary, price points, and fans — sour beer production has diversified far faster than it's title of "sour."  

Has the term "sour beer" reached a breaking point? We're all anxiously awaiting the opportunity to discuss this in an open forum at CBC this afternoon. See you there. 

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Erika Reitz from Draft Mag leading the media panel

Erika Reitz from Draft Mag leading the media panel

from Matthew Curtis, London storyteller

In a half full meeting hall about a hundred brewers, mostly from startups, were here for a seminar called “Marketing 101.” Here were heard the enthusiastic Ginger Johnson, a market research specialist, tell an engaged audience that “nothing will work for you if you don’t know your market and how to communicate with them.” The information was basic, but useful and a stark reminder that good marketing doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

We were then reminded by the BA’s Abby Berman-Cohen that “journalists are people too” as she gave a short talk on the basics of PR and engaging with the media. To finish the session we heard from the BA’s Craft Beer Program Director Julia Herz who spent her 15 minutes pitching the benefits of BA membership to the crowd, repeating the Association’s “we’re here to support craft brewers” line as often as she could. 

One key takeaway from my first day at the CBC is that this is a place where brewers come to find solutions. Whether it’s reducing oxygen pickup in packaged beer or finding a better way to engage with consumers on social media, then there’s an exhibitor or seminar to help for the right price. Some of these solutions seem so blindingly obvious that I can’t help but feel a little worried for some of the breweries attending. If you need to be sat and told that you need to engage with the press by sending them short, simple press releases, for example, then what other basic aspects of running a business are we also taking for granted? 

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from Michael Kiser, GBH Founder

I’m originally from Pennsylvania. These hills, rivers, and scrambled urban environments are what makes sense to me. So when the annual Craft Brewers Conference selected Philadelphia as its 2016 site — I knew I’d be having as much fun needing out in the seminars as I would tucked away in the back of some of my favorite bars in the country with a few hometown boys. Our music producer, Andrew Thiboldeax, for example, calls south Philly, and the incredible Fountain Porter, his home. (if you click on that, hit mute. Hit mute NOW.)

I’ve got a few jobs to do this week. First, I present to the wholesalers symposium — a few hundred folks devoted to the selling and distributing of craft beer around the world. They’ve asked me to talk about the role of the wholesaler in brand building. This is especially relevant to wholesalers that are bringing on start-up breweries — helping them shape everything from their operation, to there go-to-market strategy, and ultimately their brand story.

It was an interesting challenge for me — as someone who launches, repositions, designs and managers craft beer brands around the world, the wholesaler isn’t someone I’m used to thinking about as a brand builder — but rather, as our first customer. And that was the biggest ah-ha to come from the discussion I lead. If my client’s brands don’t resonate with the wholesaler — we’re dead in the water. And helping wholesalers realize that they have a critical feedback role in the branding process seemed to empower, but also appropriately constrain the role of the wholesaler in that process. Breweries ultimately need to be in charge of their identity — but if they think of wholesalers as their first customers, they can gain critical input before anything ever hits the market. Likewise, brewers can help wholesalers understand their identity, and the context they want to create in the market around their beers. Even if there's doubt about a unique or ambitious brand position — the process of open communication and intent has begun. 

Later this week I’m helping Lauren Salazar and Andrew Emerton of New Belgium, Jay Goodwin of Rare Barrel, and Brandon Jones of Yazoo lead an open forum on sour beers, which is sure to be a shit show of opinions. But we’ll do our best. An it’ll be fun. And shit shows are honest and productive sometimes, so let’s have at it. 

But before I go on too long, I want to recognize that as much as this is a homecoming for me, it's also an exotic destination for some of my writers, like Matthew Curtis from London, and Cory Smith from Brooklyn who’s taking the train down tonight, and Mike Sardina who’s out here partying with his Societe Brewing crew. So before I get in to it all — I’m actually going to let Matthew’s wide-eyed impressions of Philadelphia lead the way. Check back often for updates — we’re just going to keep this little thread rolling all week now and again. 

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from Matthew Curtis, London storyteller

The air in Philly’s Reading Terminal market is filled with the smell of frying cheesesteaks, the buzz of neon and the sound of conversation drawing you towards the counters. Hundreds of folks crowd into this sprawling yet tightly packed market to grab a bite to eat - it’s the perfect example of why this East Coast town is such a solid place for great food and drink.

Right across the street from Reading Terminal is the Philadelphia Convention Center, which today is even more bustling than the market. Only instead of diners, here you’ll find brewers, maltsters, distributors, hop farmers, journalists and more, all here to attend the Brewers Association’s annual Craft Beer Conference.

This is my first time in Philly and attending the conference itself. The scale of the event is a little daunting and goes a long way to demonstrate how further advanced the US beer industry is to that of the UK. The aisles of stands in the main hall are selling any kind of brewing equipment or solution you can think of: from a brand new brewhouse and raw materials to electronic tags that let you track the whereabouts your kegs via a simple app. Thousands of brewers spend their time here buzzing around the stands and attending the various industry seminars in the meeting rooms that litter the conference center.

This years keynote speech was delivered by former baseball coach Billy Beane, famously portrayed by Brad Pitt in the movie Moneyball. As media we’ve been barred from mentioning the the speech, other than that it happened, presumably so that Beane can use it repeatedly without it losing any monetary value. Former brewer at Camden Town Brewery and Bostonian Pete Brown, who recently launched his own brand: Forest Road Brewing in London gave me his thoughts on the address: “I took almost nothing away from the speech. It was the classic ‘small guy vs. the big guy’ rhetoric that you’d expect. There’s really not a lot in common between brewing and baseball."

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Words + photos by
Michael Kiser + Matthew Curtis