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Time for a Canadian Craft Brewers Conference?

December 30th, 2010 · 6 Comments

As we reach the end of 2010 I’d like to discuss what I called the best event I attended this year – the Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) in Chicago, Illinois.

In April I went for the first time to the CBC, the annual conference of the Brewers Association (BA), a U.S. organization comprised of over 1,000 brewers, thousands of homebrewers, beer distributors and others in the business or interested in it.  It is the largest of its kind in the U.S. and seeks to “promote and protect small and independent American brewers, their craft beers and the community of brewing enthusiasts.”

Keynote Speeches at the CBC

Upon arriving at the conference I was immediately impressed with the camaraderie and support amongst the members of the BA.  The Association exists on both national and regional levels, representing craft brewers from the largest to the smallest operations.  The BA counts in their membership Boston Beer (Sam Adams), the largest craft brewery in the U.S., plus heavy hitters including Brooklyn, Dogfish Head, Anchor and Sierra Nevada, but also small players such as Caldera, Dust Bowl and Hoster.  The BA is for all craft brewers in the United States.

The big-picture thinking and goals of the BA is impressive.  The keynote speeches at the start of the conference discussed the governmental initiatives the BA is spearheading – namely to reduce the taxes for small brewers (legislation HR 4278).  The BA is organized and connected – two congressmen were present to discuss how they were pushing the U.S. government for change.  It was exciting to see how the BA has been able to bring and keep so many brewers from across the U.S. together – as Steve Hindy from the Brooklyn Brewery put it, “Disunity is bad for beer”.

The 3-day conference was simply a whirlwind.  Its home base was the Sheraton Hotel, where a trade show (BrewExpo America) and seminars took place throughout each day.  Seminar topics were diverse and covered numerous topics of the business – including brewing, marketing, social media, technical issues, governmental affairs and sustainability.  Many of the big names of the U.S. craft beer scene were there to present or participate, including Greg Koch of Stone, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Vinny Cilurzo of Russian River and many others.  It was informative and exciting hearing all the U.S. craft brewers talk about their business and brewing successes and challenges.

After the seminars wrapped up is where things really started to cook, with beer events and tastings happening throughout the city. There were official events tied to the CBC, and savvy bars and restaurants got in on the action with events to capitalize on the thousands of beer industry folks in town for the weekend.

Jolly Pumpkin, Stone & Nøgne Ø at Blackbird

Events ranged from special beer dinners, beer tastings, brewer meet-and-greets, bus trips – pretty much everything you’d see in a typical craft beer week – but exclusive to conference attendees or those in-the-know.  It felt that  wherever you turned you would run into a brewer to say hi to.  I was able to attend the Stone/Jolly Pumpkin/Nøgne Ø collaboration dinner at Blackbird, a “Rare Beer Tour” bus trip hosted by Louis Glunz (a local beer distributor), an Allagash/Avery/Lost Abbey night at the Publican, and interesting beer tappings across the city at spots such as the Map Room, Revolution Brewing, Small Bar, Local Option, Sheffield’s, Bottom Lounge, Delilah’s and others.  I was able to meet brewers from across the U.S., try dozens of unique beers and learn a lot in the process.  It was truly a great experience and I’m anxiously looking forward to 2011.

Attending the CBC made me think about the craft beer industry back in Canada and if something like the BA could exist and if it would be successful.  In Canada, there is not (to my knowledge) an industry organization solely representing the interests of craft brewers from coast-to-coast.  There is the Brewers Association of Canada, but it only represents a fraction of craft breweries in Canada and is dominated by the big players.

In Ontario, the Ontario Craft Brewers has been a successful voice of craft beer in the province.  Its efforts has resulted in substantial government grants and a strong working relationship with the LCBO, including the release of several multi-brand Discovery Packs and in-store features.  But a significant issue in the Ontario beer marketplace, such as The Beer Store, remains unaddressed.  And the OCB does not represent all Ontario craft brewers – successful breweries including Amsterdam and Steam Whistle are not members.  (Full disclosure – through Free Our Beer’s sister site The Bar Towel we are a partner of the OCB and support their activities).  Out west, there also seems to be a B.C. Craft Brewers Association but little content is available on their web site.

Sam Calagione Leading a Seminar

So this begs the question – is now the time for a true ‘Canadian Craft Brewers Association’?  The Brewers of Canada is heavily skewed towards the large brewers, so an obvious craft beer issue such as The Beer Store would never be dealt with.  The OCB has been successful but it is very regional in focus.  Could the unity of craft brewers achieve positive growth and change on a national level?  Issues such as inter-provincial free trade, optimal retailing and competitive taxation could certainly be things that the industry would benefit from.  And at the very least brewers could share best practices as we have a sizeable country and face time is rare.

However, in effect the CBC was just as much an event for Canadian brewers as it was for Americans.  I have never seen so many Canadian brewers at one place as I did at the CBC.  The event is a major draw for Canadian brewers from coast-to-coast – it was a place to network and meet other brewers from Canada and abroad, learn and share business strategies and be inspired.  No doubt much of this learning was brought home and put into place by our Canadian craft brewers, which is a good thing.  But it is clear that the American craft industry is a fair ways ahead of Canada, and we’ve got room to grow when it comes to brewing, retailing and also drinking.

Attending the CBC was enlightening and inspirational.  To see how the BA bands together even though they obviously compete with one another every day is fantastic.  The BA is equally aggressive with their industry goals as they are with brewing standards and quality.  Collaborations, one-offs, seasonals and unique products are driving growth and success for American brewers (for example, Russian River’s Double IPA Pliny the Elder constitutes 60% of their total volume).  The United States has a national brewing culture and business climate that allows breweries to flex their creativity and be rewarded for it – but they’re still pushing for more.  In Canada the industry needs to follow their lead – set high standards for craft beer, create a better business and retail environment and collectively push forward to be recognized as a top global brewing nation.

Tags: Outside Ontario · Perspectives

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 B Titus // Dec 30, 2010 at 10:25 am

    Hell ya, concur! Was in Chicago as well & despite some blurry mornings, event was amazing. So many great discussions, tastings, supplier meetings, etc. Can’t help but leave pumped up. The Canadian interest is also there as I caught up with loads of Canuck brewers – Philips, Amsterdam, Granite, Charlevoix…. what do we need to kick this off?!

  • 2 Chester // Dec 30, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    CBC as an event is outstanding, it would be great to see TCBW or VCBW (http://www.vancouvercraftbeerweek.com) grow to include more seminar type events and really get all the brewers nationwide together.

    Forming a group like the BA is harder as our liquor laws are provincially controlled rather than federally. Still that would also be a good conversation to have.

    How do we make this happen?

  • 3 Rico // Dec 30, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    Yes. I like. Any good exposure is great exposure, both for sales, and as an example to the goofs that run this province/country.

  • 4 CK // Jan 23, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    …but the real question is….could there even be a proper Canadian Craft brewers conference….sure the people could come but could the breweries actually bring their beer? Interprovincial trade barriers and government monopolies would seem to make this a potentially fruitless exercise in paperwork…. could it perhaps be easier to have a Canadian Craft Brewers conference in one of the northern states? :)

  • 5 Me // Sep 18, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Hmm, think perhaps Canadian Crafts Brewers conferences held in the U.S. may be embarrassing for provincial leaders? esp Ontario!

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