Hop interest was at an all-time high at the recent Craft Brewers Conference in Denver.
by Warren “BeerSensei” Monteiro
Welcome to Denver and the 2019 Craft Brewers Conference. The Big Blue Bear was still too busy bracing up the Convention Center to wave at arriving brewers, but he might have winked. This was the smoothest edition yet. There’s no World Beer Cup until next year and the Conference just rolled on out. Attendance was a record enthusiastic 14,000 strong.
The vast Welcome Reception: A Brewer’s Life trailed through the vastness of the Convention Center, arranged as if pockets of Colorado breweries grouped just up the next arroyo. Unforgettable beers poured out of sample booths. Classic breweries like Crooked Stave, Dry Dock and Epic smiled right next to each other. Small music groups popped up at appropriate bends in the road. And plenty of seating for a change. Who could ask for anything more? OK! Plenty of S’mores stands. Remember that brewers are probably the friendliest group of professionals you could ever encounter
Let’s not forget the commemorative beer. Brut Red IPA (7%) was brewed at Sleeping Giant Brewery by members of the Colorado Brewers Guild, a coppery smooth, dry product that pushes the essence of an IPA style that hasn’t quite caught on yet. This beer really gives brut a shout.
Among the speeches next day it was three cheers for the Independent Craft Brewers Seal. It’s doing so splendidly that there’s now a second seal for Independent Craft Beer Supporters. It’s designed so more of the industry (bars, restaurants, branding) can show the seal as more than just a sticker on the wall.
I’d have to place the general mood as seriously laid back. Barrel excise tax reform expires this year. It must be lobbied to make it permanent, and state guilds are important in that continuing fight. Remember, this President, whatever he does for recreation (eat his young?) does not drink!
Our industry position is being challenged by the logical consequences (unintended perhaps but very real) of the last few years strong success. Distilleries, cideries, kombucha, cannabis extract products, and hybrids are popping up all over the place and seem to be very appealing to the young and uninitiated. Note that last year’s 4% growth is now being shared out 7,000+ ways. While it’s not yet time to start shaking in our brewers boots about saturation, the individual piece of the pie is likely to be getting smaller. As David Walker put it: “New breweries have to compete more with new breweries than they do with existing breweries.” The median age of breweries is now under 4 years. Wow!
Growth challenges translate out most intriguingly to the Expo trade floor. Over a thousand exhibitors were clamoring for attention. The trade floor itself was the size of a whole clutch of football fields, intimidating but full of life. The sheer enormity makes me wonder how much longer one event can hold all of this growth. The general theme seems to have shifted firmly away from start-ups into pro expansion. Consequently, a new expression, “Pilot System” has caught on for smaller initiatives.
Most interesting about affordable pilot equipment, is that vendors offer electric brewing options as well as gas. SABCO now has one, perhaps spurred along by Pico, which is turning out larger systems. Canning solutions figured heavily on the scene, especially with crowlers now emerging as a viable option. Disposable kegs had a solid presence. A curious footnote is the return of malt beer “concentrates”, sounding a lot like the malt extract syrups we used to boil up on the stove. They do claim a pedigree and variety of malt emphases. Though I can’t shake that mid-’90’s chain brewpub residual taste memory.
Hops, hops, hops
But the sector that really stood out to me was Hops, Hops, Hops. There’s really heavy competition here, especially to get contracts with brewers. Earnest hop sellers from the U.S. and Europe hawked new varieties, offered samples galore, sniffing or sipping. Brewers collaborated so that we could taste great new varieties, in intriguing combinations or just solo. One hop was so new it received its name the night before – Triumph.
Of a bushel of new creations, Cashmere seems to be Hop of the Moment (melon, fruity, coconut, spicy). A daughter of Cascade and Northern Brewer, it was initially released in 2013 and now really catching on; very different from the NEIPA exotic mustiness.
Be they whole cone, pellet, cryohops, hop concentrates, help is here for the small brewer. Hop Growers of America is a trade organization that helps facilitate U.S. growers. Also, Lupulin Exchange – a free market hops community is worth looking into by any contract-challenged small brewer.
Seminars were noticeably more high tech this year. I used to believe it isn’t rocket science but it’s certainly starting to look that way. Technical seminars were head-spinningly technical. Safety and quality assurance figured significantly, as did packaging and distribution solutions.
All this seriousness needed some relief and Denver is the town for it. Cracking a few back at Falling Rock, FreshCraft and Bull and Bush any time in the week still reigns supreme for this writer. One of Denver’s greatest scenes is the number of young people you see gathered in its craft bars. Of course every bar here has at least a couple of formidable taps. My personal thanks go to Hannah and Stephanie at Whole Foods Craft Beer Bar for getting me home easy each night.
How better to end this week than with dessert? Freshcraft, as a Conference goodbye kiss, had dry ice wizard Chuck James of Eskimo Bros crafting a crazy quilt of four astonishing ice creams right at the bar. First up was Local Station 26 Juicy Banger IPA ice cream with candied apricots and almond brittle. Why stop there? The oreo crumbles in Surly chocolate Coffee Bender ice cream made us smile. I was satisfied. You’d think I wouldn’t need that final Pliny the Elder at Falling Rock. Had it anyway.
So, another successful Conference, great beer, fine food, vivid conversation and brewers well met. We need to remember that our industry is fluid it’ll be interesting to see what challenges emerge in 2020 in San Antonio. We need to be poised. Ready, set, start planning.