Last week’s Craft Brewers Conference (my first) was a terrific experience and I’m still digesting it in a number of ways. To a certain extent you have to separate out the conference experience itself from the various events and afterparties—there’s not a lot to be learned from a Tone Loc concert sponsored by Dogfish Head, for example, other than Sam and Bryan’s Pain Relievaz are awesome and pair well with a pint (yes, I said “pint”) of Dogfish Olde School Barleywine—but you can’t deny that those extracurricular events are just as important in different ways. But for this post I’m writing about takeaways and musings I have about the conference and sessions.
First, some numbers. According to the Brewers Association, as of the conference there were 3,418 total breweries in the U.S., and a staggering 2,051 breweries in planning. Of those 3,418 the breakdown looked like this:
- 1,871 microbreweries
- 1,412 brewpubs
- 135 regionals
Last year (2014) saw only 46 brewery closings, and 615 openings (1.7 opened per day). Needless to say, craft beer is one of the largest growth segments in the beer industry, with the other big growth segment being—ironically, in my opinion—Mexican imports. Craft beer volume (“craft” as defined by the BA of course) is up 18 percent, and craft breweries brewed 22.2 million barrels of beer last year.
These are some crazy numbers, and while certainly not all of those 2,051 breweries-in-planning will end up opening, you have to wonder—what’s the breakdown in size range among these planned breweries? (Judging by the Starting a Nano Brewery session I sat in on Thursday morning, I’d say a good number are going to be nano—7 barrels or less.) How much beer will they be injecting into the market? Most importantly, is this sustainable?
“Sustainability” was in fact one of the themes of the conference, and it’s echoed, for instance, in one of the main questions I field all the time these days (since writing a book)—when do we reach a saturation point, or, how many more breweries can we handle? (Particularly as these issues pertain to Bend/Central Oregon.)
There’s no easy answer to those questions and we’re already seeing the effects of so many breweries (and upcoming ones) in the growing number of stories on legal conflicts between them, to name but one example—intellectual property conflicts, the basic fact that more and more breweries are (usually inadvertently) running into trademark naming conflicts and the like. And going by the number of attendees at this year’s conference—11,500 or more, depending—we’re not going to see these overall growth issues, good and bad, abate soon.
However, what’s been nagging me about the sustainability question and what the CBC helped crystallize for me are the environmental impacts and implications. Or more accurately, focused my thinking about the environmental issues of breweries and sustainability, and helped me to start framing questions:
- How will climate change affect the beer industry? What will its impact be on the number of existing and upcoming breweries?
- “Climate change” by itself can be nebulous, so to narrow down to a more pressing example: how will California’s drought affect that state’s breweries? (We’ve all heard the (in)famous “California only has one year of water left!” proclamation; whether accurate or not, the issues should be addressed now.)
- Drought isn’t only a problem in California, of course. Here in Oregon the Cascade Mountains’ snowpack levels are near the lowest on record. (The snowpack is an important source of water particularly for regions east of the Cascades.) We saw the direct impact of that driving to Portland on Tuesday observing the low levels of Detroit Lake (as low as I’ve seen). In addition to Oregon’s breweries, what effect will this have on our hop production this year?
- Are breweries thinking about these issues? Are they planning for them?
Beer begins before even reaching the breweries, of course. We have to think about how climate change will affect the hop farms, the barley growers. Two sessions I attended touched on these issues, the first on managing the 2014 U.S. barley crop: the crop was heavily damaged by early rains—in Idaho for instance, up to 60% of the barley was unsuitable for malting. The result of the rain led to what the maltsters call “pre-harvest sprouting” (PHS) that causes a number of problems such as poor germination, mold, and loss of viability. The session was devoted in large part with how to manage and handle such barley for malting purposes. (In essence maltsters have to treat PHS barley as under-modified and brewers have to adjust their recipes and techniques accordingly.) While the panelists were quick to stress that there’s not a malt crisis, there was significant damage to last year’s crop, and the malt supply is currently tighter than it looks.
The other session was on sustainability on the hop farm, and climate change was on the panelists’ lips among other issues. Sustainable hop farming practices are essential, and something Gayle Goschie said about Salmon Safe hop certification resonates here—sustainable farming doesn’t stop at the edge of the farm, but has to include the contiguous land, and the land beyond that. Of course it does, but it’s not something we think about when we consider sustainable farming. We should be.
Other questions I have that spun out from the hop session and tie in to the questions above:
- How many gallons of water does it take to produce one pound of hops?
- For that matter, how many gallons to produce one pound of malt?
- We’re all familiar with how much water it takes a brewery to produce a gallon of beer—typically 5 to 10 gallons used per gallon of beer brewed, though some breweries have implemented practices to greatly reduce this—but has anyone done a study of water usage that includes how much water to produce the hops, the barley?
- Continuing this train of thought: how about carbon footprinting? I’ve seen studies on the carbon footprint of various breweries, but has anyone done the study that, yes, includes the hop and barley farming as part of that footprint? A “farm to glass” analysis, if you will.
This is important, and I don’t know if anyone is working on answering these and more. I suspect it’s going to turn into a project for me, perhaps sooner than later.
Nanobreweries are another trend on the rise, though that should surprise no one at this point. I attended the “Successfully Planning, Starting and Operating a Nano Brewery” seminar held by Kevin Sandefur of BearWaters Brewing of North Carolina. He cited a definition of “nano” up to and including 7 barrels (and I wish I’d jotted down the source of this definition but missed it). The room was packed for the session, and when he asked how many there were planning to open a brewery, I’d estimate about 85% of the people raised their hands. So nanos are the next big thing. Or the current big thing, getting bigger. Or something.
Sandefur stressed quality, efficiency, and repeatable processes during the course of his talk, something that shouldn’t only be expected of bigger breweries but it’s good to hear reiterated for the small players. Because we all know or have heard of the nanobreweries that are essentially large homebrew systems with uneven batch quality and mediocre beer. Quality is key.
And in talking about equipment, Sandefur surprised me—BearWaters came up with a fermentation equipment alternative to a traditional stainless steel conical fermenter. Thinking outside the box they came up with an inexpensive yet ingenious route: glass carboys.
They purchased 40 6.5-gallon glass carboys from Brewers Supply Group for something like $22 each, effectively giving them an 8-barrel fermentation capacity for under $1000. It’s a bit of extra work, but he described their processes for keeping the carboys sterilized and airtight (to keep the oxygen out) and it made sense, and they are winning awards for their beer. Nanobrewers, take note. It’s not very scalable—nobody wants to be lugging around and filling/emptying 160 carboys when you go to 30 barrels, and more—but what a great solution. Carboys—not just for homebrewers anymore!
There was definitely an overall air of optimism pervading the conference, though to be fair since it was my first CBC experience it could very well be an optimistic affair even in down years (it is kind of a party, after all). But it seems to me the number of people there representing breweries-in-planning (particularly the small/nano ones), the overall mood of everyone I talked to, and the size and variety of the tradeshow (to name but three examples) all are indicative of this optimism.
I may have some more thoughts and questions to write about. But for now I’ll leave you with this:
What, did you not believe Dogfish Head put on that Tone Loc concert I mentioned at the start?