by Annie Tobey
Richmond-area brewery owners and staff worked hard and played hard this week in Washington, D.C., at the 2017 Craft Brewers Conference & BrewExpo America. It offered a blend of networking and learning opportunities, vendor exhibits, and the chance to serve beer to attendees from around the United States. And by extension, that meant there was plenty of beer-drinking.
The conference brought together approximately 13,300 industry professionals and 900 exhibitors. A 15,000-square-foot hospitality suite, dubbed the Virginia Craft Beer Festy, highlighted Virginia’s beer and the state’s craft-beer-business-friendly environment. Gov. Terry McAuliffe spoke at the Virginia’s Finest Reception held in the suite. “Virginia has great craft beer, Virginia has six different kinds of oysters -- and Virginia is for lovers,” he told the Festy crowd. “You do the math.”
At the annual state-of-the-industry address, Brewers Association economist Bart Watson and director Paul Gratza reported that craft beer sales are at an all-time high, but the growth has slowed. After yearly growth of 18 percent from 2013 through 2015, last year saw only a 6-percent increase. At the same time, the market is getting more crowded. More than 5,300 breweries operate nationwide, with more than two breweries opening each day. “[But] there’s still a lot of growth out there,” Gratza said, “and somebody’s going to get that space.”
Further, Watson and Gratza reported that large brewery acquisitions are slowing down. Microbreweries and taprooms are the healthiest segment of the industry, while regional breweries are experiencing challenges because they’re sandwiched between smaller local breweries and big beer companies.
Plus, there’s growing customer uncertainty between beers brewed by independent craft breweries and those brewed by big beer companies. Examples include Devils Backbone and Goose Island, previously independent breweries acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2016 and 2011, respectively. But some consumers aren’t worried about who owns the beer they prefer.
The pairing of beer with food is finally coming of age, and certain styles increased in popularity last year: IPAs, golden ales, saison and farmhouse ales, as well as other light styles. Richmond beer fans mirror national trends: Craft beer drinkers want local products and new tastes, a feeling of connection to the community and the taproom experience.
Seminars at CBC included such scintillating topics as “Dry Hopping and Its Effects on Beer Bitterness, the IBU Test and Beer Foam” and “A Practical Perspective on Foraged and Agriculturally Based Beers” -- with Lincoln Smith and Danny Fain from Ardent Craft Ales in attendance, so be on the lookout for more unexpected ingredients in Ardent beers.
Strangeways’ Mike Hiller presented at a seminar titled “Starting With Quality: Not Just Another Lab Talk,” and Hardywood Park Craft Brewery’s Becky Morrison presented at “Tasting Room Best Practices.” And Richmond breweries made appearances throughout the event and in Washington bars, both in person and on tap.
Gratza is concerned about whether craft breweries will remain united. “Only together can we preserve the independence of craft brewing,” said keynote speaker Dick Cantwell, co-founder of Elysian Brewing.