It’s not often that you get to be in the presence of three major players in the craft beer industry in one place. Let alone be able to ask them questions about the future of American beer and have a few drinks with them. Well, that’s exactly what Tierney and I got to do at the Meeting of the Malts V held in Bethlehem, PA last Thursday. And, yes, we were wearing our signature stilettos!
It was truly an honor to be a part of the evening and have a blast with other Beer Folk. Some 500 attendees consisting of Pennsylvania brewers, craft beer writers, PA distributors, and PA congressmen and lawyers who advocate for the craft beer industry here in our home state. I guess that’s why Draft Magazine ranked this event as #12 out of 101 Beer Experiences Bucket List for 2016.
PRESS CONFERENCE & PRE-PARTY
For the first time at a Meeting of the Malts event, the media had a chance to sit down with the guests of honor: Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.), Jim Koch (Samuel Adams Brewery) and Dick Yuengling (Yuengling Brewery). Dan Labert, Executive Director of the Brewers of Pennsylvania, welcomed the press to the night’s festivities and moderated the press conference.
The group was asked if they were feeling the effects of the Hops Shortage, to which they all commented it wasn’t impacting them. And, rightly so. Their breweries are some of the largest in the country and have secured hop contracts with many of the growers. The contracts are really the key to riding out the shortage.
Ken was asked if Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. was affected by the draught on the West Coast. He reassured everyone that so far they have had no ill effects and noted that the brewery takes water consumption very seriously. They do everything they can to conserve water usage. Also, the move to open a satellite brewery on the East Coast in Ashville, NC was more about cutting transportation costs when getting product to distributors and consumers that lived in this region.
After the press conference, we all headed to the Pre-Party (aka Brew Fest) on the second floor of the ArtsQuest Center where the guest breweries and PA breweries served samples of their latest and greatest.
Our friends from Zeroday Brewing Co. (Harrisburg, PA) brought their A-game and served the newly-released Episode 007 – a super juicy double IPA that became my favorite of this pre-party session – their barrel-aged Grievance Holiday Ale and Mango Habanero.
Other breweries serving up tasty samples were Susquehanna Brewing Co, Berwick Brewing Co, The Lion Brewery, Old Forge Brewing Co., The Brew Gentlemen Beer Co., Voodoo Brewery, Stoudt’s Brewing Co., Barley Creek Brewing, Yards Brewing, Rusty Rail Brewing, Fegley’s Brew Works, Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, Penn Brewery & Dock Street Brewer – many of which I had never tried before. That’s always nice surprise when attending a brew fest. What’s even better? Getting to talk to the brewers themselves. I kind of geeked out over this and asked a gazillion questions. #SorryNotSorry. The questions ranged from details about their brewing systems to random questions like, “What’s your favorite beer style?”
Jim, Dick and Ken were mingling during this portion of the evening and graciously obliging those who wanted to take a selfie with them. Each was so very down to earth and accommodating. I was energized by their enthusiasm they still have for producing craft beer and being active in the community.
DINNER & PANEL DISCUSSION
After the pre-party beer fest, we headed to the third floor of ArtsQuest to the main attraction: a 4 course dinner while listening to Jim, Dick and Ken answer questions about the state of craft beer and what the future may hold for it.
The dinner kicked off with Hijinx Brewing Co.’s Kung Fu Gnome (a belgian ale brewed with jasmine flowers) and a toast from the CEO and brewer, Curt Keck. Soon after, the first course was served and the questions began. Here are the highlights:
Q: How has the industry changed from when you first started?
A: “With the growth of the Internet, people know a lot more about beer. I would say that there are many consumers who now know more than I did when I started brewing. It’s a completely different market place now.” – Ken Grossman
Q: Do you think that the 3 tiers are all aligned with growth strategies going forward?
A: “They (distributors) want to engage their customers with something interesting, something cool – something that consumers will enjoy. They don’t want commodity products. We all are aligned around better beer, with more flavor, more taste, more interesting beers that have real stories and real people behind it.” – Jim Koch
Q: There’s been an explosion of brewers all across the United States. Is there too many breweries?
A: “There’s some 4,300 craft breweries in the United States today. There’s 4 new craft breweries opening every business day. That’s the nature of the business. And, believe it or not there are over 10,000 wineries in the United States so there could easily be that many breweries. ” – Jim Koch
Q: What do you think about all the new guys popping up in your back yard? Are all of these guys going to be successful?
A: “A lot of people (breweries) won’t be around some day. When we bought the brewery in 1985, there were 70 brewery companies in the United States and today there are about 4,200. Time will tell. Certain people will last.” – Dick Yuengling
Q: Any advice or Do’s & Don’ts for breweries starting up today?
A: “You have to give consumers a reason to drink your beer because there’s lots of choices out there. Today, if you don’t make a quality beer every time, you’re screwed. Back in the early 80’s, you could screw up. There was almost this, ‘Well, each batch is different but it shows that it’s handmade.’ But those days are over. Today quality is basically the table stake for craft beer and people who survive are those that find a niche.” – Jim Koch
Q: In the past 5 years, what is the greatest innovations from craft breweries?
A: “I think it’s not a specific style of beer or brewing technique. It’s the whole idea of innovation and the embracing of that as part of the brewer’s art. Back in the 80’s and even the early 90’s, craft beer was all about tradition. It was the traditional European style. They made stouts. They made English ales. It was all about making these traditional styles. Brewers have a whole style book – homebrewers have a whole style book of what every beer style is supposed to be like. And, innovating was not really considered a good thing. I remember back in the 80s, we made a cranberry lambic and people complained that we weren’t supposed to put cranberries in a lambic! So to me the biggest innovation in the last 5-10 years is embracing innovation (of beer styles).” – Jim Koch
So much good discussion! The dinner literally flew by in what felt like sheer minutes. My favorite brew of the dinner? Sierra Nevada Otra Vez – a gose brewed with cactus and grapefruit. Tasty. And, so very different. Loved the twist on this classic style!
After the four courses and a staggering 5 pints of beer were served, the dinner concluded and we headed to the After Party held at the Sands Hotel just a short walk away from Steel Stacks and the ArtsQuest Center. This is when we all made a mad dash to our own hotel rooms to change out of dressy attire into something more casual. Yes. The stilettos came off at this point and cute flats were much needed to continue the night as it shifted from knowledge gathering to networking. It was also a time to drink ‘All the Water’ to rehydrate so we could enjoy some more brews and snacks.
I popped open a can of Under Dog Lager by Old Forge Brewing Company and began making my way through the room. It was nice to see familiar faces like Jess Horn (Wilsbach Distributors Craft Beer Division), Adam Gray (Craft Beer Manager at Arooga’s – a chain of sports bars in PA), JR Heaps and Jen Schaefer (South County Brewing Co.) as well as Mike Upton (fellow craft beer enthusiast and writer from the Lancaster, PA area).
And, it was a time to make new friends while we gab about beer, the industry as well as new and exciting projects we’re all working on.
I had a chance to finally meet Colin Presby in person. He’s currently moving from Head Brewmaster at Avalanche Brewing Co. to his new role as Brewmaster of Carnival Cruise Line.
The guys at Lavery Brewing Co. relayed that they’re growing by leaps and bounds to keep up with the demand for their beer. Currently, they’re in the process of adding more equipment into their brewhouse. A common theme that resonated throughout the night as I talked with brewer after brewer. Definitely an exciting time to be a Pennsylvania brewery. The state is very, very thirsty!
A SPECIAL THANKS
Kudos go out to the Brewers of Pennsylvania organization for planning and executing a flawless and exquisite evening. The hours that went into pulling off an event of this caliber must be staggering. Many thanks!
The Brewers of Pennsylvania (BOP), a strong and influential organization that brings together Pennsylvania-based breweries. BOP members employ an estimated 10,000 employees earning $296 million in wages and generating $1.1 billion in direct economic benefits to communities throughout the state.
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