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Friday, May 1, 2009

An Insiders Take on the Craft Brewers Conference

My pal, John Bowden of the Great Lakes Brewery, was over in Boston for the 2009 Craft Brewers Conference and he has graciously provided us with his take on what transpired. This was the year I was supposed to attend, but it wasn't meant to be, so here I am enjoying the conference vicariously through Bowden's story.

When I tell people I was at a conference last week, I don’t get much sympathy. Especially when I tell them it was the annual Craft Brewers Conference, which consists of jam-packed days of tours, seminars, brewery receptions, and the like. And then I tell them it was in Boston, one of the greatest cities in the US. Sounds like a pretty tough week, but someone’s gotta do it.

The first day was all about brewery tours, so we jumped on the bus headed up the coast, finding familiar faces in Paul from the Pepperwood and Chris from the Rhino. Our tour made stops at Cape Ann Brewing Company (apparently a scenic little town but all we saw was fog and rain), Smuttynose, Redhook and Portsmouth. Cape Ann had the cool coastal vibe going on, with a funky retail store/bar. These guys are also doing a beer brewed with tea, a barleywine called Tea Party (great name), so it’s quite a bit different than our Green Tea Ale.

Smuttynose is also doing some really great stuff...a really broad range of beers, including an awesome maibock and hopfen-weisse. This place reminded us of Great Lakes – definitely a growing brewery with a lot of equipment sourced from all over the place. But their bottling line must have been from the 60s I swear. The Smuttynose guys sent us on our way with cold beers in hand...anytime you can drink on a bus at noon means it’ll be a long day...

Redhook was, well, massive. Beautiful, new, all the bells and whistles. Definitely a showcase brewery. I can’t imagine being that large...they’re brewing around the clock. The view of their keg room reminded me of that final shot in Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark. Crazy stuff.

Our last stop was Portsmouth, a really cool brewpub affiliated with Smuttynose. I was fortunate to try their famous Kate the Great Imperial Stout...apparently people line up for hours for this bad boy when it’s released once a year. I don’t remember much about it except that it was big, bold, and black.

We headed back to Boston, and to the welcome reception at Harpoon, which is roughly the same size as Redhook (over 100,000 barrels/annually). It’s truly amazing to see breweries this size making some pretty intense beers. This place didn’t blow me away the same way Stone did a year ago (what other brewery has acres of gardens and a hop fridge three times the size of my office?) but it was still pretty cool.

We finished the night at a great bar called the Other Side in the Back Bay area of the city. I have no idea how that place crammed in so many brewers in, but it was packed. I had a chance to speak with Sam Calagione from Dogfish, and had a couple glasses of the 120 Minute IPA. It was like liquid hops. Amazing. Who knew it was 18%? I strongly recommend limiting yourself to one. I couldn’t touch another hoppy beer for 2 days. Ever heard of hop belly? I had, but this was the first time I experienced it. Not fun.

The rest of the days were filled with seminars, varying from oak aging to blogging to hop aromas to new stats on craft beer. There are generally five seminars per hour, so it’s always tough to choose which one to attend. It’s all the more difficult with the tradeshow going on, with suppliers selling every imaginable beer related item or service you can imagine.

The only regret I have is that we skipped the reception at Samuel Adams to catch a Bosox game. Not that Fenway wasn’t worth it (it makes you wonder why we ever built the super lame SkyDome) but to have seen the largest craft brewery in the US and chow down on free lobster would have been memorable.

There ended up being quite the Ontario contingent, including Michael from Denison’s, Ralph and his wife from Volo, the Beau’s team, beer guru Bill White, and of course George from F&M. There were also a few guys from the GTA looking to get into the industry, so it’ll be interesting to track their progress. We missed the guys from Cameron’s and John from Church Key this year, so hopefully we’ll get an even bigger showing in Chicago next year.

The conference also marked the first showing of the awesome video on what it means to be a craft brewer...check it out. You won’t be disappointed!

I Am A Craft Brewer from I Am A Craft Brewer on Vimeo.

*Pic (from Left to right) Bottom: Papa Beau (Beau's), Peter Bulut Jr. (Great Lakes), Bowden (Great Lakes), Matt 0'Hara (Beau's), Bill White Top: (Right to Left) Ralph Morana (Volo), Annetta Jewell (Great Lakes), Paul Dickey (Cheshire, Pepperwood), Steve (Beau's)

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