The California Craft Beer Summit in Sacramento was a true testament to how well California as a whole is doing in terms of craft beer. Listening to the talks and advisory panels given by some of California’s most influential beer players was truly inspiring. Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects is not what this year’s Summit included, but the potential for what future Summits will become. The California Craft Beer Summit has incredible potential to be one of California’s (and the Nation’s) premier craft beer events.
*This year I attended the Summit as a home brewer and member of the media, but I look forward to, in future years, attending as a small brewery owner.
In my preview post I outlined a few of the talks I was interested in. There was a significant amount of ground to cover and many of these cannot-be-missed speakers were talking at the same times. It became a mad dash to get as much information from one panel while figuring out when the right time to bolt was so you could make it to the tail end of another. Fritz Maytag, Charlie Bamforth, Brian Hunt, Ken Grossman, Mitch Steele, Tony Magee, Patrick Rue, Chris Cramer, Matt Brynildson, Vinnie & Natalie Chilurzo, Mike Hess, Lynne Weaver, David Walker, Greg Koch – How can you choose? In the end though, notes were taken, pictures were snapped, and I’m satisfied with the information I gathered.
For those interested in the format of the Summit, it was somewhat different from a traditional convention. Many of the panels/talks/speakers were scheduled in the early morning prior to the main expo hall opening. I think this was an effective way of breaking up the content enabling attendees to get the most out of their experience. The expo hall floor was a moderately sized room in the Sacramento Convention Center. It wasn’t a gargantuan showing by any stretch of the imagination, so there is definitely room to grow. Three stages were located on the outskirts of the main area showcasing Tap Talks, basically smaller mini panels, and Chef Demos. I spent most of my time jumping back and forth between Stage 1 and Stage 3 where the tap talks were happening. I was interested in the chef demos, but they just couldn’t compete with the other speakers.
The main floor was comprised of commercial vendors sharing their wares. Some of these vendors were also targeting home brewers, which I found gratifying. The relationship between commercial and home brewed beer is an important one. It should be synergistic, but it often isn’t. In this case, I felt it was adequate and a good start. Pico Brew was showing off it’s automatic home brewery, some home brew stores were talking about their gear/clubs, and there were a few cross overs like White Labs showcasing not only commercial yeast solutions, but their homebrew ones as well. WLP ready-pack yeast, while limited in strain variety now, is pretty flippin’ cool.
In the center of the floor there was a sort of beer garden where 4 prominent breweries; Firestone, Sierra Nevada, Stone Brewing Co., and Lagunitas, poured various beers. Hard to pass up Velvet Merkin, Lagunitas cherry sour, Thunderstruck, and Ovila.
In addition to the center beer garden there were also 4 bar areas, each pouring beers from a specific brewers guild/region. If you were thirsty, you were covered. I liked the idea of splitting up the guilds and pouring these beers only at each station, but it didn’t seem to work as well in execution. I think it may make more sense in the future to have one specific beer area serving all of these beers. The bar could still be split into different areas/regions/guilds, but more staffing in a central location would alleviate the serving issues I experienced. It may also consolidate attendees. Some of the guilds had 30 people, while others had a steady presence of 5 or less people. Bringing the guilds together under one symbolic roof may make it seam more collaborative and less competitive, which I think is a good thing and thematic of overall summit mission.
The most extravagant feature was closer to the entrance, a massive fabricated hop farm. The display, complete with actual bines and a trellis, was coupled with a fully functioning de-biner. Throughout the day the California Hop Growers Association demoed the giant red piece of farm equipment to interested parties. The hop bines were fed in through a jumper, tossed around in a diamond-holed cylinder (big enough for hops and only hops to escape), and then separated cones were dropped onto a slanted ramp, which landed them onto a framed screen. Ready for the oast house!
On Friday at 10:30, after the first round educational sessions were over, I went to a press conference, which included David Walker, Natalie Cilurzo, Lee Doxtader, Glynn Phillips, and Tom McCormick. This was as much of a welcome as it was a sort of state of the union address for the California Craft Brewers Association. Really informative and very well organized. Did you know that craft beer contributes over 13 million dollars to California’s economy via taxes?
If you’ve never heard David Walker or Natalie Cilurzo talk, you’re missing out. Charisma, charm, and earnest delivery don’t come naturally to everyone, but these two are an exception. I posed a question about one of California’s hottest topics, the drought. Obviously, this a complex question without a single answer. That being said, the answers circled around the difficulties of water politics, breweries working to be as green as possible, and focusing on specific waters saving technologies. Apparently Lagunitas has a pretty killer solution in the works, which may drive water usage down to 1-1.5bbls of water per 1bbl of beer produced!
The Tap Talks were essentially educational sessions in a different format. Rather than holding them in a convention room they were placed on stage. The format ranged from panel to sermon and showcased some pretty awesome talent. Vinnie Cilurzo and Patrick Rue spoke of sours, Mitch Steele on IPAs, and Charles Bamforth pontificated about beer, its meaning, and why it’s so damn reverent. Then there was Tony Magee of Lagunitas, who’s recent corporate buyout by Heineken had only broke a few days prior. Magee told his war stories of opening up additional locations and battles with planning snafus. He almost escaped unscathed, but the Heineken question was posed in the QA portion and his answer/spin was pretty well delivered. To paraphrase, he wanted to pay back his sharehodlers who hadn’t seen a cent since initial investment. Business is his emphasis and the decisions being made were, as he said, made to help ensure the business would be there in the future moving forward on a “friction free surface”.
This is one point that kept coming up throughout the entire conference, mortality, legacy, and succession. What will happen to the brewery, its employees, and “my” legacy after “I’m” gone. Natalie Cilurzo explained that they have no kids, no heir to leave the brewery to. “When I’m 80, I’m going to want to retire,” a sort of we’ll do what we feel is right. To sell out or not to sell out, that is the question, which seemingly has no easy or correct answer, but has no shortage of emotional response. The beer summit’s keynote speaker, Greg Koch, gave the last word for this argument. He spoke during a sort of live interview facilitated by Tom McCormick. He made it abundantly clear that he disagreed with the recent buyouts, acquisitions, mergers, and “partnerships” occurring in the industry. He vowed Stone would never sell out and condemned any idea to the contrary. That being said, news broke just a day before disclosing Koch’s plan to step down as CEO and step up to Executive Chairman. Legacy, succession, mortality. There was a definite feeling that the pioneers have put in their time and the time had come to usher in the new batch. What will the future hold for California craft beer?
The showcase/beer fest on the capitol mall was an incredible sight. With the Tower Bridge on one side and the California State Capitol Museum on the other, over 150 breweries gathered to pour some of their best libations. Walking from one end of the mall, salted with parade confetti, to the other was a serious feat. Who says beer drinkers don’t exercise…other than Charles Bamforth? There were really too many breweries to cover so focus was key. I visited some of my favorites like Smog City and Firestone Walker as well as some of the new hotness (to me anyway) St. Adarius, Henhouse, Magnolia, and Red Curtain. I wanted to visit so many more and judgmentally didn’t visit a few with brewery names seemingly inspired by either the first thing they saw on the way out to the garage or by a random word search in the oxford English dictionary. Hello, we’re Vice Grip brewery, please try our needle nose plier pale. The beer may speak for itself, but through a crowd, branding always gets the first.
From beer geeky beers to hot weather thirst quenchers, the variety was fantastic. The forecast for beer fest day had threatened a deadly 107 degrees, but cloud cover and winds delivered a pleasant 75-80 degrees. Thank Glob. Lines never surpassed a few minute wait, but admittedly, the attendance was likely under what organizers were looking for. We estimated about 3000 people present and I’m guessing max capacity is 2-3 times that, though I’m fine with the added convenience “less-crowded” provides.
I felt like the fest was organized very well. It seemed like people were having a good time and it was easy to navigate through the fest area. There were ample bathrooms, water stations, and a few food trucks as well. Brewery tents were broken up and grouped by region so finding the right beer was pretty intuitive. Overall the fest was fun, full of variety, and was a great symbol of how amazing the California beer scene is today.
I don’t know if I’m getting lazy or overwhelmed, but lately, I’ve been very choosey about the events I go to. There are so many beer fests, so many breweries, so many beer bars, and so many opportunities to get your craft fix. Are all of them worthwhile? No, definitely not. This one though, is very worth your time, that is, if you like beer with a side of learning. This industry was founded on the backs of people who truly care about what they do, what they create, and how they create it. This even was a showcase of these people and a celebration of their collective accomplishments in California. Year one was a great success and I’m extremely excited to see what wonders year two brings for the California Craft Beer Summit.