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craft brewers conference

MittenBrew sent Jeff Rogers, Brewery Operations Manager at Harmony Brewing Company, to Craft Brewers Conference & BrewExpo America® in Washington, D.C. to document the annual event from the lens of a first-time attendee. What follows is his experience, and a few recommendations to ensuring a successful show for those considering attending. MittenBrew edited some of Jeff’s reflections for clarity because let’s be honest—it’s hard to keep everything straight when you’ve got a beer in one hand and a selfie stick in the other.

craft brewers conference

Pre-planning

  • Unless you have absolutely zero agenda for attending, which would seem counterproductive and a disservice to yourself and the brewery you’re representing, plan ahead. Don’t wait until you arrive to make a game plan. You know what your brewery needs better than anyone else, so establish goals for yourself based on those needs, and create a hit list of what you want to accomplish.
  • The Craft Brewers Conference website and conference app can be your best friends, if you use them, and especially if you familiarize yourself with them before you go. Seriously, download the app. It’s free.
  • After registering for the conference, use your credentials to log in to the Online Planner. Here, you can build and customize your own personal agenda, adding anything you want to see, experience or remember, which you can then sync to your phone’s native calendar. You’ll likely have a few beers on the expo hall floor and after hours, so having your schedule in your pocket already mapped out will help when you get distracted from where you’re supposed to be, with whom, and when.
  • Conference-sanctioned brewery tours fill up and educational bootcamps sell out quickly. If any interest you, register ASAP.
  • Watch the weather when packing your suitcase, and don’t forget your walking shoes. The first question everyone will ask you is, “Where are you from?” Beat them to the punch, and wear a shirt with your brewery’s logo or home state on it. It creates an easy conversation starter, and it’s free advertising.
  • Bring more business cards than you think you’ll need.

Travel and Accommodations

  • If you’re not shy about bunking up with someone, share a hotel room, and split the cost. If the hotels closest to the conference book up, and they will, don’t forget about Airbnb options or other hospitality-share programs. If you’ve got friends and family in the conference city, ask to crash on their couch. It’ll save you cash, and leave more money for beer not distributed where you live. But, consider distance to the conference from where you’re staying because taxi, Uber, and Lyft fares will add up quickly. Either way, don’t cheat yourself on a solid night’s sleep.
  • Shoot to arrive by mid-day the first day of the conference (the day before the expo floor opens). This will give you time to beat the lines when picking up your credentials, get your bearings in the convention center, and attend the Welcome Reception that evening (which you need your credentials for anyway).

 

BrewExpo America

  • Do not underestimate the size of this conference and convention floor. There were over 13,000 people in attendance, and 900 vendor booths. It can be a little overwhelming, and you can only do so much at a time. Don’t try to tackle visiting every booth in one day. Stagger your days by breaking up the expo floor into chunks in between any seminars you attend.
  • Say this with me: “I’m not the only person on the floor.” Practice self-awareness. You will be surrounded by hundreds of people at any given moment, many of whom are walking with a purpose. Please, don’t stop in the middle of an aisle or major walkway to check your phone or stare off into space. When you do, and someone bumps into you, it’s not their fault. Also, just like the rules of the road, walk on the right.
  • Swag. Yes, it’s free. Yes, you can have one. But, if you take it, put it to honest use. Companies pay good money for the stuff they give away. If you know it’s going to end up in the bottom of a drawer or in the garbage when you get home, save that company some money and yourself the hassle of hauling it around for the week.
  • Go early, and beat the rush. The expo floor generally tends to be a little quiet in the morning because there’s no shortage of industry parties at night that may or may not influence one’s ability to roll out of bed before noon the morning after. Don’t waste your mornings by getting wasted at night. This shouldn’t be amateur hour. We’re trained professionals.

 

 

Seminars

  • Including Sponsored Demonstrations, there were approximately 70 seminars covering 11 different educational tracks. You will miss some. If you’re attending with anyone else from your brewery, don’t all sit in the same seminars—split them up so you can be in two places at once. Compare notes later over beers.
  • Don’t let this be an excuse to not attend the seminars, but if you do miss any, their content and presentation slides are pushed out to attendees after the conference. Still, you’ll get valuable insight by sitting in the seminars live. Bring a pen, and take notes (throughout the whole conference). It’ll help you remember the nuances of what you learn, who you meet, and what you talked about. Things will get fuzzy.
  • Don’t hog the mic. Engage and ask questions. Don’t let your brewery’s unique anomaly of a problem that’s hyper specific you prevent others from getting their questions answered, too. We all remember that kid in class who raised his hand so he could repeat what the instructor just said, rephrasing it to look smart. Don’t be that guy either.

 

Eating and Drinking

  • There are beer stations everywhere. You don’t have to look or go far to sample an array of beers from all over the U.S. To keep things on the up-and-up on the expo floor, beers were understandably restricted to 2 oz. pours. It might seem cheap at first, but you’ll be thankful for it after three days in, and dozens of samples later.
  • You know what the most important meal of the day is. Eat it. It probably changes somewhat with the destination city and venue, but lines for food during peak lunch hours were brutal. Frustratingly long. Plan accordingly. Pack a protein bar or other snack each day to tide you over until you’re able to sit down and enjoy a meal. You’re going to be drinking, so don’t do it on an empty stomach, unless you want to miss the evening festivities and disappoint your colleagues who have to worry about getting you back to the hotel early.
  • During the first two days of the expo, there were multiple sponsored hospitality areas with beer, light food, and different activities or games from 2:30 p.m – 5:00 p.m. Conquer whatever essential business you might have before then, and spend these couple hours unwinding, making new connections, and batching whatever you’ve done that day.

 

 

After-parties

  • When you register for the conference, RSVP for the opening night’s Welcome Reception. This sold out long before the conference, and there’s a reason why. The host venue is usually pretty swanky—this year it was held at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Free beer from about 40 different breweries and fancy hors d’oeuvres make this event a no-brainer. However, food had a tendency to run out fast. So, if you go hungry, arrive early. Trim your neck hair, and put on a nice shirt.
  • There are sanctioned “official” off-site parties nightly. See the conference program for details on admission (typically complimentary with your conference credentials or via advance guest list sign-up). These will be busy, too. 13,000 people are going to go somewhere after the conference each day, and they’re probably going to go where the beer is free, so expect lines. Be polite when the hosts ask for your name or proof of RSVP. If you have to demand, “Don’t you know who I am?”, the answer is probably “No.”  
  • There are also dozens of other happy hours, meetups, and hosted parties by different breweries and state guilds. They’re not hard to find, and worth going to. You can do some of your best networking and learning during these informal socials. Talk to attendees, ask what they’re up to and where they’re going. You’ll have no problem finding a party that’s your speed.

 

 

After the Conference

  • You know all those business cards you collected? Use ‘em. At the very least, send those people a courtesy email thanking them for their time and whatever value they gave you. Your ride or flight home is a great time to draft that correspondence. Hit “Send” on those emails within one week of getting back to work so you’re still fresh in their minds.
  • Stay in touch with the people you met, traveled with, and partied next to. Despite the impressive size and attendance of the conference, our industry is still smaller and more intimate than you think. Word travels fast, and so do reputations. Take care of yourself, treat those you meet with respect, and pass along referrals even if they don’t benefit you right away. Karma is a thing, and—if you do it right—the Craft Brewers Conference is the place to share it, and receive it.

We’ll see you next year in Nashville, TN. Cheers!

 

Photography: Steph Harding & Jeff Rogers

 

SEATTLE — Some time ago, Michigan and Washington were playing against each other in some sports contest or another. Our local paper put out a list pitting Ann Arbor against Seattle to see which was cooler. I love Ann Arbor — I would take a bullet in the face to defend it, and I think it is the greatest city in Michigan — but it’s really no contest: Seattle is bigger, it has a huge technology core, it’s on the Pacific Ocean and it has mountains.

It also has a thriving craft beer scene.

As far as I know, the two cities have never gone head-to-head in beer but as luck would have it, I was out in Seattle last week and decided to do a little brewpub tour to see what the Emerald City had to offer.

Pike Brewing Company

This was the brewpub that many people recommended to us. It reminded me of a bigger, more crowded Grizzly Peak or Arbor Brewing Company in that it was set up like a restaurant and focused on good food.

There were two samplers available: the “standard” beers and a special one made up almost exclusively of IPAs. Since neither Ken or I are huge hop heads, we opted for the standard sampler.

The standout for me was the Pike XXXXX Extra Stout. The beer was a lovely dark brown with a creamy head. It balanced notes of chocolate and espresso, with roasty malted goodness. I didn’t get any hop profile but Ken said it was too hoppy for him; it had an IBU of 65 and it was brewed with three kinds of hops, but perhaps I picked out the chocolate and coffee flavors enough that I didn’t mind the hoppiness. Either way, it was a nice and toasty 7% ABV stout that went well with the burger that I got. The stout reminded me of Arbor Brewing’s Espresso Love, but with a bit less coffee flavor.

Outlander Brewery & Pub

This was the real “find” of our journey. We had just taken a magnificent tour of the Theo Chocolate Factory and decided to take a walk, because surely a 15 minute walk at two miles per hour would burn off those 2,000 calories we just inhaled.

On our trek, Ken spotted the pub, which is located in an old house. This setting made it extremely comfortable to walk into; the older, mismatched furniture added to the charm, reminding me of the furniture at the Arbor Brewing Microbrewery (previously known as Corner Brewery) that they had in the lounge, back in the day.

The only bad news was that Outlander was in the midst of brewing new beer and thus the selection was limited. Nonetheless, we enjoyed our sampler and I especially liked the Hefeweizen.

The brew had a crisp taste, a hint of bananas and cloves with a nice, spicy finish. The best thing about the beer was how well balanced it was — I often eschew hefeweizens because they are too wheaty, but this one had a nice, clean taste.

Looking at their website, it appears that Outlander has brewed a number of very interesting beers and I can only hope to get back there one day to try some. Until then, I would compare the Hefeweizen to Arbor Brewing’s Bavarian Bliss.

Elysian Brewing

I don’t feel that I can adequately rate the bar itself because we went into the wrong one. That is, there are several branches of the brewpub, and we picked the one that is more cocktail bar and less brewpub. In fact, it was no brewpub at all except that it offered Elysian beers on tap.

The atmosphere was definitely upscale (think: Vellum or the Raven’s Club). This is not meant as an insult, but just to say that it wasn’t a brewpub. In fact, when I asked the bartender what hops my beer was made with, he replied that he hadn’t memorized his hop list for the day.

Nevertheless the beer was excellent, specifically the Split Shot Espresso Milk Stout. While I do love stouts, I usually don’t like milk stouts. Part of it is the thought of lactose in my beer…it just isn’t my thing. And part of it is that I can usually just taste the lactose sweetness to the expense of all else. Luckily, the espresso cut into the milky taste and left a beer that was creamy and dark, with a lovely coffee aroma and smooth finish. It was like the perfect cup of coffee, but with a 5.6% ABV. This beer was definitely on par with my favorite Michigan sweet stout, Saugatuck’s Neapolitan Milk Stout.

Naked City Brewery

The Naked City Brewery has one of the best themes I’ve come across: old, noir movies. The names of the beers reflect this theme and the televisions were showing the Turner Classic Movie station! Again, we enjoyed our sampler and my standout surprised even me: the Brute Force IPA. Didn’t I just say that I’m not a huge hophead? This beer was just that good!

The brewery used Cascade and Simcoe hops to hop and dryhop the beer, but neither overpowered the biscuity, malty flavor. The citrus flavor from the hops was present up front, but it finished off to a nice, warm biscuit of 6% ABV goodness. I don’t drink a lot of IPAs so it was hard to think of one to compare it to, but I read some of my old blog entries and I would pair it with Griffin Claw’s Grind Line Pale Ale for a head-to-head comparison.

Fremont Brewery

Our last visit was a quick stop to the Fremont Brewery. Apparently, tens of thousands of people go to the Fremont neighborhood to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July — who knew? Many of them were at this brewpub, so it was hard to get a feel of the place and we definitely could not talk to the very overworked bartenders.

We still managed to snag a sampler though, and my standout beer was Fremont Summer Ale. It was described as citrus in a glass and it was — light, crisp and at 5% ABV would be very easy to drink while doing yard work. It was the perfect ending to a nice week away. For its citrus notes, I would compare it to Atwater’s Summertime Ale — although Atwater’s is more lemony while Fremont’s had more of a tangerine taste to it.

Because our stay was short, we couldn’t make it to dozens and dozens of breweries but the ones we went to were definitely brewing some good stuff! For our next trek out west, we have Hale’s Ales, Hilliard’s, Elliott Bay and the Peddler on our list.