NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Deep within the bowels of the hulking Music City Center, a lone columnist sits in a spartan media room, hunched over a wheezing laptop. In the halls outside, seminar audiences filter in and out of partitioned ballrooms, mulling over lessons learned about yeast propagation, cash-flow management, state-level legislative advocacy — you name it. One floor up, brite-tank manufacturers, artisanal maltsters, and buttoned-up software salespeople trawl over 100,000 square feet of convention floorspace, hawking sundry goods, services, and swag to the thousands of small, independent brewers in attendance. Vloggers set up tripods for stand-up hits; yoga instructors hold forth on the merits of mindful chair posture. There is a shocking lack of coffee, given the hordes of mostly hung over, mostly white people who have wandered these halls over the past few days, but a thoroughly unshocking supply of beer. And once this column is done, this columnist will drink one.
The Brewers Association’s 40th annual Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) unfolded over four days this week, drawing an estimated 12,000 attendees representing the United States’s 9,700-plus craft breweries and the businesses that serve them. It was largely a buoyant affair, despite the Sunday night storms, the industry’s stiffening headwinds, and the long shadows of anti-trans bigotry and gun-humping psychosis cast over the proceedings by the Tennessee legislature, which meets just a mile north of the center. (The BA faced some criticism in the event’s run-up for remaining silent on conservative state lawmakers’ recent retrograde legislative push. The non-profit org did not respond to Hop Take’s request for clarification on its position on the matter; when a similar question was anonymously raised at a “Safety and Solidarity” workshop Wednesday afternoon, rank-and-file members discussed strategies for pressuring the BA’s board of directors to take meaningful action in similar future cases.)
For many expo-goers, this yearly rite of bro-hugging and bottle-sharing is a chance to reunite with former coworkers, glad-hand with future business partners, and maybe even learn a thing or two in the process. For your humble Hop Take columnist, it’s been a whirlwind: Despite covering the beer industry for over a decade, this year’s CBC was actually the first one I’ve ever been able to attend in person. There were sources to meet, interviews to record, and faces to finally put to names after years of phone and email exchanges. Speaking of takes, I’ll have more detailed coverage emerging from my trip in the coming weeks, but here are some quick eyewitness observations from the ground here in Nashville:
“In my community, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg on what beer can be, not only [regarding] the taste and the branding, but also its economic significance of creating quality jobs.”
The National Black Brewers Association has arrived. The last time I spoke to Jon Renthrope was 2015 as I was reporting this feature on craft brewing’s relative dearth of Black brewers and brewery owners. We’ve both made moves in the intervening years: I, to other publications, and he to a big plot of land in East New Orleans, where he plans to build a long-envisioned brick-and-mortar brewery for Cajun Fire Brewing Company, the business he opened in 2011. Renthrope is a founding board member of the National Black Brewers Association (NB2A), a 501(c)(6) organization of industry professionals that met for the first time in person this week in Nashville. “In my community, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg on what beer can be, not only [regarding] the taste and the branding, but also its economic significance of creating quality jobs,” he says. “I’ve been in the industry for 13 years, and I still get passionate about the [brewing] side of it, but I’m more invested in the advancements that it could have for quality of life.” Under the executive directorship of longtime beverage industry veteran Kevin Asato, the NB2A will pursue those complementary goals by “providing black brewers access to the resources, mentorships, and networks needed to thrive,” according to a press release. And best of luck to them.
The Brewers Association is gearing up for several big legislative fights. You wouldn’t have known it from the seminar’s title, but one of the hottest tickets in town this past week was a double-billing with Marc Sorino and Katie Marisic, the BA’s general counsel and senior director of federal affairs, respectively. The two presented the trade group’s legislative and litigative priorities for the coming year and years during a session Monday, highlighting category management, franchise laws, and digital marketing practices on e-commerce platforms like Drizly as key issues that will affect American craft brewers in the future. Marisic, encouraging individual brewers to get more involved in the policy-making process, acknowledged that “politics can be a little scary if you are a business,” but noted that the BA and its members are “the party of beer.” “There are no red states or blue states, only brew states,” she said, recounting a quip she’d heard on the convention floor. Bud Light would probably beg to differ, but her point — that the BA must engage with the 118th Congress and statehouse leaders across the country regardless of the relative odiousness of their views on abortion, gun control, etc. — was consummately pragmatic, and seemed well-received.
Craft beer has a provocative new ally in the fight against public-health policy. The convention center’s cavernous Karl F. Dean Ballroom was packed for Dr. Edward Slingerland’s presentation, “Beer and the Origins of Civilization” on Tuesday afternoon, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why. “There’s a profound sense in which you can say we wouldn’t have civilization without intoxication,” Slingerland, the author of 2021’s “Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization,” told a standing-room-only crowd several hundred brewers deep. Ethanol, he continued, is core to all sorts of vital social functions, and “beer is the best delivery device for ethanol that we’ve invented.” As you can imagine, these lines went over well, as did his core policy recommendation for the beverage-alcohol business more broadly. “The drinks industry has to get out of its defensive crouch. … You’re cowering with nicotine and pornography and junk food, waiting to be regulated out of existence.” Slingerland argued that the contemporary public-health discourse ought to consider alcohol, and beer in particular, differently from those vices and place greater significance on the benefits he claimed the substance has historically produced as a “cultural technology.” (NB: Slingerland has a doctorate in religious studies and a background in sinology and philosophy; he is not a medical doctor.) At the time of rising regulatory and public-health pressure, this type of alcohol-amenable argument, underwritten by Slingerland’s academic stature and charming delivery, is worth its weight in golden ale to an industry under fire. Stay tuned.
“Though craft beer is no longer the belle of the booze ball, there’s still growth to be had by applying the ethos of innovation and ingredient quality to new sub-segments and platforms.”
Next year is definitely going to be the year of craft lager. On Tuesday afternoon, I headed to Living Waters Brewing Company for a rendezvous with the North American Beer Writers Guild (full disclosure: I’m a dues-paying member). Burritos were provided by The Secret Bodega; conversation was provided by current guild president Kate Bernot of Good Beer Hunting/Craft Beer & Brewing and special guest Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Brewing Company and charismatic Gen X heir-apparent to his also-charismatic boss Jim Koch of Boston Beer Company, which acquired Dogfish Head in 2019. Calagione outlined his outlook for the industry he’s spent 27 years helping to build, making the case to two dozen writers on hand that, though craft beer is no longer the belle of the booze ball, there’s still growth to be had by applying the ethos of innovation and ingredient quality to new sub-segments and platforms. (Like, for example, Dogfish Head’s new Citrus Squall, a double golden ale that presents more like a juice.) When asked for predictions for 2024, Calagione cracked wise. “I think it’s fun, heartwarming, hilarious that every year, ‘next year’ is going to be the year of the lager,” he said smirking, referencing a well-trod hobbyhorse of industry gadflies. “But I’m going on the record with all of you right now: next year is going to be the year of the lager!” You heard it here first, reader.
🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now
If you listened to this week’s Taplines episode with filmmaker, futurist, and former Mike’s Hard Lemonade general manager Anat Baron, you know how vital the grocery channel is to the modern beer business. The more the retail landscape consolidates, the harder it tends to be for smaller brewers and distributors to establish and maintain routes to market, which is just one reason we here at Hop Take have been keeping a close eye on Kroger’s proposed $24.6 billion merger with rival Albertson’s. Another reason? Its impact on the already meager livelihoods of grocery workers. A recent study from the progressive Economic Policy Institute calculated that the merger, if allowed, would cost 746,000 workers in the sector a whopping $334 million in depressed wages annually.
A federal appeals court struck down a National Labor Relations Board ruling from 2019 that had forced a racial discrimination suit against Anheuser-Busch InBev into arbitration… Constellation Brands makes its national move with Modelo Oro, its answer to Mich Ultra… Monster’s Q1 earnings boosted by rookie-season rampage from The Beast Unleashed…
📉 …and downs
This month’s Consumer Pricing Index reading shows year-over-year beer inflation at 5.1 percent, which is a) not terrible; b) still not great; and c) still higher than overall inflation, at 4.9 percent… Ye olde Beer Institute clocked beer tax-paids down 2.3 percent in March 2023, even though Mexican imports were up a dozen points, yeesh…