Craft Brewers Conference: A Michigan Perspective
“Networking” is a cliché excuse to get a paid “vacation” and drink a bunch of beer with your industry buddies, but it’s clear that there’s sincere value in being able to look a peer in the eye over a cold one. We may be in the business of beer, but it’s the beer that makes the business worth the work.
The night before 10 Michigan breweries won medals at the 2018 World Beer Cup, the Michigan Brewers Guild hosted an at-capacity meetup at Nashville’s Hopsmith Tavern. With what seemed like even tighter camaraderie than last year’s party in D.C., we hung with a diverse crowd of industry contributors to get their perspective on what makes attending the Brewers Association’s annual Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) so special.
Scott Graham, Director, Michigan Brewers Guild
MittenBrew: On behalf of the Guild, how important is it to be at CBC?
We love to participate in some capacity every year. There’s so much content whether you’re a brewery or you represent a complementary business. For me personally, it’s a wonderful opportunity to network with my counterparts from guilds around the country, as well as connect with the Brewers Association. It’s nice to be in an environment that’s so supportive and recognizes the value of state guilds.
What’s your recommendation for breweries on the fence about attending?
This conference is an invaluable opportunity—one you should be budgeting for. I can tell you that one of the real benefits of CBC that’s not printed in any literature is that it gives you perspective. You get to step away from the hard work you do every day to learn how other people approach what we do. So often your nose is right in there that it’s good to take a break, come up for air, and put a renewed set of eyes on your business. It’s refreshing and invigorating.
When they return home from CBC, what can Michigan breweries expect from our Guild?
In a nutshell, we exist to protect and promote the craft beer industry in Michigan. Obviously, our beer festivals are the biggest promotions we do, but we want to be a resource, too. We work in a heavily regulated industry, and it’s the reality of our business that breweries are going to bump into regulation or have to deal with other parties who want to affect them. So, if we’re not paying attention to that aspect of the industry, it could cause grave problems. You don’t know when or where these things are going to pop up, but because of the growth of the industry we’re naturally going to be exposed to issues that have to be addressed. Certainly, there are nuances involved in making legislative change, so it’s critical to have a voice for the industry in that environment, and we take it very seriously in being a unified voice for our state’s breweries.
Advice for Michigan breweries that are either seasoned vets or fresh out of the gate?
Regardless of how long you’ve been in the game, from a legislative perspective, you have to make sure you know the people who are representing you. Whether those decision-makers drink beer or drink at all, they are very interested in your business. You’re employing people, you’re part of the community. If you haven’t met your representatives or senators, invite them down to the brewery to see how you work. They’re dealing with so many issues that I’m sure they’d be very interested to see what you do, and they’d be flattered that you took the time to invite them over for a beer. And when an issue does come up where you might need their help, it’s going to be a lot easier when you’ve already established a rapport with them.
Dave “Rings” Ringler, Director of Happiness, Cedar Spring Brewing Company
Dave, this isn’t your first CBC rodeo. How many times have you attended, and what keeps you coming back?
This is my fifth year. I’m varsity letterman status. There are two reasons. One: To extract nuggets of information from the seminars, which I’ve found to be a success rate of about 50% of those I attend. Two: Networking here is big time. For most of us, we only see each other at the major festivals and conferences.
How do you approach the seminars?
I bring a notebook where I keep all of those nuggets, and I save them year after year. Three weeks ago, I actually went back to my notebook from the first time I attended because I remembered attending a seminar that addressed a problem we’ve been having, and those notes helped me navigate through the issue. So now, even if I attend a seminar that might not be completely relevant to where we’re at right now, I make it a point to still pay attention and document it because it’s likely going to be something that we’ll have to deal with at some point.
How many people did you bring?
We brought a bigger crew this time—five people. In the past, it started out with just me when we were in that startup phase. But as we’ve evolved we’re able to divide and conquer. I’m tackling distribution, marketing, and sales aspects. Our GM is working on brewpub management, and of course our brewers hone in on the technical side—yeast, safety, etc.
Advice for first-time attendees?
Talk to as many people as possible, and listen. The first time is always going to be a little overwhelming, but if you stay focused—and organized!—you’ll always get something out of it. And, remember, the World Beer Cup is every two years so you’ll get a lot more international exposure as well.
Shannon Long, Founder/CEO, BrewExport
You’re in a pretty unique space. I image attending CBC is particularly relevant for you.
Absolutely. It’s essentially the entire industry concentrated in one city for an entire week. It’s super efficient for me because I’m able to get facetime in one location with my suppliers from across the country as well as my international buyers. In some cases, aside from Skype, we’ve never met so it’s really valuable to get to know them, their beers, and their goals all a little better.
Aside from the in-person meetings, what other value does attending CBC provide for you?
They have an education track for export-relevant issues, including seminars on the TTB [The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] and, particularly important to BrewExport, the intricacies in partnering with China, the UK, Latin American, Canada, all of which are great markets for me. There’s always new little tidbits of information I’m able to take away from the education track.
Anything in particular that’s been of notable success for you this year?
I was able to meet with the TTB and get a ruling on some of the legal interpretations that apply to me. They were great to talk to. They just made my life a little easier, so I’m a really happy girl right now.
Brad Etheridge, Brewer, Atwater in the Park, Atwater Brewery
For a brewery that’s distributed in over 20 states, what are you hoping to get out of repeat attendance at CBC?
Being my fourth visit to CBC, I’m focusing solely on the expo floor this year. Generally, you’ll see a lot of product repetition, but I try to look between the lines for something new—any detail that may spark a light bulb idea.
Have you found any needles in this giant haystack this year?
Yeah, what Crowler Nation is doing with their resealable twist-top lids, although I’m still a fan of Oktober’s small footprint designs. Personally, I’m over growlers—they’re heavy, awkward, and glass breaks. We’re trying to transition into being more sustainability-minded, so the ‘can route’ makes sense for us right now.
If you’re not attending any of the seminars this year, is there anything else that adds to your experience?
The expo floor here is just so massive, and it requires your attention. I do really enjoy the Michigan Brewers Guild’s annual conference—it’s definitely more manageable. But, when you walk the floor here, everyone you talk to is a networking opportunity. I try to learn from the practical applications of what other brewers across the country are doing. It’s honest feedback in real-time.
Chris Musil, Co-owner, Coldbreak Brewing Equipment
You’re here as an exhibitor promoting your custom jockey boxes. Tell the people how Coldbreak came to be.
We’ve technically been around since 2005 when we were just an eBay store. In 2012, we started producing a line of homebrewing equipment, but it wasn’t until 2014 when we turned out our first jockey box at the request of Matt, the owner of Gravel Bottom. Then it just took off from there.
What’s your experience been like at CBC? I haven’t seen many other jockey box vendors, if any, on the floor.
This is our fourth year here, and probably the most successful conference we’ve had to date. There’s not a ton of competition out there, so if we’re going to be one of few it’s important that we deliver a premium product.
What makes your boxes different?
We design them from the ground up, having gone through several revisions over the years constantly working to make the best version of what we do. What the brewers like is that we keep the inputs for all the taps and lines up front in one location. It’s a clean look from the guest’s perspective when they walk up to a booth, and the breweries really like that. We use only stainless steel—there’s no chrome. And, all of our coils are hand bent. They’re designed so that they won’t pop out of their shank. From the moment the beer enters the coils until it comes out of the fauces, its profile never changes. It chills the beer down to the proper serving temperature, and each coil holds 17 oz of beer so you’ll have a full pint everytime you pour a beer. All that being said, we also customize boxes with a brewery’s logo or branding. We partner with Premier Graphics in Grand Rapids, who wrap our jockey boxes with printed vinyl. They’re incredibly durable, and will hold up well during the rigors of festival season.
If there’s not a lot of competition, and breweries need jockey boxes, what assurances do you give them that they should choose Coldbreak?
We back up all of our boxes with a one-year manufacturer’s warranty. But it’s truly more about the relationships we want to have with our clients, who we have all over the world. We stand behind every one of our products, but if you do have an issue, all you have to do is let us know. We’re approachable, we care, and we’ll make it right. We’re not just trying to sell them a jockey box, we want to sell them better experiences for their beer and ultimately everyone who consumes it. The product we make is something that’s critical in helping drive traffic from a festival back to a brewery’s taproom, and it’s a huge honor that we get to play a role in that.
Scott Naylor, Sales Engineer, FOAM-IT
What’s FOAM-IT’s role in the industry?
We manufacture chemical application and distribution equipment.
Unpack that. How does what you do apply to CBC?
Creating sanitary processes around beer production increases quality control and creates better beer. The reality is that every brewery has to be using chemistry, and we’re here to help facilitate those relationships with the people who are supplying chemistry to those breweries.
Do you have exhibitor booth?
No booth, but we value attending because 15 of our customers are exhibiting here. We’ve created strategic partnerships with them to get our equipment in their booths so it’s really important for us to get facetime with those who are advocating our products to the industry. The ultimate end-users are the breweries; our immediate customer is the chemical supplier that’s supplying chemistry to the breweries. The better we can be as a supplier to them, the better they can be in providing solutions to the brewer.
What message do you hope your suppliers are able to communicate to breweries?
The understanding that [a brewery’s] sanitation products don’t do any good just sitting in a bucket, and that chemical application is critical to the sanitation of their operations. Founders has been a customer for about 15 years, and they’re about as good of a testimony as anyone.
Mike Moran, Sales and Marketing Manager, MI Local Hops
You’re relatively new to the scene, correct?
Yes. This is our second year here at CBC. We were here last year after our first crop year.
What’s been the reception like to your hops?
Increasingly positive! Breweries are being very intentional about sourcing and diversifying their ingredients geographically. Michigan’s been gaining a great reputation for sourcing and supplying hops.
Has anything helped your presence in the market?
Yes, resources like The Lupulin Exchange. It was originally established for brewers who had overages on their contracts and needed to unload their surplus. Then the Exchange opened it up to brokers and hop farms, so we’ve been selling on it for over a year, and have been able to reach breweries all over the world.
With only one previous year at CBC under your belt, have you had any standout successes?
Absolutely! Last year we met People’s Pint Brewing Collective from Toronto while they were still a brewery-in-planning. We’ve had the opportunity to work with them on recipes, and have been building a really great relationship. Since they opened, they’ve been awesome at promoting our hops to their network, and are proud to say they’re using Michigan-grown hops. That’s led to us earning the business from many other breweries in the Toronto area.
What’s been the most popular hop for you?
Definitely Michigan Chinook. We won the Hop Growers of Michigan’s Michigan Chinook Cup, recognized for the best Chinook hops grown in the state. It was judged by the Hop Quality Group, comprised of some heavy hitters like John Mallet, Jeremy Kosmicki, and Alec Mull. And, we’ve got two other brands, Copper and Mackinac, coming out soon that are becoming conversation starters because attendees here at CBC are looking for the next new thing.
Josh Gordon, Plant Production Manager, Odd Side Ales
Josh, this isn’t the first time we’ve talked over a beer, but this is your first time at CBC. What are you and Odd Side up to?
My targets for the last year or two have been on packaging, quality, and safety. We’re kind of at a tipping point where we’ve recently expanded and are likely hitting three new markets by the end of this year, so we’re scoping out what possible next steps are going to look like for us. We’re considering investments in software, process equipment, new packaging lines.
As a CBC virgin, what’s been your biggest takeaway so far?
Hands down, the camaraderie forged with people who might be randomly standing next to me when I’m looking at products, and the productive dialogue that’s come from it. It’s given me a lot of ammo in terms of ideas I can go back to the brewery with—what we can do to constantly refine and improve, and the things we can explore that might not have otherwise been on our radar.
Last year, MittenBrew published a survival guide for first-time attendees. Do you have any recommendations for first-timers or breweries on the cusp of a growth spurt?
Knowledge about the market overall. There’s so much room and so many beer drinkers for breweries to execute well, but there’s also finite real estate on shelf space—we all know that. So, if you get to the point where you’re considering distribution outside of your taproom, you better be prepared to not stop. If you do, you can easily become irrelevant.
How difficult is it to not stop and keep the quality and innovation on point—because it’s not as easy as just brewing more beer?
First of all, there has to be a place for that beer to go. Is there a market for your product? Do bars want your stuff? And more importantly, does the consumer demand your product? And if you’re ready to meet that demand, do you have quality assurances in place? In my opinion, there are two things that are really hard to catch up on—quality and safety. With rapid growth, there’s a lot of shortcuts you may want to take, but they will ultimately circumnavigate quality and safety, and can put your brewery and more importantly—your people—at risk that you could’ve avoided.
Nathan Hukill, Brewer, River’s Edge Brewing Company
You’re a first-timer here. What’s captured your interest?
I came for the education track, particularly the technical side, of course. But, one thing that’s been a little frustrating is having to choose between two equally enticing seminar topics that are happening at the same time. It makes for a tough decision.
Did you have any expectations before you arrived?
I didn’t totally know what to expect. Everyone who says the networking is great is right. I’ve been able to draw on the wealth of knowledge not only from Michigan, but breweries that I’m a fan of. There’s something about being able to connect to and learn from people over a beer.
Any parting words for CBC?
Nashville is awesome. I think it’s cool that we’re all fortunate to get to experience an amazing conference in a new city every year.
Pat Evans, Freelance Writer
Welcome back! Good to see you. Tell everyone why I’m talking to you.
Before I moved to Las Vegas last year, I covered the West Michigan beer industry for the Grand Rapids Business Journal and Grand Rapids Magazine, among others. When I left and told people where I was going, the general consensus from a lot of my beer peers was that the Vegas beer scene sucked. So, since I’ve been at CBC this week, it’s been a good opportunity for me to be able to spread the opposite message about beer from Nevada.
Why’d you come back “to Michigan” for CBC?
I missed it. Michigan beer is special. Covering it has allowed me to make a living. So, when I have an opportunity like this to dip back into the Michigan scene and reconnect with everyone I’ve spent the last few years writing about—and getting to know—I can’t not show up to continue to support our industry.
Okay, defend Nevada beer. If CBC ever lands in Vegas, where should we drink?
Tourists are easily swayed by the beers they’re exposed on the strip. Some casinos brew their own beer on site, and most of that isn’t a fair representation of the state’s beer. When you come visit, go support Big Dogs Brewing Company, Great Basin Brewing Co., Revision Brewing Company, Tenaya Creek Brewery, and Craft Haus Brewery.
Pauline Knighton, Sales Manager, Short’s Brewing Company
What’s been your experience at CBC?
I’ve been four or five times. Our industry is constantly evolving, and people’s roles change on a regular basis, so I think it’s important to continue attending so you can grow with the evolution. Originally, Short’s sent me because they cared about me learning as much as I could about what I was responsible for on a day-to-day basis, but they also wanted me to learn about the industry that fell outside of my scope.
What’s the conference done for you in that aspect?
It’s allows you to make multiple concurrent deep dives into every facet of the industry. In my current role, I’ve been excited to learn more about leadership development and distributors.
Short’s is a pretty iconic brand, with a very special identity. Does Short’s reputation impact your perspective when you attend?
There are a lot of breweries who are nailing it from a branding and sales standpoint, so it’s great to expand your perspective in terms of breweries of different sizes executing effectively.
Goals for attending?
I hope to help continue to grow Short’s, so if I can listen to breweries who are bigger than us and learn from their mistakes, I can better position Short’s to be successful while hopefully bypassing some of those unforeseen pitfalls.
Any advice for other breweries who might need help defining their brand?
We purposely embody the culture of Northern Michigan, and although we may grow operationally, which attending CBC can help us do, it’s important to Joe [Short] to maintain the power of smallness.
Are there any unintended benefits or consequences of growing while wanting to maintain your brand identity?
You’re marrying your partners in these professional relationships, so you need to make sure that when you meet them in person for the first time it’s a cultural fit. You’re going to go through good and bad times together, so you better make sure you can kiss and make up for the greater good of your company.
You’ve been multiple times. How does a brewery determine who on their roster to send?
I think it depends on what phase your brewery is in. You want to make sure that whoever you pay to fly, or drive, to whatever amazing city CBC is held in that they’re going with a purpose to bring something valuable back to your brewery. We’re all professional drinkers, and we can network with a beer in our hand any day of the week, but for the sake of respecting your brewery and the conference, be intentional about it, and it will be worth your time and your brewery’s money.