91. Field Notes from CBC
Good people, good beer, good learning, big f-ups, missed opportunities, failings, and more from Nashville.
CBC: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
As this hits your inboxes, CBC will have been over by less than 24 hours. My days consisted of frantically bopping from seminars to free couches, chairs, tables, windowsills, etc. to stay on deadlines and address edits, because that’s the thing about coming to a multi-day conference as freelance media: you’re gathering intel for future (not guaranteed!) work, so if you don’t keep working in the moment, you are…not earning any money! And being at this conference is, frankly, fucking expensive! All this is to say, I decided on a format for this newsletter issue that accommodates this kind of schedule, and I think it might make for a better read, anyway: real-time field notes. Maybe this will kind of make you feel like you were there, whether you wanted to be or not, lol.
Monday, May 7:
I wish this started with the Beer Is for Everyone Pride party held on Sunday, but the weather in Nashville and Spirit Airlines had other ideas and I got to my AirBnB roughly six hours after I was supposed to. So, we begin with Monday, and the opening remarks. And maybe it was my sleep-deprived mental state, but I somehow had deluded myself into thinking maybe there was a nonzero chance—like 0.01%—of someone acknowledging the hateful, dangerous anti-LGBTQIA+ situation in Tennessee. The one we’ve been waiting and waiting to hear from the Brewers Association on. Now, I can confirm: no dice. And I feel embarrassed to have even entertained the thought.
But some good things happened! We got to see the inspiring Julie Rhodes win the BA’s Mentor of the Year award, which was awesome, full stop. Equally moving was watching Atrevida Beer Co. owners Jessica and Rich Fierro win the BA Recognition Award, and it was also cool to see Breakside brewmaster Ben Edmunds win The Russell Scherer Award for Innovation in Craft Brewing. In his speech, Ben made some points I appreciated because they were in the anti-ego-driven-brewmaster vein, emphasizing teamwork, collaboration, and not thinking you have some exclusive monopoly on innovation which entitles you to any pedestal. “If you think you have a premium on good ideas, you’re flat-out wrong.” Some could stand to remember this!
I also appreciated the keynote speech from BA economist Bart Watson, with insightful and illuminating info—as always—on the state of the industry. My key takeaway here: breweries simply must be willing to stay nimble, scrappy, ever evolving. Too much pride, too much stubbornness, too much thinking you’re in any way too good to have to expand your portfolio or rethink your distribution footprint or innovate on your taproom experience, and you really just can’t survive this changing industry. Also, craft beer has the lowest proportion of women and BIPOC drinkers of any major beverage alcohol category, but stands to have the best growth. So, quite a head-scratcher as to why so many breweries defiantly continue to ignore speaking to more groups.
Which brings me back around to another huge negative. Other than the award recipients and the keynote speech, watching the opening remarks made me feel like I was losing it. It felt like I had accidentally tuned into a rerun from 20 years ago but couldn’t change the channel. It’s the first time I wanted to heckle anyone. It was the same tune we’ve been hearing from some white straight dudes about craft beer for 40 years. “Craft beer was started by people who wanted to make beer our way, who wanted to innovate, blah blah blah, community schmommunity…” Other parts of these remarks focused on how craft beer is no longer the new kid on the block. It’s a maturing market. Stratospheric growth is over, it’s about settling into long-term existence that responds to the changing world.
Why are we still high on this David-versus-Goliath narrative? Craft beer is a maturing industry, and it’s years past turning the focus away from breaking out and toward everyone figuring out how to be actively inclusive and equitable, always improving. Why isn’t this the big, bright, glowing, flashing neon sign hanging over an event like CBC? It’s such a missed opportunity, it’s criminal. And honestly, it makes anyone in leadership not prioritizing these conversations look like an out-of-touch, head-in-the-sand, stick-in-the-mud buffoon at best, and prejudiced and ignorant at worst.
If you weren’t following Ren Navarro’s stories during CBC, head to her Instagram for story highlights to learn more about an example of the craft beer industry’s failure to be inclusive and of an event that is supposed to guide the way falling drastically short. With a behemoth, centralized event like CBC, the BA could effectively usher thousands of breweries into a more equitable era, but improvement here inexplicably seems controversial among breweries and industry members. Too many people with too much power are ignoring literally everything happening in this world, as well as members of underrepresented communities.
Look. I’m grateful to have gotten to come to CBC, and I’m still excited to be here, for reasons I’ll be unpacking now as we go through the days. I invested in my career and it feels like a huge step for my own growth and goals. Being here, I’m learning fascinating technical innovations, systems, and processes, from incredibly smart humans I just admire so much. My interest in things like infusion malts is piqued, my knowledge about things like advanced hop products is growing. And, most importantly, I am meeting the people who keep me excited about this industry, who keep me in it, to be honest. As Ren points out in this Instagram video—which you should watch for many reasons—the BA does have absolute inspiring forces at work like Dr. J Jackson-Beckham. All of this is complicated. There are sources of light everywhere, but they’re being blocked by prevailing prejudices, ignorance, biases, and straight up laziness. Said sources of light are tirelessly picking up the charge and fighting, and they’re making it better for all of us. These people make coming here worth it more than anything.
On that note, to wrap Monday up: a seminar called “researcher presentations” was my favorite of the day. It included several mini seminars within it, and I did feel it was a shame all these geniuses had to speed-talk their ways through their fascinating work. I learned tons and want to know more. How do wildfires affect hops and why is that so relevant as our planet continues to burn? How does malt get infused with flavor and how can that layer even more flavor and aroma into beer? How does pasteurization affect a beer’s final perceived bitterness and ABV? Another super interesting seminar dove into the craft beer market in Southeast Asia—it was helpful for breweries looking to possibly explore distribution there, but I enjoyed just learning about the differing inner-workings of craft beer’s presence in Thailand and Singapore.
I ventured out a bit from there, taking a break to hear some music in a honky tonk on Broadway, and grabbing a perfect Czech dark lager from Fait La Force Brewing before celebrating the Pink Boots Society at Jackalope Brewing. This was the event that gave me all those aforementioned feels. This was where the people that give me any hope at all for craft beer were. Upon leaving there, my exhaustion was outweighed by the rush of meeting so many cool people and also by starvation, so I made one last stop at Smith & Lentz because lager (pilsner dry-hopped with German Ariana hops!), and cacio e pepe pizza.
Tuesday, May 8
I feel like I got a lot of my Big Feelings out yesterday, so let’s get this thing moving, shall we? After sleeping for the first time in three nights, I hit the trade show floor and learned about everything from automated brewhouse systems to technology for making regular recipes non-alcoholic to a dedicated small beer brewery in London just launching now in the States. I also ran into some more lovely folks, and on a recommendation from a trusted source, enjoyed a delicious cold IPA from Wiseacre Brewing at Hopsteiner’s booth. The only seminar I could fit in today was on using exogenous enzymes in brewing—why, how, and where in the brewing process—more intriguing stuff. Then I took a break in the media lounge to catch up on emails and edits and write this account. While I do so, it is impossible to tune out a brewer in the hall having a loud phone conversation where he keeps calling someone who works for him “this chick.” [Melting-smiley-face emoji.]
Next was the North American Guild of Beer Writers meet-up at Living Waters Brewing. This little two-hour chunk of time was the thing I was most excited about this whole conference, and it did not disappoint. Cheers to NAGBW director Kate Bernot for a great event—and Q&A with Sam Calagione—that fostered such good conversations and gave a real space for coming together and forming connections. Not to get too cheesy, but you know, more big feels! I don’t take for granted for a hot second the opportunity to meet such smart, creative, lovely humans. And, you know, share the fact that…what the fuck are we doing with our lives? Lol jk, mostly.
From there it was a swing by All About Beer’s Camp Rauchbier at Barrique Brewing & Blending, and if you know me at all, you know that I wish this event was every day at every brewery. I was honestly kind of gutted to have such a teeny window of time here because there were so many smoked beers from so many good breweries, and I think it’s the first time in my proper adult life where I felt like, “screw it, if I have to get drunk to work my way through a third of this list, let’s do this.” Alas, time was of the essence; I had and loved Barrique’s Grätzer grodziskie.
The reason for the rush was we had to get to Brewsters Arm Wrestling at the 5 Spot, from Valley Malt and hosted by DraughtLab’s Lindsay Barr, which raised money for Abortion Care Tennessee. Due to the cause (also, I like the 5 Spot) I would have prioritized any kind of event this was, but it happened to be one of the best things I’ve seen happen in a bar in…ever? The…wrestlers? Challengers? Warriors? had whole costumes and entourages and personas, and between them and the hosts, I—soz for the earnestness—felt bowled over by everyone involved’s creativity and comedy shops. And arm-wrestling skills! This was the event to be at, folks—I’m still seeing Instagram stories from people who were there that I’m bummed I never even saw, because it was so packed. I truly wish CBC was just a couple days of events like the NAGBW meet-up, the smoked beer extravaganza, and brewsters’ arm wrestling. (Shout out to Dolly Shartin,’ btw.)
That would probably be the only way I’d come to another CBC unless there is a drastic culture overhaul between now and next year, which I think we all know is highly doubtful. After getting home last night, I realized something and all the anger from Monday rushed back. There was a particular seminar that crystallized this conference’s shortcomings (understatement) re: actual inclusivity, and I had brought the seminar listing up on my phone to discuss with people without fully digesting its name. Isn’t there some psychological concept that speaks to your brain seeing what you think something should be? I’m too tired to look it up. But the seminar was titled Privilege as Your Leadership Superpower. I think my brain was like, “lol no, nothing could be that baldly offensive!” Go read the description at that link.
Again, all of this is complicated. Just as there was so much good and bad at CBC, there are good people working the BA and good people in the beer industry, and bad actors in both places, too. But what’s not complicated is what we can all take away here: this industry is so unbelievably far from being meaningfully, impactfully improved, and it’s as impossible as ever to get a majority of industry members to give a shit. Some will continue to leave this industry, some can’t afford to, some want to stay and fight, so especially for that latter group with the means to do so: roll up your sleeves. As Ren mentions in that Instagram video I linked to above, the outrage you feel now should be the outrage you feel all the time. Don’t ask someone in Ren’s position questions, ask the source of the issues. Hold organizations accountable. Beer Is for Everyone has put together a Collective Objection Letter to the BA, which I urge you to sign. If you were at CBC, you’ll have the app—go in and rate seminars. There were good ones! Rate ‘em well! But there were bad ones, with lasting, damaging effects. Don’t miss the chance to speak up about those. [UPDATE: An email was also just sent out with a more overarching survey, TAKE IT. And, if you’re a Pink Boots member, you also got an email asking to share your CBC experiences. MAKE SOME NOISE.] I say this so much here in regard to so many issues in this industry, but we can’t remain in this industry and this community without remaining mad. Please, please don’t stop asking questions of organizers and powers that be.
Wednesday, May 9
Lindsay Barr—again, DraughtLab—and Dr. Laura Burns from Omega Yeast led an interactive seminar on making and tasting thiols that was so fun and fascinating. I think they made me love science? And get excited about data? Even things about thiols I thought I knew, this panel unlocked new levels of understanding.
I then took in a seminar on building an educational beer festival. This was interesting, but didn’t even touch on safety and inclusivity, and…I understand their objective was to explore creating a festival with an accessible, marketable information component, but I just don’t think we should be advising on beer-fest planning without addressing the giant, urgent, make-or-break elephant in the room.
And that’s a wrap, folks! This is an anti-climactic ending because of my real-time approach here, deeper thoughts being revealed earlier. But: I came, I saw, I learned, I drank great beer, I met great people. Thank you to every kind soul for every lovely conversation—you all brought out the good in this conference and made these few days special. Beyond that, everyone, stay fucking mad, and stay fucking loud. I’m about to spend a day in Nashville getting a tattoo, vintage shopping, checking out live music, and thinking about anything else other than beer before going home to Darby and getting Back to Work.
No beer tarot, media rec, or exbeerience this week, because this is a ~special edition~ that’s already long as hell; also, I forgot my tarot cards, I haven’t gotten in much reading, and the “exbeerience” was…everything you just read. But until next week, here’s one of my daily photos of Darby I require to be sent to me while I’m traveling.