California craft beer industry to converge on Sacramento for inaugural summit
State’s industry players talk shop on eve of inaugural summit in Sacramento
The 1970s was a bleak time for craft beer—but few people even knew it. The colorful rows of small-name brands at local stores enjoyed by modern-day beer drinkers did not yet exist. The nation's beer supply came almost entirely from just several dozen breweries, which mostly churned out bland lager. Brian Hunt emerged from those barren days with an inspiration to ferment and explore and, in the early 1990s, he launched a brewery called Moonlight.
Today, Hunt is a grizzled and highly regarded veteran of the craft beer industry. While his operation, based in rural Sonoma County, has remained small but successful, Hunt has watched the craft beer industry explode over the past 20 years—an incredible economic boom that continues to this day, stealing sales from once-dominant global beer companies while also driving fierce competition within the craft brewing community, where struggles to find ingredients and shelf space are growing more rigorous with every month.
On Saturday, September 12, Hunt will share his experience as a craft beer pioneer with listeners at the California Craft Beer Summit and Brewers Showcase. This beer industry celebration will essentially take over downtown Sacramento for two days, September 11 and 12. Capitol Mall will be shut down for a finale beer showcase on Saturday night, and the convention center will be handed over to thousands of beer lovers, including brewers, chefs, vendors and scientists. There will be speeches, seminars, cooking and brewing demonstrations and, naturally, plenty of beer.
Tom McCormick, executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association, which is hosting the event, says the idea of the gathering is that many people—brewers of different generations, retailers and consumers, and wholesalers and retailers—will have the opportunity to learn from each other.
“We’re cross-pollinating these different layers of craft beer lovers in what is really a hands-on, educational experience,” he said. “It’s much, much more than a beer-tasting festival.”
Charlie Bamforth, UC Davis professor at the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, will deliver a basic “Beer 101” seminar on brewing. Brewers Vinnie Cilurzo, of Russian River, and Patrick Rue, of The Bruery, will discuss tricks and techniques for making sours, one of the most popular categories of beers around. Hunt will share the podium with Donald Barkley of Napa Smith and Mark Ruedrich of North Coast at a Saturday seminar titled “Meet the Pioneers of the Craft Beer Industry.”
The summit and showcase is the inaugural production of what local beer promoters hope will grow into one of the nation’s iconic beer festivals. The Sacramento event will feature only California breweries—but that is hardly a limiting factor. Two new breweries are opening every week in California, and the state is now home to roughly 500 brewing companies, according to McCormick.
The explosion of the industry has been a phenomenon unlike almost any other. The 3,500 craft breweries in America have taken a big and painful bite out of the global brewing conglomerates, like Coors and Anheuser-Busch. Nationally, craft beer now represents roughly 12 percent of the beer market—and in California, 25 percent, according to McCormick.
It may seem like the best of times for small breweries. However, even as the craft beer category slowly nudges the beer giants aside, individual microbreweries are finding themselves competing against one another for ingredients, like hops, and for shelf space in retail outlets.
Ryan Graham, who co-founded local Track 7 Brewing Co. with Geoff Scott, says the crowded marketplace has been good for business for years, driving excitement and fueling the craft beer craze—but eventually, that competition could start to turn ugly.
“If you have one brewery getting all the shelf space with lots of different brands and interfering with other guys who can’t get their beer to the market, that’s their livelihood and then I think the collegial attitude we’ve seen in the brewing community is going to change,” he said. “It won’t be enough anymore to just be friends. People will become opportunistic and look for ways to one-up the competition.”
Already, even Raley’s doesn’t have enough room for all the small beer producers jockeying to claim shelf space in the Sacramento-based supermarket chain.
“We get 50 calls a week from new breweries,” said Curtis Mann, Raley’s senior business manager for wine, beer and spirits. “It’s really a challenge. We only have a limited amount of space.”
To make room for as many craft beers as possible while maintaining a presence of the big brands, Raley’s has done away with many of the packaging forms that giant lager brands have marketed as a way of claiming shelf space. “What we’re doing is just reducing the pack proliferations that we’ve seen with the big breweries—the single, the three-pack, the six-pack, the 12-pack, 20-pack, 30-pack,” Mann said. “We want to make space for all the other more interesting stuff coming in.”
Raley’s now has more than 200 craft beers at some locations, with bigger beer brands remaining on the shelf largely by popular demand.
“We haven’t gotten rid of the Coors Lights and the Bud Lights of the world, because there is a still group of people who are very brand loyal to those beers,” Mann said.
Having stores with a large beer selection may seem like a good thing. However, it can cause problems if the large inventory means bottles will remain on the shelf for longer periods of time. That’s because beers like IPAs are best—most fragrant and flavorful—when consumed fresh.
Track 7 relies on IPA sales. “IPAs are meant to be consumed within 90 days, and ideally within 25 to 60 days,” Graham said. “We can’t have beers stuck on shelves for months at 80 degrees.” For an IPA, the hop aromas that beer drinkers seek out can fade rapidly. This process accelerates at higher temperatures, meaning IPAs are best stored under refrigeration—and hopefully not for a long time. Graham noted that negative experiences with such deteriorated beers can not only ruin a single beer’s reputation but also give a lingering black eye to the brewery.
A few breweries with enough reputation and market clout have required that any retailers carrying their IPAs keep the beers cold. Russian River, famed for their double IPA Pliny the Elder, does this.
“But I’m not sure all of us, especially newer brands, could have that kind of leverage with retailers,” Graham said, noting that beer buyers would simply turn to other breweries less picky about how their beer must be handled.
Some breweries, like Mraz Brewing Company in El Dorado Hills, only serve IPAs on draft at the brewpub. This way, brewers can guarantee that their beer is served fresh.
“Even though we’re popular, I’d be fooling myself to think that all my beer might be bought and drunk within a two month period [if sold to retailers],” said Mike Mraz, the founder of Mraz Brewing Company.
But Mraz hardly even makes IPAs, anyway. His El Dorado Hills brewery focuses on beer styles, often aged in barrels, that mature and improve with time. In a crowded retail market, this works out well for Mraz, since bottles that wind up in a shippers’ warehouse for months at room temperature will actually be better thanks to the holdup.
The abundance of new breweries and new beers has fueled the creative brewing of beers containing herbs and yerba mate and all kinds of fruits. Yet the IPA has remained the most popular beer style in America, with brewers steadily ramping up their hop and alcohol content to appease consumer demands. The craze over IPAs has also pushed other beers off the average beer menu.
The pale ale, for example, has become all but obsolete.
“You go into a taproom and pale ales, which were once a mainstay of craft beer, are hard to find now,” said Mitch Steele, Stone Brewing Co.’s brewmaster. “You’ll always find a bunch of IPAs.” Steele says the proliferation of small breweries is creating considerable competition—even for one of the largest and most successful craft breweries in the state. “As more and more breweries come onto the scene, we’re finding we need to work harder to keep ourselves relevant in beer drinkers’ eyes,” he said.
Stone, in fact, yanked its once iconic pale ale from production earlier this year, reformulated the recipe with a new hop profile and more alcohol, and reintroduced the beer as Stone Pale Ale 2.0. The original beer, released first in 1996, was cutting edge at the time—one of the brawniest, bitterest specimens of its sort, but in the past decade became more or less forgotten in the dust of the craft beer boom. Steele guesses this is because the increased interest in hops, bitterness and IPAs has altered beer drinkers’ palates and expectations.
At the beer summit and showcase, hops will be displayed for attendees to handle and smell, and there will even be trellises assembled in the venue to give urbanites an idea of how this keystone ingredient is grown and harvested.
While the beer summit next weekend will give an impression that beer is more colorful and diverse today than it has ever been, Hunt believes beer today has actually become relatively homogenous. That, he explains, is because today’s brews depend almost entirely on a single plant species—the hop, Humulus lupulus—to add aroma and bitterness to beer.
Hunt is keen on telling people that it wasn’t always this way. Centuries ago, before hops became ubiquitous—and long, long before the triple IPA—plants of all other sorts were used to flavor beer. Hunt honors these traditions by brewing beers spiced with green redwood tips, incense cedar, bee balm, Labrador tea, yarrow, bay leaves and mugwort.
“Some people say, ’Wow, the world of beer is more diverse than it’s ever been,” Hunt said.
But if beer drinkers and brewers would just open their minds to ingredients beyond the hop, Hunt says, then the craft beer renaissance will truly begin.