It took some time to convince me to go to the Craft Brewers Conference.  You would think we would have jumped at the chance: one big party filled with brewers and beer?  The truth is, I’ve been to trade shows before, and they aren’t all valuable.  “What can you find at a trade show that you can’t find on the internet?” I wondered. 
However, once I saw the seminar list, it was no longer a question.  We were going.  I knew that there wouldn’t be a better time to speak with industry experts, and to prepare ourselves with knowledge of how to make our beer great, and how to make our business plan a reality. 
What I wasn’t prepared for was how many came that were just like us; or, at least at the same stage in the process we are.  The audience was asked: “How many of you are starting up a new brewery?” The Brewers Association reported (six months ago, that is) that there were 1,252 breweries in planning; my guess is, there were representatives from almost every one of these breweries there.  My thought was, as I looked around the room at the hands raised: are we all crazy?  Opening a brewery requires a lot of money; staying in business requires you to sell a lot of beer.  One talk I went to estimated that one million dollars in sales would yield 50 thousand in profits.  That’s – actually not much.  Why are we all doing this?

Will the next big brewery please stand up?

Then, I spoke with someone who thought that the craft beer phenomenon was unparalled in American economic history.  Think about it: thousands of business owners entering the market – and actually succeeding – at taking away share from a few big guys.  Does this happen?  Has there ever been this many people fighting against one common competitor?  It’s not easy for me to think of a parallel.
Because of these thoughts, I went to two different talks on “the bubble”; that is, the moment when craft beer stops growing and all of these new breweries begin closing.  The good news is: it doesn’t seem to be anytime soon.  In fact, smaller breweries are least at risk of this bubble; macro breweries are steady at best, and rapidly declining at worst.  Larger craft breweries (e.g. Sam Adams, New Belgium) are a bit more at risk, and actually losing some of their share to newer and (arguably) more inventive breweries. 
No, the other bubble
I also want to make this clear: the Craft Brewers Conference is actually not at all about drinking beer; but it is everything about brewing beer, and about operating a successful brewery.  I, for one, am very happy that the Brewers Association exists: this organization’s goal is the promotion of craft beer, craft breweries, and the people who operate them.  This conference was a way to train all of these prospective business owners on what it means to operate a small brewery; I can’t imagine there being a single better forum to obtain all of this information.
Some other tidbits I learned, that I did not expect:
-     The TTB (the branch of government regulating beer sales and production) is actually improving their methods to provide approval to breweries trying to open.  Can you imagine that?  A branch of government actually making progress on something?  I know, it’s weird.
-     As we suspected, it is likely easier to make good beer as a large brewery than as a homebrewer, with just a little bit of experience.  This was truthfully not a huge surprise to us, I just didn’t expect to hear a brewer actually say this out loud.
-     In a talk on advanced techniques in sour beer production, the speaker had a bullet point on his presentation that stated “Fuck yer IBUs” in reference to avoiding hops in beer.  I believe this point was aimed towards brewers thinking of brewing something like a sour IPA; but it was a very bold statement, and made me wonder if it was a call to a new age in brewing.  Could sour be the new bitter?  (I don’t actually think so; but it was an interesting thought nonetheless.)
Finally, if there was one message that came across, in every meeting we went to, it was this: if you want to be a successful brewery, you need to have great beer.  That seems obvious, but I’m guessing, with so many new breweries out there, that it could become an overlooked fact.  I can tell you, after this conference, that I have all the confidence in the world that we will be able to do so.  
Sure, we might be crazy.  But we’re sure as hell ready.

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