The CBC through the eyes of a future brewery owner

Centennial State Pale Ale

The CBC Symposium beer: Centennial State Pale Ale (Photo: Chris Bruns)

It might be expected that an event known as the “Craft Brewers Conference” involves a good deal of beer drinking.  That assumption doesn’t go unfounded.

From brewery tours to the sudsy welcome reception at Sports Authority Field to the royal pint of Centennial State Pale Ale all guests received upon arrival, there was enough alcohol at the conference to waste 100 fraternities.  What might be of more surprise, though, is the fact that there was actually a lot of learning happening at the event, too.  Invaluable information was passed between brewers, manufacturers, distributors, and others in the industry.  Seminars helped breweries learn how to succeed in the ever-crowded market and the latest technologies, trends, and innovations affecting craft beer were discovered by those in attendance.

Aside from copious amounts of beer, what is it like to be an attendant at the Craft Brewers Conference (CBC)?  As a prospective brewery owner, I experienced CBC from a different perspective than that of many attendees, most of which were current brewery owners.  Everything said and done at CBC affected me and my path towards brewery ownership, even if only in the smallest way.

It’s impossible to do everything CBC offers but I attended quite a few seminars and I walked the trade show floors for what seemed like miles.  I got a pretty good feel for it all.  This is what CBC looks like to the wannabe brewer.

Micro Matic Dispense Course

Lots of stuff to keep in order at the Micro Matic class (Photo: Chris Bruns)

Lots of stuff to keep in order at the Micro Matic class (Photo: Chris Bruns)

Overview: This day-long class (9am-4pm) covered everything—I mean absolutely everything—a person would ever need to know about draft beer systems (plus quite a few things nobody really needs to know, too, but it’s better to have too much information than too little).  The class covered installation, maintenance, and all the components from couplers, kegs, tubes, and faucets as well as trouble-shooting tips.

What I learned as a future brewery owner:

  • Good gravy, there’s a lot to take into account when setting up a draft system!  I took pages of notes but, in the end, I’ll have to put a lot of faith into the guy who’ll be installing my lines.  I certainly can’t retain everything that was talked about in that class.
  • Apparently, 100% CO2 powered drafts are for chumps and greenhorns; you have to blend that sucker with nitro (even when pouring beers that aren’t necessarily on a “nitro” tap like Milk Stout Nitro).  Pure CO2 has limitations in terms of how long lines can be run so, if the tap lines are exceptionally lengthy, CO2 alone won’t do the trick.  There’s this really complex algorithm that figures out the perfect blend for any particular beer but I’ll put that information on the back-burner for now, whip it out later when the time comes.
  • I don’t think I’d do this anyway because it sounds stupid no matter what but never, ever, ever keep the CO2 tanks inside the walk-in cooler.  Technically, they’ll still operate fine but the pressure gauges won’t read accurately in the cold.  Plus, what happens if the tank springs a leak overnight?  Out in the open, the poisonous fumes would dissipate into nothingness.  In a small, air-tight room, a brewer’s got themselves an accidental gas chamber.
  • A lot of breweries put their glycol chiller—the contraption that keeps beer an even temperature when sitting in the lines—atop their walk-in.  That’s a mistake because the adage is true: “Out of sight, out of mind.”  Brewers need to keep their glycol chillers clean, free of dirt and debris, lest it loses efficiency.  If it’s up in the ceiling, brewers forget about it and it turns into a giant dust bunny.
  • There are more types of couplers and keg valve systems than you can shake a brew paddle at and, should coupler and valve be mismatched, rubber seals are going to get torn.  If that happens, there’s a quick but temporary fix: Take the rubber gasket off a tap faucet and place it on top of the valve down tube before affixing the coupler.  That little hint will come in handy when I take a keg to a festival only to find the seals damaged and ineffectual.

The class covered a lot more material (it was a seven hour course, after all), but these are the bits that stuck with me.

Keynote & General Session

Overview: Held in the massive Bellco Theatre where the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) awards are announced, this presentation was an opportunity for representatives from the Brewers Association (BA) to re-cap the year in beer—where the industry has seen growth, problems facing craft beer, and what the future holds for brewers—and for keynote speakers to address the audience.

What I learned as a future brewery owner:

  • “Get your ass in gear,” says Gov. John Hickenlooper.  The beer geek’s favorite politician made a point that, aside from the historical Sam Adams, he’s the only brewer to have advanced to the gubernatorial level.  He challenged the crowd to get more involved in the world around them, run for election, and make a change in their community.  He argued brewery owners are uniquely qualified for the position: they have customer service skills, they’re collaborative, they care about quality and virtue, and they’re pragmatic.  I won’t be running for office any time soon but The Hick did inspire me to be the best brewer I can be.  I want to be the guy that probably should be an elected official but simply doesn’t have the desire.
Hickenlooper addresses the crowd

Hickenlooper addresses the crowd (Photo: Chris Bruns)

  • There are more breweries opening than closing but, with exponential growth in the industry, it’s only a matter of time before the number of closing breweries begins to rise.  Paul Gatza of the BA referred to the great brewery die-off of the 1990’s, claiming those with a passion for beer survived whereas those focused solely on making a buck closed shop.  Ergo, I must take inventory with myself from time to time, make sure I’m running a brewery for the right reasons.  What’s more important: quality beer or an enviable income?  I can say with all honesty that, at this moment in my life, my allegiance is with the former and it’s essential my priorities stay there.
  • Gatza mentioned quality as a main concern for today’s craft brewer.  With so many new breweries opening, how many are actually good?  The industry as a whole needs to have high standards lest drinkers revert to corporate brewers; why spend the extra dough when the quality isn’t there?  After visiting several new breweries at the most recent GABF, Gatza said 7 out of 10 of the beers he tried could, at the very least, use some tweaks.  Now I’m afraid I’ll be the guy bringing down the whole brew community, that Gatza’s going to come to my business and chastise me for ruining it for everybody.  A little fear is good, though; it keeps us alert.  I’m a good brewer but there’re people out there that are certainly more adept than me so I’ll have to stay on top of my game, always be educating myself, and always be open to constructive criticism.  Of course, since my brewery’s business model is centered on inviting homebrewers in to use the equipment, I’ll at least have a scapegoat for when a batch doesn’t come out quite right: “I didn’t make that crappy beer; it was that darn homebrewer!”
  • The keynote speaker was Michael Pollan, a writer and foodie who, while not necessarily a “beer guy,” is an expert on all things consumable.  He doled out fascinating facts about beer and alcohol in general, discussed its science and history.  He talked of the invention of beer, why humans crave alcohol, and alcohol’s role in the natural world including other animals that like to get drunk.  Apparently, in India, elephants that get a whiff of booze are known to tear through distillery walls in an effort to get to the good stuff.  As a future brewery owner, I’ll be sure to cease operations for the day if a circus train derails in the neighborhood; I don’t think animal control is equipped to handle that variety of varmint.

BrewExpo America Trade Show

Overview: The trade show featured rows-upon-rows of beer-related businesses enticing brewers with their wares.  Hop growers, malt farmers, yeast harvesters, equipment manufacturers, draft system installers, bottle and can companies, and clothing stores were all on hand to separate brewers from their cash.

What I learned as a future brewery owner:

  • Packaging apparatuses that look like Rube Goldberg machines with their whirling parts and confounding complexity!  Pressure washers with such power they’d blast your face right off your skull!  Industrial ceiling fans the size of Dutch windmills!  These are all things an upstart brewer really, really wants but definitely doesn’t need.  When my brewery has expanded and when I have a little extra money in my pocket, I’ll be back for that giant robot arm that lifts kegs as easily as I lift beer cans.
  • I kind of want to experiment with Slovenian hops.  I didn’t know I had this desire until I had a conversation (in broken English) with the folks at Alpine Hops.  I got a whiff of their offerings and they all had a unique and pleasant aroma—I really want to toss some in my brew kettle.  Aside from smelling fantastic, who else (besides Slovenia) is brewing with Slovenian hops?  Nobody, that’s who!  I could be the first.  Brewers always have to be looking for that niche market, this could be mine.  Živela Slovenija!

 

Craft Malt Sensory Workshop

Overview: This seminar featured owners of small malt farms explaining the importance and current rise of craft maltsters, emphasizing the “buy local” philosophy that inundates the craft beer world.  They explained how different geographical locations affect the malt’s flavor and, to best elucidate that point, the audience was given six of the exact same beer—except the grain bill for each was supplied by the different presenters hailing from different corners of the country.

What I learned as a future brewery owner:

  • Honestly, while I found the information fascinating (e.g. the word “maltster” is derived from “malt stirrer”), this seminar was better suited for a future maltster, not for future brewery owners.  It’s imperative brewers have an understanding of all facets of their business but it’s really important for maltsters to understand the ins-and-outs of malt farming and that’s what much of the seminar covered.  I’m already a proponent of “buy local” so they didn’t need to persuade me on that and, because I do support that movement, it’s not crucial I understand the difference between West Coast malts and East Coast malts—I just need to know Colorado malts.  I am, however, better equipped to understand the malt industry and, armed with this knowledge, it will be easier for me to make connections with local maltsters; if I can speak their language, we’ll strike a deal much more effectively.
Six beers from six maltsters

Six beers from six maltsters (Photo: Chris Bruns)

Ready for OSHA?

Overview: As your parents, teachers, and other authority figures said when you were growing up, “it’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.”  This seminar helped brewers accentuate the fun part, prevent the part about injuries (and the fines associated with them).

What I learned as a future brewery owner:

  • I learned that, as a brewery owner, I better watch my ass; OSHA is always lurking, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting brewery.  The average OSHA walk-through results in three citations and a total financial blow of $11,500 (although 22% result in no violations whatsoever).  Furthermore, the injury rate in the beverage industry is 6.5% whereas the national average is 3.4% and breweries are seven times more likely to be inspected than the national average.
  • 40% of all OSHA inspections come as a result of employee complaints.  As the employer, it will be my duty to keep my workers safe and happy because they have the power to bring down the OSHA fire.
  • If an OSHA inspection occurs, I now know how to play it cool.  I know my rights as an employer, I don’t need to reenact day-to-day operations for the inspectors.  It’s okay to verbally walk them through the process.  It’s also okay to keep the inspectors focused on the task at hand.  If they’re there to check in on slippery floors in the brew room, there’s no need to show them the distribution factory where they might stumble upon more ways to attack us financially.
  • Of course, a culture of safety should be in place anyway, OSHA or no OSHA.  Nobody wants to get injured and nobody wants to see their co-workers injured, either.  Besides that, empirical data shows companies with good safety records also have the highest valuation.  Ergo, better safety equals more money and what business owner doesn’t like that?

As I look through the seminar schedule the organizers provided me when I first checked-in to the conference, I realize I experienced but a small percentage of what CBC has to offer.  But that’s the nature of the beast; there are so many presentations scheduled for the same time that nobody could ever get the full experience.  Nonetheless, like a mosaic artist, I picked up pieces here and there and, collectively, I’m now slightly better prepared for brewery ownership.  There’s still plenty for me to learn and plenty of experience to be gained but, if nothing else, I’m a step closer to my goal.

About Chris Bruns


Chris Bruns is a self-professed beer geek living in Denver. Chris spends much of his time brewing beer at home with friends and family, attempting to visit every brewery in Colorado, attending special beer events and festivals, purchasing and assessing the latest releases from local breweries, and blogging about his adventures in the world of craft beer. He is also the Denver Craft Beer Examiner on Examiner.com. Contact Chris by e-mail at chrisdbruns@gmail.com or through his blog at www.beerincolorado.blogspot.com.