The Craft Brewers Conference, Thursday through Saturday in Mission Valley, catches a young industry on the brink of robust adulthood. The signs of maturity are as unmistakable as an India Pale Ales hoppy aroma.
» Sign Up For Breaking News Alerts» Like Us On Facebook» Follow Us On Twitter
The conferences turnout this year? A record: 4,500 brewers, exhibitors and fans.
The World Beer Cup whose winners will be announced at Saturdays closing banquet is now the globes largest commercial brewing contest.
But for Kurt Widmer, brewmaster at Portland, Ore.s 28-year-old Widmer Brothers, perhaps the most telling sign is black and white and read all over. Thats no joke wandering through the convention, he marveled at all the books.
When we started out, there was one book in the market, he said, referring to The Practical Brewer, the industrys dry-but-dependable bible. Now, look at all of those!
From The Oxford Companion to Beer to Beer in America: The Early Years, hundreds of volumes hint at Americans growing interest in this topic. But no book can answer the question bedeviling the $8.7 billion American craft beer industry.
The U-T put this question to some of beers brightest minds. Their answers: 1. More breweries
In the overall beer market, craft beer brews made by independent companies using traditional methods remains a bit player, accounting for about six of every 100 beers sold in the United States.
Its a small piece of the pie, admitted Julia Herz, craft beer program director of the Brewers Association, the Colorado-based trade group running this conference. But its a big pie.
While overall U.S. beer sales were down 1.3 percent by volume last year, the craft segment continues to grow.
Big in dollars: The entire U.S. beer industry, at $95.5 billion, accounts for 1.5 percent of the gross domestic product. Big, also, in its reach: Last year, 60 percent of American adults hoisted a brew.
And craft beer is preparing to swallow a bigger slice of this pie. As of March, the U.S. was home to 2,000 breweries, all but a handful considered craft operations. An additional 1,000 are in the planning stages, most of modest size annually producing 15,000 barrels of beer or less and many stressing their local roots.
Were seeing the localization of beer, Herz said. Today, the majority of Americans live within 10 miles of a brewery.
In San Diego County, which should boast 60 breweries by years end, most residents live even closer. Youre seeing phenomenal growth, said Widmer. Every time I come down here, its changed so much.
Escondido-based Stone Brewing Co. and San Diego-based Karl Strauss Brewing Co. are the top two brewers in the county by volume.
The local brewers are earning a national reputation. Ballast Point, for instance, won three gold medals at the last World Beer Cup in 2010 it is held every two years and was named Small Brewing Company of the Year.
This year, the competition has attracted more than 4,000 entries from 828 breweries including from almost every local brewery from 56 countries. 2. Bigger isnt better
More breweries means more beer. Does it also mean more beer sales?
Yes to a degree, argued David Bump Williams. But the Connecticut-based beer analyst argued that successful newcomers and rapidly expanding veterans like Escondidos Stone and Colorados New Belgium will grow at the expense of craft beers biggest players.
Boston Beer, the maker of the Samuel Adams brews; Blue Moon, Coors Belgian-themed brews; and Northern California powerhouse Sierra Nevada may lose customers, Williams warned, as newer brands become available.
Those are national brewers Blue Moon, Sam Adams, Sierra and those guys are getting a lot of pressure from the local and regional breweries, he said. Were starting to see some tap handles coming down from the larger craft brewers. After all, local establishments want to support local brewers. 3. Fiercer competition
In fact, its getting tougher for any brewery to invade a distant market. Thanks to craft beers rapid growth, virtually every region in the country already has its own breweries and favored local brews.
The store shelves arent getting any bigger, noted J. Paul Pepin, a Florida distributor who specializes in imports and craft beers. The grocery stores arent getting any bigger. Where are you going to put them all?
Pepin recently agreed to distribute San Diegos Green Flash in Tampa, but only after checking the Flashs pedigree its reputation in its home area and within the industry.
We dont want to be a catchall, he said. We build brands, we dont collect them. 4. More stories
When the major international breweries began losing customers to craft beers, they responded by creating craft-like brands Coors Blue Moon, say, or Anheuser-Buschs Shock Top and by acquiring imports and craft brands already popular among the beer cognoscenti.
San Diegos Anheuser-Busch distribution center now overflows with cases of Matilda and Sofie, beers from a recently purchased Chicago craft brewery, Goose Island; Stella Artois, the Belgian lager owned by Anheuser-Buschs parent company, InBev; and Leffe, a lightly spiced golden ale first brewed by the monks of Belgiums Abbey Notre-Dame de Leffe, and another InBev brand.
While ads for Budweiser and Bud Light rely on humor, sexy models and football-playing horses, dont expect a similar approach when this brewing giant peddles its craftier brews.
Consumers want romance, insisted George Reisch, Anheuser-Buschs brewmaster. They are sick and tired of branding without the story.
Hows this for a non-babe, non-Clydesdale story? Leffe traces its roots back to the 13th century, when a band of medieval monks began brewing to pay the local lord and pay homage to the Lord.
These abbey ales have to be perfect, said Reisch, who last year was inducted into Belgiums Honorary Knighthood of the Brewers Mash Staff. No cutting corners. If you did, how could you offer this work up to God?
For other stories from our news partner, go to utsandiego.com
Copyright Do you have more information about this story? Click here to contact usCopyright 2012 by U-T San Diego. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.