The Craft Brewers Conference & BrewExpo America will be presented by the Brewers Association (BA) at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver on April 8-11. Now in its 21st year, the event attracts owners of small local breweries, brew pubs, and big packaging breweries from all over the world — nearly 6,500 attendees last year. When BA first launched the conference in 1993, then-registrar Nancy Johnson expected roughly 300 people. When twice that amount showed interest, she took on the role of event director. She realized there was a real thirst for the Craft Brewers Conference — and the demand continues to be insatiable.
With more people traveling internationally over the last decade, palates have expanded. “There's demand for flavorful beers,” Johnson said. “People want more than what we might call their ‘father's beer.’” The growth of the craft-beer industry in the United States led to a 30-percent increase in BA's attendance from 2012 to 2013, and the net square footage of booth space more than doubled during the same period. BA moved the conference from hotel space to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., to make more room for the blossoming show floor. “We've had such exponential growth in the industry over the last three to four years,” Johnson said, “that it was hard to get ahead.”
For this year's show, BA has already increased the net square footage of booth space for sale by 5 percent, and still has await list of more than 60 companies. With these expanding numbers, the association also has to cater to a more diverse audience. Content needs to be accessible for everyone from small startups and brew pubs to international chains and large companies like Sierra Nevada. “Finding common ground that works for all [members],” Johnson said, “is a challenge.”
BA's education tracks are tailored to the different segments of the craft-brewing community, and change yearly depending on what's current and relevant. “One thing we're really pushing [this year],” Johnson said, “is draft-beer quality. The quality of draft lines at restaurants, bars, and brew pubs is significant to the industry.”
The association also works to promote the pairing of food and beer, so more high-end restaurants will offer craft beers on their menus. “One thing we do at our events is get involvement from culinary institutions,” Johnson said. “We bring in culinary students so they can see how well craft beer pairs with food.”
This year also marks BA's largest World Beer Cup competition, which happens at the conference every two years. More than 1,400 different breweries from 59 countries have submitted 5,000 beers to be judged in 90-plus categories. Winners will be awarded at a gala on the last day of the show.
With an increasingly vibrant craft-beer scene in the United States, Johnson predicts that the 2014 conference will draw an even bigger crowd from around the world, with approximately 12- to 15-percent international attendance, as opposed to about 10 percent last year. However, despite growing attendance, BA works hard to keep the community close. “This industry is so close-knit,” Johnson said. “Some people that you see at the event, you see every year and it's kind of like a family reunion. It's always exciting, no matter what we do.”