The 2015 Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference provided a long desired opportunity to explore Asheville, North Carolina, this past weekend with friends old and new. What follows is not a recap, but an articulation of three takeaways searching for a place on this digital paper.
Asheville Lives Up to the Hype
I am fortunate to live in a place, Missoula, Montana, that makes a new Top 20 list seemingly every week. Take Outside Magazine’s 16 Best Places to Live, for example, to go along with the top mountain towns, best college cities, top river cities, and a host of others. More often than not, Asheville makes the same lists (Missoula was No. 9 in Outside Magazine’s list while Asheville was No. 6).
Both cities serve as their respective area’s hub of culture and gateway to massive outdoor adventures. They would compete neck in neck for beards per capita, but Asheville wins the prize for tattoos by an easy margin. And that’s saying something.
Thus, we arrived in Asheville equipped with high expectations. Asheville met them all and double-downed for the win. Full of life from early in the morning to well after dark, even on a Sunday evening, Asheville delivered the goods.
The food scene is off the charts, though we had little time this trip to explore beyond Salsas, Earl Girl Eatery and French Broad Chocolates (and a quick pop into Vortex Doughnuts between brewery visits). The salsas at Salsas frankly ruined us for life for enjoying any others.
You can’t toss a hipster without hitting an art gallery, glass blowing shop, or museum and the River Arts District is a revitalized gem. Public art populates the city like a wildflower in our nearby Glacier National Park.
But we were there for the beer. Asheville took the top spot in Charlie Papazian’s annual Beer City USA poll so many times he retired the poll (take a hint, Zymurgy).
We focused our time in Asheville’s South Slope neighborhood with seven breweries within a hilly walking distance. Most reside in re-purposed historic building, lending both charm and thoughtful redevelopment to an area previously harboring empty storefronts.
It is an impressive place with a beer culture you literally overhear out of the mouths of visitors and residents as you negotiate the City’s narrow sidewalks.
The 3 P.M. Tasting: Does AB-InBev “Win Over” The Crowd?
One of many sponsors of the conference, Anheuser-Busch had Quality Director Mark Yocum conduct a presentation called the “3 P.M. Tasting,” describing how AB brewmasters gather at 3 p.m. each day to evaluate the quality of the day’s brew.
During the presentation we sampled wort, “chip-beer,” and the finished product, Budweiser, as we listened to a rather fascinating peek into AB’s quality control process. Mark explained how AB evaluates each day’s beer and how consistency and quality is maintained by sampling brews from AB’s many other breweries around the world.
“Chip-beer” is essentially an unfiltered, higher alcohol version of Budweiser before it gets filtered and watered down to become the Budweiser you might purchase in a store. It was quite good and widely praised around the room. Expressions like “hey, why don’t you sell THIS stuff?” were said by many, including me.
There is a constant commentary and instant reaction going on during every session at the BB&WC, mostly via twitter. It’s one of the very purposes of the conference. At the beginning of the AB session that conversation began with skepticism and “bad fizzy beer” jokes, none of which Mark could see – though he certainly knew he was stepping into a hotbed of potential criticism.
Mark handled the crowd professionally and courteously, keeping the conversation focused on the mechanics of AB’s quality control process. Which wasn’t hard. An accomplished speaker, once the “chip beer” captivated the crowd and Mark had finished giving us the kind of insider-information we crave, the twitter conversation had flipped. Participants, including me, appreciated the presentation. Several even commented that Mark had “won over the crowd” even as he expertly dodged the few questions which sought personal, rather than corporate responses.
Yet, the issue with AB-InBev is not about the quality of their mass-produced products or whether it will maintain the quality of their craft brewery purchases. That discussion has grown as old as it is boringly misplaced.
No, the issue with AB-InBev is what it has done in the past to squeeze its competitors – purchasing materials suppliers, for example, to choke off a competitor’s supply – and what it will continue to do in the future – staggeringly discounted keg prices of its purchased craft brands to regain and retain tap handle space, thus squeezing out independents.
That conversation was not the purpose of this session, but it is an important one. I call it the conundrum conversation. It is a conversation perplexing the Brewers Association as well, witnessed by the relative failure of the craft versus crafty effort.
The conversation is something like this: how do you recognize (reconcile?) AB-InBev’s research and development work – be it decades of hop development and production advances, or quality control processes – and the numerous good people who are part of the whole, with the corporate governance that is actively working to harm its competitors?
There may be no answer, but having the conversation will advance the way in which we write about these issues.
The Beer Experience
I’ve long known I reside in the category of people who enjoys accumulating experiences much more than possessions. Until this conference, however, I’d not directly equated this general disposition to beer drinkers and their love of drinking at the source. This, despite writing significantly about Montanans and their tap rooms along with the Quest for Drinking Local.
A co-worker asked whether I’d learned anything that would actually help my writing, believing as many do that the BB&WC is mostly an excuse for a party. In that question, it clicked.
Yes, I explained, I’d gained many new experiences.
That’s the beauty of the BB&WC. Access and collective exploration of shared interests. I can visit Asheville on my own and make a pilgrimage to Sierra Nevada’s massive new homage to beer. But on my own I can’t enjoy a southern-influenced Oktoberfest while listening to Ken Grossman and his German counterparts from Brauhaus Riegele discuss their collaboration to create Sierra Nevada’s new Oktoberfest beer. All while drinking said beer before its release to the public.
Or listen to Kim Jordan, co-founder and CEO of New Belgium Brewing Co. – far more smartly dressed than any of us attendees – describe starting the company in the basement of her house and thinking “if we can just sell 90 cases a week, we’ll be just fine.”
It is an important lesson. As bloggers and writers, we write much about people and places we often really know little about. The BB&WC conferences gives us a chance to immerse ourselves in experiences, be it a visit to Oregon’s Goschie Farm during hop harvest in 2011, or standing in the barrel room at Boston Beer Co. with Jim Koch while sipping Utopias in 2013.
Nothing replaces the power to observe
Taking part give you the chance to notice Ken Grossman waiting for everyone else to get their fill before grabbing his own plate and heading through the buffet line. To notice how Oskar Blues Brewery’s employees work in a distinct lack of air-conditioning in the North Carolina heat and humidity. To enjoy Kim Jordan captivating us with her casual, dry wit and self-deprecating tales – all while remaining firmly in control of her message.
I may not have learned much about transitive and intransitive verbs, but I did bank many new experiences. Experiences which will find their way to paper in many different forms.