Save for the name, the North Carolina Craft Brewers Conference held in downtown Winston-Salem last week didn’t bear much resemblance to the gathering held a year prior in Greensboro.
Sure, the attendees were still overwhelmingly white and male — welcome to an unfortunate reality of craft brewing in America. But in several respects, the daytime portion of the second-annual statewide conference felt considerably different from last go ’round.
For one, the attendance jumped dramatically, up from about 275 to somewhere in the neighborhood of 475, NC Brewers Guild Executive Director Margo Knight Metzger said when it was all over. People apparently enjoyed themselves enough last year at the conference, then headquartered at Greensboro’s impressive Proximity Hotel, and craft brewing is taking off enough in the Old North State to compel a spike in attendance from brewers and vendors alike.
All About Beer magazine showed up for the 2014 version; this year, the publication set up a promotional table. And they weren’t alone — dozens of affiliate guild members who hold non-voting roles in the group set up shop in the entry area at Twin City Quarter in downtown Winston-Salem last week.
With room to spread out, the brewers and their friends gathered at what felt like a fusion between a party and an educational seminar, with guest speakers addressing things like hiring tips to kettle souring. It helped that this year, pitchers were astutely placed on tables, so that as the head brewers from Wicked Weed and Mystery Brewing — joined by a Virginia interloper from Strangeways in Richmond — talked about their sour-beer programs, people could try their Fille de Ferme, Melioxos and Rot In Hell Pumpkin Sour beers respectively.
Up-and-comers were given blue lanyards, and the guild hosted an event a day early this year aimed at upstarts. Sam Victory of Wise Man Brewing (above left), which will open just a few blocks north of where the conference was held, wore his deep-blue nametag carrier while listening to the sour presentation with the guys from Four Saints in Asheboro. A few tables up, at the front, Todd Isbell of Liberty in High Point listened intently, as did folks from Gibb’s Hundred in Greensboro at the back of the room.
Jamie Bartholomaus — the head brewer and president at Foothills Brewing who would host the after party at his nearby brewpub that night — was also in the house, though at the moment he’d found a beer and some friends and was chatting across the expansive room.
Therein lies the appeal of the annual conference, started promptly by Metzger after she became the organization’s first full-time employee about two years ago. Beer industry folks are afforded the opportunity to congregate, to swap stories and tips, to relax without the distraction of customers lined up to help kick the keg at a beer festival. The freedom, the educational component and the variety of experiences available apparently made the allure of this year’s conference difficult to ignore.
Let’s hope that next year the NC Craft Brewers Conference returns to the Triad — they’re surveying members and will announce a city in the coming months, though there’s some interest in hopping around, if you’ll pardon the pun. In fact, come back to the same location, where Small Batch is next door, two more breweries (with the addition of Wise Man) will be walkable, and everyone can drive over in a couple of hours or less.
Learn more about the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild at ncbeer.org.