|Brewmaster Chuck Silva oversees the tasting room at Green Flash Brewing during the Craft Brewers' Conference this week in San Diego. (Jordan St. John photo)
SAN DIEGO, Calif. - You would think that as a brewer, you wouldn't need much in the way of excuses to visit San Diego. The area houses a number of the most highly regarded breweries in North America. If you believe the buzz surrounding it, Stone Brewing's World Bistro and Gardens is worth the pilgrimage all by itself. This year, the Craft Brewer's Conference has made finding a reason to visit that much easier.
Currently in its 29th year, the Craft Brewer's Conference is a moveable feast that finds itself in a different city ever year. This time around there are more than 4,000 industry attendees (I have heard estimates as high as 4,500), and this is partially because this is a World Beer Cup year. The World Beer Cup, hosted every other year, is designed to recognize outstanding achievement internationally, meaning that the number of representatives from around the world is slightly higher than usual.
Canada has no shortage of representatives this year, with large contingents from a number of breweries ranging across the country. It's no surprise that this should be the case as the development of the craft beer industry in Canada closely mirrors the prodigious growth that is currently taking place in the United States. As of 2011, the U.S. was home to nearly 2,000 operating breweries, the largest number of breweries in a century. American craft beer exports increased by 86% in 2011, showing that the demand for more flavourful beer worldwide is practically insatiable.
Since I started writing about beer a couple of years ago, I have always heard the conventional wisdom that Canada is 10 years behind the U.S. in terms of craft beer. We're meant to believe that this applies universally to beer styles and brewing techniques, and also to the readiness of the public's palate to accept strong flavours. With that in mind, I came to the conclusion the Canadian brewers in attendance must be here in order to up their game and develop new ideas.
It's not a hard conclusion to come to, given that the number of seminars available to attendees range in subject matter from developing a Berliner Weisse or Sour Ale to maintaining quality through packaging to multicultural marketing. The amount of information available can be overwhelming.
Some Canadian brewers have come in with a distinct game plan. Gary Lohin of Surrey's Central City Brewing was enthusiastic about the sessions on packaging, pointing out that if Central City is going to ship canned beer across the country, he wants to come as close as possible to eliminating any oxidation that would diminish hop flavour. Ideally, he wants the beer to be as close in flavour as possible to the way it is served on tap at their brewpub.
Doug Pengelly, the brewer for Toronto's Junction Craft Brewing, teaches a course at Niagara College on packaging. While I can vouch for the fact it's a comprehensive course, he was to be found in front of the Micromatic booth at the BrewExpo America trade show, keeping up with the latest developments in draft beer equipment.
Some of the goals are less specific. According to Adrian Popowycz of Toronto's Great Lakes Brewing the main purpose for attending is to "re-energize and motivate. We spend so much time with our noses to the grindstone that it's important to step back and see what's out there."
Some have come looking to learn techniques to develop territories in Canada that have significant room for expansion, like the Maritimes. Others have come without an agenda, simply in an effort to soak up all the information they can. Ultimately, Paul Dickey, brewer at Toronto's Cheshire Valley, raises a good point: "It's about community."
I believe that he's exactly right. It's easy to forget that the Canadian border is not some impenetrable wall. Ideas trickle across, and friendships developed at events like this mean that they will continue to do so indefinitely.
I have also learned one other important thing: The conventional wisdom is nonsense. Canada's brewing culture is developing incredibly quickly and we are nowhere near a decade behind our American cousins. If the dedication and interest and sheer number of Canadian attendees from across the country is any indication, we are going to be making even more progress in coming years.
Jordan St.John writes about beer in all of its many guises on his blog at Saintjohnswort.ca.