When Pro Brewers Talk Shop

These days, just about everybody and his grandmother has toured a brewery. But put even a semi-knowledgeable beer person on a tour with professional brewers and it’s akin a high school athlete on the field during a pro ball game. That was how I felt last Thursday when I attended my second meeting of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas.

Hugo and Leslie at the 1999 international MBAA meeting

Hugo and Leslie at the 1999 international MBAA meeting

It’s been a while—16 years—since my first meeting. That one, back in 1999, was an international conference that took place in Copper Mountain, Colorado, with plenty of belted Dockers and tucked in button-up shirts. Most of the participants were men, like my husband Hugo, who represented macro beer companies. In terms of the U.S. presence back then, that meant primarily the three largest breweries: Anheuser Busch (no AB InBev, yet), Miller and Coors (no MillerCoors, SABMiller or Molson Coors, yet). There must have been some craft brewers in attendance, but they were barely on my radar in those days.

Leslie at the regional MBAA meeting

Leslie at the regional MBAA meeting

Fast forward to Thursday’s Northern California district meeting, held at the Gordon Biersch Brewery in San Jose, California. To my knowledge, the two biggest players present were Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas. There were plenty of jeans, beards, tattoos and a respectable number of women brewers. When I commented to a regular participant on the absence of macro representatives, he said it was a bit unusual and recalled a previous regional meeting hosted by Anheuser Busch at their Fairfield plant (between San Francisco and Sacramento).

A brief history lesson

The MBAA, the venerable granddaddy of professional organizations for brewers, was founded in 1887. It survived Prohibition and the consolidation of the industry during the 1950s through 1970s. Long before craft breweries or internet, the MBAA was encouraging scientific research into brewing malt beverages and uniting the brewing community throughout the Americas.

While U.S. breweries were disappearing at alarming rates in the 1970s, homebrewing was gaining popularity. Then, in 1978, Jimmy Carter signed H.R. 1337 and made the activity legal for the first time in 58 years. Within months, Boulder, Colorado homebrewers Charlie Papazian and Charlie Matzen founded the American Homebrewers Association.

Today the AHA is part of the Brewers Association, or BA, which sponsors both the Great American Beer Festival and the Craft Brewers Conference. In 2014, tickets to the GABF, which the general public can attend, sold out in 32 minutes with an attendance of 49,000! And in April, 2015, over 11,500 participants attended the CBC, an event limited to members of the brewing industry and allied industries.

The future

Gordon Biersch employee Brandon Keck who we knew from his days with the local homebrew store

Gordon Biersch employee Brandon Keck, who we know from his days with the local homebrew store

Those statistics and the rise of craft brewing are enough to make you wonder if the MBAA will be eclipsed. It won’t.

The BA’s Craft Brewers Conference addresses a wide range of craft brewing needs—and does it with cool, sexy vibes. What’s the latest in custom tap handles? How do you train and manage salespeople? What’s trending in marketing techniques?

Wort aeration equipment at Gordon Biersch

Wort aeration equipment at Gordon Biersch

Meanwhile, the MBAA remains true to its mission. It’s always been focused on the technical aspects of making better beer. MBAA members are the guys and gals who walk into a new brewery with the excitement of kids visiting Disneyland for the first time. On Thursday, we spent a large portion of the tour in Gordon Biersch’s control room while the pro brewers fired questions beyond my full comprehension at their colleague leading the tour. Topics included yeast propagation and repitching, fermentation times and temperatures and wort aeration. On regular tours, I doubt many people lag behind to study the bottling line or linger at the wort acidification tanks.

One of the strengths of the U.S. beer scene today is its diversity—of beer styles, breweries and brewers. There’s plenty of room and need for the MBAA, the BA and the AHA.

Brewers' dinner: location-Gordon Biersch warehouse, decor-a barley center piece

Brewers’ dinner: location-Gordon Biersch warehouse, decor-a barley center piece

What I saw last Thursday was a vibrant meeting of experienced brewers, many of whom had come long distances, to keep learning. One speaker remarked that “the MBAA’s current membership, which is really good, is being driven by craft brewing.”

For beer enthusiasts, that’s very good news, indeed.

The Gordon Biersch Brewery and Bottling Facility, 357 East Taylor Street, San Jose, CA 95112, offers tours to the public Monday-Friday by appointment. For more information or to schedule a tour, contact email@gordonbiersch.com.

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