Sunday, October 7, 2012

Montana Brewers Conference Provides a Moment of Clarity

The Montana Brewers Association is holding it's first annual fall conference on October 7 - 8 in Missoula following yesterday's Montana Brewers Festival.  We're participating in a panel discussion tomorrow on the interaction between bloggers/media and brewers.  The MBA is graciously allowing us to take part in the full conference line up.  After day one, here's my main takeaway.

This is going to sound odd, but bear with me. One of the best parts about attending the Montana Brewers Conference is realizing how little I know about the craft beer industry.  And hey, as a guy who has written a beer blog for nearly three years, I've got access to the beer industry that goes beyond the average craft beer fan.  Even with that access, and having attended two beer bloggers conferences, it's interesting to realize how little I know.

This confessional moment is valuable for three reasons: 1. Perspective; 2. Appreciation; and 3. Material. Having the perspective to know what you don't know is important in any endeavor, but particularly when trying to establish credibility and respect in a creative, social medium like a blog.  Having appreciation for the challenges and opportunities of the area you write about provides valuable perspective.  And, hey, when you're the author of a blog about a particular subject, it's great to realize you're not going to run out of material.

With small exception, Montana's breweries are small businesses.  They have all the challenges of other small businesses while also having to navigate a heavily regulated segment of industry.

As craft beer drinkers, we know the beer we're enjoying is the product of one or more people milling grain, pitching yeast, filling kegs and drinking on the job.  We tend to romanticize the entire production process because, lets face it, beer is the nectar of the gods. We tend to have a general idea about the three tier system, regulatory constraints, and arcane beer laws we love to bitch about, even if we've never read them.

While getting lost in the aroma and flavor of our favorite IPA, we forget - if we even stop to think about it - the practical and not so practical nuts and bolts our breweries deal with to deliver the beer we romanticize.  At the Montana Brewers Conference today, I've sat through sessions on beer gas distribution systems and peered into the complexity of "merely" getting the beer from the keg to your glass.  Think it's fun having someone say your beer sucks when the fault lies in a tap line that hasn't been cleaned?  

Next up, a malt industry discussion raised interesting issues on the future of barley. Try convincing farmers to grow barely when they're able to take lower risks by producing other crops. The Director of the Department of Revenue Liquor Control Division provided helpful interpretations of Montana's complex alcohol licensing system while listening carefully to comments on draft legislation for a new brew-on-premises license (more on that later).

As if that wasn't enough food for thought, listening to a session on distribution contracts revealed a body of law that at times appears exactly the opposite of long standing principles (and constitutional protections) of "freedom of contract." And that's from someone who knows a bit about "the law."   A session on personnel laws rounded out the afternoon.

Distribution contracts, personnel issues, commodities, complex regulations and pending legislation.  The craft beer industry is by no means alone in any of these issues.  But when we go to the doctor's office, we seem to automatically respect, understand and appreciate the complexity of the health care industry, even if we don't understand it. When we head to the bar, the tap room, or crack one at home, we're usually doing it specifically not to think about complexity.  Unless it's the multiple layers of the latest imperial stout flowing from our glass.

Perspective is a good thing to seek.  These aren't just stories about beer.  These are stories about people.


  1. Thank you Alan for shining a light on many aspects of our industry that rarely get attention. As a brewer, brewery manager, and owner, I am repeatedly amazed how many "non-brewing" hats must be worn to keep the beer flowing from the taps and out of the bottles!
    Dave Ayers
    Glacier Brewing Company

  2. Thanks Dave. The conference provided great exposure to many of these behind-the-scenes issues. We'll keep doing what we can to educate, inform and entertain as we continue our exploration of everything craft beer.