Four Takeaways from the 2023 Craft Brewers Conference
Bursting at its tasseled seams, downtown Nashville experienced one of the busiest weeks that locals could remember. With Taylor Swift playing several sold out shows in her adopted hometown, along with events ranging from a Janet Jackson concert to several local graduations, the capital city welcomed the 2023 Craft Brewers Conference and its nearly 12,000 attendees, 600 exhibitors, and more than 170 speakers. Let’s review some takeaways from this year’s conference.
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Takeaway 1: Growth Is Gone
In his keynote address, the Brewers Association’s (BA) Chief Economist Bart Watson delivered a somber presentation on the state of the craft beer industry. Watson told the assembled group of thousands of brewers that “years of double-digit growth are well in the rearview mirror. And unless something changes, I don’t think we’re going to see them again anytime soon.” Watson told brewers to expect slow to no growth in coming years, noting that craft brewers, as defined by the BA, experienced only 1.2-percent growth in the past six years.
Watson also advised breweries to expand their focus on bringing underrepresented audiences into the craft beer fold. Flanked by graphs and slides showing that the audience of Black, Asian, and Latino consumers purchasing alcohol are on the rise, Watson made the point that craft brewers need to widen their aperture and increase efforts in order to expand the reach of their businesses. He plainly told the industry that “no one should be resting on their laurels.”
Freelance beer writer Courtney Iseman, who attended her first CBC this year in Nashville, thought the conference did a good job of advising breweries how to manage the challenging business environment. “The craft beer industry is facing such strong headwinds in the way of so much competition and a saturated market, changing consumer preferences, rising costs, consumers reevaluating their spending,” she says. “I think the BA addressed that quite well with lots of speaking to how breweries can adapt, shift their business models, reshape their portfolios to attract more drinkers, with seminars on how to actually do all of that.”
Takeaway 2: The Future Is Challenging
The sentiment underlying Watson’s sobering keynote was present in many conversations between industry players.
Tomme Arthur, the co-founder and Chief Operating Owner of The Lost Abbey, echoed Watson’s take. “The future for beer has many challenges ahead,” he said. “Younger drinkers are not consuming as much. We have an aging consumer who has been our staunchest supporter and they are drinking less. And on top of all of this, beer consumption has been steadily on the decline…Competition for attention is at an all time high.”
Moreover, Arthur isn’t convinced the era of closures is over. He points to challenges with the cost of goods and raw materials, tighter margins, and the cost of borrowing money as reasons for concern. “With the feds playing tug of war with the interest rates, lots of brewers with variable rate term sheets are getting squeezed,” he notes. “Those brewers who might be seeking a line of credit don’t have the numbers to work within these new interest rate parameters. Access to capital seems to be something on the undercard not getting enough attention but money is way more expensive than it used to be.”
Arthur also looks at the broader industry and believes it may be spread too thin. “As it stands, the consumerism we have cannot support the number of breweries in this country at a healthy level,” he says. “My friends and I expect more attrition.” While he remains hopeful about craft brewers returning to growth, Arthur is also realistic. “If we look at the best parts of beer, there is more variety of beer in the world than ever before,” he says. “So it’s an incredibly exciting time to be a consumer. Being a producer, maybe not so much.”
Takeaway 3: Innovation Is The Path Forward
Craft beer has long been propelled by its pursuit of new flavors and a desire to push the boundaries of beer’s definition. During his keynote, Watson counseled brewers to innovate and develop new ideas and strategies in order to attract new customers. After a half-decade of hazy beer dominance alongside hard seltzers and pastry stouts, brewers are intently trying to figure out the next path. “Everyone who rode the hazy, seltzer, pastry train is looking around wondering how to differentiate themselves and hoping that the ‘next
thing’ gets here quickly so they can pivot and find new consumers,” Arthur says.
Iseman agrees with Watson that the audience for craft beer is changing and that innovation is a way forward. “I think the industry will shrink in the sense that there’s never going to be the same excitement and demand, at least not for the next generation of drinkers or so,” she says. “But I think the breweries that do survive are the ones that figure out how to grow and change and adapt, so I’d expect to keep seeing innovation and quality beer and beyond from them.”
Craft brewers chasing trends also concerns Todd DiMatteo, the owner and brewer at Good Word Brewing & Public House in Duluth, Georgia. DiMatteo was in Nashville attending and pouring beer at a variety of side events. “I worry about craft beer,” he begins. “I believe that what we are producing has over the years become homogenized. All those styles we once saw many people brewing have given way to only a handful of beers you see smattered on beer menus across the country.” He points to the impacts of consumers using Untappd and social media to drive retailers who influence brewers to produce similar products, “the snake eating its tail,” he notes. “This has led us to this overall boring landscape in respect to the beer, and to quality in a lot of cases…We have like 10,000 breweries now, and such a small number have a unique perspective or story to tell. There are certainly some with a point of view and I respect that, I hope we see more ways to connect to a brewery.”
Takeaway 4: Craft Has A Long Way To Go In Its Inclusion Efforts
Despite some public efforts to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, including in its seminars, this year’s CBC again courted controversy. Many voices challenged the BA’s decision, undertaken several years ago, to hold the conference in Tennessee, a state with a history of adopting anti-gay, anti-trans, and other discriminatory legislation. Others challenged the BA’s reluctance to issue a strong statement of support for these communities and even condemnation of the state’s laws. Even the conference’s seminars came in for criticism, including one promoting the notion of privilege as a “leadership superpower,” run by a white woman.
Iseman has written at length on DEI related topics, including in her newsletter, Hugging The Bar, and she had strong words for the BA following her attendance at CBC 2023. “I hate to say it, but I’m really not feeling optimistic right now,” she says. “CBC crystallized that the majority of industry players don’t care about meaningful change, or systemic change that could actually make this industry diverse, inclusive, and equitable. It’s hard work and too few people with influence care to do it. You would think the way 2020 and 2021 shook out in the world and in craft beer specifically, that would have been enough to finally motivate the majority of the industry toward breaking down racism, misogyny, homophobia, and if that didn’t do it, then what would it possibly take to motivate people?”
As a member of the BA’s Board of Directors, Arthur notes that he is “proud of the work the Brewers Association is doing to be more inclusive. “The industry can and will grow if we find a way to promote diversity and inclusion.” He noted awareness of a collection objection letter to the BA circulating among attendees and others in the industry but could not offer personal comment.
Iseman cites the work of many members of the craft beer community and supporting organizations that continue to strive for change. “They are determined to make this industry inclusive and the impact of their efforts shouldn’t be understated or underestimated—they just need the rest of the industry, especially people in leadership and with the money, to pay attention.”
DiMatteo shares the interests of many who were left disappointed by the BA’s response to concerns leveled at the event over the issue of inclusiveness and support for marginalized communities. “I think it’s obvious the BA screwed up,” he says, noting that he is a member of the organization. “They’re saying, ‘hey we need to be inclusive and there’s this group of craft beer drinkers we need to get excited about,’ meanwhile they’re ignoring these BA members who are part of that community. I also think that if you’re going to hold the conference in a place that’s passing hostile legislation then you have a responsibility to have more safety measures in place so the people that make up that group feel safe.”
It remains clear the BA has a lot of work to do to satisfy the concerns raised by BIPOC and LGBTQIAA2S+ community members. “At minimum, it was a huge missed opportunity to draw on some fresh voices on the road to being more inclusive, and glean some insight,” says DiMatteo. “Seems like there’s a lot of talk of diversity and inclusivity but not a whole lot of action.”
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