Expert Topic Craft Brewers Conference Curtain Raiser: What’s New at CBC this Year?

The Brewers Association (BA) is busy prepping for the arrival of thousands of brewers, industry suppliers, and others at its annual Craft Brewers Conference (CBC). Hosted this year in Las Vegas, the conference comes at a time of considerable consternation and anxiety in a flat brewing industry. The BA planned seminars and speakers to help smaller brewers navigate these challenging times. I spoke with Ann Obenchain, the BA’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications, about what brewers can expect at this year’s conference.

Andy Crouch: How goes preparation for this year’s Craft Brewers Conference?

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Ann Obenchain: Progress is underway, as you can imagine, and now is when all the details are happening. Everything that you can imagine to throw a giant party for 10,000 of our closest friends.

AC: You mentioned 10,000. How do attendance numbers look compared to Nashville last year?

AO: It’s pacing a little slower than Nashville but our breweries are famous for waiting until the last minute. We’ve talked to quite a few of our breweries that have attended in the past, and some are still waiting to make a game day decision. Some are waiting to see if they have the staffing. Some go every other year. So even though we’re going to Vegas, it’s hard for me to bet on what our final attendance numbers are.

AC: Is it something about the Vegas location? I know when talking to brewers, they’re either incredibly excited about it, or it’s a polarizing spot.

AO: You are exactly right. And we even had one brewer say that they didn’t know if they could trust their staff in Las Vegas. All of those factors come into play, timing, expenses. Vegas is incredibly easy to get to, as well as lots of lodging options to match your budget. But I think it just comes down to what’s going on in your brewery at home as well as if you can get away. Our exhibitor numbers are strong and we’re super excited. I think it’ll be our fifth largest Brew Expo. So we’re super excited to see all of the exhibitors in the hall this year. So really anything you want to find from grain to glass is going to be in the hall.

AC: What is going to be new at CBC this year?

AC: We’re expanding our tent to bring topics and speakers that talk about other things to inspire what breweries are making. We have Colin Schilling coming in to talk about cider. We’re hosting some distilling seminars for folks that are thinking about distilling. I am so excited about our keynote, Fawn Weaver. Her story is just incredible. She has a history of always identifying opportunity, breaking down barriers, and being phenomenally successful in the face of adversity. So whether you’re in beer or in whiskey, I think her story is going to be really interesting and hopefully spark some inspiration for our breweries.

AC: How does the BA choose the keynote speaker?

AO: We get feedback from our members. We are always looking at what is happening, what are trends? What do we think is going to be of interest? Sometimes we pick industry folks, sometimes we pick literally rock stars, or mountain climbers. We really try to tap into what’s going to strike a chord with the current environment. And we keep hearing it’s tough out there. And we know it’s tough. And we know it’s challenging. Yet here’s somebody who is really leading into the future and being successful. So what can we learn from her?

AC: What is it in particular about Fawn’s story that you think will hopefully resonate with viewers? Or what messages are you hoping they take away?

AC: There’s so many. One is starting a spirits business, starting a whiskey business from the ground up, turning it into a billion dollar business in just four years. Her story of going to the distributors asking questions, being told you have to do it this way or it’s not going to work. And she did it her way. And it worked. She really leaned into creating a scarcity marketplace during COVID. So even though they were sold out, she leaned into advertising. So when people are going into stores, they’re saying, “hey, do you have any Uncle Nearest” and they say, “No, we’re sold out.” And you keep getting those requests then all of a sudden, the staff at the store is saying, “Well, we got to look up this company and see what’s so great about it.” And then they asked their managers to buy it. So just thinking about those types of things. As well as just telling a story, right? She’s got an incredible brand and incredible brand story to tell about the Uncle Nearest brand as well. So pick any one of those. And then just her culture of leadership, I think how she’s empowered her staff and how she leads are things that I think we can all learn from. I’ve been watching lots and lots of tapes. I don’t want to be a spoiler, but I’m inspired. I think it’s going to be really great. And our moderator is Beny Ashburn, the CEO of Crowns and Hops, so it’s going to be a moderated discussion. I think it’s going to be one that you shouldn’t miss.

AC: Are there any seminars in particular that you’d like to highlight?

AO: I think we have a little for everyone. I think about trends. I’m a marketer. Brandy Rand is an industry trends spotter. She’s going to be talking about what’s influencing how we drink today and in the future. And talking about those larger consumer trends, kind of weighing that. Accompanying that is Chris Shepard, discussing ways to weigh alcohol research policy and perceptions with sort of a review of the science and the policy with maybe some other lighter, brighter feelings people have for drinking. So that’s the consumer mindset. But then, you know, drilling down into our tracks, because we have eight different tracks, you know, sales and marketing, the brewing process, some of those more technical pieces. Dr. Alex Speers and his talk on pasteurization for regular and non alcohol beers, that’s been in the news quite a bit lately with putting non alcohol beer on draft. So that’s a can’t miss for our brewers. And then we’ve got quite a few finance and leadership seminars. Audra [Gaiziunas] has a pre-conference bootcamp on financial planning, as well as Kary Shumway is going to present on how to drive profitability in an era of compressed margins. How can we help our brewers be smarter with their bottom line when we’ve got compressed, shrinking margins and operating costs keep going up. So all of those I think would give you a well rounded CBC. And there’s many more, of course.

AC: Any last pitch?

AO: Everyone is going through similar things, and I bet you can find some answers or find some inspiration from someone else on the floor. So I think it’s always well worth the time to get that face to face time with your peers and colleagues. And be sure to have some fun in Vegas as well. There is everything you could possibly imagine. Lots of great breweries, lots of great food, and plenty to do.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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