It’s hard to believe it’s been 18 years since I attended my first Craft Brewers Conference. At the time I was working for a beer distributorship in Houston, and the management there was just getting interested in crafts and imports. We had just taken on the Celis brands, and as the CBC was in Austin that year, I persuaded my bosses to let me attend. I was the eager young buck, pad and pencil in hand, ready to take copious notes about this burgeoning new beer category and show my superiors that this thing had legs.And indeed, the microbrewery industry, as it was called then, had long, beautiful, tan Cameron Diaz legs. Everybody and his uncle wanted in. The dot-com bubble was just starting to bloat, and the craft bubble was keeping stride.
There were just a few hundred people in attendance, but it had the aura of a circus. (In fact, Brewers Association chief Charlie Papazian appeared on stage in a clown outfit. I can’t remember why.) When Charlie asked for a show of hands of who was planning on getting into the beer business, about half raised their hands. Later, Boston Beer Co.’s Jim Koch practically pleaded with the crowd to remember to put code dates on their beer and make sure it’s fresh. I think he foresaw what was coming, but I don’t think most people had a clue of what he was talking about.
The exuberance and electricity in the air were palpable. Craft beer was hitting the national radar, and rags-to-riches stories abounded. Since 1985, the craft beer segment had not experienced less than 20 percent growth per year. In fact, for most of the years between 1985 and 1997, volume was up 40 to 60 percent, and in 1987 it was up more than 100 percent. These were heady numbers, and everybody from disenchanted Wall Street financiers to burned-out engineers to young get-rich-quick swashbucklers was looking longingly at our little industry.
Pete Slosberg of Pete’s Wicked Ale was our god. He signed a baseball for me. I can’t think why. Our distributorship acquired the rights to his brand in Houston and then proceeded to ride that brand to amazing heights, rivaling Sam Adams, only to then ride it down again until he sold the brand to The Gambrinus Co. in 1998, which discontinued it last year.
I also met Andy Klein, who started a contract brewery called Spring Street Brewery, which made Wit Beer. He later succeeded in creating Wit Capital, an online investment bank that sold shares directly to the public over the Web. Eventually Wit Beer faded away, but he sold Wit Capital for millions.
There was a hot beer that year called Rhino Chasers. It too faded away. Anheuser-Busch was soon to introduce a red amber beer called Red Wolf. Yep, it faded to obscurity. I met yet another guy who was funding his beer on the Vancouver stock exchange as a penny stock. It was contract brewed, naturally. It is not available anymore.
What we didn’t know back in 1994 was that this euphoric craft beer bubble was about to burst. The 40 high-volume increases we had seen since 1985 were to turn into a 1 percent gain in 1997. The frenzy of new contract-brewed brands had hit a fever pitch, and people were shipping beer to distributors regardless of demand. Suddenly, beer of questionable taste and quality started backing up the supply chain until distributors and retailers said “no more.” Shipments were refused and a shakeout ensued. Strong brewers continued to grow, but others fell like flies.