As I drove 725 miles through jockeying semi trucks, dusty lakes and sweltering heat toward the inaugural California Craft Beer Summit, I was certain I would be surrounded by astonishing epiphanies offered up by the beer-famous, controlled debauched, hops overloaded spectacle now underway in the Sacramento Conference Center. After all, it’s been a helluva week in their $6.5 billion industry, one that featured Petaluma’s Lagunitas Brewing Co. announcing a 50-50 partnership with Heineken International and San Diego’s Saint Archer Brewing Co. being gobbled up by MillerCoors LLC. Somewhere soon in Amsterdam, Loote van Leeuwen will be kicking back on his front porch, wearing clogs no doubt, drinking a Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’.
But the message for the approximately 2,000 attendees at the California beer group hug was decidedly against the grain of the headlines from this week. Instead, the message from all the pulpits yesterday was go local, very local. In fact, many times I checked the reader board certain the event would be renamed the Sacramento Craft Beer Summit. In the past five years, Sacramento breweries have grown by nearly 400 percent. There are more than 40 within a 50-mile radius of downtown. For comparison, Sacramento County boasts fewer than 15 wineries. Comparing wine and beer is not apples to apples, sure, but there’s no denying the speed by which beer is overtaking Sacramento palates.
And while the Sacramento breweries — the likes of Rubicon Brewing and Track 7 Brewing and New Helvetia Brewing and Bike Dog Brewing — did stand tall and pour proud, it was a common sight to the Sacramento brewers hovering near Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. founder Ken Grossman, Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing, Russian River Brewing Co.’s Vinnie Cilurzo, Greg Koch of Stone Brewing Co. and David Walker of Firestone Walker Brewing Co.
Last night — after a day listening to San Diego State University instructor Michael Peacock discuss draft systems, Firestone Walker Vice President David Macon chat up the economic value of craft beer and Chef Patrick Mulvaney, one of Sacramento’s top chefs, discuss beer and food pairings, just to name a few — those with the blue tickets gathered in the 100-degree heat on the convention center’s roof for Pliny the Elder and pork sliders, and discussed California’s rich beer history. Spanning from Anchor Brewing’s decades of groundbreaking beers, which emerged from the Bay Area’s counterculture movement of the 1960s, to San Diego’s Stone Brewing Co., which made aggressive bitterness the norm in the ’90s, the chatter indeed praised San Diego and the Bay Area for remaining on the cutting edge of the industry’s trends, but also the small neighborhood breweries and regional powerhouses churning out some of the best beer in the state.
California has an estimated 570 craft breweries, those that produce less than 2 million barrels annually, according to the California Craft Brewers Association, which sponsored the two-day summit. More than three-quarters, or around 440 breweries, produce 10,000 barrels or less annually. Production of craft beer jumped 16 percent last year in California. About two new ones open every week.
The summit, which runs through today and culminates with the hotly anticipated “brewers showcase,” has the potential to become a national event that could add to the growing reputation of Sacramento’s booming craft beer scene.