Brewers conference returns to Philly

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In 2005, the last time the Brewers Association held its annual conference here, a few local brewers thought it would be a swell idea to expose the conventioneers to a unique slice of Philly’s growing craft-beer scene.

So they trooped the visitors down to a seamy stretch of Delaware Avenue and held what was surely the city’s first-ever cask-ale event at a topless bar.

As dancers shimmied over the tap handles for dollar bills, visitors drained glasses from a freshly tapped firkin.

The association’s Craft Brewers Conference returns to town for a considerably more upscale event Tuesday to next Friday that includes more than 100 events around town, with live music at the Electric Factory and World Cafe Live, a gala dinner at the Convention Center, and a huge awards show. The last conference could comfortably fit all 1,500 attendees into the Marriott, but this one is having a tough time squeezing the more than 13,000 attendees from the small-beer industry into the Convention Center’s facilities.

“We’ve gotten to the point where there are only 17 cities in the country that can accommodate us,” said Paul Gatza, the association’s longtime director. Even Seattle, one of the nation’s top beer cities, he said, doesn’t have convention space for the conference.

The increased attendance, of course, is a reflection of the phenomenal growth in American craft brewing over the last decade.

In 2005, there were fewer than 1,400 craft breweries nationwide; that number will likely reach 5,000 by the end of the year.

As a result, the Brewers Association, based in Colorado, has grown from a cozy club dominated by the pioneers of craft brewing into a large-scale organization focusing on professional education and governmental lobbying. (Full disclosure: The Garden State Craft Brewers Guild, where I am executive director, is a member of the Brewers Association. )

The conference itself is closed to the public, with seminars on a range of topics, from label designs to glycol cooling systems. A massive trade show dominating much of the convention space will show off newfangled six-pack carriers, unusual hop varieties, brewhouse valves, and more.

Yes, it’s inside baseball. But here’s the thing: You can’t hold a brewers’ convention without beer.

And, as this is Philadelphia, local bars and restaurants are rolling out the amber carpet. The streets will be flowing with suds of all kinds.

A handful of the events are for conference attendees only – like the Wednesday-night show by alt-rock band Cracker at World Cafe Live, presented by Dogfish Head. But those are the exceptions, and I’ve compiled a list of more than 100 events open to the public.

Some are simple tap takeovers, with the likes of New Belgium, Firestone Walker, and Ballast Point. Expect to rub elbows with brewers including Phil Markowski, the farmhouse beer guru at Connecticut’s Two Roads Brewing, and Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewing.

And there will be a flood of out-of-town brews and brewers making their first appearance in the city for the show. Among them: Wicked Weed of Asheville, N.C.; Surly of Minneapolis; SaltWater of Delray Beach, Fla.; Odell of Fort Collins, Colo.; and Wiseacre of Memphis, Tenn. Most events have free admission – just pay as you go.

We’ll even see the opening of the much-anticipated St. Benjamin’s Brewery tasting room in North Philadelphia.

If that sounds a little like a preview of Philly Beer Week, coming in June, well, you get the idea.

The whole week gets started Sunday with Yards’ ninth annual Philadelphia Real Ale Invitational (Tickets $55, Officially, it ends with the World Beer Cup awards ceremony May 6, but there will be plenty of after parties around town that night.

And don’t worry – Philly hasn’t completely lost touch with its roots. SweetWater Brewing will make an appearance Tuesday at Cheerleaders, the South Philadelphia strip joint.


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