THOUGHT PIECE the carling team

Is It Worth Going To A Brewing Conference?

There is a huge crossover with the topic we discussed last month namely is it worth your while attending exhibitions of brewery equipment? The same advantages apply: networking, learning, expanding horizons and finding out what is new. The downside is again cost and taking time off work. Most conferences have exhibitions attached. Indeed most conferences would find it difficult to cover their costs without income from exhibitors and their sponsorship. It is vital that the exhibitors get maximum opportunity to interact with existing and potential customers. Your blogger has been to conferences where the exhibition has been a definite add-on, situated in corridors which did not go anywhere, access hindered by buffet tables and hungry delegates or else not accessible during the whole event. Exhibitors will not rebook if they feel they have not been able to reach the right people.

How to upset your exhibitors by putting the lunchtime buffet in the middle of an already narrow aisle

Most conferences use the same structure; a welcome reception on the evening before a plenary session to the bleary eyed with a keynote address to uplift the soul, a state of the nation report by the chief of the organisation running it followed by two or sometimes three topic streams. These streams may come together again for a great debate when two panels will consider, often lightheartedly, a pressing issue of the day like ‘do you need good malt to brew good beer?’, ‘can you brew good beer from barley and enzymes?’ and ‘is Australian beer better than that from New Zealand?’ There may be presentations to be made to the great and the good as well as awards for beer competitions. After two or three days of conferring there will be a final closing plenary maybe with a panel of multinational company CEOs before a winding-up social splash to be followed by technical visits arranged for the next morning. Throughout the event there will be the suppliers’ exhibition. Perhaps a poster presentation session as well with the authors in attendance at specific times for discussion but the posters available to view at any time delegates have a few spare moments. Lots of networking but do delegates actually confer? Do they get a chance to discuss what they are being lectured about? That’s it in one paragraph; what could possibly go wrong?

The late Professor Narziss from Weihenstephan was always guaranteed to fill a lecture theatre

Assuming the event is attractive enough to cover its fixed costs from potential sponsors and delegates and that would depend on the reputation of the event and the current offer, then probably the biggest challenge is finding suitable speakers and usually a lot of them to fill two or three days. Lecturers with a good reputation are an essential, a relevant and high-profile keynote helps too. The enthusiasm amongst suppliers to speak and tell us about the ‘best thing since sliced bread’ must be balanced with academia which can go into far too much detail for a practical audience. German lecturers seem to rely on spreadsheets which can be difficult to discern from the back of the auditorium! What is often lacking is slots for practical papers from those who have developed something innovative but sadly perceived commercial advantage often precludes them from volunteering. Papers from young researchers from universities are popular and go to show us oldies that the future of the business is in good hands.

Session chairmen are important too. They keep the speaker to the timetable and control the flow of questions afterwards. What they tend to be less good at is closing the session in sufficient time for delegates wanting to move or else they allow the next session to start ahead of time so that new members of the audience arriving can disrupt proceedings.

Do not start me off on name badges! They must hang horizontally, have the name and affiliation and be readable without having to peer towards somebody’s navel! After all a sponsor will have paid $3000 to badge the lanyards at the WBC so they deserve to be admired and serve their purpose.

What about records of the event? As late as 2012, the Worldwide Distilling Conference published its proceedings in book form courtesy of the Nottingham University Press, yet each volume still had a CD tucked inside the front cover! These days lecturers only get discounted tickets rather than a free pass so it is perhaps unreasonable to ask them to write up their Powerpoint slides with a proper narrative. Thus, access to these slides is probably all you are going to get but even then the organisers will wrestle with the dilemma of releasing the slides and risk people not turning up to the event and waiting a few months to see all the presentations.

Some venues are posher than others, this is the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago

The location of the conference is probably a secondary issue. The Australians conferred at Surfers Paradise and Americans have no worries about attending an educational event at a resort like Orlando or Honolulu rather than Detroit, Little Rock or even Gary, Indiana which is apparently that nation’s most deprived city. The Brits had to put up with Manchester, Harrogate, Aviemore in the middle of March, a hotel just off the M45 or Oxford and Cambridge. We say ‘had’ because UK conferences are no more at the moment just like the brewers’ expos.

There is one notable survivor in the Worldwide Distilled Spirits Conference, it took place last year in Edinburgh for the eighth time and is organised by the Institute of Brewing and Distilling’s Scottish section.

The IBD Asia Pacific section runs a successful convention every two years somewhere in its membership area, usually in Australia. The 37th event took place in Adelaide last year and the next is pencilled in for Tasmania in spring 2025. The Africa Section rotated around Uganda, Ghana and South Africa with biennial conventions, the last one being in Maputo in 2015. Sadly the takeover of South African Breweries by A-B InBev meant that considerable sponsorship funds were not forthcoming and Mozambique will be the last event for a while.

The European Brewery Convention (EBC) was founded in 1946 to unite Europe’s brewmasters after the depredations of the War. Its prime task was the procurement of raw materials and it held its first convention the following year and says it has been key to retaining and increasing brewers’ knowledge over the intervening years. It is also the custodian of EBC manual of analytical laboratory methods and is revamping a series of books on brewing best practice starting with filtration and stabilisation. It merged with the CBMC aka the Brewers of Europe in 2006.

It is about to have its 39th Convention this time in Lille on 26-30 May this year. Alongside will be the Brewers Forum. It will be the sixth iteration of this meeting which focusses more on the smaller brewery, current trends and sustainability while the full EBC at the same venue is more for scientific research and innovation. A full three day package for the EBC will cost €749 or €449 for a two day ticket. You can flit between Forum and EBC conference sessions if you like. The Forum is also held in the intervening years between the biennial Conventions as is a subject symposium with 2023 considering fermentation at Salzburg in Austria.

The cost of a delegate ticket to the World Brewing Congress in Minneapolis in August is around $1000, the Craft Brewers in Las Vegas $750 and the IBD in Tasmania during March next year has yet to declare a ticket price but the event in Adelaide last year was A$1700 (~£850). Those costs are before accommodation and you have got to get there as well.

The delegates need to be watered

Hotel space and convention centres are expensive to hire and these costs have to be shared by delegates and sponsoring bodies. A back office operation has to get bums on seats, find places for them to stay and get speakers arranged etc. What would happen if the conference went on-line? In the States, the Craft Beer Professionals boasts 14,500 members who are able to share some fifty presentations from earlier web-based events for free. The set up is sponsored by dozens of household names in the US craft support industry. They get advertising opportunities and can demonstrate equipment just as they might at a real expo.

VLB the research and consultancy body in Berlin also held the 3rd International Brewing Web Conference at the end of 2022 and its 3rd International Craft Brewing Conference (On line) last May to augment its local seminars and brewmasters qualifications.

The pandemic restrictions forced the IBD Asia Pacific Convention from Perth in 2020 to a virtual event in 2021. This complete virtual convention saw 380 delegates, 62 technical presenters and 125 exhibitors/sponsors all contributing to a successful two day online event. Similarly its 2021 Distillers Conference was virtual too.

OK you don’t get the networking opportunities but it saves a ticket, saves a hotel bill, saves an air ticket and even time off work as you can catch up whenever you want to and you still get the learning experience. OK it is not the same but then post the pandemic and with the AI revolution looming, it is just another of those things which us crusties look back on with varying degree of nostalgia but with no late nights nor headaches.

The Carling Partnership is attending CBC Las Vegas (Craft Brewers Conference) on April 21-24, 2024. Come and see The Carling Partnership at stand number 2089.