The Meeting of the Malts, an event put on by the Brewers of Pennsylvania, was a sell-out fundraiser at the Hotel Bethlehem late last month. The event brought brewing titans Jim Koch, of Sam Adams, Sam Calagione, of Dogfish Head, and Dick Yuengling together for pre- and post-parties at The Brew Works as well as a five course dinner and panel discussion at the hotel.
The discussion panel began in a comical manner, with the moderator, David Williams, asking what each panel member’s first beer was. He started with Dick Yuengling, who of course grew up in the beer industry. Yuengling told a surprising story, noting that, “When I started at the brewery when I was 15, I hated the stuff.” He said around the time he was 18 years old his coworkers finally got him to drink a beer, a Yuengling Porter. Jim Koch’s first was when he was four, and Sam Calagione let on that his first was probably Moosehead. Sam and Jim also detailed humorous stories about giving their children their first ‘beers’ in the delivery room – Sam’s son had a Chicory Stout and Jim’s daughter a Boston Lager.
Sam Calagione also spoke of his Lehigh Valley ties. He graduated from Muhlenberg College in Allentown in 1992 and started brewing shortly thereafter. The day after his graduate from Muhlenberg he went to New York City to try to get into the MFA program at Columbia. In the meantime he was working at a beer bar on the Upper West Side and after trying a variety of early craft beer there, bought a home-brew kit at a store called the Little Shop of Hops. As he was leaving, he saw a bodega selling over-ripe cherries and put them in the first batch of beer he ever made.
Jim Koch, speaking of his first beer he ever brewed, noted that it was illegal at the time. He was 10 years old, and his father was a brewmaster. One day they went to Krogers and bought Blue Ribbon Malt Extract, as well as yeast and hops, and that was the first beer he ever made. “There is nothing better than illegal beer,” Koch quipped.
With the softball questions out of the way, the moderator and panel moved into a much more detailed and serious conversation about the status of the brewing industry and craft beer’s part in it. According to the panelists, there are almost 3,000 breweries in the United States today, with 1.3 opening every day. While Jim Koch offered words of encouragement to would-be brewers, nothing that the beer industry is a, “great business, great community, and great culture,” he warned that, “I think somebody starting today, you need a reason for being….you’ve got to give the consumer a reason to choose your beer.” Mr. Calagione agreed, adding that “Three things determine if a brewery is going to make it: quality, consistency, and well-differentiated. How are you going to distinguish yourself out of 3,000 breweries?”
The end of the evening turned towards distribution and the three-tier system that requires breweries to sell to wholesalers, who in turn sell to retailers. Mr. Yuengling noted that a brewery is “only as good as [its] wholesaler.” Every panel member extolled the virtues of the three-tier system, with Mr. Koch saying definitively, “No three-tier, no craft beer.” They also payed special attention to Pennsylvania’s sometimes backwards laws, with Mr. Yuengling stating that they’re actively working to introduce legislation that would allow distributors to sell 6-packs.
The night then wrapped up, with many heading back to the Brew Works to continue sampling brews, meet with brewery reps and get a chat in with Jim Koch, and reflect on the evening. Thanks to the Brewers of PA for the invite, and for bringing an entertaining and educational evening to Bethlehem.