Last week we submerged ourselves in the immense, beautiful absurdity that is The Great American Beer Festival. Despite the chance to wallow in all things craft beer with 60,000 of our closest friends, this annual sojourn to Denver gives us an opportunity to measure the progress of North Carolina craft beer against that most lofty of barometers, the Colorado craft beer scene.
This year, we had a little help.
To those who’ve been around the NC beer scene for any length of time, the name John Frank is a familiar one. John wrote a beer column for the Raleigh News and Observer before packing up and heading west to write for the Denver Post. He is thus uniquely qualified to offer singular perspective on the Colorado craft beer nirvana to which he currently has access — and to which NC beer ultimately aspires.
Currently there’s little comparison — Colorado has roughly twice as many breweries as North Carolina, driving a powerful $1.15 billion economic engine for the state. Even more lucrative is the craft beer culture that permeates Colorado, affecting everything from tourism to product quality to governmental cooperation.
John agreed to take us on a mini brewery tour the day before GABF started (yes, we get paid to do this) as we discussed where NC beer is, and if and when it might attain the same lofty status as CO beer. As we tasted beers from Colorado breweries old and new, our conversation touched on several major topics:
Quality: Most in craft brewing agree this is and will be the top indicator for the industry to continue its impressive growth. “I get asked about NC beer a lot, and where to send people,” says John. “I send them to a lot of the same places, a handful of really good folks, because I know they’re gonna have good quality, whereas some of the others can be hit and miss.” As for Colorado? Their advanced craft beer culture dictates you better have your ‘A’ game the day you open. “The new breweries that have debuted in the last couple of months in Colorado have been top notch out of the box,” John says.
Cooperation: Alliance between state and local governments, and the breweries they represent, has become more and more crucial to the success of craft beer. ‘Think Local’ has become as important as ‘Drink Local’. For instance, a surprising and welcome addition to many state coffers has been the advent of craft beer tourism. In San Diego, for example, the top three most visited tourist attractions, in order, are the San Diego Zoo, LegoLand, and Stone Brewing.
John’s familiar with the concept of traveling to taste different beers. “When I was in Raleigh, once a month I did a beer tourism column. I traveled all over the southeast – from Charleston to Richmond to Boone – I found more and more people traveling for craft beer. With over 300 breweries in Colorado, craft beer tourism is huge.”
One reason that’s the case is the lockstep synergy Colorado craft brewers enjoy with their state and local governments (it helps that the current governor was once a brewery owner himself). John points to a grant program called Creative Colorado, an initiative to capitalize on creative sector potential and drive economic growth in Colorado. “You know who qualifies for those residency grants?” asks John. “Brewers. Because they’re considered artists out here. And brewing is considered a foundation of economic development.”
Another facet of cooperation is “coopetition“, the unique ability craft brewers have shown to compete and cooperate at the same time. “I thought there would less collaboration out here, because the market is more saturated, and there’s more brewers fighting for less shelf space,” John admits. “But it’s a big club here; the more mature breweries are expanding, and you’ll see big breweries partner with little breweries in rural Colorado. There’s still an underlying current of competition but for the most part they put it aside.” A rising tide does indeed float all boats.
Culture: Perhaps the most elusive of goals for North Carolina craft beer is for the industry as a whole to become intrinsically woven into the fabric of the state community. That’s where Colorado beer is, and where we hope to be someday. “It’s rare that I go to a social gathering and see macro beer,” says John. For the state that’s home to Coors Light, that’s saying something.
Ultimately, catching Colorado will come down to how much time and energy North Carolina brewers are willing to spend focusing on our culture – and our customers. “Building culture takes time,” says John between sips at Hops and Pie, one of Denver’s many hip craft beer stops. “The breweries out here have developed a relationship with their clientele and kind of educated them – because it really is about education. There’s a path to developing palates and educating people that good beer doesn’t come in 30-packs.”