By David McCowan
Craft brewers are a fiery bunch. And why shouldn’t they be? The beer they make is a labor of love, the hard-won fruit of long hours both behind the mash tuns and in front of their customers, and their livelihoods swing from batch to batch. To say they are “passionate” is cliche, but there’s no denying they are driven.

I saw this excitement on display recently when I attended a dinner hosted by, the online publication of the Brewer’s Association. Though it was ostensibly an event focused on beer and food pairings, it more importantly was a gathering of many of the country’s most interesting craft brewers and each had the opportunity to share some stories — about their careers, their beers, and their futures. Held at Blackbird, it was a delightful evening on the state of craft beer in 2014.

What did I learn?

Brewers have to be their own advocates.
HaymarketMany of the brewers present told tales of lobbying state and city legislatures… to varying degrees of success. As an alcoholic beverage and a small industry, craft beer remains highly (overly?) regulated and the legacy of prohibition only makes the situation worse with each state holding its own arcane set of laws.

Revolution BrewingPete Crowley of Haymarket Pub & Brewery and Josh Deth of Revolution Brewing spoke about the difficulties of working here in Chicago. Citing issues such as limits on output allowed at brewpubs, considerably higher taxes than in neighboring locales, and recent changes to the legality of beer pairing dinners, both are finding their breweries stifled.

Each has served as an officer in the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild and spoke of positive changes the group has been able to push. Still, craft brewers have limited resources and a smaller voice than the big distributors and producers. ”Cash speaks,” Deth said bluntly, referencing the liquid asset craft brewers often find in shortest supply.

All this led to the biggest news of the night. Crowley, looking to expand and start wider distribution of Haymarket brews had recently scouted several sites within Chicago but each fell through. Instead, the brewery may be pushing into much more beer-friendly Michigan with a site Crowley says has a helipad, a holding room and a weapons locker. (Any unused prisons recently come to market?)

“Farm-to-glass” is not just for wine.
Lickinhole Creek Craft BrewingCity-brewing, though, is hardly the only way. Lisa Pumphrey of Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery in Virginia told the story of her unusual one year-old upstart. Using environmentally friendly practices, this brewery makes beer entirely from grains, hops and flavoring adjuncts grown on their 220-acre farm. Besides sourcing their own ingredients, the brewery also recently cultivated and certified a unique strain of yeast and boasts a complete on-site water system which collects from deep wells and treats waste water before returning it for use elsewhere on the farm.

The farm hopes they don’t remain the only ones committed at this level. Lickinghole helped push through Virginia legislation to establish the official designation of “farm brewery”, an analogue to the more well-known (and wide-spread) “wine estate.” Just as the latter serves as a hub for tourism and fosters both local jobs and global good-practices, Pumphrey hopes that the term catches on and that others follow with sustainable agriculture projects of their own.

Brewpubs can serve as a neighborhood catalyst.
Market Garden BreweryAndy Tveekrem of Market Garden Brewery, a beer garden in Cleveland, also knows that breweries can have an impact on their communities. Located next to the city’s famous West Side Market and just blocks from Great Lakes Brewing Company, Market Garden has been one of the vital anchors in the revitalization of its Ohio City neighborhood. At the restaurant, local laws keep the draft selection to only beer brewed on-site, but this restriction led the team to launch several more brewpubs nearby (including the aptly named Nano Brew), each focused on small-batch and one-off productions. The experimental nature keeps things fresh and keeps customers returning.

The culinary art and science of beer pairing is the future.
Wiseacre BrewingAnd finally, this was a beer dinner after all, and food has a role to play in the craft beer movement as well. While beer pairings are not new, they don’t quite get the same first-billing that wine pairings do, and too often can be overly simplistic. Adam Dulye, a San Francisco chef and culinary consultant to the Brewer’s Association, worked hard with the Blackbird chefs to present some out-of-the box pairings for the evening’s meal.

Lakewood Brewing CoLight beers like Wiseacre’s “Tiny Bomb” pilsner and Market Garden “Wahoo Wit” Belgian saison served as floral and flavorful counterparts to the smoky notes of confit trout with roe, while double IPAs from Haymarket and Revolution were held in check by tempura soft-shell crab and yogurt, hardly the bombastic, fat-laden dishes often used to compete with hoppy beers. For dessert, we paired two stouts — Lakewood Brewing’s “The Temptress” and Lickinghole’s “Enlightened Despot” — not with cliche chocolate, but with a surprisingly delicate BellaVitano raspberry-washed cheese and light pretzel crisp.

First and Second Course

21st AmendmentPairing, though, isn’t the end of the story. Many beers are introducing a culinary touch in-house, long before the brew reaches the restaurant. San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery featured their summer wheat beer ”Hell or High Watermelon”, which brings watermelon juice in via a second fermentation, lending just a kiss of flavor without being cloyingly sweet.

The state of craft beer is strong and I left the dinner invigorated by what I had heard. Cheers to that!