photos by A.D. Cook

The 82th annual National Beer Wholesalers Association Convention and Trade Show convened at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas Sept. 22-25 filling 100,000+ square feet of tradeshow floor and attracting nearly 4,000 industry representatives. The convention was a chance for distributors to research all that’s available in the world of brewing, while the tradeshow was a showcase of breweries from all over the world with 263 different exhibitors displaying their wares, and nearly 100 breweries pouring more than 500 different beers. 

The most congested spaces on the tradeshow floor were amongst the tables of the craft breweries and the show appeared to be dominated by artisanal beer sporting plenty of flavor. No surprise there, for although the growth of craft beer has slowed to a single digit increase of 4%, it continues to increase its share of sales and in 2018 accounted for a 13.2% share of the total US beer market (up from 12.3% in 2016). Additionally, the number of operating breweries in the US is at an all-time historic high, which as of 2018 according to the Brewers Association stands at 7,450, compared to 5,562 the last time this convention convened in 2017. 

One change to the tradeshow floor was the revamping of the Brewers Association-sponsored section. Formerly called the Craft Brewers Pavilion, it was renamed Independent Craft Brewers, likely in recognition of the fact that many former independent breweries have been bought out by large conglomerate companies such as AB/InBev. 

Within the Independent aisle were numerous extraordinary finds. As usual, the Coronado, CA-based Garage Brewing was having fun with its use of non-traditional ingredients such as its Marshmallow Milk Stout, Orange Vanilla Cream Ale and Mango Hefe. I was drawn to the Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Co. table due to the iconic mountain man’s name, but in truth the owner of this Great Falls, Montana brewery shares the same name and I enjoyed his Mountain Man Scotch Ale, brewed with 2-row pale malt and local honey. The iconic family/employee owned Deschutes Brewery out of Bend, Oregon had a new release, its Handup IPA, a refreshing brew named for the cyclocross mountain biking term weighing in at a 65 IBUs and 6.5% ABV. The family-owned Fremont Brewing from Seattle, one of the largest barrel aging breweries in the US, impressed me with its Rusty Nail, a 13.9% ABV imperial oatmeal stout brewed with brewers licorice and cinnamon bark and blended with beer aged for 3 years in Elijah Craig bourbon barrels.

Although not in the Independent aisle, a notable newcomer was the Dogfish Head Slightly Mighty, the Delaware brewery’s version of a low cal/low carb brew, which is a session IPA brewed with monkfruit that only weighs in at 4% ABV, 95 calories and 3.5 carbs per 12-oz serving.  

As great as the aforementioned beer were, some equally interesting products were from countries one doesn’t always think of when the term craft beer comes to mind: Canada and Japan. 

Three breweries, all out of the Ontario Province, included the Belgian-inspired Bench Brewing, from the Ontario wine country that contains 55 wineries, pouring its sour beer representatives Strawberry Grove, a bright 5% ABV mixed-fermentation sour ale fermented with its house culture of yeasts and lactobacillus and finished on locally-sourced strawberries; and Citra Grove, a dry-hopped hazy sour with notes of orange, pineapple and melon. Nickel Brook Brewing had some extraordinary barrel-aged imperial stouts: the Kentucky Bastard aged in Buffalo Trace and Wild Rose bourbon barrels; Winey Bastard, perfect for wine lovers, aged for a year in Pinot Noir barrels from the Niagara wine region; and Café Del Bastardo, infused with whole coffee beans and aged in bourbon barrels. Cameron’s Brewing Co. brought renditions of my favorite beer style: barleywine. Its two versions were the 13% ABV Where the Buffalo Roam aged in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels, and its 11.8% ABV Early Bird Breakfast, also aged in bourbon barrels and brewed with two classic Canadian ingredients: maple syrup and cold steeped coffee. 

Not to be outdone, Japan brought several brews from its emerging craft brewery scene. Standouts were the Miyazaki Hideji Beer Co. Kuri-Kuro 9% ABV dark ale brewed with chestnuts; and Kiuchi Brewery Hitachino Nest Yuzu Lager made with the skin of the yuzu fruit. 

Also new to market from overseas was the top fermented and cold conditioned 4.8% ABV Sion Kölsch, a true Kölsch brewed in Cologne, Germany, the home of the easy drinking style that dates back to 1318 when Kölsch beer was first brewed in the shadows of the iconic Cologne cathedral. 

This was my 11th time attending the trade show, which has become noticeably dominated by craft beer choices, a trend that has grown exponentially over the past 20 years. If this trade show is any indication, it would appear that more and more distributors are embracing the craft beer segment as it slowly but surely chips away at the pie, securing a larger piece of its share of the beer market.

The NBWA is a major beer biz convention that wisely comes to Vegas every other year and alternates in other cities (sans trade show). For more information, visit the NBWA’s website at