The 7 percent growth of the craft beer industry provided an optimistic tone to the Craft Brewers Conference and Brewexpo America held in Chicago April 7-10. Craft brewers marked growth through new brewery openings, expanded distribution and acceptance at retail, experts reported. This year’s event presented by the Brewers Association, Boulder, Colo., featured a sold-out crowd of more than 3,400 people representing small, independent and traditional craft brewers as well as suppliers from the United States and abroad.

Brewers Association President Charlie Papazian highlighted the success of the segment and the importance of networking with local community and congressmen. The importance of political action was echoed by keynote speakers U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts. Both congressmen actively support small brewers and are working on legislation that would provide tax cuts to small brewers.

Julie Herz, director of craft beer programs for the Brewers Association, said the industry is currently engrossed in a time led by craft brewers that are attracting consumers with small batch beers that have fuller flavor as well as their dedication to their local community and collaborations with other craft brewers and local businesses.

While the overall U.S. beer industry was down by 5 million barrels, craft brewers exceeded 9.1 million barrels in 2009, reported Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, in his State of the Industry report. He attributed craft beer growth to word-of-mouth marketing, restaurants adding more local beers and seasonal beers that emerged as dual flagship options, Gatza said.

Although challenges for the craft beer industry exist, optimism prevails as many people in the millennial generation identify with craft beer, he said. Craft beer sales were at an all time high in 2009, but Gatza questioned if the economy was not in a recession if there would be higher growth figures.

Craft beer continues to expand at retail noted panelists from Meijer Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich.; Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine; Wegmans, Rochester, N.Y., and Sam’s Club, Bentonville, Ark, during the off-premise beer buyers panel moderated by Bump Williams, president of Bump Williams Consulting, Stratford, Conn. Seasonals, variety packs and single bottle sales are bringing in new customers at retail outlets, the panel said.

Consumers perceive craft beer as being authentic, local, entrepreneurial and different, reported Benj Steinman, president of Beer Marketer’s Insights, Suffern, N.Y. His session “Craft Shines in Trying Times” also noted that craft beer has become more of a culture than a market.

The emergence of craft beer culture was echoed in “Craft Beer Drinkers: What’s Important to Them When They’re Not Drinking Craft Beer (and Why it Matters When They Are)” presented by The Futures Co., Chapel Hill, N.C., and MillerCoors Brewing Co., Chicago. The craft beer consumer is predominately male between the ages of 21 and 39, according to The Futures Co. data. These consumers are inspired to try products that are new and different, said Michael Kallenberger of MillerCoors.

Craft beer consumers also want to feel a part of a community with their local and favorite craft brewers, which was emphasized in Vermilion Inc.’s session “Social Marketing: Creating a Community in Real Time.” The session noted that the increasing use of Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter have allowed craft brewers to interact with fans and send messages as a friend, rather than using traditional media.

The Brewers Association also recognized several key brewers for their dedication and service to the industry. Larry Bell, founder and owner of Bell’s Brewery Inc., Galesburg, Mich., was the winner of the Brewers Association Recognition Award. The F.X. Matt Defense of the Industry Award was presented to Steve Hindy, chairman and president of The Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn, N.Y. In addition, Ken Grossman, chief executive officer and president of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, Calif., received the Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation in Brewing.

In addition, the event also included the 2010 Brewers Association World Beer Cup, which featured 3,330 beers in 90 beer style categories from 642 breweries in 44 countries. The categories with the most entries included Wood and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer followed by Herb and Spice Beer or Chocolate Beer. Additional expansion was seen in sour category beers, coffee-flavored beer, Baltic Porter and both American and Imperial IPA categories. Baird Brewing Co., Numazu, Japan, and Ballast Point Brewing Co., San Diego, Calif., tied for the most gold awards at the World Beer Cup.

The Brewers Association also highlighted its upcoming American Craft Beer Week, which will take place May 17-23. This year’s week is themed around Declaration of Beer Independence. The association will highlight the week on its newly launched the Web site,, and at retail locations for brewers that register with the association.