Millenials have more adventuresome palates than their elders and the beverage industry is paying attention. They also are more curious about the brands they buy. Blenders are passe behind the bar.

Those are a just a few of the takeaways from the second BevCon Charleston gathering last week that drew 350-some industry professionals from across the nation to Hyatt Place Charleston on King Street. Many of the country’s leading sommeliers, distillers, bartenders and brewers participated in the three-day, industry-only event.

As crowds streamed into South Carolina to look upward for the eclipse, conference attendees also made their way here, becoming part of the festivities Monday with a “Let’s Get Eclipsed” pre-conference party on the Hyatt's roof.

The conference then settled into the task at hand, covering key components of the beverage industry including operations, beverage making, craft-minded products, and new topics and trends in the wine, spirits, beer, and beverage industries.

Created by Angel Postell, who also founded the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, its centerpiece was learning sessions surrounded by plenty of networking and social events, happy hours, bar takeovers, tastings, and late-night parties.

“Obviously, due to the eclipse, we had to change our dates from Sunday through Wed to Tuesday through Friday. We would have preferred to do the former as it fits in better with the F&B industry work schedule,” Postell explains.

Other changes implemented for 2017 included only holding one grand tasting event, holding more on-site bar tastings during the session breaks, and adding a wrap-up session for “takeaways,” that, although not well attended, added a great bookend to the opening session and consolidated the learning for those who did sit in.

The sessions

A lineup of some of the most established voices in beverage journalism was even stronger this year — an impressive feat since the inaugural year attracted a great deal of talent — and included Jon Bonne, senior contributing editor of Punch; Fred Mennick, author, bourbon expert and New York Times contributor; and authors David Wondrich and Wayne Curtis. 

“We brought in more presenters this year,” Postell says. “We had a call for presentation ideas and had double the amount of presentation ideas. So we were able to bring in more folks.”

Those voices had a lot to share about the state of the industry throughout the conference, but there was an overarching theme that millennials are beginning to really drive the market. These days, there is a more educated consumer who is willing to try new things, demands more transparency behind the brand facades, and often keeps up with buyouts, scandals, and other such insider news information.

Numerous panelists and attendees expressed a general excitement about the adventurous nature of evolving American palates.

“Whereas I used to see people slowly dipping their toes into trying new beers, these days, they (young people) start everywhere and want to know everything,” says Lauren Woods Salazar, Wood Cellar director and blender for New Belgium Brewing Company.

“In the 2010s, an explosion suddenly happened in beer, wine and spirits,” says Paul Clarke, executive editor of Imbibe magazine. “We have an educated consumer base looking for new things.”

“New” was reflected in many of the sessions, from a tasting session on British sparkling wines (a category exploding because rising temperatures in Britain are changing its growing climate) to the future of frozen drinks (the blender is old news and it’s all about the slushie machine).

However, new was also interpreted as historical revivals, from ancient brews replicating the fermented beverages of antiquity to the revival of landrace grains and their inclusion in whiskey. Other sessions even included new focuses on workplace safety, helping employees deal with addiction, and beverage journalism in the era of a new president.

The experience

The epicenter of the event was the Hyatt Place Charleston on King Street, and many of the participants stayed there as well, which provided a convivial feel to the days.

That group feel drifted away slightly during the evenings though, when the bar takeovers, another BevCon staple, occurred in various bars and restaurants. The crawls were more concentrated in 2017, yet with a dinner break in between sessions and takeovers, the energy seemed to wane a bit, and so did the attendees, divided into multiple venues instead of concentrated in one, such as the stellar grand tasting event held on Wednesday evening in a ballroom at the Hyatt.

Despite the difference, the takeovers benefited from the collaborative nature of the bartender pairings, as well as the natural inclusion of the public to join in the BevCon fun, and in general moved much of the theoretical nature of the sessions into the real world.

Speaking of the real world, beyond the flowing alcoholic beverages, there was an emphasis on balance with the inclusion of NordaqFresh to the conference, which provided refillable bottles and served sparkling and still water on tap for the entirety of the event. One of the most popular lobby booths, attendees lined up throughout the week to keep a clean palate and a hydrated body.

The opening party, held at the not-quite-open-yet Edmund’s Oast Brewing Company in the Pacific Box & Crate, most likely had the most impressive array of food, from wings by Aaron Siegel of Home Team BBQ to Grilled Beef Belly by Jeremiah Bacon of The Macintosh, and more than one reveler cheered at the discovery of full-size Tavern Burgers from Little Jack’s Tavern.

One of the best events of the conference was one of its last, the “Let’s Get Lit” party. A play on the term, it actually was a literary reading at sunset in the courtyard at Leon’s Oyster Shed, and it was thought-provoking, poignant, and at times funny, as writers from Brad Thomas Parsons to Matt Lee read from their beverage-focused work. It was a creative turn on the traditional book signing and a huge hit for attendees who raved about the intimate setting and the talent gathered.

An abundance of food, drink and access to the presenters was all part of the exclusive nature of the event, open to only those in the food and beverage industry willing to purchase a $600 per-person access pass. However, it was all-access price (not including lodging) that attendees such as Andrew Cerqueira of Queen City Cocktails in Charlotte was willing to pay for the second year in a row.

“To me, this is personal education, networking, and being able to connect to and understand the stories behind some of the products we use,” says Cerqueira, whose company puts on classes for those who want to learn more about making craft cocktails at home. “I love the stories, and hopefully the things that I am inspired by, that I’ve learned here, I can pass on. It’s really more about educating me so then I can convey that to my clients.”