Interview Issue 13 Peggy Noe Stevens

Behind the scenes at Craft Beverage Expo

Craft Beverage Expo

On with the show: understanding the trickle-down effect of the Craft Beverage Expo

Written by Peggy Noe Stevens

Kellie Shevlin is the founder and creator of the Craft Beverage Expo & Distribution Conference (CBE). She was hoping to create an event where craft beverage producers could network and connect on the challenges faced by them in producing and showcasing their beverage to the world. It is inevitable that events such as the CBE support the growing sector that is craft whiskey, and in turn, allow whiskey lovers to see the best of American craft. 

The event was intended to provide a place to share solutions across commodities in areas such as branding, packaging and direct-to-consumer. Prior to CBE, events such as this were delineated by product or region. This was the first event where craft producers could network across different product categories and get answers to the questions that unite them all as small businesses in the marketplace, working towards the greater good and growth of craft beverage makers.

Wandering around the Craft Beverage Expo

CBE was founded in 2013 as a business and marketing conference for independent craft beverage producers. Shevlin was working closely with small craft distillers and wine makers while working for the Washington Wine Academy, a non-profit educational platform for both producers and consumers. 

In 2013 there was no concept of craft beverage, only beer, wine and spirits. CBE hoped to create an event where all the small and independent producers would come together, creating a space for producers of beer, wine, spirits, sake, cider, mead and more to engage and promote the value of working across beverage categories. 

Peggy Noe Stevens (PNS): How did you first reach out to craft distillers?  

Kellie Shevlin (KS): The typical Craft Beverage Expo (CBE) attendee is looking to expand their reach, increase distribution beyond their local market and expand production. 

With our event in Louisville pre-Covid, and plans for it to return this October, more than 75 per cent of our attendees are in the distilled spirits category. We partnered early on with ADI, the American Distillers Institute. [ADI founder] Bill Owens understood the importance of bringing together small producers and the power of networking and brand building. 

Sampling spirits at CBE

At the first ADI event one of the speakers told the audience to go make friends with your neighborhood brewer, as they have felt the same growing pains, barriers to market and they understood consumer marketing. This was exactly the message we wanted to promote: collaboration across commodities. We have positioned CBE as the place for distillers to meet their counterparts in all beverage categories, to connect, to grow their business and move the craft spirits industry forward.

PNS: What would you say are your biggest success stories? 

KS: I would say our biggest success is connecting brands across categories and providing the opportunity for small batch producers to build their passion into a successful business. We have secured leaders across the industry – from brands to distributors to retailers – to share their insights, join our community, and help our producers to get their products on the shelves and into bars and restaurants right across the country. 

We have positioned CBE as the place for distillers to meet their counterparts…

Kellie Shevlin

PNS:Why is this show important to consumers and can they attend?

KS: The storytelling of craft is one of the most important concepts we try to impart at CBE. Good storytelling gives people a reason to try a new beverage and to recommend that beverage to their friends and family. All good storytelling comes from authenticity and should really be called truth-telling, because the producer is trying to convey their values, social conscience, commitment to the community and transparency of taste and ingredients. For decades, big meant better but for several years now, consumers have wanted local, premium, and small batch. We want to help the producer create an authentic brand message that resonates with consumers whether that be in a tasting room, on social media or through partnerships.

Consumers do not currently attend, although we have partnered in the past with a wine festival that brought in consumers for an evening of tastings which included brands attending the event. 

PNS:What is in the trade show? 

KS: The trade show is an opportunity for craft producers to source product, supplies and new vendors who cater to small beverage producers. While our educational content is centered on getting craft product to market, our trade show is a turn-key solution to the beverage-making process, including equipment, ingredients, packaging, point-of-sale and services. 

The Barrel Mill premium barrels

PNS:How does CBE differ to other craft beverage conferences? 

KS: We are the first and only event that created content across category and emphasized the business side of craft beverage. With our focus on distribution and the process of getting beverages to market, we offer craft producers a different perspective than most larger craft events. We welcome all categories from spirits to wine to kombucha and coffee; if you are passionate about your brand, we want to help you get it into the hands of consumers.

PNS: Why did you add a women’s CBE? 

KS: We have watched the growth in females across craft businesses over the years and wanted to offer content tailored to the challenges and opportunities within this expanding segment of the industry. Women in Craft is an opportunity for women from across categories and job functions to get together, make real-world connections, and be inspired and learn ways to navigate through this often male-dominated career path. Not that we don’t invite men too; this is an open forum to move the conversation of diversity and inclusion forward.

PNS:How did it change by going virtual? 

KS:Our content has not changed due to Covid-19. We are still offering superior learning opportunities focused on post-production for all categories including the spirits industry. Online events have allowed us to expand our footprint in the craft marketplace as we are able to reach an even larger audience through our quarterly conference series and monthly webinars. We have partnered with the Craft Wine Association and others to provide quality content to their memberships in a time when associations and guilds are focused on running leaner and meaner.  Our team at CBE decided early on that our goal for 2020-2021 was to create timely and engaging content and events not only to educate, but to provide a community for small batch producers and their partners.

PNS: What are the biggest trends you are seeing in craft distillers pre- and post-Covid-19? 

KS: Covid-19 has radically changed the drinking experience for consumers. Pre-Covid a consumer would go out to experience the brand, now most people are drinking at home and enjoying home delivery in many regions. Craft distillers are needing to work harder to create premium experiences for consumers. We are also seeing that consumers are preferring a hyper-local experience and are frequenting the distilleries that are close to home. For craft distilleries, the magic words post-Covid are hospitality and innovation – these new consumer experiences are not going to go away anytime soon.

PNS:In your opinion, what do craft distillers need the most in today’s climate? 

KS:With the continued rise of acquisitions and the big brands getting bigger, along with the pandemic and the restrictions it has brought, the most important need of all craft producers, including distillers, is diversifying their distribution: learning how to increase their presence through on-premise and off-premise as well as e-commerce/direct-to-consumer sales, getting product in front of consumers and providing the opportunity for them to get it however they want it. 

Having attended this conference and led a session at the CBE women’s forum, the tremendous outreach across all channels has anchored my attention for craft-related brands. These are the true pioneers that artistically and scientifically devote their livelihood to making brands that whiskey lovers will enjoy today. I am fascinated by the drive and impact that craft producers have made on my beloved beverage. So remember, every time you try a new product from a craft producer, you are essentially supporting the craft movement as a whole. Our valued consumers can drink to that and so will I. 

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