Bar Convent Berlin 2018: Bigger, Longer, Faster
This year, BCB, Europe’s biggest bar show, expanded to three days, but it was still impossible to do it all.
All photos by Amanda Schuster, except where indicated.
Change is good, but it also takes some getting used to. Bar Convent Berlin has made significant changes since it was purchased by Reed Exhibitions a couple of years ago. The changes are noticeable in every aspect - product offering, education, layout and even the food. Change also manifested in the lack of congestion in the halls, and this can be attributed to the show expanding an extra day from two to three days, even though according to Reed, the number of attendees was 14,416, up from 12,217 last year. Many of the changes made it easier to navigate what is still a monster extravaganza of booze, this year with 17% more exhibitors, filling up the entirety of a complex that was once a major East Berlin train station hub. I did my best, but BCB can feel like the trade show equivalent of Mount Everest.
Let’s get this out of the way first.
This is the first year that British bar veteran Angus Winchester has taken over the role of education director for all of the BCB shows around the world. Just as the Berlin show was getting underway, he was criticized on social media for the lack of diversity of presenters on the BCB stages. “What is successful education?” he pondered via Skype. “All the rooms being filled? The feedback you get from people? Diverse topics? I thought I did very well on that, but obviously what I didn’t do very well on was diverse speakers. Ultimately I feel the criticism I got was justified.”
BCB has expanded to other countries--beginning earlier this year at Bar Convent Brooklyn, and next year adding Sao Paulo, Brazil--and with that, it reaches new demographics. The seminars have always been limited to 45 minutes and focused mainly on trade topics. However, catering to a growing audience means growing with it, and industry evolution comes with an expectation for trade show seminars to cover not only more diverse topics, but also include more diversity amongst the people speaking about those subjects.
One of the biggest differences between BCB and other bar trade shows is that seminars are shorter and unticketed, therefore talks that are typically allotted 90 minutes or more at other conventions to cover what have become requisite hot button topics such as sexual assault and discussions of race and gender equality in the bar community weren’t shoehorned into the BCB format. Winchester made a call for seminar submissions, but did not specifically invite presenters. He tells me that moving forward there is to be an education committee focusing on better outreach for presenters, and he is also considering opening some of the talks up to longer formats.
After all, BCB is very much a business trade show, and the seminars reflected that aspect of it, with less coverage of drink history this year (aside from a hilarious presentation from Timo Janse and Tess Posthumous of Flying Dutchmen in Amsterdam about the evolution of cocktails from the 1980s onward, basically why drinks sucked for decades) and more about the state of modern bartending, category education and the business of serving drinks. Ms. Franky Marshall was the host of the Main Stage, which covered topics themed for each day: Training/Mentorship/Wellness for Day One, Bar Creativity for Day Two, Bar Business for Day 3. This stage is unsponsored and held speakers over the three days covering topics, among dozens of others, like Pouring With Purpose with Ivy Mix and Jacob Briars; How to Become a Liqueur Connoisseur with Camper English, How to Train Bartenders with Bobby Heugel; Creativity 3 Ways with Shervene Shabazkhani, Matt Wiley and Joe Schoefield; Marica Polas on bartender fitness; Bar Creativity with the Aviary Team; and David Gluckman, creator of Bailey’s and other spirits, speaking about incubating new brands. Other Demo Bar stages are sponsored and could serve drink samples. Nick Blacknell of Havana Club Rum (the real one from Cuba) debuted Edicions A (barrel aged clarified) and B (blended dark rum) along with bar consultant Nick Strangeway. Simon Ford of Ford’s Gin presented a gin and tonic history overview with Charles Rolls of Fever Tree, and there were many other spirit category topics discussed throughout the show. Bars around the world also provided a taste of their offerings, including Bar High Five Tokyo and Tommy’s San Francisco, and there were a variety of educational overviews from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET). Coffee and Beer stages also held their own talks. In all, if one spent all day each day in seminars, one could walk away with a pretty wide-ranging, global overview of how to serve a damn good drink, as well as some useful sustainability and wellness tips.
On With the Show
Italy was the Country of Honour this year, with a dedicated pavilion featuring an array of spirits and even some musical entertainment greeting visitors in Hall One. This didn’t mean Italian goodies stopped near the door. Walk a bit further to Hall 7 and it was practically aperitivo and digestivo heaven, with kiosks from Amaro Lucano (once again featuring drinks by Ago Perrone of the Connaught, London), Distilleria Varnelli (and a chance to share an espresso with Orietta Varnelli), B.lo Nardini, Nonino (with Antonella Nonino in the house!), Campari and others offering tastes and specialty drinks. Italy was also heavily represented in seminars, with topics covering aperitivo, vermouth, Italian spirits in coffee cocktails and a presentation from Leonardo Lucci of the Jerry Thomas Project Rome, among others.
Big budget brands such as Diageo and Beam Suntory were taken off the main floor and housed in dedicated loft spaces in the courtyard. Diageo’s went vertical--the Külhaus was all about sensory experiences on various levels, mixing taste, scent, sound, sight and even a very fluffy touch exhibition while serving Tanqueray, Gordon’s Pink Gin, Belsazar apero, Bulleit and others at dedicated bars on all 4 floors. Beam Suntory, meanwhile, opted for a Maker’s Mark experience that would make Nikola Tesla proud with its retro electricity design elements, and a fun conveyor belt cocktail service from Suntory Whisky and Roku Gin. And somehow they squeezed one of the Sipsmith Gin cabs into a tiny hallway (How? Did the walls snap off with hidden fastenings like stripper pants?) leading to a recreation of the distillery’s tasting bar, with Master Distiller Jared Brown throwing gin cocktails and educating visitors, who also had the option to pose at a photo booth.
Just outside the loft spaces in front of the venue, it was perfect, crisp but sunny weather to enjoy freshly shucked oysters with Noilly Prat vermouth before heading inside to the big show.
Gin Still In
Speaking of gin, if BCB is any indication, the trend isn’t dying down any time soon. Gin was everywhere on display in every color and concept, with over 161 different producers exhibiting--from Monkey 47’s colorful guest-tender kiosk to Scottish gins like Edinburgh and Caorunn to Citadelle to boutique brands from around the globe. I enjoyed the introduction to Tenu Gin from Finland--with the stunning, Klimt-esque labels--and Bishop’s Gin from Ponet Spirits from Belgium. By Day Three brand ambassador Rebecca Sturt had settled in enough to drive the Chase Distillery buggy around to spread the British gin love (especially that yummy new sloe!). Also good to see Miriam Rutte in person, on hand to taste attendees on the distillery’s latest genever releases.
I Came To Europe To Drink Like an American?
Gin was also one of the many delicious spirits brought to Berlin by Alpine Distilling out of Utah, who along with Koloa Rum, Golden Moon, Corsair, Koval, Limestone Branch, Whistling Andy and Catoctin Creek represented the Distilled Spirits Council promoting American agriculture. Catoctin also did double duty at a separate booth from the Virginia Agri-business Council with a similar campaign to promote American-grown grains.
Aside from several booths from big American whiskey producers (and a visit with Lisa Laird Dunn with Laird’s applejack!), it was fun to experience a taste of my home turf in Brooklyn in Berlin with Allen Katz and NY Distilling Co. featuring their collaboration with That Boutique-y Gin Co. This was nearby the Bacardí stand where my bar neighbors Ivy Mix and Shannon Ponche served up cocktails from Leyenda.
More Category Growth
For the more cane and agave-focused, Tequila Fortaleza teamed up with Montelobos and La Escondida mezcals, Tequila Arette and others for an agave extravaganza in the middle of Hall 4, as more of that category emerged this year with over 35 exhibitors. Rum continued its expansion with over 73 producers with brands like Angostura, Plantation, Copalli, Foursquare, Havana Club, Botran and even Two James Spirits and Bayou from the US. I was also introduced to new-to-me Japanese whiskies—Fuyu, the Kurayoshi and Tottori from BBC Spirits—on Day Two, which was the perfect way to end on a high note (since we have to divide and conquer, Adam, meanwhile, opted for a visit with Hine Cognac, Ardbeg and Loch Lomond whiskies and a tasting of 2018 Berlin International Spirits Competition winners, Aelred liqueurs, at the end of the days’ sessions.)
To soak up all that spirit (including the debut of Egan’s 15 Year Irish Whiskey) and/or take a break from it, this year there were more places to find food stands spread throughout the venue as well as non-alcoholic drinks and of course, good coffee (with and without liquor). Since the popularization of highballs and lower proof cocktails, carbonated mixers kept things low and bubbly all over BCB, including a fantastic carbonated basil soda, Balis, sadly only in available in Europe for now. Those of us from the states were surprised to see Schweppes entering the premium mixer game and taking center stage in Hall 7 to contend with Fever Tree, Franklin & Son’s, Thomas Henry and dozens of others spread throughout the venue and outside.
For me, no visit to BCB is complete without a coffee cocktail from Lavazza, this time a simple, yet fetching Espresso Martini. This was perfect hours after starting my afternoon with a few sips of a delightfully potent tiki cocktail at Bitter Truth served by co-founder Alexander Hauck made with their new tiki rums.
Until next year, Berlin. Prost!