Conferring Over a Homebrew

BYOB by | Sep 2008 | Issue #20
Illustration by Scott Murry

Every great roller coaster worth its salt has that “oh shit” moment. The coaster combines periods of slow contemplation chased with a dram of terror. A great party follows the same formula. Unless, of course, having the police raid your celebration caps the party for you. Each June, in a different city, the folks at the American Homebrewers Association mix up this magical brew to put on the National Homebrewers Conference, the greatest floating homebrew party around.

The authors of the affair are the local committee. Members of the region’s homebrew clubs band together and, with guidance from the Boulder, Colo., mother ship, proceed to get organized. Hard to imagine homebrewers doing anything organized. But they’ve been doing it for 30 years, and this year’s Cincinnati-based crew was rewarded with a sold-out conference of over a thousand attendees—the most successful year yet.

Conference events begin well in advance of the official three-day, Thursday to Saturday schedule. Tuesday and Wednesday typically hold beer dinners and pub crawls to prime the liver pump. Over 150 judges hit the ground running on Thursday to start (and hopefully finish) the judging of the Nationals. A full day’s work plowing through 500 entries (or listening to the first lectures for the non-judges) calls for a reward! That evening, pro breweries from the region pour their beers. Think of it as a mini GABF. Incidentally, the Great American Beer Festival was originally part of the Homebrewers Conference before it grew into a Convention Center-swallowing monster.

Friday and Saturday are devoted to listening to the experts drop some knowledge. This year saw folks like Randy Mosher presenting his (and others’) attempts to translate and brew recipes from an 1850s Belgian text. Other talks were devoted to sampling and analyzing beers aged in bourbon barrels for increasing periods. Did you know that a new barrel can boost your ABV by 2 percent? Lecturers from the yeast, malt and hop companies, and crazy homebrewers alike, present talks. You can even grill the big names on their methodology.

When the education gets to be too much, run to the Hospitality Suite to sample homebrews and stare at the shiny-new gadgets. Come back often and try a different club’s brews.

Prepare to be dazzled by the heart and soul of the conference, Friday’s Club Night. This year, 41 homebrew clubs poured from over 600 kegs. They served BBQ, orange Lambic floats and snacks while dressed like FBI agents or wearing kilts and fezzes. OK, that last one was me. Beyond all the sparkly dress-up is the chance to taste everyone’s best and most interesting brews—that’s what makes the night. Fervent debates, note-taking and the repeated query, “What’s the best beer you’ve had tonight?” are the order of the day.

“I keep returning to the Conference, not just for the seminars or the beer-soaked nights, but to see familiar faces and hear what’s new.”

MoreBeer, homebrew retailer and Club Night sponsor, puts on a “Best Beer” judging. Every club submits one beer and the judges engage in a lively (and undignified) glass slinging, ultimately yielding a winner. This year, Rodney Kibzey of the Urban Knaves of Grains won with his Weizenbock, which is a bit of a ringer, being last year’s Sam Adams’ LongShot Competition winner. Rodney offered up his tasty and national award-winning Mild for your enjoyment.

Saturday brings the bittersweet Grand Banquet, where the results of the Nationals are announced. Winners parade through the room with medals and prizes. To prepare for the journey, the AHA and Rogue Brewing provide a beer-pairing dinner. Celebrate your victory or drown your sorrows by dining on sirloin topped with roasted garlic demiglace, wild mushroom risotto and vegetables and washing it down with Hazelnut Brown Nectar. Afterward, everyone gathers in the Hospitality Suite for final pints and goodbyes.

I keep returning to the Conference (six years!), not just for the seminars or the beer-soaked nights, but to see familiar faces and hear what’s new. There are guys who’ve been to just about every conference held. Plus, where else can you see Phil the Chicken Guy? Or Crispy, known for having the world’s largest collection of Miami Vice-style pastel sports coats? Rub elbows with all the authors you’ve read, and see if their beer is actually any good. And let’s not forget Charlie Papazian, Gary Glass, Kathryn Porter and the rest of the AHA staff keeping an eye on the whole crazy lot. Maybe you’ll even get invited to the super-secret tastings that seem to pop up everywhere…

Next year, the homebrew cruise docks in Oakland, Calif., for “Sippin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” Come join the party, learn and marvel at the endless supply of different beers.

Disclosure: I’m on the AHA’s Board of Governors. The work includes helping plan the Conference.

For 5 gallons at 1.036, 21 IBU and 15.4 SRM (75% efficiency)

Malt / Grain
2.5 lb. Marris Otter malt
1.5 lb. domestic two-row

1.0 lb. Mild malt
0.38 lb. Crystal 20L
0.25 lb. Crystal 90L
0.25 lb. wheat malt
0.25 lb. aromatic malt
0.13 lb. Crystal 40L
0.13 lb. Crystal 60L
0.11 lb. chocolate malt
0.08 lb. Belgian black malt

128°F  Protein rest 30 minutes (strike with 1.75 gallons)
150°F  Saccharification rest 60 minutes
167°F  Mash out 10 minutes
170°F  Sparge 60 minutes

0.60 oz East Kent Goldings (pellets) | 5.0% AA | 60 minutes
0.55 oz East Kent Goldings (pellets) | 5.0% AA | 30 minutes

White Labs WLP002  English Ale Yeast