The 36th Annual National Homebrewers Conference of 2014 in Grand Rapids, Michigan was the first conference I’ve ever attended. I’ve been home brewing since January 2011. I got started when my sister-in-law gave me a kit for Christmas and after learning the basics I was off and brewing.
I thought my first beer was pretty good. Though, when you make your own beer there is so much pride and emotion that goes into the craft that I honestly was very biased. My second batch I had to dump. Knowing so little about the craft, I decided it was a great idea to aerate the wort after the fourth day. Like most new brewers I simply tried too hard to make great beer. You gotta learn to crawl before you can walk.
After dumping that batch I decided to dive into some books. But I’m a slow reader and can’t pay attention past the first few chapters. Then I found the joy of podcasts. I turned into a podcast junkie. My education grew but without good feedback from people tasting my beer I settled on making just OK beer, occasionally stumbling into a great beer by mistake. I guess even a blind squirrel can find a nut.
Then I heard from my local brew shop that there was a brew club that meets once a month. I signed up and became a member of the James River Homebrewers Association. My first few meetings the club was focusing on gadgets so of course I switched to all grain right away. I kept asking questions and my beer kept getting better.
In 2014 I entered my first contest. I didn’t do very well but the feedback I got was incredibly valuable. I decided that to take my beer to the next level, I needed to head to the National Homebrewers Conference. The advice of my fellow brew club members boiled down to “you’re going to have the time of your life.” I saved my money and stopped making beer about a month before, not wanting to leave precious brew unattended.
I wanted to really get the most of the beer scene in Michigan so I signed up for a run of brewery tours the day before the conference started. Our first stop was Jolly Pumpkin, known for their sour beers. Their beers are really in balance, not overpowering like so many sours I’ve tried. Though I myself am not a huge fan of the style, these I would go back for. (FYI, too many sours can clean you out, speaking from experience.)
Next stop was Dark Horse. All I can say is, wow! Of the four stops this was my overall favorite. The atmosphere is a little like a farmers’ produce stand on the side of a country road. There I saw my first horizontal fermented. The guide explained that the yeast act differently in this fermenter because of the pressure of the wort. This is something I never thought of. I always take into account light and oxygen, but never gave much thought of the pressure the yeast must be in when they hit the bottom of the fermenter. I pictured the yeast holding their noses and trying to pop their ears. At the end of the tour we settled in their private tasting room where we had some experimental beers from fruit to barrel aged. All of them were top-notch.
Our tour was split into two groups so I had time for some more tasty beer. After a few pints in the tasting room we headed to Bells Café. The decor was a pleasant surprise. Hard to describe so I recommend a visit. Many of the beers on tap were ones that I’ve had before (good thing because I was reaching my daily intake limit). I had a flight of “less hoppy” beers and all were exactly the high quality that I have grown to expect from Bells.
After Bells I was feeling really good so I reached into my bag to water up, keeping in mind that the day started at 8am and it was now 5pm. Our last stop was Founders. I walked in intentions of having a solid session beer. I walked away from placing my order with a Belgian dark strong in my hand. Epic fail on good intentions.
The next day it was off to the conference where I met with my club. Because we are all at different levels of brewing we chose different seminars to attend. I picked classes around the “not so good and needs some guidance” level of brewing. Some of the classes were a bit over my head and some were right up my alley. I became a bit beer-star-struck because I heard familiar voices from all the podcast that I have listened to over the years.
After the first day of seminars we decided to visit the Hop Cat, a brewpub and tap house. The selection is really good but I am from Richmond, Virginia where we have the number one beer bar in America and Hop Cat is listed as number two. But Hop Cat has a wide array from sours to lagers. The food is great though I must say that in all my travels the best food I have had at a brewpub was at Tröegs. Sorry, Hop Cat, your number two in by book on that one.
Day two of the conference was packed with some really great seminars. There were so many that I wanted to attend, but I couldn’t fit them all in. Some of the people from my brew club were making plans to set up for club night and asked how my first NHC was going. I said that I was disappointed that I missed a seminar that I really wanted to go to. But, they informed me that all the seminars will be online for view when we got back home. What a relief.
Throughout the day I stopped by every vendor booth to see what was new and exciting. I realized quickly that I wanted so much more cool stuff for my hobby. I was told it would be a great idea to catch a nap before club night so I grabbed a power nap. We set up for Club night and I have to say that NOTHING that I can say will do it justice.
I brought my Watermelon Saison and we had five additional beers to serve. It was a shock that no one from our club brought an IPA or a Pale Ale. Not to worry, though, because all of our beers were delicious and each one was very different. The joy you get from serving your beer and seeing some of the same people return for a second glass was true validation for me. It seems that all I was lacking in my beer was confidence. So many beers, so many people (some in costume), my only regret was that the three and a half hours of club night was just not enough time.
On the last day I was fitting right in just like I had been there every year. I found myself walking up to people and asking questions and showing pictures of my brewing equipment like a proud father showing pictures of his children. And I too was curious to see what other homebrew systems looked like. The knowledge that I took away from NHC was amazing and the new friendships I made are priceless. On the flight home I was so glad that I took a small notebook with me to jot down all the great ideas that I had. After reviewing all my notes, my troubles begin with where to start. This is a problem that I am very glad to have.
All photos (except Joe Man’s swag) © Brewers Association
|Joe Mansell (aka Joe Man)
Homebrewer, Beer Busters Fan