Monday, June 25, 2012

FoodTrek: Drinkin' With Sasquatch

Beer is made from basic ingredients: yeast, water, hops and grain. More exotic styles of beer can include things like cardamom, dried orange peel and even flowers. Recipes can be traditional or creative, pushing the boundaries of taste for different beer styles, and as a homebrewer, you're only hemmed in by the confines of your imagination and space to store your brewing equipment. I attended this year's National Homebrewers Conference and at the risk of sounding ridiculously cheesy, when it comes to the serious hobby of homebrewed beers, a major ingredient in these beers is love. And no, I don't think you can buy that at Whole Foods.

Homebrewer conference, Crunk  Glass included - Photo by Wasabi Prime
 The American Homebrewers Association, a national nonprofit group dedicated to promoting and supporting the community of beer homebrewers, holds the National Homebrewers Conference every year in a different city, encouraging AHA members and beer clubs to gather and enter beers into competitions, and seminars are held with topics ranging from beer brewing methods to forming and organizing your own homebrewer club. And yes, plenty of beer drinking -- duh. This year's conference happened right in our hoppy Pacific Northwest backyard, at the Hyatt in downtown Bellevue. The area has its share of homebrewers and beer nerds, but a lot of people traveled some distance to gather and celebrate beer. I talked to people from both sides of the coast, from California to New Jersey. The conference went for three days, with pre-conference events like brewery tours and a day trip to Yakima to see a working hops farm. If this sounds like a Super Beer Nerd thing to do, you're wrong -- it's Mega Beer Nerd. The Mister had me purchase tickets on his behalf (he was at the dentist) months before the event, the moment the tickets went on sale at 9am sharp, Pacific Standard Time. It seemed a little ridiculous -- it's not like these were tickets for a hot tub time machine concert to see The Beatles live, in concert. But his hyper vigilance was rewarded -- the conference tickets sold out within hours and I was rewarded with a ticket myself, as Brock's Plus-One. I had no idea what I was in for.

The Homebrewers Conference welcomes you... with beer - Photos by Wasabi Prime
It started out like any conference, you check-in, get a badge with your name and a big swag bag full of stuff. And then you walk down a long table of bottled beer, where you take one of each, plus a commemorative sampling glass. It was quite a tipsy haul. I only stayed long enough on the first day to gather the swag and spirit them to the safety of home. I purposely left the nice sampling glass on the kitchen counter, as I knew it was an invitation to Shatter-ville, opting to stick with the more gravity-friendly plastic mug that was in the bag. Along with enough beer openers to have one for every day of the week, the bag of goodies had different things from vendors showing off their wares in the exhibitor hall. Set up like a tradeshow, the hall was open for most of the event hours, full of companies that specialized in equipment and ingredients for making beer.

The makings of a good beer: good ingredients, good equpiment, good sense of humor - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Heavy-duty brewing equipment. Pressurized systems. A library's worth of yeast strains, grain varieties and hops. This isn't the event for the folks who think buying the all-in-one kit is what it takes to be a homebrewer. Don't let the amateur status fool you into thinking the people involved with homebrewing is a simple side hobby. For many, the homebrew community is the stepping stone for people to go pro and start their own small microbreweries. While Brock hasn't bought enough equipment to evict our cars from the garage, we have our share of equipment and gear, and his homebrew friends have gear setups that would convince you they're making Frankenstein's Monster. The conference is also an opportunity for those qualified to judge homebrew competitions to flex their beer brain muscle and do some serious drinking. The Mister passed his judge exam earlier this year and judged a couple of competitions before, but it was a special opportunity to judge at the National Homebrewers Conference.

From grains to the glass, every detail counts in beer making - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I admit, I'm more of a Beer Drinker than a Beer Brewer. I've watched the Mister make beer and I'll be a clumsy helper when he needs another set of hands on brewing days, but it was interesting to see the industry behind this very serious hobby. People spend as much as what they would for a car, investing in the equipment for brewing beer at home. Granted, you can work with the basics and brew a perfectly good beer, but for those really wanting to immerse themselves into the brewing culture, joining a homebrew club is another way to pool resources and ideas. If you're serious about brewing and want to raise your game, track down a homebrew club in your area and see if they're accepting new members.

Ingredients and beer pro's in the exhibitor hall - Photos by Wasabi Prime
It wasn't all homebrewed beers, there were plenty of professional microbreweries involved as sponsors or speakers for the conference. They're a nice reminder of what one could potentially become if they wanted to take homebrewing to the next level. I don't know if the Mister aspires to go pro, but I wouldn't be surprised if he joins a local brewing club. We met several local club members at the different social mixers every day, and being able to sample beers from each club, it was a great way to see what each group was making.

Club Night!! Best beer party you'll ever attend - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I realize an event like this would only appeal to the serious beer brewer nerd -- there were sessions that were literally only about brew formulas, with numbers on a screen. My math-challenged brain shudders at the thought. But it's not just science, at the heart of homebrewers is a sense of fun, silliness and a nerdiness that fits well with the Pacific Northwest sensibility. The highlight of the conference for me was Club Night, where all the attending clubs set up booths in one of the giant ballrooms and pour tastes of their beers. After attending several beer festivals with professional microbreweries, Club Night had some of the best beers I've tasted.

Be who you wanna be on Club Night - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Monks, mad scientists, pirates, anarchists, rodents, even The Jesus from The Big Lebowski -- they were all in attendance for Club Night. Imagine Mardi Gras meets Beer Prom. To help distinguish themselves, clubs built bigger, better, wackier pouring booths to attract thirsty attendees to sample their homebrews. It was hard to think of this as a simple pasttime because for many of the people there, homebrewing and beer tasting/judging is a passionate lifestyle, given the elaborate nature of the booths and the quality of the beers. I saw my fair share of happy beer drunks ambling about, but it's not just about the drinking -- I met some cool folks, connected with people I've only talked virtually over Twitter and just soaked in the enthusiasm behind the homebrewer culture. It's very real, truly vibrant, and I wonder why Food Network or some other food channel hasn't created a reality series on homebrewers yet, because it's pretty entertaining.

Along with beer, a hefty dose of fun - Photos by Wasabi Prime
There's an element of competition for the conference, since many homebrewers are vying for awards and recognition that are announced on the last night, but I think Club Night was the most interesting and rewarding. And no, I'm not talking about just the beer -- I did my share of sampling but left with a clear head that night. I've only seen homebrewing on a small level, with Brock and his friends, so getting a sense of the brewer club community was as educational as it was fun. Depending on how the beer judging goes, maybe we'll attend the next conference, which will be held in Philadelphia in 2013.

Funny hats and this year's conference mascot, Bigfoot himself - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Judging from these photos, one could call it the Cult of Beer. There's an elevated level of knowledge that one needs to have to truly be embraced by the homebrew community, there's no doubt about it. As brewers, there needs to be a comfort with science and chemistry, and as tasters, it's not enough to just say, "the beer tastes good" -- there's a need to understand and recognize specific styles and appreciate flavor notes, the way a sommelier would for wine. I'm sure that's why it's a perfect fit for Brock. He appreciates all aspects of beer, from how it's created to why it tastes the way it does, it appeals to his scientific logic-mindedness. I think Mr. Spock would make for a great homebrewer, maybe not as good of a party animal on Club Night, but I'm sure a Vulcan could brew up a mean Belgian sour and hit all the proper flavor notes.

Party on, and keep the beer pouring - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I'm not sure how everyone's liver is feeling after a full weekend or more of beer drinking. The Mister felt like he needed to detox after everything, since he had done some of the pre-show events, judged for one day (aka, drinking for one day), and then several nights of homebrew club beer sampling (aka, more drinking all day/night). I followed Brock around for one of the days, shooting photos and getting a chance to take a photo of him with one of the brewer superstars, Charlie Papazian, who was very nice to pose with both Brock and his friend Sean, another homebrew aficionado and beer judge. The conference was fun, educational and everyone was friendly and eager to meet new people to raise a glass with. I even met someone who graduated from my same high school in Arizona! I didn't know what to expect beyond drinking quite a bit of beer, but I was pleasantly surprised with the spirit of fun and the enthusiasm of the crowd. If you're a homebrewer and not already a member of the American Homebrewers Association, it's worth joining and tracking down a local homebrewing club. Cheers, everyone -- I'm off to take a long post-beer nap. 

Cool homebrew clubs, brewing superstars and yes... more beer - Photos by Wasabi Prime

1 comment:

  1. Great Article! NHC 2012 was an incredible event. Already making room in the 2013 calendar to head east to Philly!


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