The 36th Annual National Homebrewers Conference and Competition was held on June 12-14, 2014, bringing together over 2,700 craft beer brewers in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they could check out the latest in brewing tools and technology on the expo floor, attend seminars from over 75 experts, authors, pro brewers and venerated homebrewers – and of course, attend the annual awards ceremony for the nation's best homebrewers.
After full days at the DeVos Place convention center, the attendees descended on Grand Rapid's excellent craft beer scene, discovering a great beer-centric city and the camaraderie and new friendships that can always be found when craft brewers come together in large numbers.
Club Night, held on Friday evening, celebrated the passion of homebrewers who traveled from far and wide to set up an elaborate booth and serve the beer they made. Sharing it with other homebrewers and pros alike, it was a brilliant evening of congratulations and critiques, fun and fraternity – and was over entirely too quickly.
My own homebrew club, the Lawrence Brewers Guild (Lawrence, KS), together with a couple of members from the Salina Brewers Guild, drove nearly 800 miles each way so that we could serve our beers at Club Night. And though we came far, I was still shocked to meet those that had come further and brought even more impressive booths.
Among our beer offerings were sours aged in Pappy Van Winkle barrels, a Bierre de Garde brewed in collaboration with one of our local breweries (23rd Street), a couple of wonderful oak-aged barleywines, delicious IPAs, brown ales and more. One of our club members, Angleo Ruiz, had the pleasure of celebrating his birthday that night, and got to share one of his beers with Mike "Tasty" McDole, which happened to be loosely-based on Tasty's gold-medal winning, Janet's Brown recipe.
"I told him how I'd used it as a base recipe for my grain bill," Ruiz explained. "He wanted to know the numbers on it, and where it finished at, etc. It was cool to talk with the guy that designed that recipe and has probably brewed it dozens of times, so he knows it inside and out. It's always nice to get that kind of feedback from a guy whose recipe has become pretty famous."
Another of our club, Kyle MacMillan, got a nod from Tasty for his Barrel Aged Barleywine, finding a "Tasty Approved" sticker on our tap-list board. Such is the rare opportunity presented by Club Night – a chance to mingle with peers, show off your hard work, and even get critiques from the pros and veteran homebrewers you've come to know and respect over the years.
The offerings shared by other clubs were equally, if not more impressive. Considering the number of booths, it was impossible to try them all -- especially when the overwhelming majority of them were pouring beers that made you just wish there was more time.
Saturday would bring more excellent seminars and time to see everything on the expo floor, and of course, the National Homebrewing Competition Award Banquet. In the weeks leading up to NHC, a staggering 8,172 homebrewed beers had been judged in preliminary rounds across the country, leading up to the final round of judging that took place at NHC itself. At the award ceremony and banquet that night, the top three entrants from 28 craft beer styles were awarded medals to the thunderous applause of their peers.
Robert Hilferding of Zephyrhills, FL went on to win the Homebrewer of the Year award with his Best-of-Show entry in the Scottish and Irish Ale category. The Meadmaker of the Year award was presented to Matthew Weide of Minneapolis, MN for his melomel, and Edward Walkowski from North Abington Township, PA won the Cidermaker of the Year award.
Jeremy Voeltz of the Arizona Society of Homebrewers club was recognized as the "winningest homebrewer in the Final Round" with the Ninkasi Award.
"The National Homebrew Competition has been the largest competition in the world for many years now, and the number of entrants was higher than its ever been," said AHA Director, Gary Glass. "We've added over a thousand more entrants than we had in last year's competition."
To put that into perspective, that was a 45% increase over last year's numbers – so it's a significant leap forward, and another enormous sign of the growth of craft brewing in the United States. To medal in this competition truly does signify an elite homebrewer, counted among the very best in the world.
Homebrew clubs from around the country were also recognized as the best around, with The Brewing Network narrowly beating out the runner-up, the Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity (QUAFF), for homebrew club of the year. The Gambrinus Club Award, awarded to the club with the most overall Final Round points, went to the Minnesota Home Brewers Association.
A new award, the Radegast Club of the Year, was awarded to the Carolina BrewMasters of Charlotte, NC – a special recognition for the club that made the most exceptional and positive impact on its local community. This year, the bar was set pretty high, with local community charitable donations raised to the tune of $77,500 in 2013.
Ken Schramm, best known for his mead and his excellent book, The Compleat Meadmaker, received the AHA Governing Committee Recognition Award to thunderous applause for his outstanding service to the community of homebrewers. Having met him for the first time at this event, he was every bit as friendly and kind, approachable and humble as his peers would lead you to believe, and if the banquet hall's reaction was any indication, this recognition was long-overdue.
But there's more to NHC than winning medals or recognizing excellence in brewing. The camaraderie among brewers is unlike any other group. The sharing of knowledge is selfless, as are the sharing of libations and laughs throughout the day. The professionals and published authors are humble and approachable, and happy to share advice or hear about your brewing (mis)adventures.
There's a real sense of mutual appreciation, with pros eager to show their love of homebrewers, (which the vast majority of them once were and/or still are,) and homebrewers who are eager to learn and get the chance to just hang out with their professional counterparts, getting an inside look at what it's like to turn pro, or just getting to know the men and women who make the beers they love. It's a bit of a love-fest with all of the "we couldn't do this without you" touchy-feely that goes on -- and yet, every word of it rings sincere. In the end, you can't help but feel even better about craft brewing and and the future of craft beer in the United States after an event like NHC.
One of the newer features appreciated by many at NHC was the great nightlife in Grand Rapids, easily enjoyed on foot or public transportation at the end of each conference day.
"I think one of the things that's different is in most previous conferences, we weren't based right downtown the way we were in Grand Rapids," said Glass. "We really built time into the conference for attendees to get out into the city, because it's a special place for people who are into beer. There aren't too many cities like Grand Rapids. So I think that was very much appreciated, that people had the opportunity to go and explore what Grand Rapids has to offer for beer lovers."
Further showcasing of its host city is an exciting new trend in NHC planning. Where once it was explained to me, "expect to pretty much never leave the convention center," I discovered quite the opposite. With great public transportation and shuttles, a diverse and exciting craft beer scene to discover and a downtown location in the middle of it all, Grand Rapids really got a chance to shine as well.
According to Glass, 2015 will push that envelope even further, when the NHC comes to San Diego, on June 11-13.
"We're going to continue to build upon the success that we had in Grand Rapids this year,” Glass said. “Similar to Grand Rapids, San Diego has a pretty amazing beer scene. San Diego County has something like 88 breweries operating in San Diego County, and something like 30 additional breweries in planning. And I'm pretty sure those numbers are out of date, so there's something like 90 breweries operating in San Diego County."
We here at BrewLiving eagerly look forward to visiting San Diego in 2015. We look forward to meeting even more of you, our fellow brewers, and making even more great friendships in our love of craft brewing.
So many story ideas... so many products to check out... so many fond memories and new friends. NHC couldn't have gone much better, and I can't wait to do it all again in San Diego next year. Until then, keep on BrewLiving.
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