Xana-Brew: Surviving and Thriving at the National Homebrewers Conference

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"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree..."  What follows in the Coleridge poem is a description of an Eden-like paradise built for the enjoyment of only those within the walls.  This summer, those walls will be those of the Baltimore Convention Center, and if history is any guide more than half of those in attendance will be at their very first National Homebrewers Conference (NHC).  It's time to get psyched.

NHC (or #homebrewcon as the AHA would like to rechristen it) is probably the best beer event you'll ever attend, see, or hear about.  It is homebrew Xanadu, Valhalla, and a Beer Garden of Eden all rolled into one.   This week we'll be talking about how to get the most out of it, because while it's undoubtedly an unbelievable event, it'll go by in a flash and you may want to go in with a plan!  And even if you won't be coming to Baltimore for this year's NHC, you may want to read on to get a sense of what you can expect in years to come when you finally can take the plunge.

A Birds-Eye View of the Conference

NHC is nominally a three-day event (there are pre- and post-conference activities as well), beginning on Thursday and closing on Saturday.  It incorporates three evening events (Opening Toast/Kickoff, Club Night, and the Grand Banquet), daytime seminars (usually three or four per hour, from 9-4 or so), and a Homebrew Expo and Social Club for homebrewing suppliers, equipment vendors, product reps, etc.  

The name of the game here is beer.  There's more of it, in greater variety, than you'll find anywhere in the world.  That's a bold statement, but I challenge anyone out there to prove me wrong.  It's brought in by craft breweries, produced and distributed by homebrew clubs, offered by vendors, and toted around by the attendees themselves (and if you show up without any, don't worry, you'll be handed a couple of Commemorative Beers on arrival).

It's up to you to decide what you want to get out of it.  This piece will cover the big picture stuff and provide some advice, but this is your event.  Make it what you want it to be!

Two Roads Diverged...

I've found that there are two overall strategies to NHC, and while they aren't mutually exclusive, most attendees will tend to stick to one or the other.  On one path you have what is primarily a sensory and consumption experience: basically a three-day beer tasting orgy with every style, type, and notion of beer/mead/cider you can imagine.  On the other you have what is generally an educational experience with some fun tasting events in the evenings.  It's your dime and your trip, so don't let anyone tell you that you need to do NHC a certain "way."  I've done both, though, and it was like two completely different conferences.

if you're on what we'll call the "Consumption" path, your biggest challenge will be the sheer number of beers, meads, and ciders on offer.  You might find 70-80 at the Opening Toast event.  There will be as many as two dozen (and rotating bi-hourly!!!) in the Social Club.  Club Night....well, we'll talk about Club Night, but suffice it to say that you're looking at upwards of a thousand different taps and bottles.  And that's before we get into what might be served at the seminars, what exhibitors might have pouring at their tables, and what homebrewers have brought with them to share.  On the Consumption path, your overarching challenge will be managing your BAC level, energy, and hangovers.  Schedule some naps.  Eat often.  Pour out beers you're not fond of.  And this is probably the single-best piece of advice you can get (and it applies at all beer festivals): DRINK YOUR GLASS RINSE WATER.  It's the easiest way to ensure you're staying at least somewhat hydrated.  

For you who want to get the biggest bang for your buck, though, you may want to take the "Education" path.  There are dozens of speakers and presentations happening over the three days of the conference, and you can even focus on specific tracks (beer styles, brewing, equipment, "going pro," history, clubs and competitions, and more).  My first NHC I came home with pages of notes and ideas, and I was struck at the time by what a treasure trove of information and discussion I was just exposed to.  My head was full.  If you're going down this path, you're going to want to peruse the schedule in advance and map out a strategy - note, too, that some presentations repeat.  I find that the practical presentations are best ("How to Do 'X': Results of a Homebrew Experiment"), but don't rule out some brewing-adjacent talks too (you'll find me, for example, attending the Homebrew Bloggers Roundtable).  

But there's one event you don't want to miss.  I don't care how hungover, mentally exhausted, or sick of beer you might, be you absolutely must attend...

CLUB NIGHT

Club Night is like Mardi Gras for homebrewers.  Don't think this is just some run-of-the-mill beer festival.  And not just because it's all homebrewed stuff - though that's pretty remarkable in itself - but because of the lengths that clubs go to make it memorable.  This is THE marquee event of the conference, and you'll want to have your camera as accessible as your tasting glass.

Every year is different, but a brief list of some things I've seen at past Club Nights:

  • Roving bands of "Sudbusters" dressed up as Ghostbusters with "proton packs" of beer slung to their back (2.5G kegs), filling glasses
  • A 12-foot high rigging to support a light show, monitors, and LED "pyrotechnics" as part of a beer-themed rock concert, complete with "backstage passes" to get at aged beers only available in the bottle
  • A photo booth experience with couples going "over the falls" in a barrel, sponsored by the Niagara Association of Homebrewers
  • A giant "wheel of fortune" that decided what beer you'd taste at the table
  • What I think was half of a DeSoto convertible, converted into a rolling kegerator

You seriously need to experience this for yourself.  This is a VERY small sample, and I'm sure that (given the tasting going on) that I'm forgetting dozens of even better and more-committed things.  Show up early and leave late.  Oh, and the beers, meads, and ciders on offer blow away the selections you'll get at even the best commercial beer festival.

GO. TO. CLUB. NIGHT.  

What I Wish I Knew Before My First NHC

There's lots of good info at the AHA's website, but there are also things that I wish I'd known before my first NHC.  These might be useful to you (or not - I may just be an idiot...).

  • PACE YOURSELF.  I'm not kidding when I say there's more beer here than you've ever seen in one place, and everyone will be offering it to you.  Seminar presenters, the Social Club, the vendors at the Homebrew Expo, your fellow conference goers, etc.  You can't avoid it, and you shouldn't try, but be aware of your pacing.  And as I said above, drink your rinse water.
  • DUMP FREELY.  There's a lot of beer (have I mentioned that yet?).  Your liver can only process so much of it.  Don't waste its valiant efforts on something you don't like.  You'll find dump vessels around - use them (discreetly - no need to offend anyone).
  • EAT.  Put together a PLAN to eat.  There's beer everywhere, but there's remarkably little food to be had at the conference proper.  At a minimum, go out for a big lunch every day, and have a list of late-night dining options before you get to the conference - when you wrap up at Opening Toast, Club Night, and even the Grand Banquet, you'll likely be looking for something to eat.  If you can manage to wake up early enough to eat breakfast before the first seminar of the day, then good on you, but historically I've slept as late as possible.
  • FORGET BREWERY VISITS OR PUB CRAWLS.  Unless you're doing pre- or post-conference days, don't plan on heading out of the conference at all, especially not for MORE beer.  There's more than enough to keep you busy from Thursday to Saturday, and believe it or not, by Saturday evening you may well be "beered out."  You'll never try it all at the conference, and you've already pre-paid for that beer!  
  • HIT THE HOMEBREW EXPO.  It's fun to see what's available - glassware, new ingredients, new equipment - and most of the exhibitors are pouring beer, doing give-aways, and in general just talking up what's new in homebrewing.  Usually it's located in the same place as the Social Club, so if there's a spare hour when none of the seminars are up your alley, take some time to walk around and hit every booth.  At a minimum, you'll come away with some interesting information, probably a couple of new t-shirts, and possibly some great ideas or new gear.
  • TALK TO PEOPLE.  You'll find homebrewers from all over (although about half will be from the host city).  I'm a pretty introverted person, but my first NHC experience was to do research in my role as co-chair of the 2013 Philly conference, so I was more or less forced to interact with people!  I'm glad for it, too - it was interesting and fun to talk with homebrewers from around the country (and the world) and ask them about their views of our hobby.  And although there are thousands at the conference, there's a lot of "milling about" going on, so you'll keep bumping into the same folks!  It just makes for a richer experience.
  • CHOOSE YOUR SEMINARS WISELY.  You won't be able to attend all of the seminars you might want to, so pick and choose wisely.  There's audio and video of all of them available via the AHA available after the conference, so choose seminars where you might have a question to ask.  And think outside the box - go to a seminar on a new (to you) method, ingredient, or style.
  • THINK LONG AND HARD ABOUT THE GRAND BANQUET.  If you're going with a bunch of people, and especially if you have beer competing in the second round, then by all means, go for it!  But as a beer dinner, it's just OK.  It's a phenomenal effort, feeding that many people that quickly and it has a solid beer selection, but it's still limited by its size.  You may want, instead, to choose a good restaurant near the conference and do a private event with yourself and the friends/family you've brought with you.  But again, your conference - do it your way! 
  • HAVE A COME-DOWN PLAN.  Don't plan a bunch of beer-related stuff for at least a week after the end of the conference.  As I keep saying, you may not believe it now, but you might be just a little tired of beer at the end of the conference.  Give yourself some detox time.

Relax, Don't Worry, Have a Homebrew

Mostly, though, HAVE FUN.  It'll probably happen naturally anyway, but don't get too stressed about anything.  Like your wedding day, it will fly by and you'll regret missing some things.  Unlike your wedding day (hopefully) it'll come back your way again soon. And once you attend NHC once you'll want to go again, believe me!

Take it all in.  Follow crowds.  Go your own way.  Try beers you haven't enjoyed before.  Meet a new friend.  Talk with a beer celebrity.  Go to a book signing.  And enjoy the dizzying array of homebrew, homebrewing gear, homebrewing people, and homebrewing entertainment available - it really is unparalleled in the beer world.  It's a lupulin-fueled dream palace that Coleridge would absolutely recognize as the kind of superlative and extreme places of his reveries.  

And lest you think I'm way off with the Coleridge "Xanadu" references, here's how that poem ends: "It was a miracle of rare device: A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice."  

Looks like Kubla was a lager fan.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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