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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Brewing with Voltaire: Simple Recipe Cheats

"The best is the enemy of the good."  This old phrase and even older idea, popularized by Voltaire, means that in trying to improve something further you may actually screw it up.  Let's say you're working on something.  It's more than good enough - you can stop now and enjoy it.  But you don't.  You keep trying to make it perfect,  And you never actually get to perfect, so you don't get to enjoy it.  I find that brewers are particularly susceptible to this trap, and I'm writing today with two goals: 

1. To convince you to recognize that perfection isn't the goal, and probably isn't attainable anyway.

2. To share a few simple tricks you can employ to get to "good enough" that will save you all kinds of time and effort compared to the "might get me to perfect" methods.  And not for nothing, but who said that complexity was the road to perfection, anyway?

Addition by Subtraction

Starting with the philosophical side of this, it probably shouldn't surprise you that here at Beer: Simple we're in favor of the idea of "good enough."  If you want to make great beer, geeking out is fine, but hardly required.  If you're having issues and you aren't happy with what you're making, then certainly some geeking out might be in order, but you don't necessarily need to do so if you're enjoying the beer you're producing.  Some of the very best brewers I know are brewing in battered kettles on top of ancient plywood held up by nothing more exotic than sawhorses, and they don't think all that much about the thousands of technical details that go into brewing.  Despite what some might call this lack of "care," they're still producing great beer.  

Some of that might just be luck - a good water profile, a lucky guess on mill gap, etc. - but a lot of it can be had by affirmatively simplifying your beer and brewing.  Be willing to let go of what might be unnecessary, especially when it's taking up your time or money.

In my brewery, empiricism rules the day: if I'm not sure I need to do something, I'll drop it out of the process (or replace it with something easier) and see what happens.  If I don't see a noticeable difference in flavor, or stability, or competition scores, then I leave it out.  Sometimes it backfires and I need to double back (direct oxygenation really is crazy beneficial), but far more often there's no meaningful impact (or it turns out better).  

Am I abandoning the possibility of making that perfect, mesmerizing, 50-point beer?  Maybe.  But I don't care, because that wasn't the point of brewing it in the first place. The point was to make enjoyable beer, and Step One in the process is "brew."  I'm more likely to do that if I can do it quickly and easily.  It doesn't much matter how perfect that beer would have been if I decided that I didn't have time to make it in the first place.  

Let's also not forget that trying to make it perfect might mess it up, too - or to quote another fine author (Billy S.), "striving to mend, [we] mar the subject."

So you might consider some editing.  This week is about recipe choices, but in the future we'll also get into some process and equipment ideas, too.  But it has to start with a willingness to, in the words of yet another immortal author, "Let it Go."  [God, I hated that movie.  I know it's for kids, but kids aren't (all) morons.  Plot holes everywhere.  Singing that's a little "shriek-y."  That f***in' snowman.  And if she could control the ice the whole time, then why did we need the entire movie???]

Recipe Cheats

As always, let me start with the disclaimer that these things may or may not work for you. There's a whole universe of potentially unobvservable differences between us.  But they've worked for me, and they (or variations on them) might work for you, too.

Season Everything.  This is a truism of cooking - don't miss an opportunity to add a flavor.  For that reason, I almost never use generic 2-row base malt.  To forestall the e-mails, yes, I know that it does have a flavor, but it's a flavor that's relatively easy to overshadow.  When in doubt, replace that 2-row base addition with a 50/50 split of Maris Otter and Pilsner.  I think you'll find it adds a great biscuit/honey background note to most beers, and might enable you to skip some light crystal additions.  

Work Low to High.  With new recipes, start with less of (whatever) then you think you actually need, and walk it up in successive batches.  You're looking for a minimum required amount - overkill can be hard to spot, so you're probably wasting money on over-used ingredients.

Sugar, Sugar.  Sugar additions aren't just for Belgian beers.  Any time you want to be sure that a beer finishes nice and light and dry, replace 5% of your gravity points with corn or cane sugar.  It's a little nudge in the right direction because it completely eliminates some long-chain sugars which might linger.  Sure, you could do the same by mashing lower, but that introduces a lot of error, whereas this is as simple as breaking out the scale.

Think "Results."  Don't focus too much on the original flavor of an ingredient - it may not taste that way when your process is finished (I still remember thinking about the great maple flavor I was going to get out of that maple syrup....or not, because it all just fermented off!).  And don't obsess about the "right" way to get a flavor: yes, you should probably use a lacto strain to get lactic acid in your Berliner Weisse, but if it didn't get sour enough you can also just spike it with.....LACTIC ACID (good enough for BOS at one competition).  There are some shortcuts you should never use (Liquid Smoke, anyone?) but a great many more that are perfectly useful.  Try, then trust.

Focus your Malts.  Fewer ingredients is usually better than more.  You don't need four types of crystal malt - one or two will be fine.  You probably don't need three kinds of chocolate malt - you'll likely only taste one of them.  In fact I'm of the opinion that, with almost no exceptions, no recipe needs more than four malts: a base malt, a light character malt (think Victory), a crystal malt (Fawcett 45L is my favorite - that thing can do damn near anything), and a chocolate malt (Chocolate Rye is fun).  In addition to making it easier to discern the flavor contributions of different malts and train up your palate, your LHBS grist guy/gal will thank you for making their life easier.

Focus your Hops. Same thing as malts.  Keep it simple.  Choose a hop from a particular family, whether it's a geraniol-focused hop like Styrian or big-time citrus from a linalool-rich hop like Amarillo (for some great guidance, check out this recent piece at Craft Beer & Brewing!) and use it the whole way.  The one exception would be low-Alpha-Acid-percentage hops that would require too much hop matter in your beer (and can cause vegetal flavors).  If you're going to have more than six ounces of any hop in your five-gallon batch, cut it down by using high-AA% bittering hops.

Don't Obsess Over Water.  I didn't adjust my water for years.  It tastes fine, so I used it to brew.  Eventually I got a water report (think Cologne, Germany) and worked out a basic treatment plan (1/4 teaspoon of Gypsum in light beers, 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda in dark beers, nothing for ambers).  The simple fact is that for a great many brewers, obsessing over water is a massive time and energy suck.  If you've got crazy hard well water then get on that stuff right away, but if not?  Deprioritize it.  I know it's the single largest ingredient, but most drinking water is perfectly fine as-is for brewing.  And trying to "re-create" brewing center waters so your beer is uber-authentic is a sign of pretension that's almost as egregious as using the modifier "uber." 

Recipe Your Way Out.  Sometimes process is what we use to get flavors - for example, pushing temperature on a yeast to get certain phenols, esters, or fermentation characters.  But be willing to "recipe" your way out of that situation - process is simply less reliable than ingredients.  YOU control the ingredients.  The yeast control the fermentation byproducts.  So if you're looking for pepper flavor in that Saison, consider just adding some...cracked pepper.

Know Thy Yeast.  I've already covered this elsewhere, but I firmly advocate using a few go-to strains of yeast rather than switching it up for every single recipe.  Yeast performance dictates a lot of what you get out of the other end here, and if you stick with one strain for similar beers (I do one ale, one lager, and one Belgian) then your other recipe adjustments will be more reliable and educational.

If It's Stupid but it Works, it Ain't Stupid

We could probably go on forever with little things like these.  What's more important is a willingness to try out different things and see how they work.  Don't be tied to the orthodox or the dogmatic.  And keep an eye on what you want out of your brewing: if you want a peach beer, consider adding peaches before delving into the academic research on the molecular nature of peach aromatics and hop oils and how they present in alcoholic solutions post-fermentation and post-isomerization.  Be willing to double back to the orthodox (it often exists for a good reason), but be just as willing to try something obvious, even if it sounds stupid.  If it's stupid but it works, it ain't stupid.

Please feel free to add your own tips below in the comments, and I'll be back here soon with another round of Brewing with Voltaire.  Don't let the best be the enemy of the good in your brewing.  And for those who would criticize you or tech-talk your ears off for bucking the trends or relying on something as simplistic as adding lactic acid to your sour beer, I would offer my favorite Voltaire witticism in return (ironic and hypocritical as it might be):

"A witty saying proves nothing."

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).