The sun has set on another National Homebrewers Conference. As I look back on the time spent touring California and attending the conference itself, it is tough to know exactly where to start my recap. The copious notes I took during the seminars describe the analytical information and anecdotes given during the seminars, but aren’t that interesting to read. Your time would be better served listening to the actual talks once they’re posted on the AHA website. Instead, it’s much more fun to talk about the individual events and paint with broad strokes some of the more interesting moments at the conference.
Leading up the conference we took some extra time to not only visit friends and family around California, but also tour a number of breweries that have popped up in recent years. Informally, this trip is serving as a yeast hunting expedition with the goal of sourcing sour and wild beers that were brewed with interesting mixed cultures. Luckily several of the stops were selling some great bottles whose microbes will eventually find their way into some new beers I am developing.
Sante Adairius Rustic Ales
We had a great time at our first stop, Sante Adairius Rustic Ales in Santa Cruz, CA. Located in a nondescript commercial strip mall, the exterior belies a comfortable and somewhat ‘rustic’ interior pouring about 8 different beers on draft. SARA was pouring a number of tasty hop-forward beers–typical of the West Coast style–with huge tropical and citrusy hop aroma, but a bit excessive with some of the grassier dry hop flavors. They were also pouring an excellent gose, which was refreshingly tart and had a nice mellow salinity, as well a great dry saison. By happenstance, our visit coincided with the release of bottles of Cellarman, a sour saison that is really delicious, and whose microbes I am looking forward to propagating.
The Rare Barrel
Our next stop was The Rare Barrel located in Berkeley, CA. The Rare Barrel creates only barrel-aged sour beers and has seen great success in what is a growing segment of the craft beer market. The taproom is located within the barrel warehouse and provides an inviting environment for sour beer consumption. While at the TRB, we sampled 5 or 6 different sour beers. TRB contract-brews through Heretic Brewing three different base beers (golden, red, and bruin) which they then ferment in-house and age in barrels using a variety of different yeasts and bacterias. From these three base beers, they’ll add different adjuncts (fruit, spice, etc.), ferment with varying cultures, and blend in different proportions to create their portfolio of beers. All of the beers we consumed were very enjoyable with bright lactic acidity and fairly substantial malt, providing a counterbalance to the acidity. All of the beers were very approachable; a strategy that I’m sure TRB is employing to grow their customer base. Perhaps my only complaint would be that the beers felt overly simplified and one-note (lactic acid). I’d love to see if a bit more funk in these beers would provide for a more interesting drinking experience.
Firestone Walker Barrelworks
Our last stop en route to San Diego was Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks located in Buellton, CA. At this magical stop we not only sampled a number of the clean barrel-aged beers most people are familiar with (Parabola, Stickee Monkey, Abacus), but also a large selection of sour beers from their growing portfolio of wild beers. Standouts were Maltose Falcons (a big barrel-aged beer brewed in collaboration with the Maltose Falcons homebrew club), Sour Opal, and Bretta Rosé.
Welcome Reception (AKA Pro Night)
The conference kicked off with a rambling talk and toast by The Lost Abbey’s Tomme Arthur followed by a welcoming reception of (mainly) local San Diego breweries. This was a great chance to sample a ton of different beers that don’t make it out to the East Coast. San Diego lived up to the stereotype of being home to the biggest, most in-your-face samples of IPA. Booth after booth featured hugely punchy, dry IPA’s with massive hop aromas. At one point we sampled an old standby, Pliny the Elder from Russian River. While delicious, the intensity of the hopping seemed muted compared to the levels many newer San Diego breweries are pushing their beers to. When I first had Pliny many years ago, I would have never been able to imagine the levels that hoppy beers are presently being pushed to.
The hallmark event of the conference lived up to its reputation. Year after year, the quality of homebrewed beers gets better and better. The vast majority of beers being served were excellent, while a few really shined. Standouts for me were a oatmeal raisin cookie beer (club name forgotten) and a delicious barrel aged Flanders poured by the San Luis Obispo Brewers (SLOB). The creativity and willingness of homebrewers to push the rational limits of beer making to new levels was on full display during the event and gives an exciting preview of what professional craft brewers may soon be producing.
The awards ceremony for the National Homebrew Competition signals the end of the conference and what for me was over a week of beery fun. This year the AHA changed things up a bit and had their executive chef prepare the meal in lieu of chef Sean Paxton, who has done it for many years past. While the logistics of preparing a three-course meal for thousands of people tends to temper my expectations, I thought the food this year was reasonably tasty–much more so than the Paxton meals I’ve had at two previous conferences.
This year I had two beers in the competition, one of which managed to win a silver medal in Category 5, Bock. Winning a medal in a competition with over 7,600 entries is a great personal affirmation and provided a wonderful ending to the conference. The real fun, however, was talking and learning about beer for three days straight amongst the brewing peers that make this such a great hobby. I highly recommend this conference to brewers of all levels–it’s a blast.
See you all next year in Baltimore!