Monday, March 27, 2017

Pacific Northwest Homebrewers Conference: Where Knowledge Flows Like Beer

Wow, what a weekend!  For the second straight year, the Pacific Northwest Homebrewer’s Conference was a tremendous success. From the knowledge shared during the seminars, to the product demonstrations from sponsor vendors, to the keynote speeches, and even the casual discussion between participants, the event was a blast to attend. And then there was the beer... oh God the beer.

The event kicked off Friday with registration, seminars, dinner and Pro Night.  Getting things rolling, some of the topics included Oregon Brew Crew member Alex Brehm discussing Making Award Winning Beer with Malt Extract (which is something I believe in wholeheartedly) and a pair of hops presentations from Kelly Harper (Deschutes Brewing) and Ted Hausotter (Hop Heaven).  Some serious sour knowledge was dropped by some folks who really know something about funk: Ben Edmunds (Breakside), Sean Burke (The Commons), and Shilpi Halemane (Logsdon Farmhouse Ales).

The evening was capped by the well-attended Pro Night that featured spectacular beers from some of the best PNW breweries. It was a great opportunity to try some unique brews from your favorite breweries and become familiar with some smaller or out-of-state breweries with which you may not have been acquainted.

Honestly, after all that fun Friday night, Saturday morning got off to a mild start. The presenters were off and running by 8:30am, but it seemed that Pro Night created a little (ahem) collateral damage in terms of attendance for the early sessions.  Those who skipped the early sessions in favor of sunglasses and Advil missed out on some choice knowledge.

Sunglasses and Berliner Weisse.
Last night was mad nice.

I got my day started with a perfect session to ease into in a full day, a presentation on Berliner Weisse (with beer!) from Imperial Yeast’s Jess Caudill.  The session featured an historic perspective on the style, as well as modern techniques that are working to preserve this quirky, sour German ale. The session featured beer samples using both quick and long souring techniques for attendees’ comparison and contrast. I doubt anyone walked out of that session without having learned quite a bit about brewing Berliner Weisse, and if they did, they walked out having tried some quality sessionable sours to start the day off right.

Most seminars were followed by a brief break with snacks and a visit to the vendor floor. The goodies were on point, featuring grain samples from craft maltsters like Joseph's Grainery and Skagit Valley Malting, hops from Yakima Valley Hops and yeast from Imperial Yeast (who collaborated with Bader Beer and Wine Supply to create a special blend available to attendees who redeem a voucher at Bader's excellent homebrew shop in Vancouver). And, once again, nearly every booth was pouring fantastic beer showcasing their wares.

Lunch on Saturday featured some delicious food and beer, but the real treat were dual keynote speeches by American Homebrewers Association Director Gary Glass and Portland craft beer legend Art Larrance.

AHA Director Gary Glass speaking on the State of Homebrewing

Art Larrance spinning tales of the origin of craft brew in Portland.

Gary Glass spoke on the State of Homebrewing in America. He called specific attention to the fact that we now have 1.2 million estimated homebrewers actively brewing in the US. And though that number is substantial, he said that an estimated 19 million craft brew enthusiasts have expressed interest in brewing beer. That is a staggering number and converting even a fraction of those drinkers into brewers would have a huge impact on the hobby.

Art Larrance gave an amazing history of craft beer's roots in Portland. He was there in the middle of it all with Portland Brewing Co and the stories he told of himself, the Widmer Brothers, the Ponzi’s (BridgePort) and their contemporaries were some real inside baseball that only he and a few others could tell. It really is the stuff of legend and he puts enormous perspective on how we have gotten to where we are today.  He then transitioned to his founding of Cascade Brewing and it’s role in bringing sour beer to the Pacific Northwest and really, the US in general.  He is a hilarious guy and his self-effacing nature made for a very special moment in the day’s proceedings.  Art can tell a story, and when he does, it’s best to sit back and listen.

Art wasn’t the only guy bringing old school cred to the event.  Mike “Tasty” McDole and Denny Conn were in attendance both as participants and presenters. Tasty has over 20 years of homebrewing experience and is a popular podcast host on The Brewing Network. His recipes have been brewed commercially and his homebrew recipe for Janet’s Brown Ale has been brewed by innumerable homebrewers, winning countless awards.  Also a popular podcaster as well as author, Denny Conn gave his presentation Saturday, 19 years to the day of his first ever batch of homebrew. He has now exceeded 500 batches and shows no sign of slowing.  Both of these guys have been instrumental in popularizing the hobby of homebrewing and having them as presenters was a credit to the event. But the fun thing for me was seeing them in attendance in the seminars with everyone else. It shows that even at the top of the hobby, you never stop learning and perfecting your craft.

Denny Conn celebrated the 19th anniversary of his first batch with us
by treating us to a song-filled seminar on brewing like an All-Star.

It was great to catch up with two of the subjects from our Growing Local Beer series. Both Owen Lingley (Imperial Yeast) and Seth Klann (Mecca Grade Estate Malt) were on hand as presenters. Both provided tremendous insight to their respective products.  It is a tremendous benefit to a brewer to learn about the products they use from the people who produce them. You aren’t going to get better information about your yeast than asking the guy who oversees growing it from a single cell. You aren’t going to get better answers about craft malt than by asking the guy who planted the seed, grew it, harvested it and malted it himself.  Cheers to PNWHC for assembling that level of expertise under one roof.

The real fun and camaraderie was on full display after dinner at Club Night.  Nineteen brew clubs from across the Pacific Northwest went all-out trying to impress with both their beer and some truly amazing booth displays.  There were far too many beers pouring for any one human to try responsibly.  Many of the beers pouring were truly at commercial-level quality in every aspect. Many more were wildly innovative in their conception (Looking for beers brewed with Quinoa? Oak leaves and carrots? Figs and brettanomyces? Sure, why the hell not? It’s Club night).

I had some truly impressive beers. Spokane's IBU had a Gin Barrel IPA that I made at least 6 people try, every one of them was impressed. The two Flanders Reds I tried (One from Cascade Brewers Society and another brewed by members of my home club PDX Brewers) were phenomenal classic examples of a truly difficult style to perfect.

The homebrew clubs didn't hold back at all with their displays, nor with their beer.
(Clockwise from top left; Stilly Mashers, Oregon Brew Crew, Cascade Brewers Society, PDX Brewers)

One of the unique aspects of Club Night is the ability to share your beer with people who know and love beer in a non-competitive environment.  The feedback is phenomenal.  I overheard so many people talking with brewers about their process while drinking one another's beer.  Brewers were able to put their beer in the hand of the Director of the AHA and say “Hey, what do you think?” and get an honest answer.  At one point Tasty McDole was drinking my beer, asking me about the lager process I used, which is the process I had learned from him on his podcast years ago.  I just don’t know many other places you get these kind of opportunities.

The author (Font row, second from left) with his homebrew club, PDX Brewers.
I think that is the biggest takeaway from the PNWHC. Unless you have the means to chase the National Homebrewers Conference (now Homebrew Con) around the country on an annual basis, you really aren’t going to find a situation like the event PNWHC holds. And they bring it to your backyard.  Though it is smaller in scale than Homebrew Con, the knowledge, experience and the beer on hand rival any other conference out there.

And who knows? Maybe we will see something the size and scale of Homebrew Con hit the area in the near future? I think PNWHC has proven this area is ready to host that event for the first time since 1998 and I hope others saw the same.

#pdxbeergeeks would like to acknowledge the Pacific Northwest Homebrewers Conference for their professionalism, generosity and hospitality in hosting us on Saturday. Cheers!