Wednesday, July 9, 2014

NHC Day 4: The Chaos Begins!

The official NHC always starts on a Thursday.  The morning of that first day is the start of judging for the National Homebrewing Competition--the biggest homebrew competition in the world!  Some quick background on the competition:  Over the past few years there has been an explosion of homebrewing interest and the AHA (American Homebrewer's Association) has had to make some big changes in order to limit/make fair the entry into the competition.  In previous years they allowed many entries (20 or so) per person but cut that to less last year.  This year they actually started a lottery system to get in (after last year's internet stampede crashed their servers) and I managed to get 4 entries in.  Many people I know were disgusted by the new system and refused to attempt it at all.  The first round of judging is split into 10 regions and if you manage to get a medal in that round your beer moves on to the final round at NHC.  The total number of entries this year was a whopping 8,172!  My coffee stout actually took first place in our region and was in the running for the big prize this year, so that was pretty cool.

So Thursday morning, Sj took off to meet with a beading friend who lived in the area while I headed down to the convention center to help judge the second round beers.  In order to do this I had to wake up at 6:30 AM!  Please see my previous day's post to see why this was such a rough thing for me.  Guzzling gallons of coffee along the way I ended up making it in time for a free breakfast they had arranged for the volunteers.  Sated on bacon and caffeine, I was as ready as I'd ever be to judge in this epic competition!  I was judging the Scottish and Irish ales with a group of 9 other BJCP judges.  Not a bad category to judge in the morning, as malty beers are easier to drink for breakfast than say, Light American Lagers or IPAs.  I was a little intimidated at first.  I'm a National ranked judge, but this was the biggest competition in the world!  Who was I to tell these great brewers what was wrong with their beers?  What I discovered was that the group was very laid back and everyone was thoughtful, but trying to have a good time as well.  In Minnesota we have a large community of highly ranked judges and host the Upper Mississippi Mash Out which is as cutthroat and tough as any competition I can think of, so I figured this would be even more hard core!  The great part about judging second round was that there were no bad beers.  All of these beers had won a medal already so this was the cream of the crop, without poorly thought out recipes, infections and wrong category entries like many other competitions.

Once the judging was over for the morning I headed down to officially register for the conference.  I picked up my badge and was directed to pick up a big bag of mixed homebrew swag.  They also do one or more commemorative beers each year and I had to lug those around with me as well.  This year's were an Oak Aged Rye IPA from Founders and an all Michigan ingredient Barleywine from Bells.  Both were made in collaboration with homebrewers and were available to taste later in the conference.  I was able to bring our bottles home with us to share at the next Jack Of All Brews meeting.

From here I went just across the hall to the Homebrew Expo.  In previous years they have had a Hospitality Suite where a few vendors or sponsors display their wares and homebrew clubs serve up homebrew to thirsty conference-goers.  This year they have really expanded this to a large conference hall filled with around 70 vendors and plenty to look at and do.  I found myself returning here frequently in between events and lectures throughout the weekend.  I went ahead and bought Michael Tonsmeire's new book on sour beers right away since they were 40% off for AHA members.  They completely sold out of huge stacks of those by the next day!  Midwest/Northern Brewer both had a strong showing and I knew several of the cool guys working those booths.  Rahr/BSG were serving up some cool beers ranging from commercials to my friend Chris German's wonderful pilsner and Juniper beer.  Bells, New Holland and Lagunitas were constantly serving up rotating tap lists of great beer as well.  There was always a huge line for tastes of Michael Fairbrother's Moonlight Meads--I tried several and they were well worth the wait!  Morebeer had a few kegs of Pliny the Elder and that caused quite a stir!  Many of the display booths had swag giveaways and raffles, prompting us to sign our lives and e-mail addresses away for the chance to win some cool brewing stuff.

Met one of my Homebrewing idols, Randy Mosher in the Expo!

Wait, I'm here for the conference itself!  I broke the spell and with full taster glass I headed to the lecture halls for a talk on Obscure and Ancient Beers by Geoff Groff & Mark Pangle.  Having been involved in the Byggvir's Big Beer Cup (MN Renfest) for several years, where they have a special category for historic beers, I have been intrigued by these for some time.  The speakers did a pretty good job talking about sahti, gose and steinbeer.  Kudos go to them for serving up homebrewed examples of the first two!  Last year I brewed a gose (winning second place at Byggvir) and I have to say that mine was better.  But I still appreciate getting to taste along--and hey beer makes any lecture better!  I might need to try my hand at Kvass this year...

The next block of talks didn't wow me and I was tired by this point.  I walked back to the hotel room for a quick Disco-Nap.  Sj showed up shortly after and told me all about her meet-up and field trip to Virtue Cider (see her blog post on that HERE.)

Hoards of beer enthusiasts!

Our next stop was the Welcome Reception.  This seems to have taken the place of the old Professional Brewer's Night.  The event was in a large reception hall with terrible acoustics, and none of us could hear the official greeting toast.  Oh well, there was beer to be had!  They had a lot of local Michigan breweries represented, but apparently the beers had to be poured by the convention center staff.  Unfortunately those staff often didn't know how to pour beer well, struggling with jockey boxes and CO2 lines.  They also didn't have any info about the beers...something I miss about interacting with the brewers and reps at Pro Night.  We had several good beers like Calabaza Blanca from Jolly Pumpkin, Acadia Scottish Ale, Dark Horse Fore, and Mad Cow Milk Stout (I think from Blue Tractor.)  Some not so good ones were a peanut butter porter, a Belgian Quad, and a Kombucha beer.  I won't mention names on those.  Overall, most of the beers were average, but still cool to try lots of things.  Some iffy appetizers were available but not worth the lines to get at them!  There I met briefly with Jason McLaughlin, a guy I've been Facebook friends with since we met at NHC in Minnesota several years ago.  We also ran into a bunch of Minnesotans from back home!

As opposed to Pro Night, this swoire didn't run very late.  Mike, Sj and I all decided we needed some food after all that beer and with help from Yelp found a nearby tapas place called San Chez.  The restaurant had a small beer list but did have the pleasant Solitude Belgian style ale from Vivant.  We split a bunch of excellent tapas including dates stuffed with meat and topped with a very spicy harissa.   Also a wonderful dish of crawdad in cream sauce with red peppers.  Yum!

Apparently that was the end of the day!  A fun one for sure with a good mix of NHC events.  The next day things really get going!

Up Next:  NHC Day 5!

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