AHA/NHC Conference 2014 Grand Rapids #homebrew #NHC

I just attended the AHA Conference for 2014 in Grand Rapids, and I am capturing my thoughts here.  I realize I have a bunch of negatives here, but that does not reflect the truly great time I had, it’s just that much of good points were the same as last year.


Wednesday was a day of airports,  travel to Grand Rapids is tricky.  There were no great flights to get there.  I had to get up at 5am to catch a flight to Minneapolis and .  On the connecting flight I met a number of homebrewers including a few from Australia.  Most of us went the same hotel, the Riverfront, so we shared a taxi.  We then hooked up and spent time hitting HopCat which had nice beers and food, and then I discovered it was Stone Night.  I immediately took over ordering beer for the Aussies 🙂

Judging Second Round NHC

I have not been able to make it to judge second round before so this was exciting.  It also started at 8am, which mean getting up at 7am, which meant 4am for me.  I must really want to do this, or I am just stupid with time zones [this would later come to haunt me].  The second round is supposed to be about rating beers quickly, as they have already been judged, and are the best of the first round (there are 7 regional centers and beers advance from all of them.  We had a table of 10 judges, 5 pairs, and I think we did 8 beers.

I judged Wood aged and Smoke Beers, Category 22.  The fun of this category is to justify your taste buds from a smoked Helles, to a Russian Imperial Stout in a Bourbon Barrel (which was half the entries, to the point we joked that it needs its own style).   I think the entire table, or just Drew Beechum, gasped when I explain that I loathed coffee.  That did not me stop from really appreciating a beer with coffee added, mostly because I thought their use of Oak was the best of all of the beers (meaning we could sense it was there, gluing flavors together, but was hardly detectable).  Later at the Mini-BoS the other judges complained about the type of coffee used (good god Coffee and Beer snobs together), so I felt good about sending it up.

When judging you fill out a score sheet and rate the beer on Aroma, Appearance, Flavor, Mouthfeel, and Overall Impression.  You either write-up a score sheet, or fill out a check list and then score them out of 50, according the specific style guidelines.  A Best of Show is when all of the best beers are judged against each other, but no scores are mentioned.  A mini-BoS happens when there are enough entries that a category.  Typically this involves a fresh bottle of the beers you marked for BoS and 1 judge from each group. We had 11 beers which meant the first focus is on eliminating beers, to help the hard decisions ahead.  Sometimes second bottles taste different.  I’ve had the best beers I’ve judged taste off in the mini-BOS.  There is an odd thing that happens, you tend to fight for beers you passed up, somewhat out of defensive ego, but also as an advocate for “your team’s beer.”   I really thought Drew did a good job of narrowing opinions using good math/stat analysis when we got to 5 beers.  It was clear what was #1 and #2, and all we had to do was pick #3 (rank does not matter) from one of two beers.  That was much easier than hemming and hawing over 5 beers.


Best Talks

The Malt Nerds History Hour

There is always the one talk which makes the entre event worth it, and this was it.  The speakers were Andrea Stanley an artisan maltser (http://valleymalt.com/) , John Mallett  from http://bellsbeer.com/.  Since this was history, they dressed in period costumes from the 1800’s:


They talked about the history of malting around that time, and focused on one malt that has disappeared, Brown Malt.  It turns out brown malt was what made Porter, well Porter, in the 1800’s.  Andrea recreated the process for making brown malt, and actually made a “full” batch of it.  In short, she took soaked malt and kept it over a hard wood heat source, basically smoking it.  Because it was soaked the grain would eventually explode like popcorn does.  She had a cross section of a normal malted grain, which is all white with endosperm, and brown malt which is caramelized from the inside, in an explosive way, like a cross section of a geode (thunder egg).  Because the grain was turned by hand the kernels ranged from white to black.

She handed out a sample of the malt and we got to smell and taste it.  It was sweet like crystal but less cloying and of course the flavors were varied amongst the grain like homemade toasted pumpkin seeds .  They was a very nice smoke aroma and flavor.  John then broke out a porter that Bell’s has homebrewed with the grain.  It really tasted different and IMHO far better than most porters (Bell’s Porter was sent around as well).  The brown malt added a superior roast/toast/caramel flavor and perfect amount of smoke.  The smoke sort of glued together the other flavors, rather than being a prominent flavor itself.

And this is what makes the event worth it, while AHA members can hear the talk and see the slides, unless she makes the malt again, and she only produced 18 lbs.,  via a labor intensive process, I may never again get a chance to taste that grain and porter.

And to answer the question homebrewers are asking:   In 1817 Daniel Wheeler invented a process that blackened grain directly in a drum, allowing brewers to stop using a very expensive ingredient, use less of a cheaper one, and the flavor of porter changed, against the desire of England’s beer drinkers.  Why?  The usual: taxes, labor costs, and the fact that malting houses tended to go up in flames due to the smoking process.  Listen to the talk for more details.  Oh and the blackening process?  Turns out it was the one of the first times someone patented a process for malt, thus it was referred to as “patent malt” or as we know it know “black patent” (some more details: http://faithfulreaders.com/2012/05/06/black-patent-malt-and-the-evolution-of-porter/).

A pretty good blog about someone else making this kind of malt (hornbeam smoked) and straw based can be found here http://perfectpint.blogspot.com/2011/12/making-diastatic-brown-malt.html

Michael Tonsmeire The Influence of Mashing on Sour Beer Production

This is when the impact of getting up at 4 am (my time) for judging and 5 am for the flight caught up with me.  I was dozing off in the talk, even though it seemed fascinating.  I will want to re-listen to it when it comes online.

John Palmer’s  Water Chemistry and Beer pH

I was wary of this talk.  Water Chemistry can lose me quickly, but John did a very smart talk on specific interactions focusing on pale ales and hop perception.   He had two sample of beers, which *all* talks should do.  One with each profile he talked about.  When this talk comes out, it will be worth listening to.

2014 BJCP Style Guidelines

Changes are a coming!  BJCP has a pretty big change list out.  The biggest impact will likely be to specialty beers and IPAs.  They added several new categories and a few new styles:  2014 Style Guideline.  I think I might need to take the written exam now if I want to make national…

Let’s Brew Small

James Spencer from http://basicbrewing.com  gave a great talk on doing small batches of beer.  It was not just how, but why and some very good examples of beers he’s done for recipe creation, experimentation, and cost savings.  He also released the results of David Curtis’s experiment.

Best Beers

There many, many great beers.  When going to an event like this, you need to have a plan, you cannot drink everything.  My plan this year was to taste as many Rye beers as possible.  While the pro brewers were a dismal bust (see below) the homebrewers brought it.  It confirmed my opinion of Rye as a malt in that it is dusty/musty sometimes spicy and generally something I do not like, unless it is done “right” in which case it is awesome.  Go figure.

Major Funk:  This was brewed by Eric [something like Fouc but not pronounced the way you wish].  Eric has managed to grow a variety known as Major (though I cannot find a link).  Eric takes these apples and spontaneously ferments them.  The cider was amazing.  It definitely had a brett mustiness but against a gentle sour of the apple (which was excellent). This was the best beer until the one I cannot name (below).

Rye Saison:  Of all of the Rye beers I tasted the Rye Saison.  It had the musty/dusty of the Rye mixed with the Banana/Spice of the Saison.  While I did not grab a photo of that one, I did of the second best Rye, McFly Rye, which clearly won for label”


Lennenenhinininenen:  This beer went on at the end of the night.  And honestly the way the guy wrote it on the chalk board was sorta “Castle of Arrrggghhh” style.  I thought the name was a joke until a woman recognized the style as asked for it by name.  I cannot find any details on the style.  My memory is weak here (it was towards the end of Club night) but it was a perfect blend of smoke, sour, and malt.  It was wonderful and absolutely different.  Several of the folk I was with agreed.

Club Night

At first I thought club might was a bit lamer than prior ones, there were few booths with ridiculous themes expressed to the max.  Then I realized the effort was more in the taps than the booths.  Take the one, which solved the analysis paralysis problem by having logs with numbers on it flowing around the booth, you picked a log and ordered the beer:


Or the wood work:


Or the super creative naming:


There were still costumes:



And while maybe smaller than previous club nights, it was not small:


Registration process

In the past years the conference sold out in hours which is pretty unfair to people who cannot be connected at the time of the conference ticket release, especially since many people drop out over time.  This year the AHA went with a lottery process that turned out to be unnecessary as the number of people who applied was less than the tickets sold.

One of the  byproducts of this process was the elimination of the Social Package, which allowed a full paying member to bring a guest, for the social events (Expo, Hospitality Suite, Welcome Toast, Pro Night, Club Night, and optionally the banquet).   The main use for this is to allow someone to bring their significant other or friend, who will not want to go to the talks, but wants to engage socially.  I’ve gotten this for my wife for two years and it kind of stung that she could not get this again (and she was in the main picture for the conference at http://www.ahaconference.org for the last year, the purple haired woman).  In all truth, she could not attend this year for other reasons, but would love to attend next year if our kids’ school schedules allow for it.  Several local members who have attended with their SO’s in the past feel pretty bitter about this.

I do understand the desire to ensure that  tickets are sold first to members, but they could have opened up the social pass when they realized how many were left unsold.  However, the real reason I think it should be open is for locals.  When the conference was in Seattle many local homebrewers who could not get out of work, or afford a full pass, got social passes.  Maybe AHA will want to have local passes in the future, if not the social passes again.

Pro Night, or the lack thereof

This year Pro Night did not happen.  There were reasons stated why, but none of them felt like they really ring true.  Supposedly the survey has indicated a downward trend of Pro Night.  I can understand why, the brewer’s stopped bringing their A-Game and started treating it like another beer-fest.  Frankly the sampling in Phili was mediocre and even Seattle seemed less exciting.  I am not interested in getting a beer I can buy down the street, I want something great, unusual and maybe a chance to talk to the brewer.

Instead they had something called a welcome night, and then you had the option to pay more money to go to the BN Army party.  While I will not hold it against the BN, frankly I was not excited to pay more money to go to wait in line to get a bus to drink beers in baseball field.  Part of the reason I go to the conference is to be in one place and be focused on exploring beer, not just drinking it.  Several people felt the AHA sold out to the BN do they could get more money.

The event they did have (a welcome reception), simply put, sucked.  I got there a bit late (due to my nap and lack of busses) and the food was gone, and the beers were scattered around card tables with hotel staff pouring them out of pitchers.  The staff had nothing to do with the brewers, the beers were not in any sensible order, so I wound up not being able to find the beers I wanted to try, and had no one to talk to about the beers that were there.  When you did get beer, it was usually slightly warm, flat and had little or no aroma, since it was sitting in a pitcher for some time.

Supposedly there was going to be more pro-brewers in the social club, but I never saw them there.  Maybe they were there, but it was not clear to me.

The final hospitality slot, after the banquet, was worse.  Instead of the clubs running it, they had pro beers, but no pros.  The beers were set up in hallway, there was no rinse or drinking water nearby (I found a single cooler a ways away), and none of the beers had good aroma.  Also since there was not any homebrew, they did not bring out the left over beers from the competition, which was so much fun in prior years.

t is really criminal that the AHA would allow such awful treatment of beer at, and this is not hyperbole,  the premier beer related event in the world.  Whatever the theories they had on this, were completely wrong and left a huge negative impact on the conference (not just for me, but for many people, and I was not soliciting opinions).  The AHA needs to do a Mea Culpa and return Pro Night, but make it clear to the Pros what is expected.

Schwag Bag

One cool thing  about NHC is the schwag bag.  This year it had two beers, a glass, more Saison dry yeast, lots of stickers, less openers, and oddly no hops.  Northern Brewer had a cool thing:  a button with a number on it.  You had to find someone else with your number on it and then go to their booth.  This made people do some creative things, like taping their number to their equipment, or announcing the number when asking questions.  It seems like a way to meet people.  This Schwag is so much better than any conference I’ve attended (which is a lot) with the exception of Can Sec West  which had the best jackets (still have 3) and gave out Knives (passed TSA 2 times :)).


After a bad experience getting food last year (both getting my wife’s vegetarian option a few hours late, and awful), I chose to skip it this year and work out at the gym.  I am so happy I did that (and given the hotel gym, this is not a positive on the banquet).  The Banquet started at 7:30pm, and seemed to run past 11:00pm.  I heard the acoustics were awful, which is just stupid since apparently they were bad at the welcome reception.   Does the convention center not know how to set up their own space?

But the real problem is that the awards for each of the categories take forever to go through.  I think the conference organizers need to wake up and radically change things.  I know some people feel that everyone need their moment in the spotlight, but really ask yourself, does someone who entered category 22 need to wait for the previous categories?  Is it fair to mead people that most people have left?  If people want a medal and photo, do it in bulk.  Announce all of the winners, have them line up and go through a quick process.  Georgia Tech did this for graduation, and they cut the boring time down considerably.

I did hear from most people that the food was good (I heard from a few who did not like it, but that is normal).  One interesting thing is that Rouge has sponsored the beer for the event for many years, but this year it was Sam Adams.  I like a lot of Sam Adams’ beers, but they are not Rouge.  Apparently more than one table left unopened beers behind.

Unless it changes next year, I will gladly skip again.

Travel and Lodging

Probably the major downside to choosing Grand Rapids was the cost of travel.  It is a small city (town?) and not a major airport hub.  Getting flights to there was crazy hard and expensive.  Hard and expensive enough that people chose to drive from Seattle, or from a major airport like Chicago., or as is clear from ticket sales, not go. Getting a flight from Seattle meant painful timing and cost choices.   Most everyone I talked to had problems, except those people who drove (in which how many more breweries could they hit was problem #1), and the Commercial Pilot from Reno who was flying free, and he was highly sympathetic to the flight plight.

Lodging was also an issue.  I missed the announcement that the hotel blocks were open and wound up with few choices:  very expensive rooms near, but not at the convention center, fairly expensive hotels within a few miles, or really far hotels.  I am a huge believer in getting rooms at the event for conferences.  The main advantage is “time to room” which means you can drop stuff off, change clothes, or grab a 20 minute nap.  On the first full day I found myself exhausted due to a combination of time zones and lack of sleep (see Sour Beer talk above), plus my back was hurting from carrying my backpack and schwag bag, so I decided to head back to the hotel to rest and drop off stuff.  It was 2.2 miles away and while there were busses that ran to the hotels every 20 minutes, I only found out that the busses had an inexplicable hour off between 3:20 and 4:20.  After waiting for 30 minutes I paid someone to take me there.  That blew any chance of getting in an afternoon talk.  Apparently, the close hotels were at least 10 min walk, but that would have been certain, and not random.

The hotel I stayed in was the Riverfront.  To be honest it cost me $110/night and it was really worth $50.  It was run down and poorly maintained.  I think I barely won the crappy hotel-off with some folks whose air conditioner only started working after they discovered the filter was fully clogged  and had to clean it themselves (this was after maintenance looked at it), vs. my description of the “work-out” room, which  I did in fact attempt to work out in:  There were two exercise bikes, 2 stair masters, 1 treadmill.  The only things with a power cable were the treadmill and the carpet dryer which was clearly drying the carpet under the broken water fountain.  The exercise bikes seats did not move.  All of this was in a very humid 8×10 ft. space.  Oh and the scale said I gained 18 lbs. at the conference (only slightly accurate).

The vending machine signed changed daily, this was a favorite:


When I read this, I noticed the bag, which is Pop Corn, which made the sign even funnier to me.

On the plus side the walk to the hotel (which I did several times back and forth) was along the river and either quiet industrial or a very green park.  Oh and the bar was stocked with very good beers, both local and costal.  However the band on Saturday was so bad I had to leave.  I can normally sit through any music (due to my lack of skill with music, including listening to it), that was a first for me.

Then again this was my view:


Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids was nice, for the area near the conference center.  Like a lot of Midwest towns, it is downturned, but like many University towns, the area near the University is great.  There were many bars and breweries to walk to, and plenty of good eats in range.  Walking away from the conference center had the usual mid-west issue of great, great, great, shut down factory, seedy bar, sketchy area, hotel.

However being a good college and beer town it had it some awesome points:

The beer bike trailer:



The B.O.B. (Big Old Building) A brewery on floor 0, bars clubs, etc.  A wall of cans and huggable woodwork:


Mike Stoccardo like to hug trees in all forms:


And of course Bob Stempski with an awesome shirt:



Overall the conference was great.  Although, many parts seemed a let-down from prior years.  I know how hard it is to run a conference, especially as it grows.  I appreciate the efforts of the AHA full-timers, and know how much of the work is done by volunteers.  I’m planning on going to San Diego next year and I hope they address the issues that pointed out here, but I really hope that San Diego takes it up a notch from 4 years ago, especially the club, because they rocked it.

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