GRAND RAPIDS — Thursday morning and all is quiet in the Homebrew Expo Hall. Vendors quietly and quickly setting up for the onslaught to come, last minute touches at their booths, last products displayed for the public. Then — the doors open.

It’s day one at the 36th Annual American Homebrewers Association National Homebrewers Conference, held this year in Grand Rapids — aka BeerCity USA. Homebrewers from all over the country are here, representing their clubs, selling their wares and sharing their knowledge and passion with other brew fanatics.

The perks start as soon as you walk in; a goodie bag filled with swag from all expo attendees and two very special seven-fifty’s from Founders and Bell’s, made exclusively for the conference. But ask any homebrewer in attendance — the real benefit comes from the experience, the expertise and generous sharing of knowledge (and beer) that you find at conferences like this.

We spent the morning in the expo hall, being nerdy and educating ourselves on the finer points of homebrewing. Northern Brewer, expo hall sponsor and winner of cleverest marketing tool was one of our first stops. Digging in our swag bag, we find red Northern Brewer buttons with a number. Put on your button, find your match and win a prize. What better way to get people talking about your shop and engaging with each other?

Based out of Roseville, Minn., Northern Brewer is all about user-friendliness. Nick Stephan, Marketing Associate, hands me three bean bags (you can win more swag, if you’ve got good aim) and tells me that “were about bringing homebrew to everyone. That’s our passion, bringing homebrew to the masses. We want to make it accessible to as many people as possible.”

Richie Esquivel from the Memphis Brewers Association heads to Northern, laughing loudly with other members of his club. “Take our picture! We have a match!” Random happenstance and two folks from the same club end up being the first match of the day. This is the second AHA Conference this group has attended, and so far it’s already been eventful. 

“We drove up to Grand Rapids on Tuesday morning, stopping at Three Floyds on the way and closing Bells Tuesday night. Yesterday we got into Grand Rapids. We did HopCat, Elk Brewing, Founders and stopped at The Winchester, then closed it down at Z’s (Bar). It’s like a 20 foot walk from there to our hotel, and it was the longest 20 foot walk of my life.” Richie and his crew laugh. When asked what they are most looking forward to, everyone chimes in.

“The camaraderie with other homebrewers.”
“Tasting other people’s homebrew.”
“The fact that every single person that I talk to is also a beer nerd, instead of the usual — when I’m at the bar and people know less than you do and it’s irritating. People here know more than I do, and I get to learn. Words like alpha acids and cohumulone actually fucking mean something. It’s absolutely awesome.”

Onward, we make our way through the 70+ exhibitors. Maltsters and hop sellers, yeast suppliers and homebrew equipment manufacturers, retailers and even some breweries are there, showcasing their wares and most offering beer for sample featuring their product.

White Labs out of San Diego, Calif. is highlighting their new, innovative packaging technology for their liquid yeast cultures. An environmentally friendly, easily shippable package that is actually part of the propagation vessel itself, these will be available for homebrewers in the fall. The yeast is grown in the container without any transferring, hence no risk of contamination. This Pure Pitch Packaging prevents over pressurization and lengthens the life of the yeast.

Boyd Culver from Coldbreak Brewing out of Marne is in attendance, highlighting his jockey boxes, recently used by both Rockford Brewing and Gravel Bottom at Winter Beer Fest. ‘The Beast’ features eight taps hooked into 50 foot coils of stainless steel. Run warm beer through into a cooler full of ice, it comes out ice cold. “It’s good for festivals parties. Simplicity and ease, that’s what it’s all about.”

We stop and try a hibiscus infused, all organic beer from Seven Bridges Cooperative in Santa Cruz, Calif., the only organic homebrew store in the nation. “100 percent. That’s our niche,” says Michael Smith, brewer and co-owner.

“We’ve been in the business since 1997. Hops, malt, grain, sugars-everything, all organic. You have to be a creative with the choices you have (to brew an all organic beer), it’s a little more challenging, but you can make some really good beer.”

There is almost too much to see, too much to explore at each booth. From customized beer labels and coasters for the homebrewer from Grog Tag, to complex electronic control panels and monitoring systems from companies like Electronic Brewing Supply.

Psychobrew, which prides themselves on being local (from Belding) and American made is here, with its five barrel systems that are customizable and affordable. Smaller breweries like Elk use the system, with a specially designed bigger kettle they requested. Yeah, Psychobrew does that.

So new it doesn’t even exist yet is the Synek Draft System. Billed as the first ever crowd sourced beer dispenser, this unit will sit on your counter top, keeping your beer carbonated, refrigerated and drinkable for at least 30 days. It uses flexible packaging — a silver pouch that you can stick in your pocket and take to your favorite brewery for a fill up or fill with your very own homebrew. Like a gallon size Capri Sun for adult beverages, Synek wants to eliminate the need for growlers that quickly lose flavor and go flat. Or that’s the idea. With only one working prototype, this team of designers, marketers and engineers is hoping to jump start its Kickstarter launch on Monday by being here.

One of our last stops is the Cicerone Certification table. The idea of being certified, in beer, has an appeal to those of us who love the art of craft brew. Testing was going on at DeVos Place that very day, and new Cicerones were being named. The world has accepted the Sommelier as your go-to expert for everything wine, but have we accepted the Cicerone as someone just as knowledgeable, and who has worked just as hard, as our beer expert?

“As a Certified Cicerone, you are telling potential employers, employees and people you are selling products to that you have formal training, spent time, and resources to attain a certain level of knowledge to bring that product to them,” the gentlemen at the booth is passionate about the program, and it shows.

“Being a Cicerone is not about telling people what beer is right or wrong, it’s about having enough knowledge to find the right product for the right person at the right moment. Cicerone means guide, and that’s what you are supposed to do. I don’t care what beer is your favorite beer, I will help you find one that fits inside what you are looking for, or with that food. If you want to separate yourself, you do it by showing you are interested in education and willing to spend your time and resources on it.”

Becoming a member of AHA and attending a National Conference is a good start. Education, passion, and general nerdy enthusiasm about this industry is palpable, and the fun and excitement will run through Saturday, Grand Rapids.

Wish you all were here.

Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery