aha conference

GRAND RAPIDS — We had a great time throughout the American Homebrewers Association’s National Homebrewers Conference held at DeVos Place last week. Below are links to all of our coverage, as well as some of our favorite photo moments. Photos by Steph Harding.

MittenBrew Coverage

THURSDAY: Expo

FRIDAY: Keynote

FRIDAY: Club Night

GRAND RAPIDS — “1 in every 200 Americans homebrew.”

Charlie Papazian, quietly unassuming, gently humorous, clad in a hawaiian shirt, shares from the stage. This number has implications. “You — homebrewers — have ignited and inspired the world of craft brewing, in America and elsewhere.”

Grand Rapids, especially and Michigan, too. The homebrew culture feeds the craft brew culture in this city and in the state. “There’s a special spirit here,” says Charlie as he introduces the 2014 AHA Conference Keynote Address speakers, Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens, co-owners of Founders Brewing Company.

The pair shares their story, which is not only a story of a Grand Rapids renaissance in the craft beer world, but the story of small brewers all over the country, former homebrewers turned pro, or a story to provide inspiration for those who are looking to do so.

A short video is played, and familiar faces to MittenBrew readers pop up on the big screen. What is a home brewer?

‘Cheap.’

‘Opinionated.’

‘Intense.’

‘Likes to party.’

‘Someone who pushes the boundaries of the craft beer movement.’

Rockford Brewing, New Holland, Brewery Vivant — all these guys — started as homebrewers. And that’s what Mike accentuates and shares with a crowd of 4,000.

“The craft beer industry is built on nothing more than a bunch of homebrewers. We are real, authentic, and you can take that away or fake it.”

Founders beer is poured all around for attendees, as volunteers hold high pitchers of the commemorative AHA beer, a Rye Oak Aged IPA, and walk through the crowd. Mike and Dave talk about their personal journey, and what the homebrewing community means to the craft beer industry, right now and in the future.

Tips for going pro

Engbers sips on his beer. “You must be driven, committed. It will take over your life. You’ll make the leap, you’ll go all in. Be unconventional, a little reckless. You’ll make some beautiful mistakes.”

Feed your passion, make quality products, be unique and find your voice, what works for you, be true to yourself and your product will follow. And be professional, it will allow you to grow. “Understand the business side of this business,” adds Stevens.

Founders almost failed. Engbers and Stevens were college friends, and talked about opening a brewery someday as a dream, not a reality. The ‘what ifs’ were too much to bear, and they decided they had to go for it. Growth was slow, non existent, really. They made beers for the masses — wheats, ambers, simple and not always that good. Bills accumulated and compounded, until they reached a point where they owed half a million dollars in six days or they would have to shut their doors. Long story short — they found the money. And they learned.

They learned that they needed to brew for them, not for everyone else.

“So who are we?” Engbers asks the crowd. “We are passionate, genuine, we don’t compromise. We’re a bit unconventional — but whatever the fuck we’ve got going on, it works. Maybe a little bit badass — quietly badass, it’s very Midwestern. But — we are humble! Don’t tell anyone.” He smiles.

Founders. When they say ‘brewed for us’, they really mean it.

Growth happened. And happened. Moving into a new space in 2007, they started in that location with 14 employees, producing 6,127 barrels. Jump to 2014 and now they employ approximately 240 people and are making 180,000 barrels a year.

Founders wants you, the homebrewer, to continue to brew. Your experience, passion, unconventionality, and reckless experimentation are pushing the craft brew industry forward. “Brew great beer. Have fun.” Says Engbers. And Stevens. And Papazian.

What’s the takeaway after this weekend? Keep doing what you are doing. Or start doing it. Introduce someone to craft beer today. Sit down with them; find a beer they can learn to love. Share your passion. Make it their passion. Brew. Drink. Bond.
Cultivate what we’ve started, and keep it moving in the right direction, Michigan. It’s all up to you.

GRAND RAPIDS — Seminars are a part of any conference that the most devoted of attendees geek out about — technical details, pie charts, information from the EXPERTS. Homebrewers are no exception. In fact, they may enjoy it more than most. With the intricacies of their field and the easy accessibility of so many experts at hand, the National Homebrewers Conference offered up some seminars ranging from blending yeast strains to vintage beer, there was something that interested everyone.

Here’s a synopsis of some of the seminars, representing some hometown speakers.

Farm to Glass: Brewing With Local Ingredients

MittenBrew spoke with Nick Rodammer from the Brewsquitos Home Brewing Club, who, along with Erik May from Pilot Malt House and Brian Tennis from New Michigan Organics Hop Farms, hosted this seminar.

“We’ll be talking about the use of local ingredients, especially malt and hops. It’s an emerging trend, especially in Michigan. Brewers want to use local more and more. We’ll talk about how big the industry is now, and what brewers think about it. Brian will talk about owning a small hop farm, and Eric will talk about owning a small malt house and the challenges they face.”

Surveying brewers across the country, they’ve gathered data about the use of local ingredients and how much the trend is growing across the nation. Matt Michiels, owner and brewer at Gravel Bottom had this to say:

“It was a really great seminar, really exciting to watch the local resources come up. Watching Michigan and the young entrepreneurs like Erik May starting Pilot Malt House and watching the whole hop industry around us bloom with these great farms is really exciting. It’s exciting to finally have all the ingredients to make an all locally sourced, all Michigan beer.”

The Malt Nerds History Hour

Speakers John Mallett, Director of Operations at Bell’s Brewing and Andrea Stanley, owner of Valley Malt, provided attendees a brief history of malted grains, showcasing the artisan process we have lost since the industrialization and modern attempts to re-make these products — without the vermin.

Showcasing how the old malting houses used to work, we found out that the heat of killing the malts in the malt houses inspired some interesting outerwear. Nothing.

Naked men in little cotton booties, on the third story of a malt house, flipping the malt over in high heat and smoke. The joke goes that the sweaty naked dudes who kilned your malt that gets made into your beer provide that unique taste we are missing these days. Maybe.

I think a lot of half-naked sweaty guys are probably still making beer.

It was an entertaining seminar to say the least.

Stanley, while embracing the advances of the industrial style but sticking to the maltsters roots, is doing some interesting things with her product in New York. Attendees to the seminar were offered some rustic, pre-1880’s style Porter to sample, made the ‘old fashioned way’.

Before the industrialization, you would use all dark roasted kilned malts until someone discovered that you can use two-row and a pale base and then use a little bit of a dark caramelized sugar. This changed the whole game. Your extraction rates out of darker malt are not nearly as high as that of a good pale malt, so it became cheaper for everyone to make porters. But — the flavor isn’t quite the same. The rustic malt, despite having almost the same profile as that of a modern porter has a quite distinctive, smokier taste.

The Shenanigans of Barrel Aging

Jason Heystek and Brett Kosmicki, head cellarman and cellar guru from Founders Brewing Co., walked attendees through the barrel aging process, especially pertaining to their high-volume brands KBS and Backwoods Bastard.

Starting with a single barrel and now with thousands in production, Jason and Brett talked about the types of barrels procured — from SZRP — Blis Maple syrup barrels to rye and bourbon, and one time, tequila (they don’t recommend that) and the difficulties of procurement back in the day. Likening it to the drug market initially, they’ve now developed relationships and contracts with company to produce the quantities needed to make the delicious brews we know and love.

Despite the whole process being a pain in the ass, we know why they do it. The taste makes the trouble worthwhile. The boozy flavors and the roundness of the oak, the taste of the vanilla in the wood, impart themselves into the beer that in unmatchable any other way. It’s hard work, the nuts and bolts of the whole process time consuming and difficult, but we love them for it.

GRAND RAPIDS — Club Night. An extenuation of the Beer City Social Club, homebrew groups from all over the country use the evening to highlight who they are, what they are about and, most importantly, the beers they brew.

Club Night is THE party — some of the best, award winning homebrewers are in attendance and the vibe of the event is all fun. Booths are centered around a theme-be it silly, creative, innovative or off-the-wall, it captures the spirit of these brewers and the spirit of their beer.

Wrestlers, gnomes, chickens, mobsters and monks — you never knew who would serve you your beer. MittenBrew stopped, drank and chatted with some of the crews — homegrown and from across the country.

Primetime Brewers — Grand Rapids

We caught up with Josh Johnson from Primetime during the Beer City Social Club. Tasting a few of their specialty brews like the Spooky Fruit (who doesn’t like to say ‘spooky’ when ordering a drink?) — a sour apricot ale and 4 Tree Cider, an English Cider with sweetened with maple syrup, French oak aged with spruce tips added.

“We’ve got a very experienced amount of guys. Jeff Carlson, our founder, is a multi-award winning cider maker of the year, Eric Fouch, our President, loves to make very experimental beers, has lots of innovative ideas. John Applegarth, who has won lots of Belgian competitions — there’s a breadth of experience within this group. The expo has been super fun. As a beer nerd, you walk around and get to see gadgets, all sorts of stuff. It’s like being in a Lego store for a kid, it’s a nerdy alcoholics paradise. I’m looking forward to tonight with club night. It’s gonna be fun — what can 4,000 different minds create beyond the bounds of regular beer?”

GRIST (Grain Results In Something Tasty) Brew Club — Arlington, Va.

Rick Rawlings, president of this Northern Virginia/DC area club packed the wife, kids and eight sweaty, smelly dudes into an RV and made the 13 hour trip to Michigan. I found them when he yelled across the room, “anyone wanna get laid?” A camouflage print lei safely on my neck and a sample in my hand, we talk.

“We’ve got a great club culture, from really junior guys who have brewed their first beer two to three months ago with kits, and then very senior members who’ve brewed for the past 20 years. A real big breadth of experience. We’ve got lots of guys who like to compete, locally and nationally, and two guys who made it into the AHA National Homebrew Competition finals this year.”

A session IPA, black IPA, a honey Sasion and a Hefeweizen (which took third place in a DC homebrew competition) were some of the beers on tap. 

Michigan, as a topic of conversation, comes easily. Rick’s mom is from Michigan, and I’m a NOVA native. And, apparently, the word about our brew culture is getting around. “We’ve got a lot of folks who have an affinity for Michigan because of the beer. Clearly, Michigan’s brew culture is big enough that we know about the culture here. All of our people are well in tune with what’s happening. It’s a really great place, and we’re really enjoying it.”

Society of Oshkosh Brewers (SOBs) — Oshkosh, Wis.

Lumberjacks and logs, these fellows incorporated their Wisconsin roots into their beers, plus brought some specialties on the side. Established in 1991, Jeff Eden, the group’s current Vice President in red and black flannel, shares his experience of his first AHA conference.

“It’s been good. I love Michigan, it’s been fun. We’ve had a good time.”

These SOBs brought beers highlighting maple and oak, plus some fun ones like Pumpernickel Rye, a “very unique beer the brewer has been working on for years and the Electric Lollipop “This is probably our wildest beer. Lollipops in the fermenter, hibiscus and some other crazy things.”

Kuhnhenn Guild of Brewers (KGB) — Warren

Meeting at Kuhnhenn Brewing since 2006, Justin Chartier guides this group of varied individuals who brought their ‘A’ game to the AHA conference this year and the last two years as well. With twenty two beers on tap and another keg or two lying around, they brought a wide variety of beer to Club Night.

A whole range of sours featuring different bretta strains and a barrel aged sour blonde that was deliciously perfect were some of our favorites. Six different session IPAs with different hops were made in collaboration with some other clubs in their area, changing the flavor profile but keeping everything else the same. KGB even brought a tangerine cremesicle mead — which tasted like a boozy melted ice cream, probably a bit dangerous in anything larger than a sample size cup.

“Our meetings have topics, and we try to do an event here and there,” said Chartier. “We do a lot of different festivals, and we’ll be at Michigan homebrew Fest in August. We also do a small group monthly brew at a member’s house to see their set up. It’s nice because you can see how people are doing different things. Everytime we do that, I pick up something new, so it’s pretty cool.”

616 Brewing — Grand Rapids

What do you say to Macho Man Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan? You say — ‘give me a beer.’

Scott from 616 Brewing and his cohort of 80s wrestling fanatics are at their first AHA Conference. A fairly new group, starting last fall and based on the Westside of the city, They are here, learning to improve their techniques, learn more about the craft, and most importantly, have fun — as their costumes can attest.


“We like to get new people into brewing as well. After this event, we will start some style competitions, stuff like that. Today, one of the beers we brought is a Belgian blonde, a collaboration with the GR Homebrewers. They did a Belgian dubbel, so we’ll do a black and tan with them. We also brought some IPAs, a KBS clone, and some other stuff. We are always taking new members, and I think we’re a pretty fun club.”

Oh yeah.

Glass City Mashers — Toledo, Ohio

This group brought a beer tree. Yes, a tree. With all cask condition ales, gravity fed, they hang, upside down, waiting for your glass.

Shannon, sporting an extremely lovely mohawk, brewed a Honey brown and a Belgian Wit for her first AHA Conference. “It’s awesome. It’s been really great. It’s kind of overwhelming, you walk around and are like — ‘ooh! Ah! What do I do?’ There are lots of friendly people. Our group tries to educate and teach and learn from each other. We’ve got a little bit of everything. I’m really enjoying the conference, and I really enjoy being a part of this group.”

GRAND RAPIDS — The conclusion of the National Homebrewers Conference happened last night with a Grand Banquet and awards ceremony. An amazing amount of people shuffled into one room to eat, drink and celebrate their fellow homebrewers.

There was a 45 percent increase in the number of competitors, with 8,172 homebrews judged in this year’s competition. The top three entries from 28 style categories advanced to the final round. From there, 1,020 entries were judges by 212 of the top beer judged in the country.

Robert Hilferding of Zephyrhills, Fla. won the Homebrewer of the Year award with his best-in-show entry in the Scottish and Irish ale category. The Meadmaker of the Year award was presented to Matthew Weide of Minneapolis, Minn. for his melomel, while Edward Walkowski from N. Abington Twp., Pa. won the Cidermaker of the Year award.

The winningest homebrewer was honored with the Ninkasi Award (named for the Sumerian Goddess of beer), having the most wins in the Final Round of the National HomeBrew Competition. This year, Arizona Society of Homebrewers’ Jeremy Voeltz was given this award.

A new award for 2014 — the Radegast Club of Year award — was presented to an AHA-registered club that made the most positive impact on its local community. This award was given to the Carolina BrewMasters of Charlotte, N.C. The group donated over $77,000 dollars to charitable community organizations in 2013.

The clubs themselves were also recognized. The Brewing Network won its fourth Homebrew Club of the Year award, and two Michigan clubs — Ann Arbor Brewers Guild and The Kuhnhenn Guild of Brewers Homebrew Club, were given top 25 honors.

GRAND RAPIDS — Charlie Papazian. If you homebrew, you know this name. Author of the quintessential “The Complete Joy of Home Brewing,” founder and president of the American Homebrewers Association and all around godfather of the American homebrew scene, MittenBrew caught Charlie right before a book signing to ask some quick questions about Grand Rapids, and AHA’s presence here.

“Michigan has zoomed to the top of the list, so to speak, of states that really embrace craft beer, craft brewing and home brewing. From what I understand it’s a very craft brew friendly state and a homebrew friendly state.

“Grand Rapids deserves the name BeerCity. Everywhere I go people are great, friendly and helpful. There’s a great spirit here and it spills over, the spirit that made [Grand Rapids] BeerCity USA. That enthusiasm and support for local breweries and local beer, you can see it just walking around. There’s a lot of local businesses that have benefited from the community spirit this town tries to foster, it’s pretty cool.

“Having the conference here is, you know, as long as we don’t grow too gigantic and the conference doesn’t grow too huge, having Grand Rapids [host] is a great example of the kind of cities we can go to. Cities that are not necessarily giant metropolitan cities, cities that aren’t on peoples radars that would be great places to have conferences like this. Like Grand Rapids.”

Papazian’s book, “The Complete Joy of Home Brewing,” is available throughout the National Homebrewers Conference, which lasts through today.

GRAND RAPIDS — Charlie Papazian. If you homebrew, you know this name. Author of the quintessential “The Complete Joy of Home Brewing,” founder and president of the American Homebrewers Association and all around godfather of the American homebrew scene, MittenBrew caught Charlie right before a book signing to ask some quick questions about Grand Rapids, and AHA’s presence here.
“Michigan has zoomed to the top of the list, so to speak, of states that really embrace craft beer, craft brewing and home brewing. From what I understand it’s a very craft brew friendly state and a homebrew friendly state.
“Grand Rapids deserves the name BeerCity. Everywhere I go people are great, friendly and helpful. There’s a great spirit here and it spills over, the spirit that made [Grand Rapids] BeerCity USA. That enthusiasm and support for local breweries and local beer, you can see it just walking around. There’s a lot of local businesses that have benefited from the community spirit this town tries to foster, it’s pretty cool.
“Having the conference here is, you know, as long as we don’t grow too gigantic and the conference doesn’t grow too huge, having Grand Rapids [host] is a great example of the kind of cities we can go to. Cities that are not necessarily giant metropolitan cities, cities that aren’t on peoples radars that would be great places to have conferences like this. Like Grand Rapids.”
Papazian’s book, “The Complete Joy of Home Brewing,” is available throughout the National Homebrewers Conference, which lasts through today.

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.


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