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What We Learned at the 2012 National Homebrewers Conference

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Homebrewers from around the country gathered in Seattle recently for the 34th Annual National Homebrewers Conference, which featured a range of expert panelists, the latest homebrewing equipment, and more beer than a couple thousand participants could drink over five days. Throughout the conference, we were struck by some trends that are emerging in the world of homebrewing and in beer in general.

Creativity is Booming

I though I had heard of every possible ingredient to use in homebrewing—until I saw a beer that was dry-hopped with chanterelle mushrooms. Nothing could top that. But then we got to the booth featuring beer made with Mountain Dew and a homemade coffee mead that they splashed cream in (think White Russian cocktail). What was really impressive? These bizarre brews were actually quite drinkable.

Not all the creativity was off the wall. American homebrewers are busy crafting delicious stouts infused with cocoa nibs and hops, and I was able to sample a whiskey cherry porter that tasted as good as it sounds. Of course, there were a few creative attempts that fell short, but usually that was because the underlying beer was lacking more than the extra ingredients. If your brewing methods are sound, creative ingredients go a long way.

Homebrewers Can Be Better Than Pro Brewers

I was expecting the homebrew at the National Homebrewers Conference to be good, but it exceeded my expectations. On Thursday night of the conference, local professional brewers brought their kegs for us to sample, while Friday night featured beers from homebrewing clubs across the country. There was no question in my mind who brought the better beer. Four of my favorite 5 beers of the week were homebrews.

The homebrewed beer excelled in creativity, complexity, and innovation. Homebrewers are bringing back forgotten styles like Berliner Weiss, Mild, ESB, and Gose, and they're doing it well. And the best homebrewed stouts, pales, and IPAs (particularly the Black IPAs) were high quality, complex, and delicious. When someone asks you if you can brew beer at home that is as good as commercial, you can say with confidence that you can do it better.

Feedback Makes You Better

While a lot of homebrews I tried were fantastic, some of them were mediocre and a handful were downright undrinkable. I found it interesting that my least favorite beers at the conference mostly came from individuals who were not associated with a homebrewing club. I would even say that the larger homebrew clubs generally had better beer than the smaller clubs (though not across the board). The lesson is that when more people try your homebrew and give you feedback, you will brew better beer. This was eye opening to me because I've been slacking off a bit in attending our local homebrew get-togethers. If I want to make sure my brewing techniques are up to par, outside critique is essential.

Sours Are In

Homebrewers across the country are producing sour beers at an unprecedented rate. At Friday's Homebrew Club Night I tasted a half dozen Flanders beers made by homebrewers, 3 of which were very impressive. Every other table seemed to have a Berliner Weiss or a Gose, and there were Brett Saisons and sour blonde ales peppered throughout the room.

If you're a homebrewer interested in brewing sours, just start now. There is a lot of great information out there in books like Wild Brews and specialty sour forums like the Babble Belt. Most sour ales take a year or so to mature to perfection, so the sooner you start, the sooner you'll be done. If you want a sour that is ready within a few months, the best option is to try brewing a Berliner Weisse.

Anyone is welcome to attend the national homebrewers conference, but you have to be quick to buy tickets—they tend to sell out in a couple days. The 2013 conference will be in Philadelphia from June 27 to 29. Keep an eye on the American Homebrewers Association and AHA Conference webpages for future details.

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