The Bar Towel is proud to present our annual preview of the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) National Homebrewers Conference, now known as Homebrew Con, taking place from June 9th to 11th, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. This article will cover highlights of the conference as well as recommended beer destinations in Baltimore. The photo above is courtesy Visit Baltimore.
Baltimore is a city that you’re probably quite familiar with, but perhaps one you don’t know a great detail about. You surely know it as a port city, located on the east coast of the U.S., a harbour town on the Patapsco River, which connects to the Chesapeake Bay and onto the Atlantic Ocean. You likely know that people here love Maryland Blue Crabs from those waters, amongst other great foods, from both sea and land. You probably know that the famous show The Wire was set in Baltimore, and potentially that the equally famous film The Silence of the Lambs was too. You likely know a bit about Baltimore’s sports history, such as being the hometown of baseball legend Babe Ruth, the career home team for Hall of Famer and Toronto Blue Jay nemesis Cal Ripken, or the only U.S. city to win the CFL’s Grey Cup. You might know about its famous residents including writer Edgar Allan Poe or filmmaker John Waters. And you possibly know that the Star Spangled Banner flag was created here (in a brewery no less), and that the anthem was written here thanks to inspiration from the aforementioned flag.
While you’re most certainly familiar with these interesting facts about Baltimore, something you might not be familiar with is the city’s beer scene. But for homebrewers in North America, that’s about to change.
Baltimore is the host city for this year’s National Homebrewers Conference, organized by the American Homebrewers Association from June 9th to 11th. Similar to its sister event the Craft Brewers Conference, the Homebrew Con (as it’s now nicknamed, although the National Homebrewers Conference remains an official name) is the largest of its kind in North America, attracting amateur brewers to mingle, learn and more importantly taste beers made right in the homes of the continent by some of the most passionate beer people out there.
The Homebrew Con returns to Baltimore for the first time since 2005 (it also hosted in 1995), but demonstrating the growth of the conference, it is being held this year at the Baltimore Convention Center versus at a hotel like previous years in other cities. But similar to previous years, the conference is acts not only gathering of homebrewers, but a showcase for a local beer scene. Although Baltimore may not spring to mind as one of the top beer cities in the U.S., the Homebrew Con does a nice job of showcasing some of the smaller markets in the country, as in recent years Bellevue, Washington, Cincinnati, Ohio and Grand Rapids, Michigan amongst others have played host.
Let’s start with the conference and then we’ll talk about the beer scene in Baltimore. The conference itself is comprised of education, competition and sociability. There is the National Homebrew Competition, a large scale event whereby the finalists are judged at the conference, and announced during the Grand Banquet and Awards Ceremony to close out the weekend. Informative seminars line each day of the conference, hosted by both amateur and professional brewers alike. Throughout each day there is the Homebrew Expo and Social Club, a trade show of sorts for brewing equipment and other homebrew gear and gadgets, paired with numerous beers from across the country. And then there’s the evening events, including a professional brewer festival and Club Night, a homebrew gathering, drink-up and immersive beer entertainment experience that needs to be seen to be believed.
One of the most unique aspects of the Homebrew Con (at least to those familiar with the rigid rules of Ontario), is the presence of homebrew beer at the conference. So not only can an attendee of Homebrew Con imbibe in the beers of the local professional brewers (and beyond), they can sample the efforts of fellow amateur brewers. This gives the conference a true air of authenticity and celebration, as you can stand side-by-side with brewers from all levels of beer experience and enjoy some delicious concoctions.
I truly recommend everything at the Homebrew Con – if you’re a fan of beer and brewing you can’t go wrong with anything that’s happening. But there’s a lot of seminars that take place during the conference, and it’s impossible to see everything. So, herewith are my picks for the seminars of the conference worth checking out, ones that I find particularly interesting, and you might too.
Thursday, June 9th
- 9:00am: 2016 State of the Homebrew Industry. Brewers Association beer economist Bart Watson is a smart and knowledgeable fellow, and like his seminar of the same topic for the professional industry during the CBC, this one will be a great overview of what’s happening in the homebrew scene from a data analysis perspective. Speaking alongside Bart will be Jake Keeler and Steve Parr from the AHA.
- 2:00pm: How to Brew Like and All-Star. Speakers Denny Conn and Drew Beechum are well-known in the homebrew scene, are a genuinely entertaining pair and definitely worth sitting in on their talk. They reprise this seminar at 2pm on Saturday if you can’t make it for this one.
- 5:00pm: Keynote Address. It is admirable to see so many well known professional brewers staying close to the amateur brewing community, passing on their knowledge and experience and keeping their street cred in tact. In fact, I’ve noticed in the past more ‘celebrity’ professional brewers roaming about the Homebrew Con than the CBC itself. To that end, this year’s Keynote Address is being delivered by someone who definitely embodies the ideal of staying close to the community, Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione.
Friday, June 10th
- 10:15am: History of Baltimore Brewing. You’re in Baltimore, so you might as well learn about the local beer scene outside of Colt 45 and Natty Boh. Speaker Rob Kasper, longtime columnist for the Baltimore Sun and founding member of Baltimore Beer Week, will certainly have some interesting tales and stories.
- 10:15am: Return of the Mead Panel. Shout out to Canadian homebrewer Ryan Chaytor, who’s on this panel about mead alongside Ken Schramm, Curt Stock, Michael Fairbrother and Steve Platz.
- 10:15am: Unlocking the Genetic Code of Brewing Strains. Chris White is a smart dude. He’s the founder of White Labs, where many homebrewers saw up close in San Diego at last year’s conference what they are all about, which is the ultra science behind beer. Listen to him and learn.
- 2:00pm: Homebrewing History: A Photographic Tour with Charlie. If you say the name “Charlie” to any homebrewer who knows the difference between hops and malts, a last name won’t be necessary. Charlie Papazian is a legend in the homebrewing scene and helped popularize it to a generation of brewers. A walk down memory lane with him will certainly be entertaining and informative.
- 2:00pm: Brewing up a Perfect Pairing: Research-Backed Food Pairing Principles. Randy Mosher is well-known in the scene as a brewer and author, and alongside Pat Fahey this will certainly be a good session about beer and food pairing.
Saturday, June 11th
- 10:15am: Modern Homebrew Recipes. Gordon Strong knows his stuff as president of BJCP, author and award-winning brewer. If he’s got a recipe to share or a secret about how to do them right, I’d like to hear it.
- 2:00pm: Wild Alaska, Wild Ingredients. Alaska Brewing co-founder Geoff Larson presents a talk about the wild ingredients of Alaska and their usage in beer. Although for most Canadians Alaska is quite a ways away, many of us can relate to the frozen tundra, so learning about how cold-weather goodies could be a part of beer would be good knowledge to have.
- 2:00pm: Hoppy Sour Beers: Taking the Bitter of of IPA. There’s a number of sour sessions this year (including ‘Launching a Communal Sours Program’, Saturday 10:15am; ‘A Timeline for Sour Beer: How to get the Flavors you Want, When you Want them’, Friday 2:00pm; and ‘Trouble-Free Tart Beers: Alternative Souring Methods’, Thursday 3:15pm) but this talk by Michael Tonsmeire about the growing hoppy sour style should be a good one.
Baltimore has a lot of neighbourhoods. Over 200 of them. With a neighbourhood culture like Baltimore’s it’s worth doing some exploring, so let’s talk about some of the good beer places that you can take in some local flavour outside of the conference (see at the end of this article a map of all the spots referred to to help you navigate around).
The Homebrew Con itself is at the Baltimore Convention Center, which is right in the heart of the city, in the Inner Harbor and close to the waterfront. Kitty-corner to the convention center is the Pratt Street Ale House, featuring house beers from Oliver Brewing (the longest running brewpub in Baltimore) alongside about a half-dozen guest taps. For baseball and beer fans, nearby is Dempsey’s Brew Pub, named after the famous catcher of the Baltimore Orioles. And just up on N Eataw St lies Alewife Baltimore, an impressive spot with nearly 40 craft beers on tap.
To the south of downtown is Federal Hill, where folks of days past watched the bombs bursting in air. You can find bars bursting with beer here, such as the dozen house-brewed beers and pizza at Pub Dog, and 20 draughts from the local region and beyond at tavern Brewer’s Cask.
Around the harbor leads to the historic, waterfront neighbourhood Fell’s Point, and the long-standing Baltimore beer institution Max’s Taphouse. Max’s was here before everyone else (or so it seems to an outsider), and they still top them all. With over 100 taps available, Max’s has a beast of a beer menu, and one hell of a draught lineup to celebrate the homebrewers this week. Undoubtedly and deservedly so, Max’s will be a hotspot for Hawaiian shirt wearing homebrewers in the days to come. Also worth checking out closeby is the well-known Heavy Seas Alehouse, featuring a wide range of house brewed beers.
A bit farther east in formerly-blue-collar-turned-condo neighbourhood of Canton is Of Love and Regret, a pub with 25 taps and the home of Stillwater Artisanal Ales. Find a great collection of Stillwater and some other goodies here. Nearby you could also check out the Baltimore Taphouse with about a dozen or so craft taps, and Mahaffey’s Pub with over 20 taps and a good skew towards local brews.
Head north through Mount Vernon and check out The Brewer’s Art, a brewpub with a large rotating selection of house-made beers, and onward further north and a bit west to the neighbourhoods of Hampden (hipsters!), Roosevelt Park and Woodberry for a cluster of interesting spots. If you like reading while you drink, the indie Atomic Books has Eightbar in the back with craft beer available. Birroteca Baltimore focuses on pizza and craft beer, with 20+ taps available with good local representation. For some local brewery taproom action, check out Waverly Brewing with around eight brews going, and Union Craft Brewing with a range of their diverse lineup available.
The Homebrew Con is always a good time. I tell people that it’s the best money they will ever spend on a beer event, in part due to the sheer amount of styles, tastes and sampling that one can do at it. But it’s also just a great down-to-earth celebration of beer, by some of the most passionate beer folks out there. It’s friendly, often a little bit crazy, sometimes inappropriate, but always enjoyable. Connect with us on Twitter and let’s have a homebrew this week!