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The fourth Biennial Australian National Home Brew Conference

November 1, 2014

The fourth Biennial Australian National Home Brew Conference (ANHC14) came to a conclusion on Saturday the 18th of October, with a ‘Middle Ages’ themed Club night, following three full on days of information and exchange on the topics of brewing and beer.

Keynote speaker, Vinnie Cilurzo

Keynote speaker, Vinnie Cilurzo

This took the form of presentations made by key note speakers, tastings of many types of beers, interaction with brewing retailers and distributors, as well as plenty of fellowship and fun with others whose love of beer and brewing ranges from that of a hobby to an outright obsession.

The term ‘home brew’ is often used in our everyday vocabulary to mean something that is put together from parts, or something slightly short of being ‘proper’, but this event was right up there with the best of conferences regardless of the topic. Despite the fact that the ANHC was a full house and virtually booked to capacity, some of the international key note speakers did point out that this Australian conference is still at a size where a community spirit can exist, and where everyone is still almost on a first name basis (or at least recognisable to each other) – compared to the massive events now held in the United States that have outgrown this volume and are more like a walk in a crowded shopping centre.

For the first time, this event was held outside of its state of origin Victoria, with the organising committee consisting predominantly of members from the Canberra Brewers (brewing club) on a volunteer basis. Thursday provided a ‘soft opening’ to the event, with the judging of the Australian Amateur Brewing Championships (with the Champion Beer Of Show being awarded to Adam Beauchamp from South Australia for his American IPA), followed by the Magical Mystery Beer Tour of Canberra allowing visitors to the area to become acquainted with some of the local craft beer venues. The day was concluded with events being held at arguably two of Canberra’s most popular craft beer bars, the Bentspoke Brewery for a meet and greet with the BN Army from the USA (who produce home brewing podcasts), and the Durham Castle Arms for a Brewcult Beers tap takeover.

Attendees were surprisingly fresh and alert the following morning, when the ANHC officially kicked into full gear at University House, the main function room resembling a place of worship with its high triangular ceiling, full back wall mural, ‘countless’ parishioners ready to pay homage, and on the pulpit legendry brewer Vinnie Cilurzo from US brewery Russian River with the first presentation.

Russian River is best known for its flagship Double IPA named Pliny The Elder, but also funky sour barrel aged beers. Vinnie shared some techniques used by the brewery when creating ‘sour beers’ – which included mashing-in (combining malts with water) at the highest temperature possible during the brewing process, and then pitching with half the normal amount of yeast to allow the wild and sour tasting yeasts to play a larger part in the fermenting process and ‘work their magic’.

Some ‘ground roots’ advice given by Vinnie was to think outside the box and to create your own way of doing things when making your own beers – “to figure out what is you”.

Dr Peter Aldred was next up on the podium, talking on one of the four primary ingredients of beer: Water. He reminded us that all water is good, it is the contaminates within the water that often are not. Discussed were the four “P’s” of brewing water: Potability (the safety of the water), pH (the measure of acidity), Process (how we use our water), and Palatability or how the water tastes before we use it in our beer – if the water does not taste good in the first place, then this taste will later turn up in our beer.

Beer, Action, Vikings - The Club Brew Night

Beer, Action, Vikings – The Club Brew Night

There was some basic chemistry thrown in for good measure, and discussion of some techniques and terms that are commonly referred to when brewing with water, such as its hardness (meaning its resistance to suds), and pH consideration. “Rather than worrying about the pH in your water beforehand, look at adjusting the pH of your mash if required”, was some of advice offered by Peter.

A sensory session conducted by Tina Panoutsos from Carlton & United Breweries (CUB) reminded us that sticking to the basics when tasting beer can allow us to capably appreciate a beer, without the need for turning this into a science experiment. Five simple steps were given for getting the most out of a beer: Smell the beer from the glass before agitating; Swirl and smell again; Take a small sip then roll it around your palate; Swallow the beer – and if required, return to the aroma.

A glimpse into the controlled conditions used by CUB for internal beer testing was given, showing us the highly controlled conditions that can be incorporated into beer tasting. Their labs consist of small generic white cubicles, a sliding panel for passing the beers through to the taster, a computer screen, a sink, and even controlled lighting. Perhaps in contrast to the labelling placed on cosmetics, wording could be added to beer labels stating that “humans were not harmed in the testing of this product, but were noticeably happier afterwards”.

Everyone attending the conference received a two-year old Bourbon Barrel aged Barley Wine (style of beer) to take home, specially brewed by CUB for the event, which perhaps is their smallest single batch offering to date.

The next session was conducted by brewing ingredient supplier Bintani, whose objective was to lead a brief guided tasting session of four beers brewed using newly developed, but still unnamed single hop varieties. Being identified only as US Experimental Hops 1 – 4, the aroma’s and tastes were compared, with some definite favourites emerging. First impressions were also shared from a tasting panel comprised of experts in the field.

“We Mead To Talk” was the next session, and introduced the assembly to Michael Fairbrother, founder of the Moonlight Meadery from the US. This session acted as a mind changer for those whose experience of mead was that of a bland or uneventful drink. The effectiveness of Michael’s passion combined with actual tastings of his different mead varieties was evidenced by the local Plonk bottleshop virtually selling out of all stock by the end of the conference.

The conference venue resembled a place of worship

The conference venue resembled a place of worship

While those familiar with beer will know that there are hundreds of beer styles in existence, most did not realise that there were 6 types of mead. These all include honey as their primary ingredient, and range from the traditional style of mead made from honey and water only, to the open style that includes fruit and spices. Before leaving the podium, Michael ensured that there was no remaining mead in his tasting cups!

The ‘terminology’ of “Yeast Wrangling” was introduced by Chris White, founder of US company White Labs Yeast, and basically refers to some techniques used to help ensure that yeast remains viable in-between brew days. The tips shared were all derived from the lab, and included simple methods such as keeping yeast free from infection by covering with cling film and at an optimal temperature of 4 degree’s Celsius. More complex techniques of propagating yeast using multiple colonies and doing so selectively by looking at them with the naked eye were also discussed. Samples of White Labs new Pure Pitch yeast packaging was shown in Australia for the first time, and the main advantage of this is that the yeast is grown and distributed in the same packaging. Therefore the yeast packs will contain more living cells and be in better condition, as well as lasting longer. Stock should be available in Australia towards the end of the year, and the existing test tube packaging will be phased out.

Darren Gamache of Virgil Gamache Hop Farms in the US was next up, introducing his topic as “Growing Your Own Man”. The positive news that Darren shared straight ‘off the cuff’ up was that hops are quite resilient and difficult to kill, making them suitable for those without green thumbs’. Darren added he has seen fields of hops remain under water for more than 2 weeks due to flooding, and still survive – they are also good for blocking out your neighbours as they can grow up to 18 feet in height (about 5.5 metres).

One of the most frequently asked question when growing hops at home is when to pick them? The simple answer is when the hop cones smell the way you want them to smell in your beer. The cones should be picked from the top of the plant that has exposure to the sun. One of the most efficient ways of preserving essential oils and alpha acids is by freezing the entire hop cone.

The final speaker for Friday was head brewer John Keeling, from the Fullers Brewery in England. John spoke on how the brewery has resurrected some of their old beers, by painstakingly recreating them from the original hand written recipes. At first this sounds like an easier task than it is, with John recounting that the hops for a recipe made in the 19th Century had only the farmers name recorded, meaning investigation had to be carried out to identify the actual hop variety used.

In the case of the grain bill, this was no longer in production, with the barley no longer grown in the UK, apart from one farm – this was then specially processed and malted solely so that for this beer could then be faithfully reproduced. John was an entertaining speaker, and capably traded upon the extensive history of this long running brewery. According to John, “You don’t make a great beer. That is decided by the people that buy it”.

The day concluded with a home brew and food matching dinner in the evening, with the beers reported to be of a very high standard by John Keeling the next morning, who opened the final day of the conference, once again taking the podium. This time John spoke about the art of Parti-Gyle brewing, a traditional brewing technique that has been used by Fullers Brewery for many years. Gyle means batch, and from one Parti, several beers can be made.

In the olden days, Fullers would have one mash tun which then went on to produce strong, medium, and weak beers in three separate copper boilers, John jovially adding these being for breakfast, lunch and tea consumption. In modern times the Parti-Gyle system has been modernised by Fullers with two mash tuns being used, to two copper boilers, producing 3 or more beers. These are now fully computer controlled, and give the brewery a high level of consistency.

The Parti-Gyle system provides Fullers with great flexibility, giving them the best utilization of plant and raw materials, and allowing them to produce many beers. John’s parting words were “If you want a beer to have character, then employ characters to make it”.

A panel consisting of the brewing network’s Justin Crossly, Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River), Brendan Varis (Feral), and Richard Watkins (Bent Spoke) was assembled for the purpose of discussing Sour Beer’s and taking questions from the audience.

Although the official conference theme “Water Malt Hops Yeast, Four Ingredients – Endless Possibilities” was broad and open ended, perhaps one of the organic and more specific themes was that of sour beers – learning more about them, tasting them, and a growing interest in going home after the event and brewing them. It should also be added that due to the capacity of the wooden barrels used in the sour beer fermentation process, it is a great brewing club collaborative project.

For those who haven’t had the opportunity to taste a sour beer (one that is intentionally created to be sour that is), it is quite a memorable taste experience – perhaps comparable to those sour “warhead” lollies we enjoyed as kids, but with plenty more complexity with a moreish component. No doubt an enjoyable but acquired taste.

Michael Fairbrother returned to conduct a second session of all things mead, but this time was preaching to the converted. Who would believe that attendee’s at a beer conference would choose to attend a second presentation on mead, especially considering that part 2 of a sensory beer tasting was being conducted at the same time in another room.

More mead samples from Moonlight Meadery were made available for consumption, including a mead named ‘Desire’ – perhaps a good name for a movie, and the one that started it all for Michael, spurring him on to start his meadery. Desire is a sweet blend balanced with blueberries, black cherries and blackcurrents. Another mead unlike any most had previously tasted was simply called Kurt’s Apple Pie – a recipe originally made by a close friend. The name very accurately describes the aroma produced by this mead, whose colour and appearance (not surprisingly) approach that of apple juice.

Tips were given on how to make mead at home, with dry meads being brewed with less honey than sweet meads. As a reference point, meads produced by Moonlight Meadery start with a honey content of 180g per litre for dry, to 300g per litre for sweet. Very sweet meads can approach a honey content of nearly 500g/L! Honey is “very very” fermentable, according to Michael, and stopping fermentation at the desired final gravity can incorporate a number of techniques including racking the mead off the lees (yeast), using low temperatures, and with additions such as campden tablets (sulphur) and potassium sulphate.

Most home brewers that have ever drooled at the thought of having a shiny conical fermenter in their garage would be familiar with the US firm Blichmann engineering. John Blichmann, gave a whirlwind run down on his personal home brewery setup, the general themes being that less is more, and that planning saves work – for both your brewery layout and brew day.

Removing clutter was the first basic covered, and this extended to recognising that your sink is likely to be the focal point and most used element of your brewery, therefore planning its position accordingly. Other tips such as purchasing a commercial grade mop can also assist in keeping your ‘significant other’ less upset when things may not go to plan.

Safety was also a re-occurring theme: proper ventilation of the brewery; electrical safety and using professional assistance for wiring; non-slip floors; using CO2 detectors; not using electric plugs as a switch; using pulleys for heavy lifting; never lifting boiling liquor (water); having a fire extinguisher on hand, and importantly to always wear pants? Perhaps one final point that many may consider extreme was “don’t drink while brewing”……

Ingredient storage, inventory control, and being better organised by having a brew day flow chart were all practical suggestions made by John, and while it could be seen that his setup was clearly that of a home brewery, it was perhaps one of the most well organised ones that one could hope for.

A ‘Brew Wars’ event of some form has perhaps become a mainstay of this and other beer conferences, taking one brewing view or belief, and putting it head to head against others to find out which reigns supreme. The comparison and experiment this time was to compare the same beer, but applying three different brewing techniques to determine which tastes the best.

A beer that had seen some frequency at the Bent Spoke bar was that of the Crankshaft American Pale Ale, and creator of the beer, Richard Watkins, kindly made this recipe available for three controlled but rival groups to experiment with.

The term whirlpooling when home brewing generally refers to the circular stirring of wort after boiling to help separate trub and hops pellets. Dry hopping refers to the late addition of hops. The first beer employed no whirlpooling or dry hopping, the second only whirlpooling, and the third whirlpooling and dry hopping.

The general consensus from the tasting audience, was that the third beer that employed both of these techniques was both superior in taste and aroma, making the extra effort worthwhile.

With dry hopping still fresh in the minds of those in the room, Vinnie Cilurzo once again took centre stage, this time to expand further on the simple late brewing technique of dry hopping. He shared some of his hopping experiences and findings, that quickly prompted that the word ‘simple’ should never be used in the same sentence as the term ‘Dry Hop’. “Dry hopping is an imperfect science and an elusive art”.

While the audience casually sipped upon the Russian River dry hopped Dribblebelt session IPA (never before seen in Australia), and the almost legendary double dry hopped Pliney The Elder DIPA, Vinnie advised that from his real world observations, factors as simple as tank geometry (ie a skinny tall tank vs a short fat tank of identical size) can have different effectiveness when dry hopping within these side by side. This is despite the fact that the same ratio of hops was used in each tank.

In the brewery they have had to compensate for this phenomena, by adding more hops in tanks requiring this, to produce final beers with a similar hoppy aroma and taste.

In commercial use there are six main application methods used to dry hop beer, these being the funnel method, top of tank, slurry, hop cannon, hop flower soaking, and torpedo. All methods successfully achieved a suitable end result for different breweries, variables including variety of hop being used; quantity; pellet or flower format; pellet density; hopping period; temperature; yeast cell count; mixing; dissolved oxygen in the beer.

For home brewing, Vinnie mentioned the Blichmann Hop Rocket for home style torpedo hopping. It is also thought that the agitation of the hops resulting from the dry hop application method used, is one reason why different results are achieved. Vinnie also suggested that a corny keg may be an optimal vessel to carry out dry hopping, due to its tall skinny shape producing an optimal beer to hop contact ratio.

For those looking at the ANHC program, and noticing that a few of the presentations have escaped mention, a quick reminder is in order that this was a home brewing conference after all, and one can be forgiven for forgetting to take notes due to the numerous ‘distractions’ encountered.

On a more serious note however, the quality of the individual presentations was such, that one was met with some inner conflict at times when ‘forked’ sessions were run in different rooms simultaneously. While having too much variety is never a shortcoming with anything related to beer and brewing, it can sometimes result in difficult decisions having to be made, and in these instances it was which session to attend.

During the conference there were multiple taps dispensing beers from local and international craft breweries in the exhibitors room, virtually at any time while the conference was running. In addition to this, the majority of presentations were made more interactive by having up to five sample sized tasting cups of brews that tied in the talk. That is not to mention the perhaps 100+ corny kegs of almost every beer imaginable at the climatic club night home brew appreciation event.

Despite there being more beer available for tasting than one could consume, to the commendation of those in attendance, there were no incidences of people abusing this privilege or drinking in a manner that was anything but responsible. Perhaps this sums up the types of people attracted to events such as these; those seeking better tasting beer, and aspiring to become better brewers. It must be true that home brewers are the best kind of people.

It is also with some surprise and admiration that no one happened to overbalance and fall into the 25 metre long coy pond that ran along the grounds at the university house gardens, just outside from where the numerous speaking and beer tasting events were held.

It could be said that presenters were open and candid when it came to speaking about their experiences in the industry, with quite a few commercial beer recipes being shared, ranging from Fullers past masters from England, to the local Crankshaft 10 Canberra based Bentspoke.

Kudos also have to go out to the organisers of the event, especially in co-ordinating fresh beers from all over the globe, some that had to be shipped into the country in refrigerated containers. It was easy to forget the logistics involved, while casually sipping upon a rare sour beer and listening to tasting notes from the beers creator – as though they were the neighbour next door, and you just happened to poke your head over the paling fence to say hi.

So the Australian National Homebrew Conference for 2014 is now a fond (and to some hazy) memory of an enjoyable time, spent with good people, in a city that held its own on the beer frontier. One can only wonder what the following yet distant conference will entail in 2016, and where the organisers may choose to host it? Some faint whispers suggest Brisbane, but maybe Sydney would make a more accessible venue for all the ‘southerners’. Time will tell. Live long, and brew good beer.


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One Response to The fourth Biennial Australian National Home Brew Conference

  1. Alex McMahon on January 19, 2016 at 11:44 am

    Well written article. I was there, and this brought back a lot of good memories. The best brewing conference for amateurs held in Australia.

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