Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Baltimore's journey from Planet Beer 1995 to HomeBrew Con 2016.

There was a frantic knocking on my office door. "Tom, come quick. Big problem!"

It was May 1995 and I was the brewery manager for the Oxford Brewing Company, Maryland's first 'craft' brewery, now long closed, but then located southwest of the city of Baltimore, Maryland. In June of that year, Baltimore would be hosting its first-ever American Homebrewers Association national conference, and Oxford Brewing had been asked to brew the official beer.

The theme for the conference that year was Planet Beer. So, Oxford's beer was to be I.P.A., Inter-Planetary Ale, in style, of course, an IPA - an India Pale Ale. A bad pun, I know.

Knocking at the door was Alvaro Spencer, our laboratory technician. Mr. Spencer had worked in the beer business in South America for many years, albeit for large capacity industrial lager breweries. He had signed on to help us build a rudimentary laboratory and institute quality control measures. He ushered me to our production board, where he pointed at the specifications for the IPA: 6.5% alcohol by volume (abv), 55 International Bittering Units (IBU). He had never before seen or brewed beers of such high alcohol or hop content, and for such a small-capacity brewery.

In his charmingly accented English, he worriedly exclaimed, "What is this EEE-puh? Too big. Too much IBU. No good!"

American Homebrew Association

The American Homebrew Association was founded in 1978 by homebrew guru Charlie Papazian, even though homebrewing would not be legalized until the following year. Today, the AHA has a membership of 46,000, although the association estimates that as many as 1.2 million Americans brew at home.

HomeBrew Con 2016

HomeBrew Con 2016Now rebranded as HomeBrewCon 2016, the AHA's national convention returns to Baltimore this week for only the third time in its 38-year history. The Conference is also the site for the National Homebrew Competition.

In 2015, 7,663 entries were judged at twelve first round judge centers across the United States. First Round winners advance to the Final Round of the competition at the AHA National Homebrewers Conference. Final Round winners receive gold, silver or bronze medals in 28 style categories.

In 1979, 34 entries competed in the first AHA National Homebrew Competition held in Boulder, Colorado.

At that first Conference in 1979, there were 200 attendees. The AHA has no figures for conference attendance in Baltimore in 1995, but the year before, in Denver, there had been 428. In 2005, in Baltimore for the second time (with the not-snappy theme of "Beer By The Schooner, Ale By the Yard"), there were 857 attendees and 4,128 beers judged. This year, it estimates 3,200 attendees, up from the 2,800 last year in San Diego with 7,663 beers judged.

But HomeBrewCon 2016 is not only for homebrewers. In addition to the Conference itself (and the judging of the nations' best homebrew), which runs Thursday through Saturday, 9-11 June, there are events throughout the week —not just in Baltimore, but in Washington, D.C., 45 miles to the south —with many events open to non-homebrewing good-beer fans, as well. Of many, a few of note:
  • Tuesday, 7 June, 12-5pm.
    In Washington, D.C., beer author Stan Hieronymous co-brews an "American Primitive Beer" at Right Proper Brewing with head brewer Nathan Zeender during an open-house of the brewery's new production facility in Brookland.

  • Wednesday, 8 June, 10am-1pm.
    Maryland beer historian Maureen O'Prey leads a beer-history walking tour of the Brewer's Hill neighborhood of Baltimore Maryland, with Baltimore Beer Week co-founder, Dominic Cantalupo.

  • Wednesday, 8 June, 12-4pm.
    Hand-crafted tap handles. Mark Supik & Company woodturning shop makes tap handles for many Maryland breweries and nationally. See how, at its Highlandtown neighborhood workshop in Baltimore.

  • Wednesday, 8 June, 7:30-11pm.
    A special screening of Brewmore Baltimore, a feature length documentary chronicling the history of the brewing industry in Baltimore, Maryland, narrated by two beer historians, Maureen O'Prey and Rob Kasper (past columnist and editor at The Baltimore Sun). At the Pratt Street Alehouse in downtown Baltimore, with beer served, of course, from host Oliver Brewing Company.

  • Wednesday, 8 June, 12-3:15pm.
    The BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) is a certifying entity for American beer judges (for both homebrew and professional competitions). The organization is, of course, present in Baltimore this week, conducting exams for judges. But in addition to that, it's holding a series of seminars, open to both judges and civilians, with such topics as Understanding Sensory Perception of Beer, Pre-Prohibition Porter, Understanding and Judging Flavor Additives in Beer.

  • Thursday-Saturday, 9-11 June.
    HomBrewCon itself begins in Baltimore on Thursday, 9 June and concludes on Saturday, 11 June, with a Grand Banquet at which the winners of the concurrent National Homebrew Competition are announced.

IBUs & Postscript

IBUs - International Bitterness Units - are a measuring scale of bitterness in beer, literally the amount of dissolved alpha acids in a beer contributed by hops. One IBU equals one part per million of isohumulone, or 1 milligram of alpha acid dissolved in 1 liter of beer.

Most industrial lagers clock in at around a dozen or fewer IBUs. Thus, Mr. Spencer felt he had good cause for concern over the 55 IBUs of Oxford Brewing's Inter Planetary Ale. We decided, however, to brew it without any modifications.

Afterward, when Mr. Spencer tasted the finished result, he dropped all of his earlier objections. He had become a fan of 'too-big' beers. And Inter Planetary Ale was served to the attendees at the 1995 AHA "Planet Beer" Homebrewer Conference.

For me, to this day, IPA remains "EEE-puh." Even though, today, 55 IBUs would be considered quaint. Even though I do get puzzled looks when I pronounce it by name.

"Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft"
The Carpenters, 1977


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