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Great American Beer Festival, Homebrewer Style

If you’re like many craft beer drinkers and have Great American Beer Festival (GABF) attendance on your bucket list, you are not alone. It’s an amazing opportunity to taste rare beers and beers that you can’t access in your area of the country. 60,000 attendees sampled 3,800 beers from 750 breweries this year. Regardless of being the largest GABF ever in several categories, this event still sold out in 1 hour and 17 minutes.

American Homebrewing Association Booth

Many craft beer lovers, after paying $10 or more for a single pour of their beloved swill, have thought, “Can’t I just make this myself, for way cheaper?” They have thusly dipped a toe into the wide world of homebrewing. In many way, homebrewers make up the backbone of the craft brewing industry, as most professional brewers started out brewing in their basement or kitchen. Even after going pro, almost all of the brewers still strongly support the homebrewing industry, whether it be financially, assisting with local homebrew clubs, etc. The huge growth of the craft beer industry has naturally caused an equally huge growth in homebrewing. The American Homebrewing Association (AHA) now has 46,000 members, and estimates there are 1.2 million homebrewers in the United States alone. As of 2013, homebrewing is legal in all 50 states. The AHA and the Brewers Association are the two main organizations behind GABF. The AHA had a large booth at GABF, and its giant pint of golden brew pointed the way to the homebrewing section of the GABF hall. The booth offered some schwag and of course, the ability to sign up for memberships (read on for one of the benefits of membership). It also had informational displays of brewing ingredients aimed toward the beer-drinking public who might be right at that point of I-can-do-it-cheaper-myself-thinking. 

Pelican Booth

While in the homebrewing section, I checked out some of the brewing hardware on display. The first thing I came across was a jockey box by Pelican. Pelican makes some of the best and toughest coolers I’ve seen. Their coolers have the thickest walls in the industry, which means they could sit in the hot sun all day and still be cool inside. Ice will keep in these goliaths for 10 days (think Oktoberfest – from start to finish -- with no ice refill). Obviously, my first thought is: jockey box. Pelican was one step ahead, displaying their own remarkable custom jockey box. Available sizes range from 20 quarts to 250 quarts (if you use the 250 quart one to build a jockey box, please send me a photo). They even offer custom color combinations. The 45 quart (pictured) and 80 quart sizes have the option of wheels. Pelican says that while they don’t currently sell pre-drilled jockey boxes (you have to drill them yourself to add the tap handles, etc.), that may change in the future. Plus one point from the homebrewers! Oh, and did I mention they come with a lifetime guarantee? They say they’ve built the world’s best cooler. You be the judge.  

Pop & Stop Booth

[caption id="attachment_879" align="alignright" width="325"] Photo courtesy of Pop & Stop[/caption] Another product displayed at GABF was the Pop & Stop. We’ve all seen beer bottle stoppers before, but Joe Hackel, a Colorado engineer, went and invented one himself. This one acts as both a bottle opener and a sealer. The seal is made of a pad of silicone that abuts the top of the bottle, thus making a great seal. They tout the item for being completely leak-proof (see the photo below of one of the vendors inverting the bottle over his head!) and having the ability to keep a beer fresh for at least 48 hours. This would allow homebrewers more flexibility to bottle using bombers instead of experiencing the dreaded 12-ounce bottling day. The benefits of a 12-ounce beer are lessened when you have a few days to drink a bomber. It would also allow part of a bomber of homebrew to be saved and shared (say, until your roommate comes home tomorrow, or you want to take it to a friend at work the next day). Pop & Stops come in different colors and can even be ordered with a personalized message on them, making them a great way to have customized gear with your homebrewery’s name on it.

The Brewing Network Booth

The Brewing Network had a nice booth where they were selling schwag such as t-shirts, work shirts, and stainless steel growlers. With their live radio shows and podcasts available for download, the Brewing Network is an awesome tool for homebrewers. Dr. Homebrew, The Jamil Show, and The Sour Hour are just a few of their shows that provide brewing info and beer info in general. 

White Labs Booth

The White Labs booth was a great and informative stop. They were offering posters that gave details on each of their yeast strains (similar info available in their catalog). White Labs offers a Customer Club, where saved labels can be mailed in and exchanged for free stuff. What’s even cooler, White Labs has their own tasting room. The first location is open and operating in San Diego, with a second location to be opening in the late Spring or early Summer of 2016 in Asheville. At these tasting rooms, wort is brewed and hopped, then split and fermented with several different strains of White Lab’s yeast. Flights are offered so that customers can do a side-by-side tasting of what differences each yeast strain affects on the beer. Basically, they’re doing the types of brewing experimentation that every homebrewer would love to do. [caption id="attachment_884" align="alignright" width="325"] White Labs also brought this awesome Yeastman display for photo ops! Note to self: Next year, bring box to stand on[/caption] Finally, White Labs recently announced that their unique way of growing yeast - the PurePitch system – is now available in homebrew-sized packages. PurePitch allows yeast to be grown and sold in the same package, which is basically a sealed bag made of sturdy white flexible plastic. The yeast are started in a giant version of this package, then once ready, the yeast slurry is portioned off and sealed into the exact same package. This reduces the risk of contamination and prevents any wild yeast strains from entering the yeast during the packaging process. It is also more environmentally friendly in that it uses less plastic that the previous vial system. A commercial-sized PurePitch was on display at the booth. While PurePitch for commercial brewers was available first, in the Summer of 2015 they started producing PurePitch in homebrew-sized packages (basically, cutting the yeast vessel into smaller portions).

Muntons Booth

Muntons, a purveyor of brewing malts and malt extracts, was there to show off their new Hand-Crafted Craft Brewing Kits. The Hand-Crafted kits are a new product which differentiates itself from other homebrew kits by using unique, authentic ingredients for each kit. For example, the Oaked Ale kit comes with a bag of oak chips for the brewer to add. They’re also hoping these types of ingredients will help to engage the homebrewer in the brewing process more so than other types of kits. Other styles include American Style IPA, Old Conkerwood Black Ale, and a Belgian Style Ale. 

PicoBrew Booth

One of the more unique products on display at GABF was PicoBrew’s Zymatic brewing appliance. The Zymatic automates much of the brewing process. It’s a stainless steel, medium-sized box (20.5” x 14.5” x 17”) that would probably be best on a work tabletop or large countertop. To get started, homebrewers choose a recipe from PicoBrew’s online database, or enters their own, and purchases the appropriate ingredients. The ingredients (mainly hops and grain) are loaded into the Zymatic’s different compartments. The larger compartment is for grain and the smaller compartments are for hops. Fill the keg with water and connect it to the Zymatic. Switch it on and you’re good to go. It heats the mash water (it’s self-sterilizing), mashes the grain, and boils the wort, handling up to four timed hop additions. In 3.5 hours, it makes 2.5 gallons of wort that’s ready for fermentation. As it is brewing, live brewing data can be viewed from any device connected to the Internet – computer, smartphone, tablet, etc. A homebrewer could load the ingredients in the morning, turn it on, leave for work, monitor it through the brewing process on their smartphone, and come home to ready-to-ferment wort. Just pitch your yeast upon returning home, and you’ve completed the process.  The Zymatic also features an easy clean-up process, since the parts that hold the ingredients are dishwasher-safe. The fermentation is done inside the keg that holds the wort (which is the same keg that held the water at the beginning of the brewing process), which leaves only one stainless vessel to clean at the end of the entire process. I asked Donald Brewer, the Vice President of Sales and Marketing, the benefits of using the Zymatic as a homebrewer. Since I have heard some discussion among homebrewers regarding automated brewing machines, I wanted to get a good idea of why a homebrewer would choose to use the Zymatic. The first and most obvious benefit he pointed out was the time efficiency. Since it’s fully automated, busy homebrewers can produce 2.5 gallons of wort without dedicating an entire day to the brew process. Also, “brewing is very physical,” as Brewer explains. If a homebrewer has any physical difficulties in picking up heavy, slippery glass carboys, or standing near a hot burner for hours, they might find themselves brewing less and less. Brewer asked, “What if you live in a small apartment in a large city, or if you move a lot?” Some folks just don’t have the space or the lifestyle for a full brewing set-up. Also, the Zymatic offers unparalleled process and quality control for repeating the same good recipe over and over. Finally, on the two ends of the spectrum, a new brewer would have almost no learning curve in brewing a great beer on the Zymatic, where as an experienced commercial brewery could use it as a pilot brew system. To get both viewpoints, I also interviewed some homebrewers at GABF to see if they had any reservations to using the Zymatic. The main issue that current homebrewers had is that for them, a lot of the joy is in the process. Since it’s a hobby and (hopefully) stress-relieving, they enjoy that brew day and the comradery of possibly sharing the brew day with other homebrewing friends or beer lovers. There is a sense of accomplishment that these homebrewers feel in making a beer from scratch, through this very organic process that then earns them accolades from their peers and family. Many of them said they like the intricacies of it, such as the weighing, measuring, and complex timings. Having said that, some homebrewers felt like the Zymatic would be a nice addition to their arsenal, while still maintaining their full homebrew system. When I pointed out some of the benefits to it, most agreed that there is a good market for the Zymatic or other automated brewing machines. PicoBrew was also displaying their KegSmarts system, which can act as a high-end kegerator that weighs your kegs and displays how much beer is left. Never again would a homebrewer face that moment when the keg of their favorite beer unexpectedly kicks (“How could I have possibly drank it all that fast?”). It can also act as fermenter, with the ability to do multi-step fermentation schedules. During fermentation, it can keep your beer at a target temperature, and can even handle doing this for multiple kegs at different temperatures at the same time. As of the time of this writing, PicoBrew is planning to release a second, smaller (16” x 12” x 14”) automated brewing device called Pico in Spring 2016. Pico will be even simpler to operate, using PicoPaks which are pre-filled with all the ingredients it needs to brew a 5-liter batch of wort. The PicoPaks are created by well-known breweries (Dogfish Head, Rogue, and many others) and feature some of America’s favorite beers. The idea is that every craft beer drinker can brew their favorite beer at home using a kitchen countertop appliance, similar to what happens now with coffee. Pico is currently still in its Kickstarter campaign (though it’s already been fully funded) if you want to get in on the action before it goes to full retail.

GABF Pro-Am Competition

A benefit of membership in the AHA (American Homebrewers Association) is the ability to enter your homebrewed beers into sanctioned homebrewing competitions. If you win one of said competitions, you have a next-level opportunity of teaming up with a brewery to brew your beer using your recipe (which they scale up). The brewery must be a member of the Brewers Association and planning to have a booth at GABF. They can then enter that beer into the GABF Pro-Am Competition. All Pro-Am entries (there were 96 this year) are poured at the Pro-Am booth during GABF sessions, so they are available for tasting by the general public attendees. The entries are also judged by the GABF judges and awarded gold, silver, and bronze medals. This year’s winners are: Gold: Muscat Love

  • Brewing Company: Great South Bay Brewery
  • AHA Member: Brian Giebel

Silver: Atahsaisa

  • Brewing Company: Odd 13 Brewery
  • AHA Member: Mike Froehlich

Bronze: Citra IPA

  • Brewing Company: FATE Brewing Company
  • AHA Member: Ryan Lotter

If you have a homebrew recipe that you think fits the bill, start the process by entering the beer into an AHA/BJCP-sanctioned competition.

Samuel Adams Longshot Competition

Have you been longing to see your beer in bottles at your local bottle shop? Make it happen by winning the Samuel Adams Longshot competition. Longshot’s a little easier to enter, in that the requirements include filling out a form from their website and shipping your beer to them within the proper timeframe. The payoff is pretty sweet. They pick two general entry winners each year, whom they fly to Denver for GABF and the Longshot awards ceremony. Then, they scale up the winning recipes and produce them for the general public to buy. The homebrewer is flown to Boston to brew their beer at the Samuel Adams facility with the brewer. The Longshot beers are then sold in 6-packs, so each winner has two beers in each 6-pack with their likeness on the labels (the remaining two beers are the winner from the similar Samuel Adams employee homebrew contest). If they’re able to produce the beer and it goes to market, the winner gets a one-time royalty check (last year it was $5000)! [caption id="attachment_889" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Jim Koch at the Samuel Adams announcement of this year’s Longshot homebrew competition winners.[/caption] This year’s winners are: Tim Thomssen's Raspberry Berliner Weisse, Lincoln, NE Kevin Nanzer's Belgian Golden Strong Ale, Mountain View, CA Colin Foy's Flanders Red Ale, Cincinnati, OH (employee competition winner) Samuel Adams is expecting next year’s contest and parameters to be announced in April of 2016 on their website. In case you needed even more incentive to enter, note that some previous Longshot winners have gone on to open their own breweries. If you’re thinking you’re ready to go pro, check out the Samuel Adams “Brewing the American Dream” loan and experienceship programs.

Factotum Homebrewing Opportunity

[caption id="attachment_888" align="alignright" width="325"] Taproom board at Factotum. Note that under the name of each beer is the name of the homebrewer who created it.[/caption] A unique opportunity to get unbiased feedback from the public on your homebrew is available at Factotum Brewhouse. Factotum, located near downtown Denver, was featured in a GABF media tour of breweries the area, and thus afforded a chance to display what they do to media outlets all over the country. While there are many brew-on-our-equipment-type breweries out there, most of these result in homebrewers leaving with their beer for their own consumption. Factotum, however, takes it a step further in that they actually serve the beer in their taproom. Here’s what it looks like:  the homebrewer comes to Factotum with their recipe (or not, if you’re new to homebrewing). The homebrewer and the brewer at Factotum meet to go over the recipe, addressing if it will need to be scaled up, if the ingredients need to be refined, etc. At that time, a brew day is scheduled with the homebrewer and the brewer both present. The brewer will offer as much or as little guidance as needed, depending upon the skill and experience of the homebrewer. Once the beer is ready and a tap opens up, a Meet the Brewer night is scheduled for the night the beer is tapped. The homebrewer comes and talks about their beer and showcases it to family, friends, and the general public. The beer stays on tap and all the while, the general public is coming in, trying the beer, and giving feedback. It’s a great and, as far as I can tell, unprecedented way to get your beer out to the public to see how it might go over if you were to brew it professionally. It would also afford a chance to refine the recipe before spending a ton of money on a commercial brewing process. Say, for example, if much of the feedback was “not hoppy enough,” the homebrewer might consider making a hoppier version.


GABF was a great place for a homebrewer to be. There were several displays of products that I hadn’t seen before, and it was exciting to see the new innovations in the industry. Besides the booths, there were some incredible learning opportunities (in the way of classes and seminars offered to attendees) and ways to expand your homebrewing horizons. If you’re thinking maybe it’s time to finally check this one off your (fermenting) bucket list, then save the date: next year’s GABF will be held October 6 – 8, 2016. Time to cash in some reward miles, or maybe bank on that Longshot competition win. But in the meantime, you’ve got some brewin’ to do. Rebecca Johnson is a Pittsburgh-based craft beer journalist. She founded and writes for beerPittsburgh.com