Observations from the 15th Northern California Homebewers’ Festival

NCHF 15 logo and theme, “Our Founding Fathers.” From left to right: Ken Grossman, Charlie Papazian, Michael Jackson, and Fritz Maytag

It’s ninety degrees in the shade, if there were any shade, and I’m carrying a four-ounce taste of beer and a paper hot dog carrier filled with pulled pork up a hill toward a wooden picnic table underneath some live oaks. There’s reggae music playing in the background behind me, and as I walk, on my right a guy wearing a kilt is talking on a smartphone, “Have you ever strapped on a kilt?” he calls into the phone; as though wearing a kilt is completely new to him and wants to know if someone else has had the same feeling that he is experiencing now.

I’m at the 15th annual Northern California Homebrewers’ Festival and the first I have ever attended. Though the first festival was held in Skyline Park in Napa in 1998,

it is now held yearly at the Francis Lake Resort in Dobbins, California on the autumnal equinox—a religious event, of sorts (that goes a long way toward explaining the chanting and drumming later on at midnight). The festival registrar, Paul Keefer, tells me this year’s attendance is around 500. There are 36 homebrew clubs, under an assortment of canopies, pouring homebrew and handing out food.

“Mary, the Queen of Beers” tells me, “If you can’t find something you like here, you may as well pack up your tent and hit the road.” She is of indeterminate age, somewhere between 50 and death. She wears bangles on her wrists and bottle caps serve as earrings. She is to this beer event what the Annie Savoy is to the movie Bull Durham—a true believer in beer. She has tried them all and the only one that satisfies her is the Church of Beer.

Mary is right. While many of the beers are styles that just don’t appeal to me–meads, bretts, sours, and the like–I found a lot to taste: American Pale Ales, India Pale Ales, lagers, etc.

We are an eclectic mix of geeks (the male/female ratio is about 60/40), who probably enjoy talking about beer and beer making as much as we do drinking our product. And, there is a lot of product. According to Mary, Queen of Beers, there are “278 different tastes on tap here.” She knows because she went around and counted them. One booth had a couple of low-alcohol session beers. The 2.8% ABV one tasted like a liquid pretzel, bready and delicious.  A friend loved the Kölschs and Milds and he said Berliner Weiss beers both straight as well as with the raspberry and woodruff syrups were delicious.

Tossing the keg competition

Tossing the keg competition

From the picnic table on the hill, I see a knot of people at the rustic resort’s baseball field. At first I think it could be a pickup game of softball but the spectators are ringed around the infield. I wander down to the field, stopping only to sample a few more beers and finger foods, to find that it is the brewers’ version of a caber toss from the highland games. Mostly guys, but some women too, are testing their strength and skill at tossing an empty 15-gallon beer keg as far as they can. At the time I checked, the farthest toss was 29 feet.

In addition to the keg toss there are other competitions. There is the club competition for historical beers (one of them used molasses and sunflower and pumpkin seeds) and one for beers using brown malt. A chalice filled with samples of all 278 beers sat on top of the trophy. After the finalists were announced someone was going to have to drink from it–whether that was the winner or the losers was not clear to me.

If you were at this or other NCHFs please leave a comment below. As always, regardless or whether you have experienced any NCHFs, your comments are appreciated.

For more on the Northern California Homebrewers’ Festival see their website (http://nchfinfo.org/)

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4 thoughts on “Observations from the 15th Northern California Homebewers’ Festival

  1. Great article Norm, it sounds like the type of event that the Wife and I love going to; she would really love the cabins. It reminds me of some of the festivals we have here in the Rockies, good times, good people, good beer.

    Right now we’re getting ready for the mother of all beer festivals in October, although the scenery won’t be nearly as nice.

    • Thanks, Will. Back atcha.

      The cabins are nice but a tad pricey at ~$250/night but they do sleep four. I met a (the?) brewer from North Coast Brewing (http://northcoastbrewing.com) and his wife. They said they wouldn’t go to NCHF unless they stayed in one of the cabins. They gave me a peek inside and they were nice (the cabins, I mean, though the NCBC brewer and his wife were nice too).

      The deluxe cabins may tend to be available longer. I got an email from the NCHF folks that one was available just weeks before the festival. Should you and the wife want to go next year, perhaps we could share a cabin for a night? But, this year, I went cheap. NCHF entrance and camping cost me $49. That’s a terrific deal. (Sean Paxton apparently put on a great dinner on Friday night that I had to miss due to other commitments.)

      I look forward to hearing about your trip to the Great American Beer Festival. The NCHF is a smallish affair in comparison to GABF. With only 500 attendees (most of whom are in the booths), there are very few lines. My sense is that the percentage of people there to get drunk may be higher than at NCHF. I would guess that 1% of the NCHF attendees were just looking to get wasted. Your thoughts on GABF?

      • I think with the growth of craft beer geeks that the number of people going just to get trashed is down to around 30-40%, but it varies year to year and definitely night to night. Some years it seemed like 75% were there to get trashed on Friday & Saturday, that’s why we go on Thursday night now. Not only are there more appreciative beer drinkers, but the brewers and owners are more likely to be at the booths.

      • I like your strategy for attending on Thursday. The reason for attending ought to be the beer and not the buzz (unless we are talking about the “buzz” of excitement). There are cheaper ways to get wasted, so I don’t get the allure. I suspected there was some of that given that people are joining the American Homebrewers’ Association just to get early tickets for GABF.

        I saw a bit of what you’re talking about earlier this year at the “Battle of the Brews” in Santa Rosa. I was a finalist in the homebrew competition, so I got to get in early (comped, I would not have wanted to put out the bucks for the event). A friend and I wandered about, tasted some great beers, talked with the brewers, ate great food, and generally enjoyed a laid back event. After two in the afternoon, the serious partiers came in as a band was cranking up. You could tell they wanted to get their “money’s worth.” The time for talking ended. I left.

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