3 Things I Learned From the Great Lakes Hops & Barley Conference 2019

Our main source of sugar at the distillery so far has been unmalted wheat that we get milled for us not far from the distillery (thanks to the Cereal City down the street).  That means instead of having the dreamy relationship with the growers and maltsters that I once thought we would have, we skip a few steps (we can’t do everything, can we?) and buy flour when we need to make a new batch of our handmade spirits.  BUT the brewers have been using malted barley for eons (and we can learn a lot from the brewers) so I decided to apply for a scholarship from our beloved Fermenta, to learn more about barley.  I was one of the lucky winners of the scholarship (recipient bio here) so we packed our bags and headed due north to Traverse City for the weekend. 

Of course, I had a whole lot of ideas of what I thought I’d learn about and some preliminary questions to ask but was quite pleasantly surprised by the deluge of information above and beyond my expectations.  Again, this was a brewer’s conference, the keynote talk was given by the leader of the Michigan Brewer’s Association and there was a hop track to the conference as well (read: only brewers allowed).  But I basically brew beer, then I just pump it to my still to get at the ethanol, so why wouldn’t I go to learn more about how to brew (and taste) better beer, and ask some distilling questions along the way?  Here are a few things I learned at the conference:

  1. Community is everything.  One of the driving factors for getting into distilling for us was the warm welcome we received from the distilling community, even very early on when we were practically two goofy kids with a lot of questions.  At this conference, I quickly became singled out as one of the only distillers in the room, for better or worse.  Hands down, the best way to learn is to be among (and ask questions of) the scientists, farmers, maltsters, and other entrepreneurs and that is where I was.  One of my biggest surprises was all the agricultural understanding that I had been missing.  Another was the lack of presence of distillers at the conference.  I made new friends that I’d feel comfortable calling on when I run in to surprises (and we often seem to), and that makes me rest a bit easier.  Afterall, it takes a village, right?
  2. You have to go.  Make it work.  Having been awarded the scholarship lessened the financial burden of attending this conference, and the short distance away from the distillery/home plus it being a short twoish day conference lessened the time commitment burden.  But the time spent learning about innovative ideas that could help propel our small business forward was worth so much more to us than the dollars missed from not mashing/distilling/bottling/selling/thanking/blogging/creating analytical reports or the few hours we missed grinding away.  I wear more hats than I ever could have imagined as an entrepreneur but getting away to reset and talk to like-minded individuals (while it was not exactly a Caribbean vacation), felt like the best medicine to inspire a tired mind.  I’m now convinced that it’s ever important to make it work to attend conferences like these as we trudge forward.
  3. Learning helps you grow.  Even if a “bigger” business isn’t the goal, innovation, higher efficiencies, and creativity all make for a better work day and hopefully, a more successful business.  Some of that I just can’t learn without networking and learning from others.  There will always be more to read, more to be inspired by, more podcasts to listen to, more trials to run, but nothing really replaces sitting at a seminar and networking with others. 

They say that comparison is the thief of joy but I think connection and interacting with other like-minded individuals is one of the creators of joy.  So for me, attending this year’s conference was an eye-opening, extremely beneficial and truly enjoyable experience that I hope to repeat for  years to come. 

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