Saturday, November 24, 2012

Beer Lessons

            Years ago, in graduate school, I moved into a house, one with a garage, and, suddenly, after living in dorms and apartments, I had space. I could have used the garage for all kinds of things: a workshop, a game room with a pool table, even as a place to park the car; I decided to use it to make beer.  I’m not sure where the idea came from.  I might have passed a hobby kit in a store, or maybe someone gave me one as a present.  I had never known anyone who made beer or wine, and I had no cooking, scientific, or mechanical skills, but I did think that it would be cool to say I was a brewmaster (rather than a graduate student).  That seemed motivation enough.  I had the space and the casual curiosity, so I bought myself a bucket, a hydrometer, and a bag of bottle caps.
            Over the course of my career as a brewer, I made two batches, and I learned some key lessons.
            One, as every beermaker and winemaker will tell you, cleanliness is key.  Dirt destroys the process, and the “five second rule” is no longer a viable guideline. Two, cleanliness takes time and energy and attention to detail. “That’s good enough” is usually more hopeful than accurate. And three, things don’t stay clean.  You may sanitize the bottles, but you can’t then leave them outside while you go play Frisbee golf.
            The first batch I made was undrinkable. Whatever had happened in the containers, the result wasn’t a “smooth mellow Oatmeal Porter with hints of chocolate and coffee.”
            I decided to be more focused and purposeful in making the second batch. I sanitized and scrubbed and actually tried to follow the directions.  As a result, I ended up with liquid that was much more beer-like.  However, while the bottles of the first batch were inert, the bottles of the second foamed viciously when you opened them.  A sink didn’t provide enough of a catchment; you had to uncap them over a bathtub or outside. We named them Volcanoes. They were difficult to drink, tasted terrible, and, as it turned out, gave cruel hangovers.  And yet, my friends and I were in graduate school.  The idea of pouring beer down the drain just because it was bad and might make us sick or blind didn’t occur to us. We drank them all.  Eventually.
            When you make something, you learn about yourself and this includes what you might be capable of, but simple don’t or won’t do. I had none of the technical or aesthetic skills needed to make beer.  Nor was I interested in developing them.  And I quickly realized that. No matter how romantic the image of brewer seemed to be, I wasn’t that interested in doing what it took to make a drinkable, let alone a good, product.  This was a valuable lesson.
            Another, however, may have been just as important.  At a party, where I was trying to unload the second batch, a friend tasted one, hoisted it in the air, and said, “You have mastered the beer-making process.” I thought that he was mocking me.  Everyone knew the stuff was terrible, and I noticed that he didn’t finish the bottle I gave him.  Since that moment I’ve known, don’t take reviews too seriously, especially when they come from friends.

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