New year, new beginning. 2014 was a good year, but an intense one; with my son Lucian celebrating his first birthday in spring, major changes at my day job in summer, my wife’s pregnancy, and then our baby daughter Vesper being born the first week of December.
Mother and baby are doing great, and my son adores his little sister. I have no complaints. But now that all four of us have had some time to settle into our new family routine, I’m looking ahead to what’s next. And there’s nothing like a new year to start a new chapter in one’s life.
I love the idea of new year’s resolutions, but it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to instantly change a bad habit or adopt a good one – and keep it consistently – just because there’s a new calendar on the wall. So I approach my resolutions as habits to develop in the coming year, not all-or-nothing life changes to succeed at instantly. I like to spend the first week of the year reflecting on my resolutions before committing to them. So believe me when I say that by my schedule, this list of new year’s resolutions is timely.
My New Year’s Resolutions, 2015 Edition:
Write More. The need should be obvious to regular followers of this blog (if I still have any after publishing only one new post in the last eight months). I did spend time – not enough – on other writing projects not related to beer, but this blog hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. I’ve been so busy just being a dad that I haven’t been doing much brewing or beer-geeking, so there wasn’t much for me to write about here … unless I want to start writing general parenting stuff. But I refuse to do that, primarily as a public service to advice-seekers on the Internet, because when it comes to parenting I have absolutely no idea what the hell I’m doing.
Read More. I have a tall stack of beer-related books I want to read. I have an even taller stack of non-beer-related books I want to read. I also have a thick folder of books on my Kindle I want to read. I won’t get through all of them in the next 360-odd days, but if I can hold myself to reading new things instead of revisiting old favorites, I’ll be off to a good start. So maybe now’s not the time to be rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion for the seventh time, which is exactly what I’m doing. But remember, these are habits to develop over the coming year.
Brew More. This was the first resolution I came up with, and the question I immediately asked myself was “More than what?” The answer: more than I think I can brew with two little ones in my life. Scraping together eight hours on the patio for a five-gallon all-grain brew session is not going to be easy. Anything I can do on the kitchen stove in 2-4 hours while keeping one eye open for little hands and feet going where they shouldn’t will be more feasible. So small batches may be the key to keeping my brewing skills up in 2015 while also providing ample fodder for these pages. Maybe I’ll work my way through the new 2014 BJCP Style Guidelines in small-batch brew-in-a-bag sessions. Maybe I’ll experiment with small-batch meads. And when the kegerator needs a restocking, if I can’t find the time for an all-grain brew session, I won’t be afraid to brew a partial mash batch with extract.
Drink More. Perhaps the first time these two words have ever shown up on someone’s new year’s resolution list; but I mean variety, not quantity. Like reading, I want to spend more time tasting new beers and less time drinking my old standbys. Even with kids in tow, there are many family-friendly brewpubs, restaurants, and tasting rooms open to me. And with my wife no longer expecting, it’ll be that much easier to pop open and share a 10% ABV bomber on a Tuesday night. So I’ll be catching up with some of the latest hot craft brews in 2015 (If you’d like to follow my progress, friend me on Untappd … my username is shawnbou).
Worry Less. Not all of my plans will come to fruition. Having two small children around means lot of variables out of my control. I won’t always get to brew when I want to. I won’t meet every self-imposed writing deadline. When I do brew or write, there will be lots on my mind and things won’t necessarily come out the way I want them to. But that’s okay. Plans are just plans. Target gravities are just targets. And deadlines are – for me, at this point in my writing career – more like guidelines. It’s time to learn to roll with the punches, do whatever I can whenever I can, and not worry about whatever falls outside the lines.
Enjoy the Little Things. I’ve emerged from two years of continual upheaval in my life with two beautiful, healthy children and a wife who is gorgeous, happy and spirited as the day I met her. My kids are getting bigger every day. It’s time to enjoy what’s in front of me. I’ll crack open a special beer when the occasion calls for it, and I won’t when it doesn’t. I’ll put down my electronic devices and interact more with the faces in the room around me. I’ll talk boldly and laugh loudly and not be afraid to be vibrantly, joyously alive right here, today, with the people I call my family and friends. After all, 2015 will only come once.
Great news for craft beer lovers earlier this week: NPR reported that craft beer sales jumped 20 percent in 2013, and now make up almost 8 percent of beer sales in America, according to numbers released by the Brewers Association.
These days, there’s a craft beer for practically every palate — and price range.
It got me wondering. What does “a craft beer for practically every palate” mean? Is craft beer growing because consumers are finding their favorite among a wide range of options and then drinking only that beer from then on out? Or because consumers are more adventurous and willing to try new things? Or some combination of the two?
In my day job, I work with marketing and product development people enough to know that modern businesses position themselves for success by offering a diverse portfolio of products. Today’s consumers demand customization. An electronics company won’t just make smartphones; they’ll make tablets, TVs, or laptops, or all of the above. A company that makes messenger bags offers a variety of similar bags with different colors, patterns, and compartments. Companies that make chewing gum make four thousand varieties of chewing gum. The idea is simple: no matter who you are, we have a product for you.
But most people only need one smartphone, or tablet, or messenger bag – at least one at a time. As consumable commodities, beers are something you always go back to buy more of. Still, craft breweries follow a similar model by offering a variety of beers: a stout, a wheat, a pale ale or two, etc. On the surface, the idea seems to be the same: no matter what kind of beer you like, we brew one for you. And I’m sure that accounts for the growing popularity of craft beer among most beer consumers. There are “Sierra Nevada Pale Ale men” out there the way there used to be “Bud men”, and that’s a great thing.
But there are other craft beer consumers, and I’ve mentioned them once already: the chamomile-and-white-sage-IPA hipsters. Hardcore beer geeks. Bearded and/or bespectacled, wearing shirts emblazoned with zymurgic shibboleths like “OG/FG” in the AC/DC font or with the logos of obscure breweries. Using words no one else uses, like Brett, goaty and attenuated, and otherwise talking about discontinued seasonals like some people talk about vintage comic books (“No, Tyler, you’re thinking of the Great Divide 16th Anniversary Wood Aged Double IPA, not the 18th.”)
These folks – maybe you know one, maybe you are one (guilty as charged here) – but the point is that we don’t just drink one kind of beer, no matter how good we think it is. We approach the beer aisle of our favorite store like entomologists on a hunt for some rare insect. We buy things we haven’t seen before. We may be disappointed or nonchalant. We may not buy it again. But we know it’s worth it to slog through nine six-packs of mediocre beer to find that tenth beer that absolutely wows us. And we buy a lot of beer.
For us, variety and innovation are the whole point. That’s probably why many of us homebrew. And we would be no happier in a world with only one beer even if that one beer was Pliny the Elder instead of Bud Light. (Okay, maybe we’d be a little happier.) But where do our palates fit in with the concept of “practically every palate”? Or is there a line on the spectrum for us whose palates are motivated by the love of all beer and are excited by beers that are both innovative and exceptionally brewed?
It’s not that I’m questioning the wording of the NPR article, far from it. It’s a great article shedding light on an issue that’s very important to me, and I appreciate NPR devoting space to it. I’m just wondering.
I’d love to see statistics on how much of craft beer’s growth is due to brand allegiance from consumers buying one kind of beer, and how much is due to consumers buying a lot of different beers. Someone must have a graph.
What do you think, Internet? Does anyone out there know?
I’m one of a kind. I buck the trend. I’m, uh … I don’t know … a Pepper.
But isn’t that why you come here? To catch every pearl of unconventional wisdom that rolls through my fingertips into the WordPress text editor? Okay, maybe not. But what would the Internet be without hyperbole?
Today I’m exercising my individuality by starting my New Year’s resolution at the end of January. How, you ask? You’re reading it, babe.
Studies have shown that 88% of all New Year’s resolutions end in failure. Those same studies offer reasons why, but my belief is that it has to do with expecting ourselves to be perfect from Day One, i.e. New Year’s Day. If we lapse early on – say a week in – it’s easy to give up.
Well I don’t know about you, but on January 1 I’m not exactly at the top of my game for self-improvement. I’m usually juggling the task of coordinating my wife’s birthday festivities (did I say “task”? I meant “delightful activity I look forward to all year” …) with sleep deprivation and a soul-draining hangover. I can’t even begin working off the post-Christmas beer belly until the birthday cake is gone on the 3rd or 4th, let alone chart a path to any successful new habits. If I gave up at the first sign of trouble, I’d never get off the ground. So I always set my goal for “some time this year”. I try to start in January to get momentum going, but if it doesn’t stick, I keep trying. Hopefully by mid-year it’s second nature. If by December 31 I find my goal has become a habit, I consider myself successful.
And it seems I may be right to look at it that way. A popular myth making the rounds online and in corporate America suggests that it takes only 21 days to form a habit. But according to actual, y’know, science, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days depending on the individual and the goal, with an average of 66. I’ve only recently learned this, but it helps explain why my approach tends to work.
My resolution this year is to get back to updating this site regularly. 2013 was an eventful year, good and bad: the birth of my child, my story in the October issue of Brew Your Own, new developments at my day job leading to longer hours and a bit more stress. It was sort of a vacation – new excitement, new stress and all – from my routine, and part of that routine I left behind was writing. Now it’s time to come back. And as I mentioned, I don’t think January 31 (which also happens to be the start of the Lunar New Year in 2014) is too late to start down the road of a successful New Year’s resolution.
The good news is that during my hiatus, Bousiris Bouery – the brewing operation of Last of the Zyme Lords – has been operational. Christmas brought some much-needed equipment upgrades in the form of a new Blichmann Floor Burner and a 10-gallon kettle, a small but important upgrade from my boilover-prone 9-gallon pot which is now a hot liquor tank.
I even managed to brew a few batches of beer. For Thanksgiving I made a SMaSH that turned out to be a crowd-pleasing English “dirty blonde” ale whose keg my visiting relations from the UK obligingly floated around the first of the year. I brewed a second batch of Anna Livia Irish Stout; the jury may be out on whether stout is good for nursing moms, but the one in my house sure loves it. I even fulfilled a 3-year-old promise to a friend by getting a wee heavy on tap for Hogmanay.
As usual, every one of these batches had a story behind it and I’ll share all of them in the coming weeks, along with updates on brews in the pipeline. For now, know that I am alive and brewing. Next week, I’ll truly get LotZL going for 2014 with the story of how I resurrected a couple of lost small-batch apple ciders for a tart holiday treat.
Until then, Happy (Lunar) New Year.
We’re going to see this through to the bitter end. Or … lager end. – Gary King, The World’s End
Now in theaters is The World’s End, the latest from writer/director Edgar Wright and his frequent collaborators, co-writer/star Simon Pegg and co-star Nick Frost. I’ve seen it twice – including a fantastic beer dinner at the Alamo Drafthouse – and it’s my favorite film of the year. In it, five childhood friends facing middle age are brought together by ringleader Gary King (Pegg) to relive their most epic teenage memory: a night out attempting the “Golden Mile”, a 12-pint/12-pub crawl in their tiny English hometown. They aim to succeed now where they once failed, and complete the Golden Mile in all its bitter, boozy glory.
As a white male approaching 40 with a wife, child, and lots of 90’s music in heavy rotation on my iPod, I’m squarely in this film’s target demographic. I’ve also been a fan of this team’s work for years. They have a knack for parodying a genre while simultaneously making an exemplary film of that genre. What Shaun of the Dead did for zombies, and Hot Fuzz did for buddy-cop action flicks, The World’s End does for sci-fi, but I won’t spoil it. If you’ve seen the trailers, you may know what to expect.
It doesn’t spoil anything to say that beer is a recurring motif in the movie. The twelve pints of the Golden Mile stand as a powerful metaphor for the childhood dreams and lost youth of the characters. That metaphor works well for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who was ever a teenager. Not sure about you, but when I was in my teens I spent a lot of time obsessing over things I couldn’t easily get. Alcoholic beverages were pretty high on that list … right behind, you know, sex.
But unlike sex, which I assumed I would spend a lot of time and effort trying to get for the rest of my life, I knew I was more or less guaranteed easy access to alcohol as soon as I was old enough. So booze was a symbol, in a sense, of my impending adulthood in general, a taste of the future; and that gave it a mystique that always attracted me. I suspect Wright and Pegg felt the same way I did – and apparently one of them wore the same trenchcoat I did, too.
But if alcohol in general held a mystique for me, beer always had a special place in my heart. Maybe because it’s cheap and sessionable (a word I didn’t know then). Maybe because it was cooler than wine and less of a “big deal” than spirits. I know that I can’t remember exactly when I had my first drink of wine or spirits … Catholic communion? A drive-through daiquiri shop in the New Orleans suburb I grew up in? Very likely, but I don’t have any real memory of it.
On the other hand, I can remember every major beer milestone of my childhood and young adulthood:
- First Taste of Beer – age 5, Budweiser, thanks to an uncle by marriage (he was probably in your family too)
- First Whole Serving of Beer – age 14, Miller Lite, at a low-key Halloween party
- First Beer I Bought in a Store – age 17, Crazy Horse Malt Liquor, from a corner store in the French Quarter
- First Beer at a Bar – age 17, a 20-oz $2 plastic cup of whatever rotgut draft was on tap at the shitty Decatur Street dive bar I was hanging out at
- First Craft Beer – age 18, a 20-oz $3 plastic cup of Abita Turbodog, at the same shitty Decatur Street dive bar I was still hanging out at
It was kind of all downhill from there (or uphill, I guess): a progression of gradually more interesting discoveries about how much more there was to beer besides just canned lager, forties, and rotgut draft. Okay, I had a brief Rolling Rock-curious phase in college, but we don’t have to talk about that.
Now that I speak beer as a second language, one might think the power it held over me as a younger man would be lessened. I no longer have to wait for a friend’s brother to come through with a case of Milwaukee’s Best or maintain a mental list of stores and bars that won’t look too closely at my fake I.D.. If I want beer – good beer, brewed a mile away in Austin or halfway across the world in Belgium, I just have to go to the supermarket. Or I can make beer myself, five gallons at a time. Surely what unattainability made magical in my youth, familiarity would render mundane as an adult?
But it hasn’t. The mystique is still there, just changed. Beer is still tied to my hopes and dreams. When I wish I could travel but I’m stuck at my nine-to-five job, an English bitter or a Belgian saison helps me through. When my child was born, I commemorated his birth with two different batches of homebrew, one of which I hope to age until he’s old enough to drink it. And when the hectic pace of adult life makes it hard to find the time to write fiction – after all these years, one childhood dream I’m still chasing – I write about beer.
And thanks to the breadth and depth of beers available in the world today, there are still some unattainables. My indoctrination into the world of beer has only taught me how much I have yet to experience. I’ve never been to Northern California in February to try Russian River’s Pliny the Younger (I can’t even get the less legendary Pliny the Elder easily here in Texas). I’ve never sipped Trappist ale from a chalice at a Belgian bistro across the street from the medieval abbey that brews it, nor kvass from a street cart in some town in Eastern Europe whose name I can’t spell.
When I started this blog, I set out with the goal of finding the places where brewing and storytelling intersect, to show how beer – for millennia, a mystical beverage credited with inspiring great works of art – can still inspire great stories and be a form of storytelling in itself. It seems Edgar Wright and Company beat me to the finish line. I’d be jealous if I wasn’t so blown away by the movie they made, and humbled by what I’ve realized since seeing it: that beer is, and has always been, an inspiration and an aspiration for me. That getting older means sacrificing some of what it once meant for me, and the reward for that sacrifice is realizing how much more meaning there is to find.
On April 9, my son Lucian was born.
Far be it from me to claim I’m an expert on the subject after doing it once, but the months leading up to the birth of a first child are a whirlwind. Preparing for the birth is like a new hobby, one that fills only a weekend or two per month early on, but quickly escalates to every weekend and eventually every day. Months pass quickly, measured in weeks between ultrasounds, the impending due date consuming more time and mental bandwidth as the trimesters tick by. There’s a nursery to paint. Furniture to pick out and assemble. Classes to take. Bags to pack for the hospital. As our due date of April 22 approached, the to-do list kept getting longer, and we sacrificed other pursuits – social life, writing, movie night – in an attempt to reach our goal of being “ready” by April 1 so we could a) leave for the hospital at a moment’s notice, and b) relax and enjoy the last few weeks of our pre-parental life before we took the big plunge.
I also prepared a number of activities to “keep me busy” during my four weeks off from work. I formulated a couple of special homebrew recipes: ready to brew. Made substantial progress on mapping out the plot of my novel: ready to draft. Worked with my screenwriting partners to complete the first draft of a feature screenplay: ready to edit. And I stocked up on DVDs and books to watch/read in my downtime.
I’ll pause here to give a moment to my readers who are experienced parents. Please, laugh derisively at my naive delusion.
By April 1, we were a little behind schedule on the prep-work but not too far behind. We were all ready to buckle down and get it done in time for April 22. Then suddenly, boom. Lucian came 13 days early, smacking me in the face with a +2 spiked club of reality. I’m still shaking my head, trying to clear the ring of stars and chirping birds circling me.
It’s amazing how quickly I transformed from “me” into this new version of me that exists primarily to serve as one half of a round-the-clock life support system for another human being. In my rare contemplative moments, I think back to those last frantic weeks of expectancy with nostalgia, like memories of a relaxing vacation.
Don’t get me wrong. The instant I first laid eyes on my son in the delivery room, a profound and inexplicable emotion anchored in my psyche immediately. I was literally overwhelmed, almost hyperventilating as my brain refused to believe what my heart felt – that there was a new person on this planet, that I had co-created him and would co-author his formative years, and that I loved him in a way I never realized was possible. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything, and I’m glad he decided to come 13 days early. Someday, many years from now when our days together are numbered, I’ll look back and be thankful for the extra time.
But with all that said, the last nine days have challenged my naive assumptions of what raising a newborn would be like. That stack of things to “keep me busy”? Collecting dust. I haven’t read anything that’s not baby-related. I haven’t written (until now). I’ve watched a little TV, but seeing as how it takes 4 hours to get through a single episode of Game of Thrones or Mad Men, I don’t think I’ll be making much headway on that stack of DVDs. And as for the pipe dream of scraping together eight consecutive hours to brew beer, well, I barely even have time to drink a beer.
But I dove in head first, learning the right way for each new paternal task with zeal. Every time I tried something new, I looked it up in at least two baby books and online to see if I was doing it right (I’m not bragging; it was a crutch and a hindrance). I filled my head with so much information it eventually just started dripping out of my ears unused. I soon got overwhelmed and started making mistakes: confusing Lucian’s hunger cry for his diaper cry, chilling his sensitive butt with a frigid baby wipe, failing to shield his eyes from the sun for every microsecond outdoors. Every mistake left me feeling sick to my stomach and afraid of the next mistake, certain the baby wouldn’t survive two weeks in my care. What had I gotten myself into? How stupid was I to make him cry for literally hours in the middle of the night, while I racked my brain trying to figure out what was wrong? I was clueless, in over my head. The worst father in the world. I almost welcomed the idea of Texas Child Protective Services busting down the door of my house at 4:00 am, declaring me unfit for parenthood, and taking Lucian away to someone else who could raise him right. Unlike me.
And then one night, four or five days ago but a lifetime away, was my dark night of the soul. Listening to the earsplitting (I now know what this word means) cry of my frustrated newborn, terrified that any new minute on the clock might mark the breaking point for this poor innocent creature mistakenly entrusted to my ignorant care, I wished only that I could be somewhere else. Anywhere, anywhen, back in time, off in space, a place with bright sun and serene air and good ale on tap.
The thought of beer, coupled with a crippling fear of failure, triggered memories. I remembered my first forays into homebrewing, those exciting but terrifying new days filled with similar fear and self-doubt.
For my first few homebrew batches, I sought validation for every choice I made online and in the pages of the beginner books written by Charlie Papazian and John Palmer. Was I mixing the extract and water enough? Was I cleaning my steeping bag the right way? Were plastic carboys really fine, or was I going to oxidize my brew? Was I wasting my time, and would my beer end up tasting terrible? Was I the worst brewer ever, and should I just give up?
But I wasn’t, and I shouldn’t, and I wasn’t wasting my time. I was learning on the job. It was a painful, arduous process that was nonetheless absolutely necessary. The beer wasn’t perfect, but it was far from terrible. And as I got more and more experience, I realized that so much of homebrewing was not about right vs. wrong, but just about choices. I learned to be comfortable with the choices I made, knowing they were the right choices for me – at least at the time – and for nurturing the best possible beer out of my homebrew setup. I learned to have faith that even if I made little mistakes that needed to be corrected or even apologized for, the beer would be fine.
An epiphany began to blossom in my head. I looked down at my screaming, red-faced infant son and smiled. I remembered Charlie Papazian’s oft-quoted advice to new homebrewers: Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew. And I did.
Well, I didn’t have the homebrew until the next day, but you get the idea. As I drank that homebrew, I reflected on how raising a newborn is not entirely different from homebrewing. Sure, it’s a much bigger commitment and the stakes are waaaay higher. But it can be approached in the same way.
Relax. Don’t worry. Enjoy your child.
Nine days in, I’m still making mistakes and I’m still stressed out – sleep deprivation will do that to you. But amazingly, I’m starting to get the hang of it. I can tell the difference between a hunger cry and a diaper cry. I’m guessing with sufficient accuracy when Lucian needs feeding or changing, and when he just wants to suck on a finger or listen to white noise. I’m starting to feel like I sort of know what I’m doing when it comes to the basics, and I’m enjoying experimenting as I figure out how to parent more efficiently. I feel myself on the verge of a stage of parenthood analogous to being an intermediate brewer: straying from established recipes with my own adjuncts and flavors, controlling variables in my own way, putting my own twist on process and technique. And I realize the beginning wasn’t so bad. It didn’t take long at all.
Someday, though I’m sure it’s a long way away, I’ll level up to advanced, “all grain” parenting. I’ll have enough knowledge and experience to have my own ideas about how to make my child happy. I’ll be the one dispensing advice and recommendations to my friends who become parents after me. I’ll still screw up, of course. But with the wisdom of experience behind me, I’ll view my mistakes as something constructive; to paraphrase James Joyce, “portals of discovery”. I’ll screw up and fix it and clean up and apologize and analyze and solve the problem to become a better parent in the future.
And someday, I’ll pass that knowledge on to my son, perhaps over a pint of a well-crafted homebrew that he may someday brew himself.
Welcome to life, Lucian. For now, keep doing what you’re doing. Cry if you have to, but sleep when you can. You’ll need your rest. Brewing is hard work, and we’ll be doing it together soon.
Last night when reading Mitch Steele’s book IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale, I came across this excerpt from a poem by British poet A. E. Housman which Steele used as a chapter epigraph. I recognized two lines, which will be familiar to many of my readers:
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think.
Spot the familiar lines? I’ll explain just in case. The quote “Malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man” is referenced frequently in beer culture. It appears on T-shirts and in books, and is quoted endlessly on websites dealing with homebrewing and craft beer.
It’s one of those quotes we use to validate our passion, to reclaim some respect in a world that doesn’t always understand our love of beer and occasionally confuses us with the common alcoholic. With such quotes, we seek to remind the world that many drinkers are also great thinkers: from poets (Housman) to politicians (another famous quote is uncertainly attributed to Benjamin Franklin) to philosophers (ditto, Plato).
The Housman quote has always caught my eye because of the reference to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which Milton wrote to – in his own words – “justify the ways of God to men”, something Housman appears to claim beer can do even better. I’m not Milton’s biggest fan, but I’ve read and enjoyed Paradise Lost and was always impressed that Housman seemed to echo one of my beliefs: that a good beer is a work of art as inspiring and enlightening as the world’s great stories. But I never read the rest of Housman’s poem until today.
So imagine my surprise when I read the last two lines above: “Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink / For fellows whom it hurts to think.”
Wait, what? Did Housman just say that ale is for guys who can’t think?
I was shocked and confused. I felt unfairly ridiculed and indignant. Was Housman calling beer drinkers morons? Was the malt/Milton quip actually intended as a mordant satire of the self-professed mental acuity of beer drinkers Housman saw as deluded, stupid oafs? Worse still, had beer lovers around the world been bandying this quote around proudly but out of context, little realizing that if Housman were still alive he’d be laughing at us behind his awe-inspiring mustache?
Beer guys aren’t smart? Preposterous! I mean, we all know someone who fits the Hank Hill profile: a canned-lager guzzler of simple tastes, few words and fewer thoughts. But that’s just a guy who drinks beer. A beer guy is a different breed of cat entirely. Beer guys are typically nerds of a unique variety: walking encyclopedias of zythological wisdom, holding databases worth of information in their heads about beer styles, hop profiles, and personal tasting notes collected over years of self-study. Many of the smartest and most educated people I know are beer guys, and are also brilliant in other unrelated professional/creative fields. And that’s not even counting the many scientifically-minded beer writers I don’t know personally, but who have amazed me with complex descriptions of brewing chemistry and biology in terms far beyond the comprehension of my degree in English literature and classical studies.
Which brings me back to Housman, and the fact that if there’s one beer-related skill I learned in college (let’s qualify that with in class) it’s how to analyze a poem about beer. If I wanted to understand what Housman was trying to say, I needed to read the poem in its entirety. It’s entitled “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff” and the complete text of it is here. It’s from a collection of poems entitled A Shropshire Lad, and I’ll spare you the chore of getting through a full analysis of the poem. I’ve written enough of those for one life.
The gist of it is that some drinking buddies complain to their poet friend that the poems he recites are depressing, and they’d rather have him sing a dancing song to cheer them up. The poet replies that if they want cheer, they need look no further than the beer in their cups. But he cautions his friends that the joy gained by drinking is false and temporary, and once the buzz is past, the harsh realities of life remain. Poetry, he says, should be somber, to inure oneself against these harsh realities.
The poet doesn’t have anything against beer or the people who drink it; in fact, he’s a lover of it himself. He calls it “livelier than the Muse”, and better than Milton at showing humanity a fleeting glimpse of the divine. The “fellows whom it hurts to think” are all of us – beer guys, wine guys, even guys who don’t drink. He’s not saying we’re stupid and it hurts our brains to think, but that we are human and it hurts our souls to think about the world’s imperfections.
And so my short-lived indignation on behalf of my fellow beer nerds proved unnecessary. Far from making fun of us, Housman offers a poignant, if somewhat sobering, message on the role of alcohol and art in our lives. All things considered, it’s a pro-beer message, though with a warning that beer offers only a temporary distraction from reality (but what else can we ask for from the sensory pleasures of food, drink or entertainment?).
But in context, the quote isn’t quite the joyous celebration of beer’s awesome power that I thought it was, and I bet I’m not the only one surprised. It’s a valuable lesson in the importance of learning the context of anyone’s words before we go around quoting them.
Several days ago I celebrated my 37th birthday, which was also the fourth anniversary of the day I became a homebrewer.
The day I became a homebrewer was not the day I brewed my first beer. That day was long ago in the remote fog of memory we call the 1990’s. It was the year I turned 21, and I got a 2-gallon Mr. Beer starter kit for Christmas. It came with a can of prehopped malt extract and called for a pound of table sugar. There was no boil and I think Fleischmann’s baking yeast was involved. At bottling (a week later!) I spooned loose sugar into each bottle for priming as directed.
The beers tasted like cider vinegar. Carbonation varied wildly from bottle to bottle. At the time, I assumed bad taste and inconsistency were inevitable. After all, I made beer at home, dude! I laughed at the comments and pinched faces of the friends drinking with me and enjoyed the buzz. Remember, I was 21.
And despite the results, I had fallen in love with the idea of brewing my own beer.
I was also trying to finish college, and didn’t find time to brew again. When I left home for grad school, Mr. Beer traveled with me. But it stayed in the box, and for years I kept it in the closet of one apartment after another until one day I finally just threw it out, vowing to brew again “someday”.
Four years ago, I got another starter kit on my birthday: the Coopers Micro-Brew Kit. In some ways it was like Mr. Beer grown up. The fermenter was bigger (30 liters/7.9 gallons). It came with proper brewing yeast and sugar drops for consistent priming. But the extract was still canned and prehopped, it still incorporated simple sugar (dextrose boxed with the kit) and recommended no boil. The beer also came out cidery, not how I wanted.
But I also got several books about brewing that birthday. Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing and John Palmer’s How to Brew piqued my interest immediately and I read them from cover to cover. My homebrew wasn’t great, but I was reading about how great homebrew could be. I soon understood why extract-and-sugar kits yielded cidery beers. I realized what my own mistakes were. I looked forward to the next batch and considered what I would do better.
I had become a living embodiment of learning, ambition and self-challenge in the pursuit of better beer. I had become a homebrewer.
I brewed four Coopers batches before I ever touched grain or hops. Then I started working with extract, steeping grains and hop pellets. Then partial mashes for a year, and my first mead and cider. Less than two years after I got my Coopers kit, I brewed my first all-grain beer.
Now when I drink a pint of beer made from scratch from my own recipe, I’m often amazed how far I’ve come. And from what humble beginnings.
Extract-and-sugar systems like Coopers or Mr. Beer (which was purchased by Coopers in April 2012) are looked down on by many homebrewers. Some of that contempt is deserved. These systems oversimplify brewing to a fault: by limiting exposure to real ingredients and brewing processes, they take a lot of risk out of brewing, but at the cost of greatness. It’s almost impossible to fail to make beer with them, but equally impossible to make very good beer with them as sold. It’s disheartening to think of how many “homebrew curious” people must walk away from the hobby forever after tasting one batch of Coopers or Mr. Beer and assuming that’s as good as it gets.
There are also those who deride the kits for taking all the brewing out of “brewing”, and compare them to powdered drink mixes or boxed cake mix. Okay, maybe. You can’t just pour tomato sauce out of a jar onto microwaved pasta and say you made spaghetti from scratch (at least not in the Marchese family). You get more out of brewing when you put more of yourself into it, sure, but everyone has to start somewhere. With extract-and-sugar kits, you learn the basics of sanitation, fermentation, and carbonation: three essential skills a new brewer has to master, and for which there is simply no workaround in the home setting.
So extract-and-sugar is “brewing” more so than buying a six-pack is, just like jarred spaghetti sauce is “cooking” more so than going to a restaurant is. To say Coopers/Mr. Beer is “not brewing” implies that there is such a thing a “real homebrewing”, which I find a bit pompous.
Is it any wonder that some people are intimidated by our hobby? Walking into a homebrew shop for the first time can be terrifying for the uninitiated: shelf after shelf of mysterious products, bro-chatter filling the air with arcane jargon, and opinionated staff members with eccentric facial hair. My wife Lisa once ranked the homebrew shop as equal with the neighborhood comic book store as an intimidating bastion of male geekdom (and she lists beer and comics among the things she geeks on).
And there’s the cost. Extract-and-sugar kits offer a reasonably priced entry point into a hobby that can be expensive to break into, with a minimum of specialized equipment and ingredients so that if you don’t get bitten by the bug, you haven’t blown the baby’s college fund on shit you’ll never use again. These days, there are other inexpensive options available such as the Brooklyn Brew Shop 1-gallon all-grain kits that can be found at many non-specialty stores. Those kits didn’t exist when I started brewing, so I don’t know anything about how good they are. I’ll admit they seem cool.
But all-grain brewing introduces a lot of variables. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Brooklyn Brew Shop kits produce better beer than extract-and-sugar kits in a best-case scenario. But if something goes wrong, there’s a lot to troubleshoot. Why not master a few basic techniques first and then learn additional techniques one at a time?
Ultimately, there are many paths to the same goal of making the beer you like in the way you enjoy making it. The point I’m making is just that there’s no shame in the simple extract-and-sugar kits. With a little knowledge, like I had, they can be the start down a road to bigger challenges and better beer. And that, after all, is why we do it.
Saturday was Learn to Homebrew Day in the USA, and today is Election Day. To honor both events, I did what any patriotic and pedantic zyme lord would. I made beer.
I called it Colonial Progress Ale, and it’s something between an English bitter and an English brown ale. “Colonial” comes from the fermentables, adapted from a recipe I envisioned for a colonial-style ale during a trip to Philadelphia earlier this year. I ended up with:
- 6.5 lbs American 2-row
- 1 lb Victory malt
- 8 oz Flaked wheat
- 8 oz Flaked oats
- 1 lb Molasses
Each of these ingredients was chosen for a reason, starting with American 2-row malt as the base. Wheat is common in colonial ale recipes, including one attributed to Thomas Jefferson. Victory and oats I had no historic precedent for, but I added them for body in the finished beer, along with some bready/biscuity flavor (Victory) and silky smoothness (oats) to accentuate the English-inspired malt profile. I mashed at 153°F for medium fermentability, counting on the highly fermentable molasses to dry the beer out.
Ohhh, molasses. A common ingredient in beer in early colonial Philadelphia (according to a quote from William Penn), I can eat the stuff right out of the jar. But I was nervous about using it after reading John Palmer’s tasting notes ranging from “rumlike” and “sweet” (woohoo!) to “harsh” and “bitter” (ergh). But further research online suggested that harsher flavors were associated with fermenting mineral-rich blackstrap molasses, not the regular unsulphured kind. I went with regular, and added them at the beginning of the boil with high hopes.
The “Progress” part came from the hops: one ounce of 6.6% AA Progress at the 60-minute mark for bittering, and another quarter ounce at 15 minutes for flavor. Progress is a UK varietal related to Fuggle hops, a good choice for English-style ales.
But that wasn’t all I added to the boil. Hops were available to some colonial brewers, but apparently not all that prevalent, so other bittering herbs were common. My original plan was to use horehound, but I realized the medicinal flavor might overpower a low-gravity ale. I thought of rosemary, but was talked out of it by the sages (ha, ha) at Austin Homebrew Supply. I landed on:
- .25 oz Juniper berries (crushed in mortar)
- .5 grams Sweet Gale (dried)
I added the herbs in the last minute of the boil and let them steep during cooling and whirlpool. I may add more later during conditioning.
The wort had an OG of 1.046, a true session ale for the upcoming winter (insert witty apropos Valley Forge reference; I can’t think of one). I pitched the slurry from a 2-liter starter of WLP008 East Coast Ale Yeast – reportedly the Sam Adams house strain – in keeping with the colonial theme. I set the fermentation chamber to an ambient 65-68°F, a little warmer than typical to coax some vintage ester flavor from this low-flocculating yeast.
By this time tomorrow, the future of the United States will be written for the next four years. But regardless of whether my guy wins or not, I’ll have something to look forward to: a beverage in the tradition of the first beers brewed on American soil. Beer has always been a part of American culture, even before there was a United States, and from #1 on down to #44 many presidents have been homebrew aficionados: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were homebrewers and Barack Obama bought a homebrew kit for the White House with his own money. And beer remains one of the few things people can agree on regardless of personal politics.
Don’t forget to vote today, no matter who you’re supporting. Red and blue be damned. We can all party together in the colors of the SRM scale.