Thursday, February 27, 2014

Brewing: A Cottage Art

I started home-brewing our own beer last year. Getting into it was accomplished in my own inimitable fashion. Laura had found a Groupon offer for a basic/intro home brewing kit from an online merchant and had purchased it for me as a gift. That gift then sat in the basement for a year, a result of equal parts procrastination and fear-of-failure. What put me over the fence and into this new hobby was the invitation of a parishioner to join him and a couple of other men at a local homebrew supply store that ran some brew kettles for an evening of brewing up a kettle's worth of ale. The experience took, and I was soon digging out the kit we had purchased with a focused intent on learning the art and craft of brewing at home.

Since then, we have brewed an amber ale, a porter, another ale called "Black Dog," a saison-style and an abbey-style dubbel. Each brew entails purchasing the ingredients for the recipe, boiling up a wort, fermenting same and then bottling/conditioning the resulting beer. I learn more about the craft, and myself, with each batch. As the books say, you learn from your mistakes and your successes. Each will teach you how to make the next batch better then the hope.

Along the way, I found myself wandering back down paths of memory, piecing together the threads that support my being able to enjoy this hobby today. I remember sitting on my grandfather's knee as he taught me old-time Prohibition songs (much to my grandmother's chagrin). He had been a piano player in speakeasies, and had a trove of music and stories to boot about the bootlegging life. Flash forward to my dad going out on hot summer days to mow the lawn, and then after coming in to have a single, cold glass of beer from an Archie's jam glass. He let me taste it once, and I remember being put off by the bitter (hops) while at the same time liking the sweet, malty tones of the "grownup" drink. Another fast forward on the memory tape, and I am in a buddy's basement. We were just out of high school and he was brewing up a batch of beer. He and his family had been making beer for as long as he could remember, and the smells of the malted grains, hops and yeast coupled with the scents coming off the fermenters promised arcane wonders as manhood loomed around the corner.

Finally, in a quick montage, comes time spent in Scotland at pubs with friends. Tasting beer that was not basic, American lager was an eye-opener. An 80/- (read: 80 shilling) ale on a cold day, with a good ham sandwich? One of the best. meals. ever.

Still, why wait over 20 years to attempt the process? Again...the old stumbling blocks I continue to face in life: fear and procrastination.
Brew Day in the Shelly home, from left: tea for the brewer; specialty grains; malt extracts; brown sugar to sweeten the wort and boost the original gravity; hops to bitter, and more to finish...a recipe and a way to take notes for future reference.

Now, though, what a great thing to be learning and doing. Brewing gives you an opportunity to work on something that takes time, skill, and no small amount of luck. It requires a willing partnership with a host of single-celled organisms called 'yeast,' upon whose fickle, hardy backs-and through whose life work-your wort becomes beer. It offers a chance to extend a wonderful gesture of hospitality: a good beer that you made being placed in someone's hand. It creates an opportunity to connect with the world's bounty (grain, hops, yeast and water) while communing with your neighbor. It's an art that is, literally, as old as human civilization...and yet it is always an art that is being perfected.

The wort boils...

This is more than being able to make a premium beer that "costs" $1 a bottle. Anyone who opens a home brewing retailer's catalog knows better than that...there is always more money to spend. Still, holding on to what is of a basic necessity, brewing is cheaper than going to the store. It is also eminently more life-giving.

It binds us back to the very roots of where we come from as human beings born into a "civilized" society. Many scholars hold that we wouldn't have civilization without beer (or wine), in that having the resources to brew (and benefit from the product) meant having enough grain, enough time and a culture with enough skill to support the technology of beer-making.

The alcohol in beer also made the water safe to drink while adding nutrients to the medium. It's a "win-win" for everyone throughout human history.

Still, the reasons I brew at home are more basic. It's fun, and provides an avenue to learning-while-doing. It gives me a chance to share with people something I have made. In the same way that Laura and I enjoy growing and sharing the bounty of our garden, we also enjoy sharing the brew we fashion.

It is also a deeply incarnational art. To make beer means partnering with another form of life to achieve ends that benefit both of us. The yeast need a medium to thrive in. I can provide that. They express carbonation and alcohol. I enjoy that. It's a basic exchange, and one that affirms life at its most basic levels. It also, quite naturally, evolves into a human, social interaction that can in moderation bring a grace-filled enjoyment to life that bonds us more deeply, one to another.

Relating that to a common journey toward God and neighbor in a life of faith, the metaphor evolves quite handily. You practice, follow the direction of those who have gone before, look for ways to adapt those lessons to the present-day demands....and then commit the fruits of those labors to sharing the blessing of the harvest, the brew, the blossom with your neighbor before God. There is only one Eucharist, one true Supper given us to share with each other by our savior, Jesus the Christ...but a good brew, crafted and shared with love, comes close when done with an open heart and a willing spirit.

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