How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Have a Homebrew

It’s the only credo of the home brewer.

Stop Worrying.
Have a Homebrew

Ahhh. Words to live by.

Even as a wee lad, I was already a practicing home brewer. I liked mixing up assorted (and generally horrible) concoctions like some maniacal mad scientist. ‘Here – Mom – try it! Come on! Pleeeease!!!’ My early efforts weren’t very successful. But as an adult I’ve gotten much much better.

I’ve always loved a good beer. But why do we love the things we love? The taste for beer, as one can confirm by watching the face of anyone taking their first secret sip, is an acquired one. I acquired mine during the countless treks from backyard grill to fridge and back again, providing my Dad with desperately needed and vital fluids during his pitched Summer battles with the burgers, dogs, and steaks of my youth. My hard work was rewarded by the greatest gift of all, a swig from Dad’s Schlitz, Pabst Blue Ribbon, or Budweiser can.

I didn’t so much like it, as appreciate what it represented, that I was my Father’s son and this was a tiny small thing we were sharing. Such upbringing today would result in calls to Child Protective Services from concerned neighbors, but things were simpler and people calmer in those days. The tinny, ice-cold bite of those sips of beer is as strong a memory as any I can muster up from the fog, maybe because it was a Father-Son ritual only he and I knew about, and something that bound us together like a secret pact.

When I hit my teens, and through my college years at the University of Virginia, I grew to first like, then love beer. As expected of a Wahoo, I minored in beer, although my studies were of a more casual nature, foregoing the history, romance, and true meaning of beer. At Virginia, at the time named Playboy’s #1 ‘Party School’, beer was the fuel that drove all things social. That may have been cool, horribly dysfunctional, or just the way it was in the early 80’s, but the beer flowed like torrential mountain glacier water in early Spring. In our beer selections, we frequently honored our country by declaring our patriotism one can of Red, White, and Blue at a time. Beer served a function, and served it well. Connoisseurs, however, we were not.

During 10 challenging years in the United States Marine Corps, I nourished my budding love affair with beer. I began, not just to grope and salivate over her, but court her seriously. I met her parents and most of her relatives. Plans were made for the future. Adapting to the nearly celibate life of the Marine Infantryman (a well-kept secret among recruiters), Marines gravitate to beer like it was a comfort food. The celebration of the misery that is, all too frequently, typical of Marine Corps life, could reach pinnacles of depressed ecstasy after indulging in numerous doses of that thing called ‘beer’. We had no women. We had no chance of finding women. But beer? Always. We danced with, sang to, and sometimes bedded down with our beer. Semper Fi!

Eventually, having somehow managed to escape death by Marine Corps (ie..shrapnel, bullet, helicopter crash, drowning, torture, friendly fire, or training accident – there were so many possibilities!), I moved on from my military career, married a woman my Dad described as ‘a lot nicer’ than me, and started a family. I still found time for the occasional brew, but it had been relegated to just another beverage. I had to become, gasp, responsible. Although married family life was sweet, good, wonderful, I couldn’t help but sense an empty space in my chest – one no O’Doul’s could fill.

It wasn’t until 2002, tailgating with friends at a Washington Redskin’s game, that I experienced an epiphany and was reunited with my beloved. One of the tailgaters was a home brewer who’d brought some of his wares to the game. The first cold swig of that ‘dunkelweisen’ (a sweet dark intoxicating wheat beer) brought forth that holiest of questions, one shouted to the God of Beers in the sky since time immemorial.. It was barely audible, but filled with uncertainty and hope. ‘You…made..this?’

Yes. He had (my friend, not God). And over the next couple of weeks, through email, the sharing of some web links, and more than a few generous and patient tips, my new friend taught me the basics of how to make amazing beer. And learning about it brought roaring back to me memories I’d buried and long forgotten. The smell of beer on my Dad’s breath as he made me kiss his scruffy cheek at bedtime. Those secret swigs out at the family barbecue pit. Mixing secret ‘concoctions’ and ‘recipes’ out of the most exotic of ingredients in our kitchen. And as a teenage boy, sharing a secret beer (sorry Mom!) with my Dad after a long run or bike ride along Washington’s Potomac Parkway. The idea that, like Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington (who I hear made a bitchin’ Porter, the recipe for which is still available at the Library of Congress), I could make beer from nothing more than grain, hops, water, and yeast, fascinated me.

So, as I’m prone to do, I dove in with maximum passion. Like most beginners, I began my beer making journey using near idiot-proof ‘extract kits’. Extract beers use pre-manufactured malt syrups to take the grunt work and difficulty out of the process. Although one can make wonderful beers from extracts, to me, it’s like mixing up a glass of Tang, and swearing it’s ‘just as good’ as orange juice squeezed from homegrown fruit. It’s not the same. Something about the idea of making a beautiful beer, using the same techniques they used 200 years ago, intrigued me. After making a couple of perfectly acceptable ‘extract’ beers, I decided to step off the cliff into the mysterious perilous void known as ‘all grain’ brewing.

After plopping down starter money for some basic all grain equipment, I read up on the topic, and dove in. I soon found the sense of romance and history I knew was there all along. The language of beer-making – mashtun, sparging, lautering, vorlauf, wort – spoke of foreign lands, timeless traditions, and skills honed throughout history. I began making beers, all kinds of beers, unbelievable beers. Ales, IPA’s, lagers, wheats, porters, stouts – I’ve made nearly every style out there. I’ve made pumpkin beer with real pumpkins, a blueberry wheat from fruit I collected in my backyard, and a dark porter with oak, fresh vanilla bean, and Maker’s Mark that was so delicious, I barely got more than a sample myself. I’ve never made a beer that, even when imperfect, wasn’t infinitely better and more meaningful than every commercial beer I’ve ever purchased.

Although, as in most aspects of my life, I’m a homebrew loner, it doesn’t have to be that way. Homebrew clubs are everywhere in the U.S. In fact, a good friend of mine, and member here (if he ever shows his face), was President of Battleground Brewers, the local club in my part of North Carolina. These clubs meet, share recipes, talk beer, sample each other’s brews, and even make beer together. If you want to get into the home brewing thing yourself, it’s as simple as buying a starter kit on the web (I’d highly recommend Northern Brewer, both for their equipment and starter kits). If you have questions, they even have a very popular forum where you can get answers from newbie basics to the most complex beer making techniques. Many towns and cities in the US now have homebrew shops, so you may be able to find one locally where, more than likely, they’ll not only be able to set you up with equipment and supplies, but will probably want to teach you to make beer as well. Home brewers tend towards fanaticism, but in a good way.

I’d encourage anyone who has a little spare time, and loves a wonderful beer, to dive on in and try home brewing. The satisfaction of making something truly wonderful, just as our forbearers have for centuries, and sharing it with friends, is truly rewarding. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll bring back some truly fond and warm memories as an added bonus.

The beer is pretty damn good as well 🙂

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