The very first post that I posted here was tangentally related to beer. I kind of thought that I would continue the trend, but other things seem to pop up. If you were to click on the "beer" tag at the bottom of this post, you'd find that I've written about beer a little bit in this blog.
I like beer.
The first beer I ever drank was liquid nastiness. It was an old, old can of Old Milwaukee in the bottom back of an old, neglected refrigerator in an old A-frame cabin. The cabin had no running water, but it had electricity, and an old semi-retired refrigerator. The cabin was mainly a hunting cabin, but was, that summer between my junior and senior years in high school, my residence while I worked as a ranch hand. Untold amounts of food had dripped onto the can over the years, and it had undefined chunks on it. I don't know how long it had been there. Because of the heat of July, I would try to sleep half the day, work in the evening, and then stay up late. (Ah, self-directed labor.) Because of the lack of running water, I had to drive 20 miles, half of it over almost impassable roads, to fill my jugs with potable water.
One day, I woke up, dry of mouth. The sun was full in my face, and it was past noon. I'd been suffering a stuffy nose, due to the dust, and slept with my mouth open; my tongue was like cotton. The thermometer said that it was just about 100 degrees, and rising. I checked the jug. Empty. I went out to the truck, to check my canteen. Empty. So. Very. Dry. I checked the fridge, and found the beer. I was a good 17 year-old. I really hadn't been drinking. I drank the beer, and it was the nastiest wake-up drink I'd ever put in my mouth. I didn't touch beer until...
Freshman year at U.T.
Let's just say that some abuse occurred, none of which endeared me to beer.
Then I went to UNT, and met some guys who liked good beer. I was impressed that they actually LIKED beer, for more than just getting drunk or cooling off on a hot day. We put together a party that October that mostly surrounded a keg of Guinness Extra Stout, called, predictably enough, "Guinnesscide."
I met my future wife there.
On about our third or fourth date, my Future Wife and I decided to see Good Foot (a funk band) play. Because it is best to dance when seeing funk bands, and because my wife was a little inhibited, she suggested that we purchase a six-pack of beer and consume same before going to the show. That was about where my appreciation for beer really was back then. I could drink it, but didn't have much love for it. It was cheap, and cold.
Four months later, however, I'd started to find that, strangely, some beers were beginning to interest me, while others still seemed skunky. I walked into a local brew shop, and the purveyor educated me on why, while managing to sell me a kit to brew my first five gallons of beer-- a pilsner.
True beer, she informed me, had four components, each of which changes the flavor. The necessity of purity had driven the Germans 500 years before to pass a law called Reinheitsgebot, which dictated that only three ingredients could be placed in beer: 1. Barley malt. 2. Water. 3. Hops. In the 19th century, the yeast was discovered, and now that too may be added. The sediment layer of yeast from one beer is moved to the next batch of wurt. She added that the fifth ingredient was sanitation, explaining that lack of cleanliness created Bad Things.
This and many other chats opened my eyes. You could use boughten spring water to make beer. You could use fresh or frozen fresh hop flowers to bitter and preserve your beer. You could add more or less barley malt, and buy different grades of it, roasted to different colors. You could add special hops that added almost no bitterness, but added aroma. You could get different strains of yeasts, to provide different yeasty flavors or lack of them. You could add more or less sugar at the end of the fermentation at bottling, to make the beer more carbonated or less carbonated. (Sparkling or still.) You could add a LOT of malt and yeast, and make it really alcoholic, or back it way down, and just make it a light summer drinking beer. You could even add a lot of malt, but stop the yeast halfway through their fermentation, so that the flavor was sweeter, and then change the off-setting bitterness by the amount of hops put in, and the duration that they were left in the boil.
It was like finding out that the train that you've been riding down the tracks is actually capable of doing aerial acrobatics, if you wanted it to. I did.
So I made up some batches. Some were okay, a couple were notably bad. I never got a mash infusion system (that's how the big boys did it), in which one actually takes grain and removes the malt right there in the pot. I always used extracts-- usually malt powder. I would put a little extra grain in some cloth and put that into the pot during the boil, to add a flavor or texture that I wanted. (For example, 4 oz of cara-pils grain in a boil adds nice lacing to the glass and a stiffer head to the beer.) I would make up little 5 and 2.5gallon batches, and drink them with friends. I even sent a few off to competitions, but never took better than third in my category. (Beer connoisseur Michael Jackson gave me a third place ribbon for a peach cream ale that I made.)
I was in the brew shop so much, the lady who owned it would sometimes pay me to mind the shop when she had to be out. I was expected to bring in my own home brews and drink them at the shop while on duty. God, that was a great job.
I finally pretty much gave up home-brewing. I still have the stuff, but haven't done much of it in years. Oh, there have been a few. When I got married, we brewed 10 gallons of good easy-drinking beer, and even non-beer drinkers enjoyed it. I managed to snag one half-cup of it, in between shaking hands and meeting people; it was good, and went great with the barbecue.
Now, I treat myself to boughten beers of different styles, from different cultures around the world, the country, and the state. I used to be something of a snob-- Only imports. Only microbreweries. But there are some great large-batch beers made very, very well. In fact, as my friend and professional brewer John Morrison had learned at the Seibel Institute, common Budweiser, "The King Of Beers," is technically a perfect beer... it just doesn't have enough flavor. (That's where corn and rice and stuff other than barely will get you!)
What surprises me is the popularity of beer, given its inherent complexity. Very few people like their first beer, yet most enjoy it later in life. I wonder if that has to do with the development of the palette? As I alluded to earlier, even foods which are made exactly the same way as I loved them made as a child now taste too sweet, typically. Could it be that most people grow to embrace the bitterness of the hops, and subtle sweetness of the malt? Interesting. It reminds me of how, as a child, I had hated raw tomatoes, but, around age 10 or 11, I discovered that there is no better thing than a vine-ripened raw tomato. (My elder daughter, as I suppose I should by now expect, is ahead of me; she turned the corner from hatred to love of raw 'maters at age 8.75, this summer.)
For whatever reason, socially beer has been thought of as the drink of the common man, and thus receives a lower status than wine or spirits. Some of this may stem from the quickness with which the beverage is made: one may go from grain to a top-end beer in well under a month using the slow traditional methods, and in about two weeks using the modern methods. Wine, on the other hand, may take a year or more to finish, with the faster versions finishing in a few months. Probably the ingredients are cheaper for beer than wine. While good hops are costly, they comprise only a small part of the overall volume of what goes into a mashing ton or a fermenting vat. Barley malt is just the byproduct of grain, and is easily produced, and dissolved into... water! By far the greatest part of beer is water, which is quite a bit less expensive than grape juice to come by. Because beer requires no distillation, it's easily understandable that it's less expensive, ounce per ounce, than the cheapest rotgut whiskey.
Because of its popularity and cheapness, companies have moved from the traditional methods of shipping it (kegs, bottles) to the modern cans. Some major innovations had to take place to make the humble beer can a viable option. Because of the high proportion of can surface area to the product, it is very easy to detect the metallic flavor that the cans impart to beer, if something isn't done to prevent it. What's been done, virtually throughout the industry, is to line the metal with a thin layer of plastic to prevent the beer from touching the aluminum. Surprisingly, this works pretty well, with only the purists claiming that they can taste the difference.
Brewing is a fairly popular home art. Under U.S. law, without any licenses, a single brewer may make 100 gallons a year, or 200 gallons per household, so long as he or she does not sell it. Why the cap at 200 gallons? Because beyond that they figure that you're selling it, and if you're selling it, they want to tax the unholy Hell out of it. The U.S. government has a particularly high tax set for that sinful old beer. Interestingly, though, traditional lore is that brewmeisters are exempt from the draft. (I've never been able to establish if this is actually true, or mere myth.) I made my first batches before I was 21. I was legal to buy the materials, and legal to put them together, but at some point along the line, I became a minor in possession of five gallons of an alcoholic beverage.
In my recent move, I transported many 7.5 gallon vessels, 5, 6, and 2.75 gallon carboys, cases of bottles, bottle racks, siphons, hoses, brewpots, bottle brushes, etc. My wife rolled her eyes-- it's been a couple of years since my last beer, and longer since my last successful one. But it's an old hobby of mine, and I still think of myself as a brewer, I suppose, so I keep the stuff.
Maybe I'll craft another one, soon. . .