Saturday, July 31, 2010

I Don't Care If It Hurts, I Wanna Have Control

In 2009, I made my first beer the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. It was a kit "Pale Ale" that sure-handedly delivered the Homebrewer's Epiphany, to wit, this shit ain't hard! From powders and syrups, fire and water, forty-odd bottles of malty, bitter quaff that no one would mistake for Sierra Nevada--in a good way or a bad way. Ten ales later the extract brewing process is automatic if not somnambulant, recipes make enough sense that I can twist them when they're begging for it, and the beers have gotten better.

There is more to do: kegging, lagering, all-grain, expansion. I just pitched my first yeast from a propagated starter. Contamination roulette, to hear it from the microbiologists. For three days a pair of loose-lidded growlers waited in my refrigerator, to the left a soggy carton of buttermilk, to the right a sourdough culture eager to make lactobacillic friends. When the moment arrived I sprayed grain alcohol on the vessels' mouths, ignited it, shook the bejeebus out of the yeast slurry, and let the wort have it.

Two weeks later it's fermented, conditioning, settling like a slo-mo snow globe. Nothing has gone wrong so all I can do is wait. Much of this is waiting. After a fury of labor when every thirty seconds dangles another chance to fuck up, I surrender the process to an army of millions. Get 'em, boys. At this point there are a hundred decisions I could have made differently--maybe better, definitely worse. But even if each was made with teutonic precision, what's to guarantee a nimble acetobacter won't slither into the fermenter just before I seal it?

The answer, obviously, is nothing. And nothing can guarantee the yeast I mail-ordered from Scottsdale last week will arrive alive. And nothing short of buying or building a mini-fridge will permanently put my mind at ease about the health of my homebrews during this infernal summer. Thinking about the beers between brewday and drinkday invariably leads to neg-head worrying, yet it somehow always works out (knock on cask). So it usually is with this sort of procedure that's theoretically delicate, but where nature seems to have your back.

I'll continue to do this because I want to imagine a beer and then drink it a month later exactly as it tasted in my mind. It never will, but by then I'll have forgotten enough of my initial vision that it won't matter. Assurance is knowing the gear was clean, the hops were fresh, the boil was strong, the vibes were good. If each brew session reveals the location of a new button I can or can't press, a new string I can or can't pull next time, I'm happy enough to follow in the dance for now. It's for that moment when the yeast is pitched and I decide to let cleanup wait a half-hour so I can drink one more from the last batch, leaving my footprints engraved on the kitchen floor in a sticky lacquer of wort.

Recent notables:
  • Paul Autard Chateauneuf-du-Pape "Juline" 2006: Grenache, Syrah, why bother with thirteen grapes when two will do? Purple and viscous with herby and tea-like aromas balancing huge red and black berries. Still some young tannins and finishes with the warmth you'd expect from a 15% Rhone bruiser.
  • Chateau Carbonnieux 1988: Acidity is at the forefront now for this one, having likely left its fruit in the Clinton years. Hay and dry grass emerge on the nose, with faint raspberry. Texturally on the toothless side, but there's still enough balance to make it worth drinking.
  • Sierra Nevada "Bigfoot" Barleywine Style Ale: Translucent copper-red color. Smells caramelly with pungent fruity notes. Intense hops lend a substantially bitter counterpoint to the residual sugar. Surprisingly food-friendly.