I grew up with limited exposure to beer and alcohol. I remember seeing a few neighbors drink it while doing yard work, and I remember “Wally the Beer Man” hawking his wares during Minnesota Twins games at the HHH Metrodome in Minneapolis while I was growing up. His call of, “Beer here! Get your beer here!” is one of the more odd memories of my childhood.
No one I went to Twins games with bought beer from Wally or his. We were there for the game.
I do remember a few times running through the stands, collecting the plastic collector cups to bring home. I also remember being revolted by the smell of the cups that had held beer rather than soda. At the time, I don’t think I even knew the smell was beer, I just knew I didn’t like it.
White & Nerdy
Sometime around 9th or 10th grade, I became aware of the fact some other young adults at my school spent a lot of time thinking about and pursuing alcohol. I didn’t really care, since it wasn’t part of my life except for the occasional caramel sauce that had enough whiskey in it to add a unique flavor.
I was never in the popular group, and I don’t remember ever being invited to a party where alcohol was served. My friends were active in sports, theater, and speech. I did theater, speech, and worked most weekends from the time I was in 7th grade.
I did try sports in junior high, but quit mid-football season in 9th grade because I got in to an accelerated math program. The whole team thing was weird, but I did start snowboarding in 1989.
High school never included alcohol for me.
Nope. I can’t say I remember going to any college parties. Freshman year, I was focused on my grades, working in the computer labs, and trying to make sure I was active enough on-campus to have things on my resume to qualify to become a resident assistant to save on room & board.
I remember seeing lots of people suffering the results of over-consuming alcohol, but I didn’t even have an interest in going out when I turned 21. I think a coworker bought me a beer at lunch the week after I turned 21. It was fine, but it was a mass market Pilsner. This was the first time I wasn’t revolted by the smell of beer, but I wasn’t on fire to have another one either.
The following summer, I remember having a single Natural Light with a hurried dinner after working out with a friend. It was fine, but didn’t really do anything to pique my interest. I think I drank two glasses of water in the same time period I drank a single can of beer.
Sometime the next year, one of my roommates told me, “You think you don’t like beer because you haven’t had real beer yet.” And he handed me a Samuel Adams Cream Stout. As a coffee lover, the blast of bittersweet chocolate, hints of coffee, and a distinctive flavor I couldn’t yet recognize drew me in. He was correct; I hadn’t had real beer.
After that, I explored “microbrews”. (Really, it was a thing in the 1990s. Basically, it was the hoighty-toighty beer.) You know: Leinenkugel’s Berry Weiss, Killian’s Irish Red, and several varieties brewed by Samuel Adams.
Over time, I came to realize that the unique flavors I was experiencing in beers were the hops and yeast-derived flavors combining to create experiences I’d never had before. I strongly gravitated toward dark beers because they were built on a base of bready sweetness, mild hop bitterness, and flavors I loved in coffee and chocolate.
The Doors Blow Open
After focusing on beers that fell in to fairly sweet profile for many years, I found out beer could be made at home. A co-worker had a bunch of us over to brew a batch of beer on his stovetop. It completely blew my mind. I remember only a couple of us actually cared about participating in each step of the process, but seeing the process start to finish probably changed my life.
Seeing the brewing process, then eventually tasting the finished product, ignited my interest in beer in a way I didn’t expect. I started cooking at a young age, and I could see the potential for flavor exploration in brewing.
Even though I wouldn’t start brewing on my own for nearly a decade, I read The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, and sought out beers made by local breweries to dissect their flavors and try to understand how they were created.
When I did start brewing, my first beer was a kit for Russian Imperial Stout. It reflected my love of dark beers with a bready sweetness that didn’t cross into being cloying.
My brother and I brewed a beer that didn’t turn out well because I didn’t manage the fermentation properly.
I think I brewed a couple 5-gallon extract batches that turned out well, and started accumulating things to brew all-grain. A turkey fryer burner, a horribly inefficient grain mill, a rectangular cooler, and the wrong type of pvc piping (it warped when hot water hit it).
My wife and kids will attest to the fact I went a little nutty about beer. The consumption was the least important part for me, but the excitement of exploring recipes, techniques, and flavors held my interest. It wasn’t enough for me just to focus on the brewing, I was able to tie so much of the process into unrelated activities.
Talking about the importance of being careful with math problems was the same as weighing and measuring accurately. The fact that many things didn’t happen as fast as you wanted them illustrated the importance of patience with managing fermentation. A new dinner recipe might include a spice or herb that would nicely complement a recent batch of beer.
Making and enjoying beer is a lot of fun for those of us who enjoy the process and pursuit of a great flavor profile.
Let’s brew up an adventure!