Tuesday, 28 February 2012

A short history

Back at school – not university, please note – I was something of a keen amateur brewer.  My mother was simply uninterested in anything I was doing, and when I told her that I needed some garage space for a chemistry experiment she told me not to spill anything.  My father paid as little attention until the first products of my brewing emerged, and then he suddenly became my chief advisor and co-conspirator, happily telling my mother that we were working on a science-fair project together and finding reasons why he should go to the garage instead of her on those rare occasions that she needed something we kept out there.  I think she did start to wonder a little when he told her that her car would be living out on the driveway for the future, and I can remember her sniffing the air one summer's afternoon and asking the world in general why the whole street seemed to smell like a brewery, but otherwise she kept herself blissfully unaware of my little endeavours.
My first beer was hoppy and malty and not really all that nice, though my father considered its availability and cheapness to be its redeeming features.  I tasted it and thought I'd got it all wrong.  He tasted it, and started to teach me what I needed to know to make the kind of beer that he liked.  I had four more attempts before we nailed it though, producing a beer with a slightly toasty-wheaty taste to it, a hoppy nose that didn't make you feel sick by the third sip, and a good amber colour that seemed to make my father happy all by itself.  Once we'd got that one I had to extend my brewing set-up a little so that there was always another barrel of that on the go.
After that I got a little more adventurous, trying fruit-flavoured Belgian-style beers and selling them at school.  I got a small amount of interest from my class-mates, but a lot more from several of the more tweedy teachers, and for a few months I was making a small, but pleasant, profit from my brewing.
Then the chemistry teacher pulled me aside and spent an hour and a half making sure that I understood the  basic principles of hot and cold distillations and made me assure him that I wasn't thinking about using these ideas on my home-brew in order to produce spirits, because there would be licensing implications if I did.  I thought about everything he'd said on the way home in a taxi (I was, I think I mentioned, making a useful profit from my brewing) and extended my set-up again.
My first whiskey was strong and raw, and when my father came out to find out why I couldn't stop coughing and tried it himself, his opinion was that I needed more practise, less filtration, and that he should look after the bottle himself.  I reduced the filtration and got a honey-coloured liquid back instead of a crystal-clear one, and managed to get something that only made my eyes water when I tried drinking it.  It turned out that I could command quite a premium from that, and soon I was getting picked up and dropped off by taxis every day, and even my mother couldn't fail to notice that.
"Where are you getting the money for this from?" she demanded, cornering me in the kitchen while I was raiding the vegetable bin for vegetables that were old enough to not be wanted for tea and yet still in good enough condition to ferment into alcohol.  I thought hard while I dropped carrots and avoided her gaze.  She would almost certainly want to put a stop to anything I suggested.
"Prostitution," I said, trying to look ashamed.  "I've been going on dates with older women...."
I was grounded for the next six months, and I had to remember to tell the taxi-drivers to pick me up and drop me off round the corner so that my mother didn't see them any more.
Curiously enough it was university that brought my brewing to and end.  My student accommodation was too far from home for regular visits, and too cramped for me to realistically set up another set-up.  Having a room-mate who was muslim for the first year didn't help me either (curiously, he was only muslim for his first year, and it was only during my first year that I had a muslim room-mate) as he was having trouble overcoming his upbringing and religion, though he was enthusiastic about learning what the alternatives were.  And my father, attempting to brew more of his favourite beer, accidentally set the whole lot on fire and had to throw several cans of petrol into the garage to make sure that the fire-brigade didn't succeed in putting it out until all the evidence had been consumed.
The only survivor of the blaze was the wild yeast I'd brought with me to university as a culture, so I picked it up and used it to start a sourdough culture and make bread.

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