Thursday, December 23, 2010


Those who read this blog will note (if you even come by anymore!) that there has been a dearth of posts for the past year. I've been busy and frankly, have too much to do to post my thoughts in a blog these days. I did experience some special moments lately though that prompted me to write the following. If you read it and find that it may describe some similar feelings you may have with regard to beer and brewing, I would appreciate a response. Life takes us all on many different journeys but our common humanity never ceases to surprise me. There really is no new thing under the sun, as the Preacher sayeth. Merry Christmas to all!

In July, 2000, I began homebrewing. My wife bought the kit for me as a present from my sons, Michael and Andrew. It has been the greatest hobby I could have imagined. I've made so many great beers and so many great friends through this hobby, I really can't properly explain the joys it has given me and the gratitude I have for my wife for buying the kit that started it all on Father's Day of that year. I had brewed 19 beers by January 2nd, 2002. I brewed a kit beer that day from Things Beer. It was an English Barley Wine Ale called "Bear Ass Barley Wine". Original gravity was 1.118. Seven ounces of hops in five gallons of beer, it was a dark, heavy monster of a beer and I really enjoyed it. I doled it out on special occasions and saved as much as was humanly possible of that woefully small, five gallon batch until-in summer of 2004- I had only one bottle of it left.

Then disaster struck my family. My oldest son Michael, just out of High School, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. He underwent a year of treatment and cleared the hurdles making him "cancer-free". I told him I would save that bottle of beer so we could share it five years down the road when he had been the obligatory five years cancer-free. Things being busy as they often are, the deadline came and went, and the Barley Wine sat on the shelf in my basement.

A couple of months ago Michael went to see about some pain he had in his neck and was told there was a growth in his thyroid. Immediately, all of the cancer fears came back! Extreme fear and paranoia gripped us all as we worried about the return of this killer to our home. I went to the doctor for a checkup and after several trips for follow-ups and specialist visits was told I had prostate cancer!

The lone bottle of Bear Ass Barley Wine sat patiently on the shelf.

Today, we went to the oncologist's office so he could give us his reading of the PET Scan Michael had a week ago. PET Scans are very expensive tests which show the presence of cancer cells in the body. We received the best news possible from Dr. Bikina: no cancer was found at all!

I decided on the drive home that we should celebrate the good news. I asked Michael if he felt like sharing the Barley Wine with me and he agreed it was the perfect occasion. We decided to toast that good fortune while we were thinking of it and were positive in our outlooks. I rushed downstairs to the cool basement and picked the bottle off the shelf, literally brushing off cobwebs in the process.

Now, I have brewed about seventy beers since I made that Barley Wine Ale back in 2002, and I really didn't know what to expect. I was a novice brewer and a novice taster of beers at the time. I do remember thinking it was something quite special (but, frankly, my family can tell you that I think that of most of my beers!). I cracked the bottle and there was no noise at all. I remember it being lightly carbonated when it was fresh but it was not carbonated now...Still, perhaps it tasted good. I poured it off into two Sam Adams glasses for Michael and me. A quick swirl and a sniff told me I wouldn't be disappointed!

The beer was very dark brown but could still be said to be very clear. The yeast cake at the bottom of the bottle was solid and did not move as I poured off the second glass and emptied the contents of the bottle. There were definite ruby-red highlights in the nominally brown beer. Holding it up to the lights, it was possible to see that the beer was clear but not quite possible to see through it.

It smelled very "sherry-like" at first, then a distinct black cherry aroma came through. Coffee and chocolate rounded out the smells that hinted at my first sip. No hops were noticeable in the nose. The first sip was loaded with sherry notes combined with a strong character of stone fruits. Black and tart cherries came most to mind, though plums would not be a bad description, either. There was a definite sweetness to this very strong beer (it finished at 1.028 in specific gravity), though it was decidedly tart in the finish. To round out the flavor profile of this complex beer, a very smooth and flavorful coffee and semi-sweet chocolate character emerged in the warming. I also detected a satisfying crisp, nutty finish.

Michael said it was the most complex beer he'd ever tasted. I can't in all honestly say that, myself (the beers and the years are piled much too high for me, in that regard) but it certainly was a special moment for us both. Andrew tried a taste and agreed it was most delicious. My wife, smelled it and passed on the tasting, shaking her head at the overblown importance we placed on the flavors and nuances of something so mundane as a beer(even a nearly nine year old beer!).

Oh, she "gets it". She's tried many a micro- and homebrew and has a pretty darned good palate for the stuff. It just isn't her passion, as it is mine. And that's fine. She knows that it's not the beer or even the appreciation of it that makes this enjoyable for me. It's always about the sharing and the camaraderie that beer brings.

I believe the prostate cancer was caught very early and will be completely excised in my upcoming operation. Michael has something going on in his thyroid that will need attention but at least it's not cancer. We have our share of health and family issues to deal with like most everyone else, I'm sure. Those things can be put aside for the Holiday season, to make way for happier times, with the "C" word (mostly) out of the picture. As I await my surgery in January, and enjoy a festive Christmas season with family and friends, I contemplate these things that make us happy and content. A warm house and family and friends enjoying laughs and conversation with a craft brewed beer or a cup of eggnog seems simple but combined they create the warm memories that we cherish through the years. It's the family and friends that really make these moments special. Still, mine will probably always include a beer...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day 2010

In May, 2000, I lost my father after a sudden heart attack. He was 71. He was a classic tough guy. A John Wayne type man who took no shit from anybody but had a great sense of humor. He was insensitive and tough on his kids but he loved them and worked his ass off for all of us. As little kids, when we would fall down and scrape a knee or something, my Dad would always yell at us, "Come here and I'll help you up"! Life is a complex mix of differences, isn't it? Many times my father said very hurtful things to me and let me know in no uncertain terms that I was either a blithering idiot or a sissy of the first magnitude. I also know he did these things to all of us kids, so it wasn't just me. A simple, disgusted look was enough to make me feel about as insignificant as a dog turd.

Conversely, he was a good father to us all, treating his step-children as his own and helping us all through any problems we may have come across. I remember him working on one of my cars after a breakdown one Winter, when I couldn't believe he could continue to use his hands, since mine were frozen solid! He forged ahead and got 'er done! Perseverance and strength were probably his best attributes.

I tried to emulate him as much as possible growing up and, when my children came along, in raising my own. That was probably a mistake. I was never as tough as he nor as persistent. On the other hand, I tell my kids how much I love them more in one week than I heard from my father in my lifetime. Our relationship was just that way.

As he aged and dealt with grandchildren and retirement, he mellowed considerably. Like a big Winter Warmer, he lost much of the sharp edges and heat and what was left was sweet, complex and satisfying. He was a doting grandfather to my sister's kids, who lived with him, for the most part, and was always well-loved by my two boys. Just before he died, I went down to "the hills" to visit him and tried to convince him to go to the doctor, since I had been told he was having heart troubles but was too stubborn to do anything about it. I took my two sons with me and we had a nice visit. He assured me he would go to the doctor and get checked out. We left believing everything would be fine that April weekend. On May 18, he died suddenly in his sleep.

I learned a lot from my father and I think I miss him more now than ever before. Even though one thinks normally that a son benefits most from a father in his formative years, I believe I would appreciate my father's guidance now, at 53 years of age, than perhaps ever before. I've had many expectations during this journey and almost none of them have turned out as scripted. Is that a problem? I'd guess my Dad would say that it isn't. You deal with things as they come at you because the script is always under re-write.

In June of that year, my lovely wife got me a Father's Day gift. I know it was from the boys but she is the person who picked it out and bought it for me. My sons were a part of the process, to be sure, but the idea and effort came from my wife. It was a beer brewing kit. I had admired the idea after a friend had gotten one. He made a couple of batches and dropped it like a hot rock. I, on the other hand, found the new hobby to be fascinating and very rewarding. I brewed a simple pale ale which came out pretty darned good, and the rest is history.

Along the years, my kids learned to indulge Daddy's hobby interests. They both learned to siphon and bottle beer (whereas, my Dad taught me to siphon gasoline!) and to taste and determine what a good beer is and why. This may not be something that wins me the Responsible Father of the Year Award but you take it as it comes, right? My kids were drinking and enjoying-responsibly-fine craft brews before they were teenagers. At 25 and 23 neither drinks more than a beer a month. They aren't all that fond of the stuff!

We script our lives for success (what the hell is that?), wealth (again, what?), the cars and homes we dream of and all that jazz, but it is health, love, relationships and memories that truly make us happy and satisfied. I could die penniless and homeless and be a happy fellow, simply because my life has been interesting, varied, and full of loving and happy family and friends.

My kids have their entire lives ahead of them. They have made plenty of mistakes and probably will make plenty more but they WILL learn from them. Well, my kids could probably benefit from some of my Dad's tough love. When they fail at something it hurts and I feel for them as much as for myself. I want the best for them in life. Isn't that what every father wants? I may have spoiled 'em a bit but they turned out to be good people and that is what really counts, isn't it? I think my father would agree. Priorities shift and success keeps morphing.

Lately I've been thinking I've fallen down and can't really find my footing. Then, in the back of my mind I hear, "Come here and I'll help you up"! I see my Dad with that shit-eating grin on his face and I know that all is right with the world.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Doing Deutschland!

Over the past couple of months I've been visiting Germany in my beermaking. I purchased some German malts and hops and decided to make a series of German beers with the same yeast. I started with the Munich Dunkel style. This is a moderately light-flavored beer, medium copper to dark brown in color, with a decidedly sweet, falavorful malt character. Very little hop flavor or bitterness is perceived and the beer is fairly easy to quaff, though it is a showcase for rich, flavorful Munich malt.

I decided to build a bigger beer on top of this yeast when the beer finished and settled on the Traditional Bock beer. This is the classic German liquid bread originating in Einbeck. Nearly as dark as the Munich Dunkel but much heavier and maltier, this beer is a showcase again of the toasty, bready Munich and Vienna malts. Caramel, chocolate, toasted bread and delicious crusty flavors abound in this classic beer.

Finally, after thinking long and hard about making a doppelbock on the yeast of the bock, I decided to go with a lighter, more drinkable (though certainly no less flavorful or interesting) beer and settled on the little-known style of Dortmunder Export. This beer is similar to a malty Helles but with some of the hop character of a German Pilsner. A very tasty, maltier, heavier version of the German Pils would probably be a good description. It came out a bit strong for the style but the flavor and the clean character the yeast provides it masks this a bit.

So we began our German trip in Munich, making a beer that originated in that city and flourished all over Bavaria. This dark (dunkel) beer is malty, toasty and delicious! From Munich we headed to Einbeck (near Hannover), the birthplace of the great, Traditional Bock beer. This beer was much appreciated in Munich and actually was adopted by that area and is now fairly considered to be a Bavarian beer. Big, malty and strong, it is a great warmer for the Bavarian winters! We finished our trip in the manufacturing city of Dortmund, where the style of Dortmunder Export was born. A substantial beer for working men, it is thirst-quenching and strong.

My three German lagers were fun to make, delicious to drink and a kick to share with friends and family! Where do I go next?