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Charlie Hatton
Brookline, MA

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Howdy, friendly reading person!
I'm on a bit of a hiatus right now, but only to work on other projects -- one incredibly exciting example being the newly-released kids' science book series Things That Make You Go Yuck!
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Trouble Brewing

There are lots of perks to brewing your own beer. I’ve been told this for years. I’ve been told there are ‘perks’ to lots of things that involve hours of backbreaking work, funky smells and massive cleanup efforts. Brewing beer, getting a gym membership, owning a parakeet, childbirth — you name it. But when I can get most of the perks without the pain — by walking down the block for a six-pack, say, or not having a uterus installed — then I’m just fine not making the effort, thanks.

Except. Brewing my own beer always sounded pretty damned cool. And unlike the bird or kid or gym commitment, if I screw it up I’m only paying for it for a few weeks, until the beer is gone. Not umpteen years until the thing dies or goes off to college or the scars finally heal.

So I always had ‘brewing my own beer’ firmly on the ‘maybe someday…’ list. If not for the parts about hard work and buying special expensive equipment and having to clean used crap for fourteen hours afterward, I’d have probably brewed my own beer a long time ago.

(Also, scuba diving. That’s another one. And learning the harpsichord. And making my own fireworks.

So many things on the ‘maybe someday…’ list — whose full name, of course, is ‘maybe someday, if only I can half-ass my way through it and enjoy instant success with no particular effort or sacrifice’.

So, so many things.)

I had pretty much resigned myself to the awful, just ghastly fate of drinking relatively inexpensive and tasty fermented beverages made only by other people, who are experts in the field. The horror.

That’s when a friend turned me on to a place nearby that lets you come in and brew beer, right on the premises. He laid it out like a veritable alcoholic fairy tale:

You show up and they shove a recipe at you and let you loose on their equipment, with their supplies and ingredients, and then you leave. And a couple weeks later, you come back and bottle your stuff, and that’s it. No muss, no fuss — you pay them a few bucks for the time, and take your beer home.

I was skeptical. I mean, it sounded too good to be true — and I’ve been hurt before. I once believed that some fat rosy-cheeked guy in a red suit traveled all over the world delivering presents to children of all ages. And we all know how that turned out.

(That’s right. Captain Kangaroo eventually up and fricking died, so who’s delivering those presents now, eh? Gordon from Sesame Street? Mailman McFeely? That squat little engineer bastard from Conjunction Junction?

Yeah, I don’t think so. Growing up’s a bitch, man. All your oversized-lapelled heroes die in the end.)

But my buddy assured me it was as simple as it sounded — a couple of hours following the recipe, and later on a couple of hours bottling the product. Minimal washing, no equipment to buy, and a reasonable price per case of beer at the end. Also, you get to drink while you’re doing it — suck that, scuba diving and firework tamping — so where’s the problem?

I couldn’t find one. So I signed up for a brew session with him.

“I don’t know anything about sterilizing bottles. What do we have to do — inject chemicals into their little bottle testicles? Make them ride tiny glass bicycles in too-tight spandex shorts?”

To his credit, he was right — the place had all the kettles, cups, paddles, scales and carboys needed for the job. We went in empty-handed after work one day, and left around nine having brewed an enormous batch of beer. I had more trouble following the directions on my GPS to get there than following the recipe they gave us. Fifty grams of this stuff, a hundred grams of that — cook, stir, pour, stir, measure and dump some pellets at the end, and we were done. I don’t know what the hell we did, exactly, or how our recipe for oatmeal stout differed from one for pale ale or hefeweisen or Vicks 44 cough syrup. But it wasn’t hard, and that made me happy.

I spent the next two weeks with visions of sugar stouts dancing in my head.

When the big bottling day came, we got to the place and got down to business. My buddy brought several cases of empty bottles, and told me we needed to sterilize them.

That sounds complicated, I said. I don’t know anything about sterilizing bottles. What do we have to do — inject chemicals into their little bottle testicles? Make them ride tiny glass bicycles in too-tight spandex shorts? This is where it all falls apart, isn’t it? IT’S CAPTAIN KANGAROO ALL OVER AGAIN!

He calmly pointed out the industrial dishwasher sitting a few feet away, called me an idiot, and we loaded the bottles. Ten minutes later, we had several cases of detoxed bottles ready to be filled with fresh stouty goodness.

What’s more, this place even had bottling machines. I had envisioned a nightmare of funnels and siphon hoses and spillover foam up to our haunches into the wee hours of the morning. Instead, these slick little devices did most of the trick, and with minimal mess. And when they did make a mess, we weren’t mostly the ones cleaning it up. Double score!

We were out of there, as promised, maybe two hours after we arrived, with several cases of the good stuff split between us. We tried to be respectful and not make an unnecessary mess, but between the filthy kettles and bottlers and counter tops and glassware that we didn’t have to clean before or after ourselves, we got off easy. I’ve had more hassle making a sandwich in my own kitchen than we experienced at the brewing house.

All in all, I can highly recommend brewing your own beer, provided ‘your own’ involves going to someone else’s place, making them buy all the shit you need, prepping it for you, storing the product while its cooking, and washing up all the nasty yeast-encrusted crap after you’ve finished up and gone home.

(That’s also the way that bachelor parties and Tupperware galas should operate, too, as far as I’m concerned. But one thing at a time, here.)

So what’s the downside? Well, that’s what I found out tonight. I’ve sampled a couple of the beers since our brew-venture, and they’ve tasted quite good. Of course, I’ve had the beer in various different situations — with food, by itself, fully sober, on top of one or three of its friends — so it’s difficult to know how consistent the product has been, bottle to bottle.

Which brings me to tonight, and the cap I popped on the latest container. I poured it into a glass, as usual, took my usual spot in the ass-print on my couch, and took my first delectable sip of…

Hey. That tastes… different, somehow.

Or does it? I’ve only had a few of these, and it’s — obviously — a ‘small-batch’ operation. There’s no way I could know exactly what this beer is objectively supposed to taste like. It’s a nonsense question.

On the other hand, it does — if memory serves, and memory is kind of a drunken idiot sometimes — taste different than before. In most cases, I’d take that as a bad sign. I’ve drunk my share of Guinness, for instance. And if I’m served a Guinness that smells or tastes different — like stale beer or soap or faintly of almonds — then I know there’s something wrong. The beer sat in the tap line too long, or the dishwasher’s not rinsing properly, or the bartender girl has finally decided to lace my beer with cyanide.

(It’s understandable, really. Some bartenders draw little smiley faces or shamrocks in the top of the foam when they finish a Guinness pour. I’ve asked her for a little something ‘extra’ — most recently, Edward Munch’s The Scream.

It’s only a matter of time until I’m stuffed behind the empty kegs in the basement.)

But what does a ‘different’ taste mean with this beer? It’s not bad, palate-wise. Just not what I remember from the last couple of bottles. Is it variation in the batch? Burned-out taste buds? A bout of ergot poisoning blooming in the malted barley? Yeast infections?

I have no idea. With homemade beer — or as close as this is, anyway — I don’t know what to expect. Consistency is for large corporations with quality control measures, and for people who know what the hell they added to the kettle to make the magic happy juice they’re drinking. Me, I just followed some recipe and left a bunch of dirty dishes to be washed.

So maybe this beer is fine. And maybe in another hour or two, I’ll be blind or dead or hallucinating that the ghost of Captain Kangaroo is riding his magic zombie ‘roo-led sleigh to come and take me to his workshop at the North Pole, or South Pole, or inside the Sydney Opera House for all I know. Either way, I’m still drinking it. Because I brewed this beer, damn it — and didn’t break a sweat doing it.

And if I can’t drink to that, then what the hell’s left to drink to, eh? I might as well buy a fricking parakeet.

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