The Long and Winding Road… to Beer
August 27, 2012 § Leave a comment
I have spent most of my life having very little affinity to alcohol. I have often seen it abused; however, although alcohol is a “drug,” it does not have to be used as one. Drinks containing alcohol have existed throughout human history, and they do not always represent harbingers and facilitators of sinful acts. Rather, these beverages are often an accompaniment to social gatherings and aid the building of community through their relaxing properties that help to disassemble our stand-offish and anxious ways.
Don’t misunderstand me: I do not intend to pontificate on the virtues of alcoholic beverages or preach the gospel of beer geekdom, wine snobbery, and cocktail mixevangelism (at least, not yet). I readily admit that my palate is not at all refined, and most of what I write will illustrate how little I know. However, I hope to learn more, explore, and share my enjoyment with anyone who is bored enough to read these posts or friendly enough to visit our home brewery.
Barriers to Drinking Beer: More than just a thick head
First of all, my ethnic background (Asian) does not necessarily encourage a regular alcohol consumption habit. Lacking sufficient aldehyde dehydrogenase, drinking too many alcoholic beverages (or too high an alcohol content in a single beverage) is a surefire recipe for an instantaneous hangover (pretty much the same effect as Antabuse/disulfiram, a medication used to trigger early hangovers in alcoholics). This is not to say that the people of the country of my ancestral origin do not drink alcohol: China is, in fact, a major consumer of beer and grower of hops (the flower used to add flavor, aroma, and bitterness to beer). Nonetheless, my parents consumed very little alcohol, and so alcohol had little presence in our household.
Secondly, I grew up in New Orleans, a city that at first I thought seemed “European” in its approach to alcohol. That is to say: start early. I initially naively thought that the omnipresence of alcohol might temper the temptation of the “forbidden fruit” and associated acts of desperation to acquire it and subsequent binging when found. However, this notion seemed to be lost on many. Many young people would show up at bars (with fake IDs, if needed) as early as age 13 or 14 (provided their age looked sufficiently ambiguous). At one high school graduation party, several members of the graduating class and the parents of a classmate tried to goad a poor 12 year old younger brother into performing a keg stand in front of this inebriated audience (after both parents had already done keg stands in front of the crowd). The 12 year old boy looked horrified, and to his credit, he ran away from the scene. Needless to say, I was disgusted, as were most of my friends. It’s not that we hated alcohol, but we hated how people used it to make themselves stupid.
Lastly, my college experience was relatively tame with respect to alcohol compared to the experience of most other American college graduates. There were no official fraternity or sorority houses until relatively late in my college career. There certainly was alcohol around, but this was moderated in public spaces by Puritan limitations. While some friends around me did spend quality time in front of a trash can, toilet, or in the infirmary sobering up, I wasn’t usually around, not being a drinker myself. Accordingly, my introduction to alcoholic beverages was slow and random, dictated mostly by the drinks available at parties (cheap American beer, moderately priced wine, and liquors mixed in hot cocoa). Given the cost of alcoholic beverages in restaurants and bars, I rarely found the inspiration to actually order them.
A Window into Another World
Despite this, in retrospect I did have an early experience with beer that was enlightening. When I was age 7 and age 8, my family traveled throughout Western Europe for weeks at a time. Germany was a frequent travel destination for my family, particularly the cities of Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich, partly due to the frequency of these cities as hosts for scientific conferences (attended by my parents). During one of these trips, my father (who occasionally might order a glass of wine with dinner) selected a local beer to accompany his lunch. I don’t remember the specific venue, but I do remember sitting outside on a wooden bench in front of long wooden tables on a partly-cloudy but warm day, perhaps something similar to a beer garden. The beer he ordered arrived in a tall, curved glass. It was golden-amber in color, quite fizzy, and aromatic. I must have been staring at the beer pretty intently because he offered me a sip which I readily took. I don’t think I fell in love with beer immediately at that time (as this memory remained hidden and dormant for many years), but it did leave an impression: that beer can have flavor, texture, and pleasant smells.
The Resolution of All My Fruity, Aromatic, Hoppy Searches
Over the past several years after college, my alcohol consumption has diminished in frequency but grown to have a more deliberate nature. In other words, I have become more selective. My alcohol tolerance diminished, leaving hard liquors, cocktails, and wine beyond the realm of enjoyment. I returned home to New Orleans after college to partake in the rebuilding of the city after Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps with a spirit of restoration and loyalty in mind, I would occasionally grab an Abita Amber when eating at restaurants with my friends and classmates. Enjoying the malty, caramel taste, this became a more regular habit, and I explored other Abita beers (including Turbodog, strawberry harvest, pecan harvest, and satsuma). Like all things born of the Crescent City, it became “mine.” I don’t watch football, but I cheer on the Saints. I don’t like beer, but I drink Abita.
After leaving New Orleans to move to New England, I found myself a long way from my comfort zone in alcoholic drinks. There are a few stores here that sell Abita from time to time as the brand has become more popular, but it is cheaper to drink local. Furthermore, I wanted to give this new town a chance. From this situation came a desire to seek out and try New England beers, and to find a “new home” brew. Some of this exploration with respect to big-name breweries has been unsuccessful, but I started to find very tasty ales and lagers coming from small craft breweries with obscure names and from towns I had never heard of.
Finally, after saying to my wife more than a dozen times “We should go visit (name) Brewery sometime,” it finally dawned on us both simultaneously: we should brew our own beer! With the power of a full-fledged mini-farm in our backyard, she had been experimenting with cocktail recipes and “shrubs” using her fresh herbs. She had also acquired several new kitchen items to facilitate canning. I had been looking for a past-time that could be relaxing, creative, and social with sharing and gift-giving aspects. I finally found it.