How I Got Into Beer

Was doing some homebrewing experimentation (sour mash, watermelon, honey, complex yeast cultures…) and I got to think about what I’d say in an interview about my brewing activities.

It’s a bit more personal than my usual posts in English (my more personal blogposts are usually in French), but it seems fitting.

I also have something of a backlog of blogposts I really should do ASAP. But blogging is also about seizing the moment. I feel like writing about beer.ūüėõ

So…

As you might know, the drinking age in Quebec is 18, as in most parts of the World except for the US. What is somewhat distinct about Qc with regards to drinking age is that responsible drinking is the key and we tend to have a more “European” attitude toward alcohol: as compared to the Rest of Canada, there’s a fair bit of leeway in terms of when someone is allowed to drink alcohol. We also tend to learn to drink in the family environment, and not necessarily with friends. What it means, I would argue, is that we do our mistakes in a relatively safe context. By the time drinking with peers becomes important (e.g., in university or with colleagues), many of us know that there’s no fun in abusing alcohol and that there are better ways to prove ourselves than binge drinking. According to Barrett Seaman, author of¬†Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You, even students from the US studying at McGill University in Montreal are more likely to drink responsibly than most students he’s seen in the US. (In Montreal, McGill tends to be recognized as a place where binge drinking is most likely to occur, partly because of the presence of US students. In addition, binge drinking is becoming more conspicuous, in Qc, perhaps because of media pressure or because of influence from the US.)

All this to say that it’s rather common for a Qu√©b√©cois teen to at least try alcohol at a relatively age.¬†Because of my family’s connections with Switzerland and France, we probably pushed this even further than most Qu√©b√©cois family. In other words, I had my first sips of alcohol at a relatively early age (I won’t tell) and, by age 16, I could distinguish different varieties of Swiss wines, during an extended trip to Switzerland. Several of these wines were produced by relatives and friends, from their own vineyards. They didn’t contain sulfites and were often quite distinctive. To this day, I miss those wines. In fact, I’d say that Swiss wines are among the best kept secrets of the wine world. Thing is, it seems that Swiss vineyards barely produce enough for local consumption so they don’t try to export any of it.

Anyhoo…

By age 18, my attitude toward alcohol was already quite similar to what it is now: it’s something that shouldn’t be abused but that can be very tasty. I had a similar attitude toward coffee, that I started to drink regularly when I was 15. (Apart from being a homebrewer and a beer geek, I’m also a homeroaster and coffee geek. Someone once called me a “Renaissance drinker.”)

When I started working in French restaurants, it was relatively normal for staff members to drink alcohol at the end of the shift. In fact, at one place where I worked, the staff meal at the end of the evening shift was a lengthy dinner accompanied by some quality wine. My palate was still relatively untrained, but I remember that we would, in fact, discuss the wine on at least some occasions. And I remember one customer, a stage director, who would share his bottle of wine with the staff during his meal: his doctor told him to reduce his alcohol consumption and the wine only came in 750ml bottles.ūüėČ

That same restaurant might have been the first place where I tried a North American craft beer. At least, this is where I started to know about craft beer in North America. It was probably McAuslan‘s St. Ambroise Stout. But I also had opportunities to have some St. Ambroise Pale Ale. I just preferred the Stout.

At one point, that restaurant got promotional beer from a microbrewery called Massawippi. That beer was so unpopular that we weren’t able to give it away to customers. Can’t recall how it tasted but nobody enjoyed it. The reason this brewery is significant is that their license was the one which was bought to create a little microbrewery called Unibroue. So, it seems that my memories go back to some relatively early phases in Quebec’s craft beer history. I also have rather positive memories of when Brasal opened.

Somewhere along the way, I had started to pick up on some European beers. Apart from macros (Guinness, Heineken, etc.), I’m not really sure what I had tried by that point. But even though these were relatively uninspiring beers, they somehow got me to understand that there was more to beer than Molson, Labatt, Laurentide, O’Keefe, and Black Label.

The time I spent living in Switzerland, in 1994-1995, is probably the turning point for me in terms of beer tasting. Not only did I get to drink the occasional EuroLager and generic stout, but I was getting into Belgian Ales and Lambics. My “session beer,” for a while, was a wit sold in CH as Wittekop. Maybe not the most unique wit out there. But it was the house beer at Bleu L√©zard, and I drank enough of it then to miss it. I also got to try several of the Trappists. In fact, one of the pubs on the EPFL campus had a pretty good beer selection, including Rochefort, Chimay, Westmalle, and Orval. The first lambic I remember was Mort Subite Gueuze, on tap at a very quirky place that remains on my mind as this near-cinematic experience.

At the end of my time in Switzerland, I took a trip to Prague and Vienna. Already at that time, I was interested enough in beer that a significant proportion of my efforts were about tasting different beers while I was there. I still remember a very tasty “Dopplemalz” beer from Vienna and, though I already preferred ales, several nice lagers from Prague.

A year after coming back to North America, I traveled to Scotland and England with a bunch of friends. Beer was an important part of the trip. Though I had no notion of what CAMRA was, I remember having some real ales in diverse places. Even some of the macro beers were different enough to merit our interest. For instance, we tried Fraoch then, probably before it became available in North America. We also visited a few distilleries which, though I didn’t know it at the time, were my first introduction to some beer brewing concepts.

Which brings me to homebrewing.

The first time I had homebrew was probably at my saxophone teacher’s place. He did a party for all of us and had brewed two batches. One was either a stout or a porter and the other one was probably some kind of blonde ale. What I remember of those beers is very vague (that was probably 19 years ago), but I know I enjoyed the stout and was impressed by the low price-quality ratio. From that point on, I knew I wanted to brew. Not really to cut costs (I wasn’t drinking much, anyway). But to try different beers. Or, at least, to easily get access to those beers which were more interesting than the macrobrewed ones.

I remember another occasion with a homebrewer, a few years later. I only tried a few sips of the beer but I remember that he was talking about the low price. Again, what made an impression on me wasn’t so much the price itself. But the low price for the quality.

At the same time, I had been thinking about all sorts of things which would later become my “hobbies.” I had never had hobbies in my life but I was thinking about homeroasting coffee, as a way to get really fresh coffee and explore diverse flavours. Thing is, I was already this hedonist I keep claiming I am. Tasting diverse things was already an important pleasure in my life.

So, homebrewing was on my mind because of the quality-price ratio and because it could allow me to explore diverse flavours.

When I moved to Bloomington, IN, I got to interact with some homebrewers. More specifically, I went to an amazing party thrown by an ethnomusicologist/homebrewer. The guy’s beer was really quite good. And it came from a full kegging system.

I started dreaming.

Brewpubs, beerpubs, and microbreweries were already part of my life. For instance, without being a true regular, I had been going to Cheval blanc on a number of occasions. And my “go to” beer had been Unibroue, for a while.

At the time, I was moving back and forth between Quebec and Indiana. In Bloomington, I was enjoying beers from Upland’s Brewing Co., which had just opened, and Bloomington Brewing Co., which was distributed around the city. I was also into some other beers, including some macro imports like Newcastle Brown Ale. And, at liquor stores around the city (including Big Red), I was discovering a few American craft beers, though I didn’t know enough to really make my way through those. In fact, I remember asking for Unibroue to be distributed there, which eventually happened. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t try Three Floyds, at the time.

So I was giving craft beer some thought.

Then, in February 1999, I discovered Dieu du ciel. I may have gone there in late 1998, but the significant point was in February 1999. This is when I tried their first batch of¬†“Spring Equinox” Maple Scotch Ale. This is the beer that turned me into a homebrewer. This is the beer that made me changed my perspetive about beer. At that point, I knew that I would eventually have to brew.

Which happened in July 1999, I think. My then-girlfriend had offered me a homebrewing starter kit as a birthday gift. (Or maybe she gave it to me for Christmas… But I think it was summer.) Can’t remember the extent to which I was talking about beer, at that point, but it was probably a fair bit, i.e., I was probably becoming annoying about it. And before getting the kit, I was probably daydreaming about brewing.

Even before getting the kit, I had started doing some reading. The aforementioned ethnomusicologist/homebrewer had sent me a Word file with a set of instructions and some information about equipment. It was actually much more elaborate than the starter kit I eventually got. So I kept wondering about all the issues and started getting some other pieces of equipment. In other words, I was already deep into it.

In fact, when I got my first brewing book, I also started reading feverishly, in a way I hadn’t done in years. Even before brewing the first batch, I was passionate about brewing.

Thanks to the ‘Net, I was rapidly amassing a lot of information about brewing.¬†Including some recipes.

Unsurprisingly, the first beer I brewed was a maple beer, based on my memory of that Dieu du ciel beer. However, for some reason, that first beer was a maple porter, instead of a maple scotch ale. I brewed it with extract and steeped grain. I probably used a fresh pack of Coopers yeast. I don’t think I used fresh hops (the beer wasn’t supposed to be hop-forward). I do know I used maple syrup at the end of boil and maple sugar at priming.

It wasn’t an amazing beer, perhaps. But it was tasty enough. And it got me started. I did a few batches with extract and moved to all-grain almost right away. I remember some comments on my first maple porter, coming from some much more advanced brewers than I was. They couldn’t believe that it was an extract beer. I wasn’t evaluating my extract beer very highly. But I wasn’t ashamed of it either.

Those comments came from brewers who were hanging out on the Biéropholie website. After learning about brewing on my own, I had eventually found the site and had started interacting with some local Québécois homebrewers.

This was my first contact with “craft beer culture.” I had been in touch with fellow craft beer enthusiasts. But hanging out with Bi√®ropholie people and going to social events they had organized was my first foray into something more of a social group with its associated “mode of operation.” It was a fascinating experience. As an ethnographer and social butterfly, this introduction to the social and cultural aspects of homebrewing was decisive.¬†Because I was moving all the time, it was hard for me to stay connected with that group. But I made some ties there and I still bump into a few of the people I met through Bi√®ropholie.

At the time I first started interacting with the Bi√®ropholie gang, I was looking for a brewclub. Many online resources mentioned clubs and associations and they sounded exactly like the kind of thing I needed. Not only for practical reasons (it’s easier to learn techniques in such a context, getting feedback from knowledgeable people is essential, and tasting other people’s beers is an eye-opener), but also for social reasons. Homebrewing was never meant to be a solitary experience, for me.

I was too much of a social butterfly.

Which brings me back to childhood. As a kid, I was often ostracized. And I always tried to build clubs. It never really worked. Things got much better for me after age 15, and I had a rich social life by the time I became a young adult. But, in 2000-2001, I was still looking for a club to which I could belong. Unlike Groucho, I cared a lot about any club which would accept me.

As fun as it was, Bi√®ropholie wasn’t an actual brewclub. Brewers posting on the site mostly met as a group during an annual event, a BBQ which became known as ¬ęX√® de mille¬Ľ (“Nth of 1000”) in 2001. The 2000 edition (“0th of 1000”) was when I had my maple porter tasted by more advanced brewers. Part of event was a bit like what brewclub meetings tend to be: tasting each other’s brews, providing feedback, discussing methods and ingredients, etc. But because people didn’t meet regularly as a group, because people were scattered all around Quebec, and because there wasn’t much in terms of “contribution to primary identity,” it didn’t feel like a brewclub, at least not of the type I was reading about.

The MontreAlers brewclub was formed at about that time. For some reason, it took me a while to learn of its existence. I distinctly remember looking for a Montreal-based club through diverse online resources, including the famed HomeBrew Digest. And I know I tried to contact someone from McGill who apparently had a club going. But I never found the ‘Alers.

I did eventually find the Members of Barleyment. Or, at least, some of the people who belonged to this “virtual brewclub.” It probably wasn’t until I moved to New Brunswick in 2003, but it was another turning point. One MoB member I met was Daniel Chisholm, a homebrewer near Fredericton, NB, who gave me insight on the New Brunswick beer scene (I was teaching in Fredericton at the time). Perhaps more importantly,¬†Daniel also invited me to the Big Strange New Brunswick Brew (BSNBB), a brewing event like the ones I kept dreaming about. This was partly a Big Brew, an occasion for brewers to brew together at the same place. But it was also a very fun social event.

It’s through the BSNBB that I met MontreAlers Andrew Ludwig and John Misrahi. John is the instigator of the MontreAlers brewclub. Coming back to Montreal a few weeks after BSNBB, I was looking forward to attend my first meeting of the ‘Alers brewclub, in July 2003.

Which was another fascinating experience. Through it, I was able to observe different attitudes toward brewing. Misrahi, for instance, is a fellow experimental homebrewer to the point that I took to call him “MadMan Misrahi.” But a majority of ‘Alers are more directly on the “engineering” side of brewing. I also got to observe some interesting social dynamics among brewers, something which remained important as I moved to different places and got to observe other brewclubs and brewers meetings, such as the Chicago Beer Society’s¬†Thirst Fursdays. Eventually, this all formed the backdrop for a set of informal observations which were the corse of a presentation I gave about craft beer and cultural identity.

Through all of these brewing-related groups, I’ve been positioning myself as an experimenter. ¬†My goal isn’t necessarily to consistently make quality beer, to emulate some beers I know, or to win prizes in style-based brewing competitions. My thing is to have fun and try new things. Consistent beer is available anywhere and I drink little enough that I can afford enough of it. But homebrewing is almost a way for me to connect with my childhood.

There can be a “mad scientist” effect to homebrewing. Michael Tonsmeire calls himself The Mad Fermentationist and James Spencer at Basic Brewing has been interviewing a number of homebrewer who do rather unusual experiments.

I count myself among the ranks of the “Mad Brewers.” Oh, we’re not doing anything completely crazy. But slightly mad we are.

Through the selective memory of an adult with regards to his childhood, I might say that I was “always like that.” As a kid, I wanted to be everything at once: mayor, astronaut, fireman, and scholar. The researcher’s spirit had me “always try new things.” I even had a slight illusion of grandeur in that I would picture myself accomplishing all sorts of strange things. Had I known about it as a kid, I would have believed that I could solve the Poincar√© conjecture. Mathematicians were strange enough for me.

But there’s something more closely related to homebrewing which comes back to my mind as I do experiments with beer. I had this tendency to do all sorts of concoctions. Not only the magic potions kids do with mud ¬†and dishwashing liquid. But all sorts of potable drinks that a mixologist may experiment with. There wasn’t any alcohol in those drinks, but the principle was the same. Some of them were good enough for my tastes. But I never achieved the kind of breakthrough drink which would please masses. I did, however, got my experimentation spirit to bear on food.

By age nine, I was cooking for myself at lunch. Nothing very elaborate, maybe. It often consisted of reheating leftovers. But I got used to the stove (we didn’t have a microwave oven, at the time). And I sometimes cooked some eggs or similar things. To this day, eggs are still my default food.

And, like many children, I occasionally contributing to cooking. Simple things like mixing ingredients. But also tasting things at different stages in the cooking or baking process. Given the importance of sensory memory, I’d say the tasting part was probably more important in my development than the mixing. But the pride was mostly in being an active contributor in the kitchen.

Had I understood fermentation as a kid, I probably would have been fascinated by it. In a way, I wish I could have been involved in homebrewing at the time.

A homebrewery is an adult’s chemistry set.

About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

2 responses to “How I Got Into Beer

  • Saro

    Alex, you outdid yourself again.

    Your blog post emphasizes your contagious passion and your enthusiasm for your consuming hobbies, nay, passions.ūüôā

    For those of us who see you in action first hand, what a marvel it is, indeed.

    Love,
    Saro

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