As corny as it will sound, ever since my accidental (honest!) gulp of a family member’s beer at a relative’s birthday I’ve known that beer will always be a part of my life. I was way underage at the time; fourteen, if I’m being generous. Wouldn’t get another taste of beer until college. I drank the swill that is typical at college keggers. Disappointed in general with the options, but I of course kept doing it. Then somebody handed me a Killian’s Irish Red and my love affair with dark beer was born. Every party I went to was a chance to try a new style of beer (Mixer Sixers were a lifesaver). I quickly found ones that I would repeatedly come back to, such as Newcastle Brown Ale, Samuel (or Sammy as I like to call him) Smith’s Winter Welcome, Michelob Honey Lager and J.W. Dundee’s Honey Brown.
After I graduated college I moved back in with my parents in southeastern Indiana. They lived close to Cincinnati so I thought finding a job would be easier. Fast forward a couple of years and I’m still living with my parents and working at a dead end job that doesn’t pay me enough to live on my own. I went to a coworker’s party where she and her boyfriend revealed to me that they brew their own beer. Instantly intrigued and eager to dispel the image of a nasty bathtub full of beer, I asked all sorts of questions. They then tried to scam me by offering to go half and half on an ingredient kit from Brewer’s Best. The total cost they quoted me was $70. I trusted my gut instinct and said I wasn’t interested. Later my dad told me there used to be a homebrew store in Cincinnati somewhere. I looked into it and found a place called Listermann, pretty much across the street from Xavier.
It was a curious sensation entering that homebrew store for the first time. Overwhelming, yet accessible. Organized, but unkempt liked a well-used workshop. I would compare it to how the kids and parents felt when they first entered Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory just without all the whimsy. I probably spent an hour and a half just looking at everything. Eventually one of the store clerks offered to help me. I told him that I was very much interested in brewing my own beer but had zero ideas where to start. He helped me pick out an equipment kit which was the most expensive one they had, but it was also cheaper than the same kit is now (and well worth the price!). For an ingredient kit I chose Listermann’s kit for Irish red ale to honor the beer that set me down this path. At the checkout counter the store clerk, who was a middle-aged man missing a finger or two, gave me three pieces of advice that have stuck with me ever since:
- (For this one he jabbed the instructions for the ingredient kit with the stump of his right index finger which was severed at the first knuckle) Read the instructions. Front and back. Everything, including bottling. Go and do something unrelated for half an hour/forty-five minutes. Come back and read it all again.
- Take notes on everything you do. Especially if you think it will affect the flavor of the beer.
- Clean and sanitize everything.
Other than those three pieces of advice I was flying blind. My parents helped me, of course, but they had as much to go on as I did. What helped us was our collective experience in in the kitchen. That first beer kit ended up being a decent beer and I made many mistakes brewing it, but I kept brewing. Every time I went back to Listermann’s I chose another style to try, which meant more notes, more equipment to wash, more instructions to read (twice!), and of course more experience. When I moved up to Indianapolis one of the first things I did was locate a homebrew store, i.e. Great Fermentations (there wasn’t an Avon store at the time). I kept the momentum going, always pushing myself to try something different. Last year I set about an annual challenge for myself. I’d ask my Facebook friends and family to suggest beers for me to brew, which were then voted upon. The one with the most votes would be the beer that I brewed, even if it was a style I didn’t really care for. And the challenge was for me to create the recipe, not brew an ingredient kit. I’ve had good results so far, but I’m always growing, always taking notes, always washing equipment, always reading and rereading instructions.