Sunday, March 29, 2009

Life with a Home Brewer

From a page in my art journal. ©Susan Dorf 2009

"There is more to life than making beer. There is drinking beer and blogging about beer."

When I first came home to what looked to be someone's dirty underwear soaking in my best cooking pot, I have to admit I was a little unsettled. Even after he explained to me that they were just used hop bags, they still looked disgusting. And what was all that sticky stuff all over the stove? Yeast starter? What the hell is that? Ugh. It had been several weeks since my husband had taken the one day Introduction to Brewing class at the local home brewing supply store and come home with a glazed look on his face and a starter kit to make his first batch of home brewed beer. Now he was moving from malt extract to all grain brewing and had acquired a mill and a few other bits of paraphernalia to make it possible. As long as it all fits under the sink, I said.

But really, I was glad to see that Mark had found a passion. After all, it’s good for a man to have a hobby, right? And this one made a lot less noise than the wood shop idea, and was much less risky and stressful than the commodity-trading phase. At least he wasn’t racing motorcycles or raising strange animals.
Still, I wondered how long it would last.

After the equipment started taking over the kitchen cupboards and then the kitchen itself, we bought a plastic shed for the back deck for him to store the accumulating burners, pots, kegs, CO2 tanks, grains, etc. And when the beer glasses collected from the various breweries and pubs and beer festivals began to shove the other drinking glasses and dishes into unapproachable corners of the cupboards, I agreed that he could use a shelf in the laundry cupboard for the overflow. Soon there were two shelves of glasses, a bin of hop pellets that looked like rabbit food, along with various other devices and several books on home brewing. Laundry and cleaning supplies were stacked on top of the dryer and our storage space was reduced to a few square feet. Then one day the freezer arrived on the back of a friend's truck and with some pushing and shoving was wedged in next to the washing machine. A few adjustments and attachments later, and it was goodbye storage, hello kegerator.

He kept meticulous notes on every aspect of his brewing process. And while his dirty clothes may have been sprawled across the bedroom floor and his bathroom took on the appearance of a war zone, the beer area was always spotless and orderly. He became manic about sanitation and cleanliness, and though my kitchen knives would disappear into fermenting kegs to become weights for dry hop bags, or my pots and measuring cups would mysteriously relocate themselves to the beer shed, I was told that I must never, ever borrow a beer utensil for anything else.
Some mornings he trots out to visit his fermenter the minute he wakes up, then comes back with a glass full of some cloudy yellow liquid as I’m trying to wake up, sitting down to a cup of coffee. ‘Taste this’, he says. ‘Tell me if it’s any good.’ He is a man possessed.

Little by little, the world of beer began to infiltrate into our lives. Weekend outings gave way to brewing Sundays. Our vacations and road trips were punctuated by tours of micro-breweries, (which I found I could use as leverage to my advantage, countering with museum and gallery visits.) My usual healthy eating habits became compromised with countless brewpub menus while participating in numerous taste evaluations of beer samplers. I learned about hops and how they are used as a bittering agent, used to balance out the sweetness of the beer to give it a fuller and more complex flavor. Gee, I found myself thinking, it sounds just like a relationship.

He explains to me about the yeast. How it changed the course of history by turning nomadic wanderers into agrarian people because they needed to cultivate grain to make enough beer to keep them satisfied.
One night I woke up to a strange rhythmic bubbling sound coming from the bedroom closet. When I opened the door I saw that his shoes had been shoved to one side to make room for the glass carboys wrapped in electric blankets like precious bundles. I pulled one of the blankets aside and stared at the foamy mixture inside. All of that yeast in there multiplying away in a feeding frenzy. Living organisms that through some strange intelligence knew just how much they needed to reproduce to consume the sugar provided by the malted grain. I knelt down to get a closer look at them. "What have you done to my husband?" I asked.
And that’s when I knew. This wasn’t just a hobby anymore. This was his calling.

He joined a homebrewing group where he and other brewers would gather together like mad scientists and taste each other's concoctions and talk endlessly about gravity and hop ratios and IBU’s and clone recipes along with the latest must-have brewing gizmos. He was a man communing with his tribe.
He would come home from beer festivals with a wild satisfied grin on his face, like a kid coming home from Disneyland. He would look like a walking advertisement for micro-breweries, laden with tee shirts and keychain bottle openers, bumper stickers, hats, glasses.
Here was a man who wouldn’t buy himself a pair of socks, who balked at the price of food and haircuts, and yet when it came to beer or beer related doodads, the money flowed from his wallet. There was no holding back.
After the arrival of the beer sculpture, the ominous skeletal multi-tiered monstrosity that appeared one day after he had befriended a welder, I knew that our lives had turned a corner. It was time to move. We needed a garage.

One night I asked him the question a wife should never ask her homebrewer husband.
"If you had to choose between beer making and me, what would it be?"
I could see the wires crossing in his head, the almost visible sparks as he struggled to find the right answer. Finally, "What the hell kind of question is that?" he said, and went out to the garage to check his fermenter.
I’m okay with it. Really I am. Because in my heart of hearts I know that when your true purpose and passion calls to you and makes you feel happy and whole, what choice do you have, really?

See Mark's blog at

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Migratory Life

“No soy de aqui, ni soy de alla,
no tengo edad, ni porvenir
y ser feliz es mi color de indentidad”
-Facundo Cabral

(I’m not from here, nor from there
I have no age or future
To be happy is the color of my identity.)

There is a Mexican folk tale about a donkey that was extremely hungry. At the same time he was also very, very thirsty. To the right of where he was standing was a fresh pile of hay, and to the left a cool river of clear water. He turned toward the right to eat, then realized how really dry and parched he was and so turned to the left, only to feel the ache of hunger in his stomach crying out for food.
Thirsty. Hungry. Food. Water. Left. Right. What do do?

And so they found him, both dehydrated and starved to death at the same time, unable to make up his mind….
Grim, I know. And yet whenever I think of this story I have to admit that I feel an odd kinship towards the donkey.
It scares me sometimes.


Well, we have been back in the US for 2 weeks now and I spent the first one wandering lazily about the house in a semi stupor, as if waiting for my soul to catch up with my body. Maybe it’s because I am getting older. Maybe it’s because I am feeling more displaced these days wondering where my true home is. Or maybe, like everything else lately, it’s just another menopause thing.
At any rate, it seems to be taking a lot longer to adjust to the change of environment.
Everything about being here is so different from where we just left.

At 6,000 feet in the high desert of Mexico the air is crisp and sharp and dry.
The senses are constantly assalted by smells both delicious and repugnant, the daily inescapable sounds of barking dogs and crowing roosters to church bells, fireworks, music. It drips with rich earthy colors: ochres and reds, a sharp blue of sky, deep purple shadows.

Mexico is a culture that nurtures creativity and spontaneity and human contact
It is intense in every way. It can overwhelm you and enchant you. It can charm you and exhaust you. It’s sheer and constant aliveness both seduces you and drive you crazy at once, like a wild love affair.

Here, on the other hand, my skin gratefully soaks up the moisture on the grey cloudy shores of Aptos, among the gentle soft blues and greens and beiges and greys. In my house I can hear the sound of the ticking clock and occasional passing car, smell the occasional whiff of the vague sea air and spring blooms.
On one of my return trips from Mexico I found myself lying in bed irritated by what sounded like the bass notes of a not too distant boom box that went on and on. After awhile I realized to my astonishment that it was actually the beating of my own heart in the immense unbelievable silence of the night.
It feels peaceful and predictable here. Refreshingly dull and insulated. The perfect place to rest and regroup.

So what to do? North. South. California. Mexico. Why not both?
I do love the migrating lifestyle, being of two worlds. Each complements the other, each fills me up in a different way. It is a definitely a lifestyle that is challenging to maintain logistically, mentally, and physically, however, and one must adapt to a sense of flexibility in life as well as a defined structure to make it work. One must embrace a sense of home in a different way, as a citizen of the world, where traveling and daily life are the same. I’m working on it.


Why is it, when I am in Rome,
I'd give an eye to be at home,
But when on native earth I be,
My soul is sick for Italy?

Dorothy Parker
(from On Being A Woman)