A Tale of Two Beers

November 19, 2012

On the night of December 17, 2011, I brewed a clone of New Belgium's Abbey Ale, which is a dubbel. On the evening of July 21, 2012, I brewed a clone of New Belgium's Saison Belgian Style Farmhouse Ale.

The Dubbel

When the dubbel was meant to be "ready" (about 3-4 weeks in the bottle), I thought it was a failure. It had a soapy aftertaste, which I identified at the time as being caused by the beer being left in the fermenter too long. It was in the primary for one week, and secondary for 11 days. Eighteen total days. Not a long time by any stretch, but I was a new homebrewer, and what did I know?

The problem with screwing up a beer is that now you have 50+ bottles of homebrew that you really don't want to drink, and you don't want to let your friends drink either. So I did what any embarrassed homebrewer might do: I just let it sit in my dark, cool basement for months.

It turns out this was the best thing I could have done.

A couple of nights ago, I had a meeting to attend, and someone had to bring the beers. Weeks earlier, I had thrown a couple of bottles of the dubbel in with some other beers to make a six pack for a night out. Perhaps some of my friends who didn't have much experience with craft beer wouldn't notice the off flavor, and they might enjoy it. Turns out the beer got positive reviews from those friends. Buttressed by that feedback, I dared to bring a six pack of my homebrew to that meeting. Maybe the soapy off-taste had dissipated a bit, and I could start to unload my failed homebrew.

I cracked open the bottle, and poured it out. It wasn't as carbonated as it had been when I first tried it months ago. The head was legit, and it smalled fantastic. I let it warm up and breathe, and took my first sip. The flavor had totally changed. Gone was the soapy after-taste, and the beer actually had a bit of complexity about it that was absent originally. At 7.3% ABV it had some kick, but whereas in January the alcohol slammed you in the face, now it was more subtle, masked by the dark fruit, malty flavors of the beer.

The Saison

A similar, though less dramatic thing happened with a saison that I brewed in July. With the purchase of a new boil kettle, I was dialing my process in. Armed with what I thought I had learned from brewing the dubble, we had a nearly-flawless brew night on July 21. Four weeks later, the saison was ready to drink.

I really liked this beer initially. My only criticism at the time was that the yeast flavors were a bit overwhelming for that style. This will come off as snobbish, but the prominence of the yeast was something most folks wouldn't have noticed unless they were regular drinkers of farmhouse ales. No worries, though, because it was a good tasting beer, with no discernible off-flavors. I was proud of it but I'd probably still make a run to the beer distributor if we were low on other beers, instead of reaching out for my own homebrew.

But last night, my wife and I were watching a movie, and had a huge bowl of homemade popcorn. Naturally we had to have some beer, but we were out of everything. There were no cold dubbels in the fridge, only one saison. I hadn't tried the saison for a while, so I poured it into a glass, and the first sip made me think it was a different beer. The yeast had taken a back seat to these overwhelmingly tasty fruit flavors. The carbonation was there as well. My wife and I both remarked that this was a beer we'd go buy in a store, and choose over other craft brews. I was now in the position of having a couple of month's worth of delicious homebrew in my basement!

Lessons Learned

Experiencing my beers on those two occasions, after having brewed and then tasted them throughout the intervening months, was surreal. You're holding a drink in your hand that you quickly realize is a living thing. It's evolving. There's yeast in that bottle that's doing something. Now, every beer has a "drink-by" date, past which you no longer realize the benefits of aging. But a huge lesson for me is that I need to give my beers time to come into their own, and let nature takes it's course.

On a macro level, this is a huge lesson to learn for life in general. There are things which I have no control over, though I wish I did. "The recipe said the beer will be ready 4 weeks after bottling, and it's 4 weeks later, so this beer better be ready now!" But yeast doesn't really care what I want, or when I want it. It's going to do it's thing in it's own time. There is, to borrow an idea from Ken Myers, a "givenness" to beer making that resists attempts to impose a timeline on it. Sure you can tweak things in your process, but you're ultimately at the mercy of the yeast.

One of the reasons I got into homebrewing was that I thought it'd be good for me to have a hobby that requires patience, and that does not give immediate feedback. As a programmer, my life is all about instant feedback. I can start with an empty app, and in a few minutes, with basic models, controller actions, and tests, have a working system. It won't be perfect, but you can push this button and stuff will happen. Making beer is not like that. The brewing process takes hours, the bottling process takes time and attention to detail, and then you're waiting weeks for the beer in the bottle to be ready, and even when it's "ready" it might not be truly ready (as my experience has now shown).

There's a part of me that's afraid of the negative effects of technology on my soul. Just in the act of software development, I unconsciously create habits and expectations that spill over into other areas of my life. But unfortunately, there's not a 1:1 relationship between software development and being a good father, for example. In the former, I can sit down in front of my laptop and clear a bug list in a couple of hours, and those bugs will (hopefully) never appear again. In the latter, it might take days, months, years for my wife and I to work through issues and establish good habits with our children, or within our marriage. And even then, constant vigilance is required to fight against sinful relational tendencies, or to reinforce good habits through the discipline of repitition. Does my work in and use of technology prepare my soul for that fight? More and more I think it does not, hence my journey into homebrewing, and also a big reason why I've disciplined myself to work out strenuously on a regular basis.

These two things (homebrewing and working out) are valuable to me for the counter-balancing practices and insights they yield relative to my day-to-day experience. The Bible is always my source of ultimate truth and illumination. But I have found it helpful to force myself to do things that are not comfortable precisely because they put "flesh" on the things I believe about what constitutes human flourishing.

This lesson, about giving something time to evolve and mature on it's own terms, and providing the environment in which it can flourish while having the patience to let the process happen, is one I'm happy to have experienced.

I'm even happier that I didn't throw out those bottles of homebrew.