Smells can bring memories flooding back, in vivid detail. For me, wafts of pungent hops and malty grains transport me back to my father making beer in the basement of our Portland house when I was around 5 or 6 years old.
As I grew up, I was exposed to more of my father’s do-it-yourself regimen, which included curing meats, making cheeses, baking bread, pickling cabbage, pressing grapes for wine. If something could be done at home — especially if it involved fermentation — it was preferred over a quick trip to the store.
We lived on a 40-acre farm on Lopez Island during my formative years, but like many teenage boys, I was more interested in hanging out with friends or holing up in my room playing computer games.
I’m catching up now, learning not only the value of such skills but also finding a catalyst for deepening the relationship with my father.
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On a recent Saturday, my dad and I brewed a batch of Belgian wheat beer together in my garage in the Loyal Heights neighborhood of Seattle. Imagine our faces tucked over the boil pot anticipating an addition of Saaz hops, taking in the aroma. We used an old 10-gallon home-brewing setup of my dad’s, which he has given to me. With his guidance, I’ve now learned how to brew, having now made five batches at the time of this writing — three on my own, with recipes I’ve created and modified. Not only have I inherited his old equipment, I’ve now inherited a skill.
My pieced-together brewing setup won’t win any beauty contests, but it’s practical for learning, and I find myself tinkering with its design between brewing sessions, discussing ideas with my dad on the phone.
Brewing is a patient, long process. To most, it’s a chore best left to the professionals, and a cold one is sourced from a grocery aisle or a local microbrewery. To us, home-brewers, the beauty is in the brewing process. During our brewing session, my dad described it as a “miracle.”
“It’s amazing that small changes in temperature manipulation convert carbohydrates to sugars, and the yeast then converts them to alcohol,” he said. “It’s amazing, and people have been doing it for thousands of years. Commercialization is a new thing.”
He extolled brewing’s key role traditionally in home life, when beer was usually the safest thing around to drink — the boiling process removes impurities — and it was brewed domestically. Drinking beer for health and safety reasons might not be necessary anymore, but I interpret the value of brewing to my dad as part of a complete home life. Like growing vegetables or raising animals, brewing connects us to ways of life that have existed for millennia, and that gives it validation for him — no matter how labor-intensive, or unnecessary it might seem in a modern context.
Later in the day, after we’d cleaned up my garage and moved the beer to a fermentation tank, my dad and I went to a Seattle Sounders FC match. He shared that the last soccer match he had attended was with his father as a young boy in Denmark.
Toward the end of our recent brewing session, my dad brought up other memories of his father, who died in 2011. He ran a photography store, and devoted his life to it. He passed that skill on to my dad, but otherwise he was left to be very independent. As a result, he discovered many other passions on his own — and fortunately passed a few of them on to me.
We are influenced and shaped by those we are close to, but then ferment a philosophy and worldview of our own. I find that as I continue to brew on my own, I’m doing it for many of the same reasons, but also for a very personal reason of my own: For me, brewing has become something that I can completely focus on.
As a child, some thought I might have attention deficit disorder — I was a disruptive student in class. I wasn’t diagnosed, but have still grown up struggling with finding focus. My father was against a diagnosis, viewing my behavior as part of being a creative individual. I can still have trouble focusing today, especially in an always-on, connected modern world, and brewing has given me the relief of focus.
It’s been a practice in meditation, something requiring complete, undivided attention. For instance, there’s only a couple degrees room for error when mashing — recently, a friend stopping by while I was brewing caused me to forget that I’d left a burner on, heating the mash to the point of mashout too soon, creating a beer that was too malty.
I still have a lot of room for growth, in brewing and with focus, but I greatly appreciate the gift that my father has given me: the beginner’s knowledge of how to brew, and with it a way to live.
And as I grow up, if I ever find myself wanting to remember and reflect on our recent brew day together, or my father in general, all I need to do now is fire up the burners, grind select grains, boil the wort, pitch the yeast and let the fragrances remind me — and focus my thoughts.
Nikolaj Lasbo is the producer and editor for digital opinion engagement at The Seattle Times. On Twitter: @nikolajlasbo