Friday, December 4, 2009

Homebrewing and Thoreau: How We Really Only Love What We Make

As a part of my own art of living, I have recently begun to make my own beer. Although I would like to claim that Henry David Thoreau inspired me to do this, that would be a lie. I have home-brewed intermittently in the past, and my decision to take it back up had more to do with reacquiring the necessary equipment and ingredients than with any philosophical epiphany. Thoreau did, however, make me think a good deal about home brewing and why I enjoy it, and that, I suppose, is the next best thing. I think of this when he suggests in "Economy," the opening and longest essay of Walden that , "[students] should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end."  What he seems to contrast here are lives (typically associated with students, but in reality, typical of almost everyone) in which we learn by authority rather than experience.  This is how most of us know nearly everything we claim to know, of course, and to an extent there is good reason for this: there simply isn't time in the world, given the relative brevity and certain end of human life, for us all to learn every trade, fact, or hobby by hand.  We can reject the germ theory of disease, of course, and act as if all manner of contamination and filth were our dear companions, all as an intellectual experiment, or we can read any history of the European Middle Ages and conclude that living like that might be better experienced at some remove.

But at the same time, only enjoying the fruits of the learning and labors of others rather smacks of cherry-picking the fruits of life--freeloading, really.  And, to return to the topic at hand, that is perhaps why I like making beer.  It is not receiving it on authority.  It is not practice or play life, or at least not as ersatz as just buying the stuff, anyway.  It requires getting in touch with, oddly, life, because life makes beer.

What am I on about?  Most people don't know.  Most people have no idea that the alcohol, be it beer, wine, or spirits, that they consume is the result of omnipresent microorganisms infesting objects high in the sugars that the latter feed upon.  And you'd never know until you watch it happen: until you sprinkle a packet of brewer's yeast atop a cooling vat of water, malt, and hops, and then close it up and watch as a frothing, boiling scum appears at the top and gradually subsides over the course of several days--you would never know that alcohol and carbon dioxide are waste products of a controlled bacterial infestation, that when you drink beer you are, to be truly indelicate, consuming yeast shit.

But I know; I've watched it, in all of its sublime, if entirely localized, grandeur.  And I don't like beer any less as a result of it (in fact, and returning to Thoreau, making beer is inexpensive and rewarding, perhaps like building your own house in miniature).  Making beer is realizing where something comes from; it is seeing a tiny piece of how life works.  It is a trip to the the forge or foundry, the farm or the slaughterhouse, or at least a bit more authentic than a trip to Harris-Teeter to pick up a case of canned, artificially carbonated lager.

But above all, homemade beer, done right, is delicious.  Perhaps I comfort myself by thinking that it is a gesture to nature and simplicity, when in fact I simply like to drink it.  Perhaps so.  But I know that, like the foods we cook in our kitchen here and the peppers that grow on the porch, that there is something, to combine two unforgivable cliches, sweeter tasting in labors of love.  If that is an illusion, as it probably is, it is one that, in my always-evolving negotiation with truth, I am happy to accept.

1 comment:

  1. "we learn by authority rather than experience." (Friggin blogspot doesn't allow blockquote tags. how annoying)
    There's a movement in education towards correcting this problem, but it doesn't seem to be going so well. The idea of inquiry instruction in science is that people should learn from their experiences, rather than from authority. The issue that arises is that we simply don't have time to recreate the experiences of several hundred highly intelligent individuals in a classroom so that we might meaningfully follow this edict.
    The herbs out of my herb garden always seem to taste better as well, however. I'd also like to distill my own liquor, but I think the government might have something to say about that. I tried apple-pie moonshine on a kayaking trip down the French Broad, and it was delicious, but I've not yet developed the stones to set up a still in my apartment. Perhaps I should just go visit the "off the grid" communist activist who made it and procure some more.