Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Why I brew.

Benjamin Franklin is often misquoted as saying "Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy." While this quotation is falsely attributed to him, he did write something similar, and I believe his actual words are much richer in content. In a letter to Abbe Morellet in 1779, he writes:
"We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy. The miracle in question was only performed to hasten the operation, under circumstances of present necessity, which required it."
According to Mr. Franklin, every bottle of wine, and every growler of beer, requires just as much of God's provision as the wine at Cana, and I'm inclined to agree with him. The only difference between the two is in the creation of the ordinary kind, He gives us the privilege of participating in the process.

A while back, my friend Chris posed an excellent discussion question at Pints and Pipes: "What one song best describes who you are?" The answers were superb, and many gave me new insight into the character of my friends, but my friend Ryan shared my favorite response of the night. He chose "Helplessness Blues" by Fleet Foxes, and quoted its opening stanza (link at the bottom of this post if you'd like to hear it for yourself):
Sometimes my son helps me with the sparge
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me
The song is one of my favorites, yet I was surprised Ryan chose it as his answer to the question. He's a wonderfully talented artist, someone who creates beautiful things out of the most basic of materials, all on his own - he's not a machine operator content with laboring away on an assembly line. His response showed me the cathartic power of recognizing the relative smallness of our personal talents while acknowledging the beautiful part they play in a much grander narrative. This is the same humble joy I experience when brewing beer.

Our little brewpub
Beer consists of four basic ingredients: water, barley, hops, and yeast, and each one is uniquely complex. Minerals in the water will bring out certain flavors in beer. For example, if you want to accentuate the hop flavor of your IPA, add gypsum to your water. In order to be used in brewing, barley needs to first be malted - a complex process in itself. How the barley is kilned or roasted will drastically change the flavor, color, body, and amount of fermentable sugars it gives the beer. While hops typically account for the lowest percentage of the recipe's makeup, they have a profound effect on flavor. Botanists throughout the world are constantly working with this unique flower, breeding its varieties to create new varieties that focus on bringing out flavors as specific as black pepper coated honeydew melon in beer. Then there's the yeast, oh the yeast. These living microorganisms feed on the sugars from the malted barley and convert them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. They're a fickle bunch, and I have to breed them in an erlenmeyer flask until they've reproduced to a minimum 100 billion cells before pitching them into my brew. The whole process is intricate and exhausting, yet simultaneously abundantly rewarding.

A few batches fermenting
As I've gained more brewing experience, my appreciation for the craft has grown exponentially. Sure, the quality of my homebrews has improved over time, but even as my skills improve, I'm constantly humbled by my increasing awareness of just how small of a part I play in the overall process. The toil of botanists, farmers, maltsters, engineers at the water treatment plant, and yeast-whispering microbiologists all have an immeasurably profound impact on the beverage I enjoy so much, and I never even get the chance to shake their hands. Learning the complexity of beer may make me feel like a mere cog in "some great machinery," but it has overwhelmed me with thankfulness for these benevolent strangers who have added so much value to my homebrew operation.

While making beer may not be everyone's mug of brew, I do encourage all of my friends to learn a trade or craft of some sort, whether it be for profit or merely to gladden the hearts of others. There is a unique satisfaction in creating new things to be enjoyed by others, from art to beverages to repurposed furniture. I say uniquely satisfying because instead of resulting in smugness or arrogance, this brand of achievement is steeped in humility - the greater your skill in your craft, the greater your ability to see its dependence on Providence, from the rain falling on the vines to the skill of the craftsman who developed the tools you depend on. I believe this is on purpose.

On the very first page of the Bible, we learn mankind was designed to participate in God's creation, to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28). The same verse says God blessed humans by giving them this task - work was not intended to be a burden in this pre-fall world. Using the resources God gives us to create, to craft, to develop allows us to participate in God's handiwork while simultaneously marvel in it and praise Him for his awesome works. This work allows us to fulfill our innate desire for "serving something beyond me" as Fleet Foxes so eloquently describes. It's a beautiful task, and I smile often as I mill copious amounts of malted barley.
Our inaugural brew night

There are few joys I delight in more than seeing a group of people come together over a few kegs of my homebrewed beer. As they laugh, share stories, and develop friendships, I can't help but think of Jesus observing a similar scene some time ago at a wedding in Cana. I agree with Mr. Franklin: every drop of my beer took as much of God's provision as the water that was miraculously turned into delicious wine. Yet I'm thankful God allowed me to participate in this modern day miracle, and am humbled by the opportunity to do so. For me, beer is proof that God loves us and wants to see us be joyful.

What I'm Listening to During this Post:

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