We’ve been brewing beer for something like 8000 years, and the process is still exactly the same: create sugar by soaking grains in hot water, add something bitter to balance the sweetness, boil off the bad stuff, and yeast will eat the sugar and make the beer.
There’s no other way to make beer. You can’t change the order, you can’t skip any of the steps. For 8000 years, the same as it ever was.
There are, however, infinite variations—large and subtle—you can make within this framework. There are a bunch of ways to malt barley to control the color, toastiness, and sweetness that make up the backbone of the beer. Dozens of varieties of hops can be added at a hundred different points to add bitterness, flavor, and aroma. The strain of yeast you choose will give off flavors that range from bread to banana to clove to sour fruit to barnyard.
To make truly great beer, a brewer has to master these variables and have a good grasp of equipment and techniques. But without a willingness to be guided by the simple but inflexible 8000-year-old process, all the creativity, precision, and technique in the world doesn’t matter: what you get won’t be beer.
There are lots of things that are subject to this kind of an immutable process. Making bread. Building a house. Having kids. Rigid processes, but infinite flexibility within them to create different outcomes.
Maggie and Charlotte and I have a million choices in front of us, all of which have varying consequences for our personal and professional lives. With any one of these choices, it’s very easy to get caught up in a game of what-if. These games often end with some ridiculous outcome we delude ourselves into believing such as “then Charlotte is 13 and has never seen a backyard,” or “then I’m 43 and sitting in a cubicle,” or my personal favorite, “then we’re 60 and still renting.” No matter what the choice, it seems the conversation always leaves us with a feeling that we couldn’t possibly choose that. It’s a symptom of not knowing where we are in the process.
First thing on Father’s Day, I started brewing a saison, which is a dry, refreshing, and sometimes-funky French farmhouse ale. The yeast used in a saison loves hot temperatures, which makes it pretty much the only beer I can brew in an apartment in the summer.
Everything seemed to go really well. I got all of my temperatures exactly right, and used a few new techniques and approaches: a 90 minute mash, an 80 minute boil, and a much larger volume of liquid boiling on the stove than I usually have.
At the end of the boil, you put the pre-beer into the fermenter and take a reading with a hydrometer, which is an instrument that tells you how much fermentable sugar you made. Each recipe has a target that you should hit, if everything went well. With this recipe though, I was way off. Somewhere along the way, I had lost about half of the sugar the beer needed. My beer was weak.
To make sure you get all the sugar you’re supposed to get, you have to stir up the grain periodically and be very patient about how quickly you collect the sugary liquid extract. In the midst of worrying about the temperature being exactly 148 degrees for exactly 90 minutes so I could get exactly 4 gallons that would eventually taste exactly like Jack d’Or, I had forgotten to stir the grain. I forgot the process. During that 90 minutes, my job was to make sugar for the yeast. Instead, I was absorbed in the execution of a series of very precise techniques.
Father’s Day is a good way to remember what you’re supposed to be doing. As I see it, the challenge right now is to not get bogged down in the myriad options in front of us. All we really need to do? Work on things that we find challenging and inspiring. Keep Charlotte close to us and our work so that she becomes the thoughtful, creative person we know she’ll be. And that’s it, really. How we do that—the decisions and the exact path we take—doesn’t matter, so long as we know where we’re at in the process.