Friday, September 4, 2009

The Passion Of The Beer

Midway through conducting a beer appreciation class with a room full of eager and half drunk students, I was confident of their enthrallment with my even paced delivery as I led them through a profound and inspiring flight of ales with anecdotal stories and the historical origins that brought the beers to life. Right in the middle of giving a moving oration of the advances that yeast brought to the development of modern civilization, a student in the audience said,

"O.K., enough with the sermon, let's move on with the tasting."

At that very moment I realized that there is only so much proselytizing about beer (or anything for that matter) that people will stand for before turning and heading for the nearest exit, like I do when I hear tambourines and see a group of robed chanters heading in my direction at the mall.

I was taken aback momentarily with the comment, and reflected later on the dogma I have regarding my passion for brewing and how my personal history influences the way I relate to beer.

I grew up in a household with five brothers and two sisters. We were raised in what I would consider a traditional Catholic family, which means a mandatory and often painful trip to church every Sunday strictly enforced by my mother, and as far as the rest of the week, 'to hell with it'. We did recite a superficial and rote prayer at the dinner table each evening before the chaos of the food grab ensued, but other than that benign ritual, we didn't go much deeper into the meaning of Catholicism. It was a chore, like your week to do the dishes or pick up the dog stuff from the back lawn. You didn't deserve it but it still it had to be done. More often it felt like a punishment. The first communions, confessions and catechisms are vague memories, now that the years have erased those repetitious but sincere efforts to indoctrinate.

For the most part, what influenced my young life were the survival instincts that naturally occur in a large Catholic family of ten. Such as, who gets the last piece of chicken if passed over by dad at dinner. Avoiding the belt that hung over the back of the dining room chair that was used to dispatch inconsistent discipline. Having a moment alone in the bathroom, or getting "dibs" on the the best spot on the couch for that re-run episode of 'The Rifleman'. If you were lucky or more often quick, you grabbed the spot on one end of the couch, at the arm. That way you only had half of your body touching another person, out of the five or six of us lined up across our brown Naugahyde sofa like the oiled leather fingers of a baseball mitt. Our religious roots had little to do with deepening faith in a higher power. On the contrary, what grew over the years was a deep suspicion of and resentment towards the mandates of piety.

"As long as you live under this roof you will go to church and play by my rules,"
my mother used to yell at the dinner table when we groaned our complaints about the idea of church the next morning. She'd reach back to snatch the belt and shake it at us, the buckle rattling to emphasise her point. Even so, she could do nothing to stop the inevitable mutiny. She would look toward our father for support but he would simultaneously turn and look out the patio glass door as if he heard an unfamiliar noise outside that deserved more attention. He often missed the morning call for mass, and my mom blamed him for being a bad example for the rest of us. We all eventually abandoned our assumed faith, and once we left home it was all over but for mom's occasional guilt induced nagging over the phone.

That alerting moment back at the beer tasting class got me thinking about how I am drawn to the hobby of homebrewing like it's a spiritual calling. It came on naturally and grew into a fanatical approach to life, one that ultimately explains the reason for the workings of the universe. A kind of intelligent design of beer. Like a religion, it works in mysterious ways but can be the cause of alienation, pushing away long established friendships and family as the rhetoric increases with the passion.

To this day, some thirty odd years after moving out of my parents' house, when speaking on the phone from Michigan, my mom will still listen for evidence that I have returned to a faith I never possessed. She'll ask poignant questions when I complain about some mundane incident.

"Do you pray?" she'll ask. "You know it really works."

There's a pause on the line when I don't respond. The silence that comes as she listens for a clue that the Lord still lives in my heart. He doesn't really, but in an existential way I do have faith. I have faith in many things, actually. I have faith that the yeast I pitched yesterday will do their job to ferment my beer. I have faith that if I have a need for additional brewing ingredients and not a lot of money, they will be provided, not by the hand of God but because that's the way it has always worked for me. I have faith that despite all my mother's failed efforts to instill her Catholic beliefs in me that I still turned out o.k.

"Mom." I'll say quietly into the phone. "Beer is my new religion."

And from the other end of the line comes her sad reproach.

"Don't be an ass."

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