There’s no doubt that the best thing about youth is innocence. At some point, every one of us believed that we had This Life Thing all figured out; that we knew all there is to know. This is, of course, the arrogance of youth in full bloom – and I for one miss it horrendously.
The error here was mistaking our limited experiences with all that there was to experience. If (like me) you added-in an early-twenties O.E. to a non-English-speaking country, you managed to expand your mind a little – but only a little; and a little bit of knowledge can be worse than none at all. Once you’ve ordered a wheat beer in German (Ich möchte eine Weißbier, bitte), you can convince yourself that you’re practically cosmopolitan.
Unfortunately, as life draws on that innocent ingnorance kind of fades away. Exposure to nasty realities (like death and winter power bills) opens our eyes to the fact that life is a smidge more complex than we thought it was – until we eventually arrive at the realisation that we don’t know much about anything. The wisest of us – like Socrates, who I’m about to badly paraphrase – die happy knowing that they know nothing at all.
My Beer Geek journey started back in the summer of 2010/11, after a dimly-lit hostel epiphany that I’ve written about before. If we apply Dog Year conventions here, then in Beer Geek terms I’m in my early-Twenties – and thus just about due for a trip to a Bavarian biergarten where I can insult the locals with my terrible German. Indeed, when it comes to outright arrogance (and downright cockiness) about beer, you could say that I’m in my prime.
And this week, that cockiness earned me a punch in the mouth.
My first sip of a sour beer was with a friend of mine about two years ago (cue wibbly lines). The beer we were sharing was Rodenbach Grand Cru – a frequent feature in Top-Whatever lists – and to be blunt, I fricking hated it. To me, it just wasn’t beer; it tasted like orange juice that was well past its used-by date. It’s puckering sourness almost made me choke on the inside of my cheeks; and the only thing that could rescue my palate was a large swig (or nine) of delicious Tuatara Ardennes.
Cue wibbly lines and cut-back to the present: I’m standing in the chiller of my local Fresh Choice (the embodiment of the phrase good things come in small packages), and spy a bottle of Nøgne Ø Tindved – a sour ale from Norway – on sale for Six Bucks. Bargain, I say to myself. Quickly followed by: You’re ready, Jase. Your palate has matured. You can do this.
(Mercifully, I also grabbed a bottle of Moa St Josephs, which – and perhaps it was the Port-In-A-Storm-ness of it all – was an unbelievably good Belgian Trippel.)
Cut to my first sip of Tindved: with my mouth puckering and face contorting, I quickly realised that I’m just not there yet. I’m sure it’s precisely what the brewer was after, and I wouldn’t even say that I hated it; more accurately, I just didn’t understand it. I think I’m just not smart enough yet. But one day, I will be – and it’s pretty exciting to think that on that day I’ll be able to take a sip of a sour beer and not immediately feel a sense of regret. (I could have had two Moa St Joseph’s. Two.)
The second bit of growing-up I did recently came courtesy of beer writer (and future star of the ‘Brew Hui Meets:’ profile series) Jono Galuszka. I had emailed him to sort out a time/location for the ‘interview’, and in his reply Jono left me with some sage advice – advice so sage, in fact, that it’s totally changed my plan for this project.
Jono’s suggestion was that I should seriously consider starting with something called SMaSH brewing; SMaSH standing for Single Malt and Single Hop. Jono reckons that only having one kind of malt (e.g. a pale ale malt) and one kind of hop (e.g. Riwaka) helps a complete greenhorn (moi) understand what those ingredients have to offer on their own, rather than augmenting their contribution with other players (like specialty malts or hops with different characters). It can also mean that there’s less moving parts for you to worry about during the brew, which is actually important to a natural worrier (moi again) who will already be All-Systems-Worry during those first few brew days.
Of course, the juicy temptation that presents itself to any newbie brewer is to try and replicate – or even improve – the jaw-dropping, drool-inducing beers made by their favourite breweries; or worse, to experiment with obscure ingredients and flavours. The appeal here is logical; but at the same time, ridiculous. Giving-in to this temptation – which I was just about to do, were it not for Jono’s timely advice – casually ignores the fact that all your favourite delicous drops (and even the off-the-wall ones) were created and brewed by experts who’ve probably been doing it for ages.
Newbies such as I are much better-off concentrating on the mostly-boring basics of brewing – like temperature control and sanitation – than trying to leap-frog our way to the top without paying our dues. In other words, I don’t need to aim for the stars – the clouds are just fine. And a ‘simple’ pale ale hopped with Riwaka sounds pretty-damn yummy to me.
Besides, I’m in this for the long haul. I’m learning to brew for life, not just for the life of this project. Thanks to Jono’s advice – and a bizarre beer from some Norweigian weirdos – I’ve realised that to make that happen, I need to learn to walk before I can run.
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