The subject matter of this week’s post cuts so close to the quick that my fingers are bleeding; and I’m not entirely sure what my family will make of it. But after long and careful consideration – and a not-insignificant amount of soul-searching – I’ve decided that the themes are sufficiently universal that it’s okay to share.
Last month, my Nana died – suddenly, if that makes a difference. I know what you’re thinking: everyone’s Nana dies; but she wasn’t anyone’s Nana, she was my Nana. I adored her completely – she was the kind of person that I aspire to be: selfless, generous, and beautiful in every respect. Her absence feels like a knife in my side that occasionally twists.
For various reasons – that are too personal to share – our whānau is a small but commensurately tight one. As our matriarch, Nana’s passing has hit us all like a metaphorical sledgehammer; and to be perfectly honest, we’ve been doing it tough. But we’ve been doing it tough together – with the poxy lyrics to Lean On Me suddenly taking on great relevance and meaning.
For a little while, I gave serious consideration to abandoning the Brew Hui project. Amidst all these significant events, the project just seemed so insignificant. But as the days since Nana’s passing turned to weeks – and acute wound slowly morphed to incurable chronic ailment – the true heart of the project slowly began to reveal itself.
Here’s the thing: it turns out that great beer – and the pursuit of its creation – is an excellent distraction from profound loss. For several of my whānau, it’s an utterly-neutral common-ground that we share – one that presents very little danger of inadvertently stumbling across a memory that could draw further tears from the seemingly-bottomless well. I for one have clung to our ridiculous, pointless and yet somehow deeply important beery discussions like a raft in a stormy sea.
As time moved on, it slowly dawned on me that I was faced with an enviable opportunity to use the Brew Hui project to contribute to our family’s healing – to stretch its legs, and exercise its core values: namely, that good beer brings people together. It was time for a whānau brew day.
With the idea born, invitations swiftly followed – and as if they’d all been waiting for it (in an About Time, Jase kind of way), by lunchtime Sunday our modest home was bustling to the brim with the welcome noise of family.
The day called for the production of stout; but being my first brew day since the Best Bitter Debacle, you could have cut the apprehension in the air with a blunt knife. All faith in my own brewing ability – and any semblance of it held by my loved ones – had gone down the drain with the bucket full of bollocks; so stepping onto my deck with a big sack of pale ale malt – and a small one of darker, chocolatey-looking stuff – I was earnestly seeking redemption.
The first thing to shit itself was the valve leading from the mash tun; it decided that today would be a good day to start leaking, a fact we fortunately noticed before stirring-in the grain. We gathered around the mash tun and brainstormed various solutions – none of which worked – and finally made the decision to live with a slow leak. We needn’t have worried; once the grain was in, the leak was plugged and the mash was on.
The second thing to shit itself was an old favourite; as I went to turn the valve to drain first runnings after the mash, I said to the gathered whānau: “If this flows out nicely, we’re in good shape.” My wife captured the moment when that dickhead Murphy reared his ugly head again:
You know, if I ever meet that bloke Murphy I’m going to punch him in the nose.
I could easily have gone on tilt, and spiralled down a cascade of poor decisions into a resultant clusterf**k. But I didn’t; instead, I decided to buck previous trends and remain optimistic. I assessed my assets – several highly-intelligent strong blokes, and a few even-smarter women – and then called on my own empirical experience for a solution.
Following a brew-in-a-bag-style muslin intervention – and a couple of mid-sparge gravity checks, a lesson-learnt from the Best Bitter Debacle – we somehow produced exactly the right amount of pre-boil wort, at exactly the right gravity. After an uneventful boil – well, uneventful if you don’t count that near-miss with the flame squirting from the side of the burner – and a crash-cool, we were left with the most delicious nineteen litres of wort I’ve ever tasted.
In terms of brew day problems, we’d faced more than ever; but much like my Nana’s passing, we’d faced and overcome them together. We’d leaned on each other when we needed to, and the resulting product was a worthy source of pride.
A week after the brew day, we gathered again at Galbraith’s for a tasting paddle and a debrief. It was Papa’s first visit to Mt Eden’s shining beacon – and always the carpenter, he made several references to the gorgeous Macrocarpa bar-top and solid Kauri tables. As we drew from our half-pints of Bob Hudson’s Bitter (a must-have for any trip to Galbraith’s, if only as a cap-tip to the ghosts of Beer Geek Past), I couldn’t help but giggle at the circumstance: here were three generations of our whānau, waxing lyrical about a seemingly-arbitrary liquid – all while (inadvertently) strengthening the bonds that glue us together. They queried the health of the fermentation, almost like they were asking after a newborn child; I was happy to announce excellent progress, with near-perfect gravity and an already-delicious flavour.
It was a happy lunch – peppered with outstanding Galbraith’s beers and plenty of verbal diarrhoea (mostly, if not entirely, on my part). Perhaps we were just grateful for the distraction; regardless, the timing could not have been more perfect.
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