A few weeks ago, my wife and I were due to celebrate a rather special anniversary: sixteen years of Togetherness. The occasion was special enough as a stand-alone thing; but was made even more-so by a proportionality quirk – whereby sixteen years is precisely half-my-life-ago (and ever-so-slightly-less-than-half for my wife – she being a scandalous cradle-snatcher, and I a triumphant lady-killer).
A special occasion, of course, deserves a special celebration; and as such, we’d planned a hum-dinger. Babysitting was booked months ahead, as were plane tickets – our destination: Wellington.
On Beervana weekend.
(The location of our retreat – and the timing – wasn’t even my idea; Sixteen-year-old Jase clearly had exquisite taste in women. I can’t speak to the tastes of Seventeen-year-old Sarah.)
But wait: it gets better. To top things off, we’d somehow managed – with a lot of help from some wonderful friends – to weasel our way into the Brewers Guild of New Zealand Awards Dinner, scheduled for the Thursday night before Beervana. And our presence at the awards wouldn’t have been that weird – since beer writer Jono Galuszka had said some far-too-nice things about me on stuff.co.nz just a few days prior.
Gowns were bought, and suits were borrowed; but in retrospect, I probably should have seen the dark clouds on the horizon. It was all just a little too good to be true.
In a cruel embodiment of Best Laid Plans Etc., Swine Flu – a jolly nasty bug, as it turns out – not only put paid to our Wellington plans, but much more importantly dealt my sister a serious bout of pneumonia.
As you’ll soon discover, the theme that snakes its way through this week’s post is infection. In crude terms, infection is the disruption of homeostasis by a foreign agent – a disruption which stimulates a swift reaction from the infected thing itself, as it fights desperately to return to the way things were supposed to be. In beer terms, infection – by unwanted wild yeast, or undesired bacteria – can be a brewer’s worst nightmare; it can take the product of all your hard-work and turn it in a direction that you really didn’t want to head.
In other words, it can make your beer taste like shit.
The brew day for v2.0 of the Brew Hui Pale Ale went swimmingly, in almost all respects; having passed the awkward courting phase with my brew kit, I’m now very comfortable with its idiosyncrasies – and have developed little hacks to overcome its shortfalls. Pale Ale v2.0 also gave me a chance to brew with two of my Brothers-from-a-different-Mother, while their wee families played with my wee family – a perfect example of what this silly project was all about in the first place: good beer (or at least its pursuit), bringing people together.
Early signs were good – we’d wound-up with less volume than planned, but the Fifteen Litres that made it into the fermenter certainly looked like Pale Ale; and it kinda tasted like Pale Ale, too – albeit a deconstructed one, easily separated by even the most primitive palate into each of its individual components. But that’s normal; the sticky stuff had weeks to come together into something that resembled beer. I popped the cap onto the fermenter with great hope.
Predictably, it all turned to poos about a week into fermentation – I’d eagerly drawn a sample to measure the gravity, and check how it was tasting; but instead of something that looked and smelt like beer, the liquid that flowed into my measuring tube looked like apple juice and smelt like vinegar.
And it didn’t taste much better than it looked.
A short Google expedition later – not to mention some help from the Twitterverse – and my fears of infection appeared to be well-founded; the vinegary smell and intense cloudiness seems to point toward an aceto bacteria infection as the likely culprit.
Two-months-ago-Jase would have flown off the handle, biffed the beer down the drain, and then had a little sook in the corner. Maybe it was my sister’s serious convalescence – or some lovely well-timed words, from some lovely people – but I actually did precisely the opposite; I decided to respond to the situation with maturity. Ever the scientist, I just cognitively re-framed the whole thing as an experiment – to see what the little bacterium might do once I shoved them into a fastidiously-sanitised bottle.
A progress update on the experiment is pending; however I have – at least in my mind – already won. If the beer remains undrinkable, I’ll have learnt a good lesson: that attention to sanitation of the post-boil wort cannot be compromised under any circumstance (I can think of a couple of corners that I should probably stop cutting); and if the beer turns into something slightly-weird but eminently-drinkable, I’ll have learnt that bacterial infection isn’t the inoperable problem that it’s often made out to be.
But for now, we wait.
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