“This and the 1993 Chateau Yquem are my two favorite discoveries of this week,” the gentleman across from me said as he decisively set his glass of beer on the table and licked his lips, savoring the lingering bitterness of the double IPA.
The fact that my little home-brew was being grouped with the mythic Chateau Yquem wines made me blush. But what really flattered me was that the compliment was being paid by my host’s stepfather, who is Alsatian and therefore part of a region of people known for being headstrong and critical when it comes to food and adult beverages.
The beer was a discovery to me too, even though I was the one who made it. I had brought a beer I had recently made, a single hop Summit pale ale. Due to a new technique I had tried for the first and last time, it was very expressive upon opening, with the contents almost evenly split between beer and foam, which geysered almost endlessly from the bottle when first opened. Our hosts, Paul and Corinne suggested we enjoy my beer with lunch, a typical Alsatian spread of sauerkraut with sausages and potatoes. Paul managed to open one of the bottles without incident, leading me to believe that maybe some of the beers had escaped this unfortunate fate.
My befuddlement must have been clear, because Paul took one look at me and cleared up the confusion. “I pulled one over on you!” he said with a mischievous smile, “This is the first beer you made – we had a bottle left over and I saved it!” It had been almost a year since I brewed, and tasted, this beer. It had gotten better over time, finding a balance with the bitter and sweet notes, as well as a carbonation and foam that the young bottles didn’t posses. I handed a glass to the Alsatian, he nodded at me approvingly. “This is exactly what you need to go with a choucroute,” he announced to the table.
I started making beer last Autumn, after I came back from a Thanksgiving trip to the States with my luggage weighed down with hops, malts, and barley for my very first home brew. After following a recipe the first time around, I quickly decided to go out on my own and make up my own recipes, using hop varieties and roasted grains that would make the kind of beer I love to drink – balanced with a perfect harmony of bitter and sweet.
Brewing beer quickly proved itself to be the best way I’ve found to cure homesickness in my 11 years abroad. The familiar smells of beer ingredients transported me and made me time travel to my college years in the Pacific Northwest, and to Happy Hour demis at my favorite beer bar in Paris, Le Supercoin. Home-brewing in the French countryside, where I now live, allowed me to conjure up far-off happy places like Paris, which sometimes seemed a world away, along with the West Coast of my childhood.
I decided to start brewing beer to ensure that I would have a steady supply of craft beer in the countryside – but I never would’ve guessed that my neighbors would be equally enthusiastic about my brews.
Word got out that I was making beer and I suddenly had a long list of willing guinea pigs ready to try out the new recipes. I was even invited to a wine tasting in our nearest village to share my beer with locals and other wine makers. We were three brewers all together at the dégustation, and I had great feedback from fellow beer and wine makers all throughout the day. That evening, after the tasting had finished and the participants gathered for a communal dinner, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride as I pulled up a chair at a table of professional fermentors and shared a bottle of my very own beer.
Drinking that first bottle at Paul and Corinne’s house made me realize how much has happened since I followed that first recipe. A year has whizzed by in the countryside and this beer, as a good beer often does, inspired me to take the time to sip a little slower and savor the moment.
In the past year, I had learned to make beer but there were other things that brewing taught me, too. It taught me that actively pursuing what you want (in my case, beer) can have unexpected consequences that exceed your initial intention by far.
I was looking for beer and in the end found out that I was surrounded by people who were happy, and open-minded enough, to accompany me in my quest.
Brewing beer became creating a beer community, which is something no one tells you when you make your first beer, but I think it’s something that we all know. I still feel nostalgic when I brew beer, but a part of that has been replaced by another, more forward-thinking feeling. It’s a feeling of excitement not about drinking what’s in the bottle when it’s ready to be popped open, but of sharing it at a table filled with friends.