Into and Out of the Mouths of Babes

When my daughter Lucy was born in 1988 in Boston I had only recently started homebrewing with three friends.  In the evenings I was working in a nominally fancy French restaurant as a waiter and wine steward, in order to keep my days free for what I really wanted to do, which was mainly writing fiction.  Money was tight, and we didn’t have the resources for any babysitting help, or daycare; in fact, my then-wife and I cleaned house and did the shopping for our landlady, who lived upstairs, in consideration of a reduction in our rent.  So where childcare was concerned, the balance we struck involved my staying with Lucy during the days, thereby pretty much putting a stop to the long, unbroken stretches of time during which writing inspiration would either strike, or not.

But as a new creative outlet, there was homebrewing, and as a lot of its endeavors involved short bursts of activity—transfers, bottling, cleaning, and researching whatever it was I wanted to brew next.  Even if she was up and awake, I could keep up with a lot of my brewing-related chores while Lucy played, or sat watching me.  Every other week we drove across the city to the only shop that sold homebrewing supplies, and Lucy would sit on my back in our Gerry backpack as I crushed two batches’ worth of grain on a hand-cranked flour mill.  It’s safe to say that she was pretty closely on hand for the critical early stages of my incipient career as a brewer.

By the time my son Nap was born, a little under five years later, we were living in Seattle and I was working in a small brewery there.  It would be another three years before I started my own brewery, Elysian, and as the brewery I worked at mainly produced a single beer, those of us who worked there remained active homebrewers, trying out new things and brewing styles we weren’t able to do at work.  Generally I let the kids taste not just small amounts of some of the beers I brewed, but the ingredients that went into them.  Lucy, in fact, had a common memory with Nick, the younger son of my girlfriend Kim (who of course started New Belgium with her ex-husband Jeff back during approximately these same years), about eating some of the spelt that their dads were using in their respective home breweries to brew some rarified and exotic beer.

It turned out Lucy could tell good from bad.  I remember a time when during my next brewing gig I brought home a growler of a new lager I had brewed, a Dortmunder, and she asked first of all what it was I was drinking and then whether she could taste it.  It was good, she said, with only a little hesitation, and then that she thought it tasted a little like corn.  Well, for those in the know, a corny taste is an earmark of a fairly common flavor flaw in beer, and in lagers in particular.  Dimethyl sulfide, or DMS, can be the result of an insufficiently vigorous boil or a shorter than optimal period of lagering.  Think Rolling Rock and you’ll know what I’m referring to.  Well, at age five, Lucy was able to pick it up in my beer, even if she wouldn’t yet have been able to identify it by name.  I was both bursting with pride and a little discontented that the beer I was proud to have brewed wasn’t quite right, its off-ness evident to a well-trained child.

Naturally my kids developed preferences, based on the sips they were allowed, and we also had rules.  At parties, for example, they were not to help themselves to partial beers sitting out unattended—none of that surreptitious tottering for them—if there was to be any tasting at all, it would be authorized by me.  Honestly it never became an issue.  But as I say, they did have their preferences.  Lucy’s tastes were fairly broad-ranging, while Nap seemed to like things with a touch of difference.  He liked Guinness, and he liked Saison Dupont.  He often liked things with a touch of tartness.

One afternoon a couple of years later the kids were swinging on a rope swing on the pear tree in my backyard.  I was—go figure—sitting on the steps drinking a beer.  Lucy, who at that point was probably about eight, came over and asked me for a taste.  I gave it to her and when she put it to her lips she became visibly excited.  “Nap!” she called out, clearly feeling herself onto something special, “Rodenbach!”  My kids were both clearly fans of the Flemish reds—or at least the best of them.  I’m pretty sure Nap at the time was not much more than three.

I spent nearly every Fathers’ Day during those years at a particular beer festival held just outside of Seattle.  While dads and their families constituted most of the attendees, I never felt particularly inconvenienced by missing out on a day with my kids.  In truth there were plenty of others of those, and my family had never been particularly devoted to the lesser holidays.  And of course I could rest reasonably assured that where beer was concerned I had passed on some important lessons.