Worts and all

Krausen explosionI like beer! Hell, I luurrvve beer!! So much that I now brew my own, if not quite with the arcane artistry of the brewing adept then certainly with all the craftiness of the alehouse enthusiast.

After bottling my last batch of American Pale Ale, it struck me how alike the craft of brewing is to the craft of writing. They may even be cousins. Although, like cousins, they should probably be encouraged not to flirt with one another. Unless one is Blogging, of course, in which case its perfectly acceptable, arguably essential, to invite keg and keyboard to cuddle up next to each other at your table and let them footsie footsie.

But the point I’m making is not so much that they mix well – generally they don’t – but how similar they are in their composition. Indulge me awhile:

The fundamental element of all good books lies in Character. And so it is with an honest brew. Now, you can make beer with jungle oats and cane sugar if you wish, it shouldn’t kill you. It will undoubtedly get you talking Cantonese, if that’s your objective. Just as your typical airport fodder action-packed paperback will dull your senses and induce a time-draining stupor while you cling to life in the departure lounge like a big panda up a small tree. However, a good book hangs its success on good Characters. Likewise a good brew hangs its success on the characters of the grains, hops, sugars and yeast used. From the sinister richness of chocolate malts like Carafa 1; the aromatic caramel of Caramunich 2 and the lingering smoke of Beechwood Smoked malt to the spice and citrus flavours imparted by seductive hops such as Styrian Goldings, Amarillo, Crystal, Green bullet, Falconer’s Flight, the list is infinite… the combinations infinitely more.

The second element of a good book is Plot. To the brewer concocting his magic potion, this is akin to the recipe. Without a plot, your characters ramble and roam wild, crash into one another, hiss, spit and  scratch. There is no harmony, no chorus, no crescendo. Without a recipe, your homebrew, even with the best ingredients, can quickly degenerate into pigswill.

A point to note at this stage, a perfect plot melded with memorable characters is still no guarantee of an acceptable union. Sometimes, for reasons inexplicable, the whole concoction blunders and behaves poorly. If this happens to you while writing a novel, where your artistically created adversarial characters refuse to stick to the meticulously researched plot, preferring instead to get shit-faced together in the local pub, there is a recourse. Simple yet effective.
In the immortal words of Chris Baty, ‘Just add Ninjas!’ That’s right. Ninjas! Never fails! Send a squad of ninja’s into that pub and watch your protagonist and antagonist stop buddying up and start kicking the crap outta each other.
On brew day, hops are your Ninjas! Whole flower or pellet form. Who cares. When all else fails, hop that brew till it begs for mercy and forgiveness, then grit your teeth and hop it some more!

Now, armed with your characters and your plot, before you venture any further, just like a novel, your homebrew needs a hero: a protagonist…Enter the yeast! King of the ring! Yup, without these yeastie beasties your sugars will not magically morph into alcohol and your beer will be little more than glorified tea. Like heroes, yeasts also have their own character. Some are aggressive, some quiet, some need a slap upside the head to get them moving, but all are essential.

So then, our protagonist sorted, who, then, is our villain? The equivalent of our literary antagonist?

None other than…wait for it…. Infection! That’s okay. Easy now. it’s okay to be scared. Terrified even. The heinous evil of infection is well documented in brewing circles and has most of us sweating over our fermenters. But fear not. Your yeast, carefully trained, is more than a match for the most insidious of infections, and his repugnant army of offensive odours and foul flavours. And what’s more, he’s hungry for the fight.

To the third common element, then. The Crucible. What is this thing, I hear you ask. In scientific terms a crucible is a vessel capable of withstanding extreme heat, think iron smelting. In literary parlance the crucible is that which prevents the characters, especially the protagonist and antagonist, from escaping each other’s influence as events heat up. It can be a place or a desire or a relationship (the lifeboat in Life of Pi; the courtroom in A Few Good Men; the ring in Lord of the Rings;  the blossoming love in Romeo and Juliet). In brewing terms the crucible is firstly the brew kettle where the malts and hops combine, followed by the fermenting vessel where yeast battles infection for ultimate supremacy over the wort (the liquid tapestry that arises from the skilful blending of your lesser characters: the malt, hops and water.)

So then, eventually after numerous trials and tribulations the war is won. Your brew has survived. Good (yeast) has triumphed over evil (infection) and all manner of pitfalls in-between…ranging from extreme temperature fluctuations to Krausen explosions and over-zealous domestic workers trying to reclaim the nappy bucket before fermentation has run its course. Now what? Time to get it into consumable form. I’m alluding to publishing here. Bottling being the brewing equivalent. But you can’t bottle until your bottles are sterilised. Enter the editor. And this is crucial. Your beautiful golden brew can still sour in a bottle that hasn’t been disinfected properly. So be diligent, be cautious, be precise. Let the disinfectant (the editor) do their job.

Bottling complete, the next step is marketing – giving your creation a name, designing and producing the label, and an enticing blurb on the back (if your ale is a 10% skullsplitter then a PG rating is also advised).

And finally then to the ultimate prize: cracking the crown on your perfectly chilled homebrew; hearing the satisfying shwickk it makes before the bottle-top dances a jig on the counter; pouring it slowly, watching diamonds condense on the tilted glass, admiring the bubbles of cream that frolic to the surface and settle in a plush bed of luxurious froth; handing the glass to friend and living the first shlurp with them….ahhh…

Right people, it’s Friday, I’m officially thirsty, I’m off.

Have a good one!

About iantennent

Ian was born in Durban in 1973 but grew up in Zululand and loved it. Thereafter, he got himself a degree, a wife and a child (in that order). He's lived and died several times in the UK and now he and his family are back in KZN, where they belong. He can play squash but he can’t kite-surf; he can make beer but not biltong. View all posts by iantennent

One response to “Worts and all

  • Cynthia Atkinson


    Well written – I’m sold! C.


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