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Brewing David, Part 1

As soon as I know I am all alone, I quickly creep up into the attic crawlspace and spend a few stolen minutes with David. I make sure he’s all right, check his temperature, then tell him I love him and that I’ll be back soon. Then I slip back down the ladder and push it up into the ceiling before anyone’s home to ask questions.

David’s not a love interest — I already have one of those — but a 3-gallon carboy filled almost to the brim with a persimmon-colored liquid that in the past month, as David has gently chugged through a fermentation process, has changed from an impenetrable haze (think foggy day on Mars) to a seawater-like translucence.

I haven’t always thought of David as David. For the first several weeks of his existence, I thought of him as a half-batch of Saison du Mont, a type of Belgian beer. I decided to create David when I read about the Big Brew, an annual event for homebrewers sponsored by the American Homebrewing Association.

The AHA listed two suggested recipes for the Big Brew. One was a mild brown beer, and since at this stage in my homebrewing career almost everything I make turns out dark whether I want it to or not, that didn’t seem fun.

But the recipe for Saison du Mont was a little different. It had an author, a title, a story. There was a man named David Levonian; he was a husband, father, and homebrewer; he loved to brew Saisons; he created Saison du Mont; people liked him; he died far too young. This recipe — one of his creation — was offered in his honor.

I knew nothing of Saisons — I have possibly tasted one or two — but I knew this was the beer I would create, and I decided I would start early, well in advance of May 2, the day of the Big Brew, so I could try it several times.

The recipe itself was also alluring, with its interesting ingredients, such as honey, and grains of paradise — who knew paradise had a grain? — and its pre-European-Union flair. I lived near Belgium for two years in the 1980s, when Uncle Sam sent me to an airbase in Germany, and what I remember of Belgium is rakishly good food, mouth-filling beer, and highways flanked by tall yellow lights that gilded my Friday evening drives to Liege and Bruge and the Benalux.

David probably isn’t a good choice for a new homebrewer.  Saisons are fussy and complex, with counter-intuitive fermentation temperatures and delicate spicing, and David was only my fourth brew. My previous efforts at fairly modest beers — bitters, red ale, and porter — had their share of quality-assurance issues. My first beer would be undrinkable by most standards, with its mild malts overwhelmed by tannins extracted through clumsy timing and poor temperature control (though it does look pretty in the glass — a lovely amber with a creamy head).  With these clownish efforts, how could I possibly pretend to be ready for David?

My beginners’ beers have been somewhat of a lark, but I feel obligated to David. It bothers me that I can’t get his gravity reading (measured through a simple glass hydrometer dropped into a narrow flask of liquid) pushed low enough to be  a classic Saison. It makes me quite sad and worried that I cannot convince the yeast I fed him to make a lively enough presence to burn through the sugars in his wort until he is respectably dry, as a Saison should be.

“You don’t have to worry about that as long as you like the beer,” says my local homebrew store. I understand their point, but it bothers me that someone could live and die and leave a recipe, and now that he is gone and his recipe remains, I cannot enthuse a batch of yeast into recreating his beer.

I understand this has more to do with me than Dave Levonian; I realize this means I am worried that someday I will die and take all of myself with me, with nothing left to remember me by.

But I’d still really like to get this beer right.

So into the attic I creep. “I am trying to be my best for you,” I tell David, and adjust a crocheted afghan around him. The blanket keeps him warm; the blanket keeps him dark. The blanket reminds me I am not done.

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