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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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  1. occula wrote:

    That was a very fun and awesome essay!

    Hi, I’m a casual-beer-drinking pro-gay news librarian, the latter being how I found your site, which I’ve been dropping in on from time to time over the past year or so. Keep up the good writing.

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 12:43 pm | Permalink
  2. Jonathan wrote:

    What a wonderful post. I wish I could get a taste of David through my RSS reader when he’s done.

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  3. Jon Gorman wrote:

    Hmmmm, Colleen likes knitting, but hates crochet. Maybe I can convince her to make the world’s biggest sock for my carboys.

    Funny thing about Grains of Paradise. Been wanting to use them in a beer for a while now and have only tasted it in commercial beers. Then a few months ago see a “Good Eats” where Alton Brown talks about a hip new spice he’s been using to substitute for pepper called…Grains of Paradise. (Alton’s covered homebrewing in the same show, so I can’t help but wonder if that’s how he tasted the spice….)

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 2:29 pm | Permalink
  4. Dinah PHillips wrote:

    I like all your beer posts. This one was very rich, the way I like beer!

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  5. Hey all, what a delight to find comments on this post, after a long day on the road! Thanks, there will be more about David…

    Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 8:56 pm | Permalink
  6. Brendan wrote:

    As a homebrewer/librarian I have to say relax, don’t worry and have a homebrew. Your Florida ambient temps should ensure a complete fermentation… but, and it’s always but with saison, depending on your yeast strain your primary may take up to 8 weeks. Fear not autolysis or other humbugs the homebrew forum trolls will throw at you. Time is on your side with a Saison. I have never had a bad result if I was patient. Use your hydrometer and do not even think of transferring until the beer is in the terminal range. Go all grain and you can get some ridiculous final gravities. As for David, Gawd help us all to live to our 72-76 range at minimum, as I’ve promised my S.O. 50 years, c’mon body don’t make me a liar.

    Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 1:21 am | Permalink
  7. Brendan, thanks for the words of comfort! My next primary for a Saison (when I get some time… whenever that may happen… May 2, perhaps?!) will just chug and chug along. I am planning a partial-mash for David Part 2… that should help push the FG. ANNNNDDDD, a yeast starter. I’m planning to live to 90, by the way. Just warning everyone :-)

    Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 6:25 am | Permalink
  8. Jon Gorman wrote:

    And catching up, to clarify I meant there was a “Good Eats” episode on homebrewing as well, not that the Grains of Paradise (love that name) and the homebrewing episode were one and the same.

    (And I apologize to all those who don’t care. I am just a bundle of tangents pretending to be a sentient lifeform.)

    Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 8:09 am | Permalink
  9. tom i wrote:

    To the author:

    Dave was a good friend of mine for many years. We began brewing together as roommates in college. He kept brewing, I quit and drank his beer. He would be very happy to know someone was brewing his recipe. He would tell you not to sweat the details. The important thing is that you enjoy the process and hopefully the results.

    God Bless.

    Tuesday, May 12, 2009 at 3:15 am | Permalink

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