in which my son and i bottle our beer

I walked down the hallway toward the guest room, and started talking before I got to the door.

"Hey, I just looked at my calendar, and I miscalculated when we should bottle our beer."

I stepped off the wood floor of the hallway and onto the soft carpet we just had installed. I involuntarily squished it between my toes.

Ryan was sitting at the desk, headphones on, playing WoW.

"Hey!" I said, loudly.

He kocked one can off his right ear with the back of his hand. "What?"

"I miscalculated when we are supposed to bottle our beer."

He clicked the mouse around the screen. Numbers floated around the screen, words scrolled through the chat window in a blur, and for the millionth time I tried and failed to see the appeal of the game.

"Oh? When do we do it?" Click click click.

"Today. It's been three weeks, and our specific gravity hasn't changed in three days."

"Dude!" He spun around in his chair. "That's awesome!"

"I know, right?!" I noticed that some words had joined the numbers, and a bunch of little things were running around his player thing. "Aren't you going to, um, die?"

"No, I'm really high level. I can handle it." He said.

"Oh … well … there's a lot going on there and … numbers … are …"

Now I know how my dad felt when I tried to explain how awesome it was that we killed a Lich in D&D when I was 12.

"The important thing is, today we're bottling our beer." I said, "so we need to sanitize our bottles and everything."

He grinned. "Okay. Give me a minute."

"A minute minute, or an I'm-playing-a-game minute?"

"Sixty seconds." He clicked the mouse again and pushed some keys on the keyboard. A flurry of numbers danced around and some graphics that looked like blasts of Eldritch power shot out of his guy into something that sort of looked like a monster.

When I roll dice and do this in my head, it's awesome … but I just do not get this at all. I thought with a mental sigh.

I walked on down the hall, came to a door, and looked inside.

"Sorry, you'll have to put your boots on if you want to come in here," a guard in a tie-dyed shirt and nothing else said.

(I may have made that last bit up for my own amusement.)

Forty-three seconds later, Ryan joined me in my office.

"You killed that guy?"

"Yeah."

I searched my memory for dialog from The Guild.

"Did you make some … epic … loot … um … drop?" I asked.

"Nothing epic, but the other guys got some decent stuff." He said.

"Did you get … a … loot?" I picked up a six pack of bottles in each hand.

"No," he said, patiently, "there wasn't anything there I could use." He picked up a case of bottles, and we walked to the kitchen together.

"Well … um … awesome!" I said, secretly proud of my ability to fake it through the conversation, and grateful that Ryan didn't call me out.

As we began washing our bottles, I realized that we only had 30, about 20 bottles less than we'd need for the whole batch.

"I thought we drank more beer," I said.

"We did, but that was at comicon," he said.

"Oh, that's right." I plunged some bottles into the sink and let them fill with water.  They sank to the bottom and I picked up some more to join them.

"I'm actually looking forward to going back to college, because it'll give me a chance to detox my liver after spending the summer with you."

We laughed. "Hey, these beer bottles aren't going to empty themselves," I said.

"And we can't just pour them out, because that would be alcohol abuse," he added.

"See? This is what I'm talking about. Clearly, I've raised you right."

Once the sink was filled with bottles and my hands were dry, I counted one more time, just to be sure: we were about a case of bottles short.

"I'm going to run over to the homebrew shop and pick up a case of bottles. Do you want to come with me?"

"No, I'll stay here and finish washing these. I want to get the labels off the Sierra Nevadas."

"Okay. Be right back."

I drove to the homebrew shop in Eagle Rock. The man who we first talked to three weeks ago was working. I asked him for a case of 12 ounce bottles, and when he rang me up, I said, "I don't know if you remember me, but my son and I came in here three weeks ago. You talked us through the whole brewing process, and helped us get our kit and first batch of beer together."

"Yes! You looked familiar, but I couldn't figure out why." He said.

"Well, today we are bottling that batch, and I wanted to thank you for being so kind and helpful. I was so intimidated by the idea of brewing, if you hadn't taken the time to explain it to us, I probably wouldn't have had the courage to start."

He punched some numbers into the register, and I continued. "My son and I have had an absolute blast brewing since then. We've made a one gallon all-grain IPA, we've made ginger ale, and we've made two kinds of bread and dog biscuits with the spent grain. We've had this wonderful father/son activity, and it's meant the world to me."

He smiled.

"So … um … thank you, for that," I said, realizing that I'd been rambling.

"You're welcome! It's my pleasure. Once you figure out that it's really just some basic steps, it's not that difficult."

"I know! We're going to make a couple more recipes, and then we'll build something of our own."

I handed him some money and he said, "that's the best part. You can experiment with different kinds of grain to get different styles, and you'll have all kinds of fun figuring out how to make a brown ale and then a porter and then a stout, or whatever you want to make."

"We're keeping a journal, and I've read the Papazian book and the John Palmer's book. I just got the recipe book in the mail this morning, and I'm taking it on location next week so …" I realized, again, that I was rambling. "I guess what I'm trying to say is 'thank you for introducing me to something awesome to do with my son that I also know is going to be a passion of mine for the rest of my life."

"You're welcome," he said, kindly. He handed me my change and my case of bottles, and I headed back home.

"I just finished," Ryan said when I walked into the kitchen, "and I need to break for lunch."

"No problem," I said. We ate some food while I rinsed the Oxy Clean off all of the bottles, then we filled our bottling bucket and added some StarSan. For the next half an hour or so, we sanitized the bottles by hand, and set them out to dry.

"99 bottles of beer on the wall, 99 bottles of beer," Ryan sang, softly, "you take one down, put it on the ground, and then you have to sanitize the bottles again."

I laughed. "Yeah, this is ponderous, man. It's fuckin' ponderous." Is Don on the phone? Get Don on the phone! And where are those pictures I was supposed to see today?! "I think we should invest in a kegging system."

We talked about quantum physics and this story we're writing together while we worked our way through the bottles. When we had about ten left I said, "You know, maybe this isn't so bad. I mean, it's something we're doing together, right? If we weren't doing this, you'd be playing WoW and I'd be reading Reddit. I'd much rather spend this time with you, washing bottles and talking about stuff, then doing anything else."

"Yeah," he said, "me too."

Finally, the bottles were all sanitized. We let them dry, then covered them with foil to keep out the bad stuff. We boiled our priming sugar, put it into our sanitized bucket, and then siphoned the beer out of our carboy and into the bucket.

"Holy shit," Ryan said, "that smells and looks like beer!"

I pinched the siphon and grabbed our hydrometer tube thing. I put some beer into it and handed it to him. "Go ahead and taste it," I said.

He took a sip, and I watched a thoughtful look pass across his face before being instantly replaced with joyful excitement. "OH MY GOD IT IS TOTALLY BEER!"

I shared his excitement as I put the siphon back into the bucket, and let it continue filling. We checked the temperature and took a gravity reading. "It looks like it's 1.024," I said. Ryan concurred. "I think that means we're going to end up around four percent or so, which I think is pretty okay for this style of beer."*

"I don't care what percent it is, as long as it tastes good," he said.

"Are you sure you're in college? I asked. I took the hydrometer out of the beer, and set it carefully on the counter. Then, I sipped the beer. "It is totally beer," I said. "I'm so proud of us!"

The bucket finished filling, and we moved it up onto the counter. We grabbed a cooking pot out of a drawer, and put some bottles in it. "Ryan, would you like to fill our first bottle?" I asked.

"Why yes, yes I would."

He put the siphon into an empty brown bottle. When it pressed against the bottom, a valve opened up, and beer began to fill it. When it was right at the neck, he took it out, and I rested a cap (sitting in our no-rinse sanitizing solution, of course) on top of it. Paternal pride swelled in my chest, and threatened to push something out of the corners of my eyes.

When he finished the rest of the bottles, we moved them to the counter, refilled the pot with empties, and then filled them. We repeated this process until we had bottled just about four and a half gallons.

"Okay, let's cap these little beauties!" I said.

I held the first bottle steady as Ryan put the capper onto the top, and pressed the handles down. He lifted it away, and we both just stared at it for a few seconds.

"Dude," Ryan said, "that's our first bottle of beer!"

Earlier that afternoon, I'd bought some 1/4 inch round stickers at the store. We'd loaded an OpenOffice document and made a sheet of 24 for each of us that said California Pale Ale in our own font and color, so we'd know which beer belonged to whom. I picked up Ryan's sheet of labels and stuck one of his stickers on the bottle.

"I want you to have the first one," I said. I don't know if it was as important and meaningful to him as it was to me, but when he thanked me and carefully set it to one side, I thought that maybe it was.

We capped all of our beers, putting labels on as we went. We numbered the first ten bottles because we're nerds and we like to do that sort of thing. Then, we were finished. We looked at the counter in my kitchen, covered with bottles that were filled with beer. Our beer. Beer we had made. Together.

"I love that we did this," I said.

"Me too," Ryan said. "Is it two weeks, yet?"

I smiled. "Nope. But it will be two weeks before we know it."

When that day arrives, it will be bittersweet for me. On one hand, we get to try our beer for the first time, but it also means that Ryan will be going back to school a day or so later. But I'm looking forward to getting on Skype with him in a month or so, and through the miracle of technology, having one of our beers, that we made, together … and as far as loot goes, that's pretty epic at any level.

* After writing this, I checked my notes and looked at all our charts and conversion tables. Surprise! I misread the hydrometer. We were actually at 1.018, which should come out of the bottle between 3 and 4 percent ABV. Or I was right, I'm going to have an exploding, beer-filled closet in a week. I'll just play the waiting game until next Friday, and then I should know.

Okay, waiting game sucks; it's time for Hungry Hungry Hippos.

165 thoughts on “in which my son and i bottle our beer”

  1. Awesome. I’m blocking out the next Sunday class on my schedule now!
    I have the sneaking suspicion that it’s totally going to take me almost as long to come up with a name and label design I like, as brewing the beer.

  2. My husband and his brother have been brewing in the kitchen/backyard/now garage for about 12 years. Now that we have 2 daughters, they help out and will sometimes throw candy in the boil kettle. They love to pinky dip and taste the different beers.
    They moved to grain only about 5 years ago and 2 years ago bumped up their keg system to a 7 tap (deep freezer style) kegerator. It takes up a good portion of the beer room in our den. But is worth it over all the bottles.
    You, my friend, are in for a very fun obsession. And if you are in the Seattle area next June ’12, you should stop by the National Homebrew Conference. BEST time ever!!!

  3. With the multitude of comments you’re getting, it may be a little overwhelming to get through it all.
    The one thing no one has said, it that you are doing much better making your first beer than some people making their tenth.
    One of the coolest things about being a home brewer is the first sip from your very first beer . When you finally crack open that pale ale you will probably enjoy that beer more than any other beer you have ever had.
    In the words of the great Charles Papazian, “Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew.”
    Cheers!
    Oscar
    San Antonio, TX

  4. If you ever have any questions or want to geek out on brewing or would like me to enjoy your beer, email me at john at howtobrew.com
    All the best,
    John

  5. You guys should give Mead making a go! Not nearly as complicated as beer brewing, and the wait is excruciating, but it makes you feel like a Viking. And that’s never a bad thing.
    If you’re not fond of wine then it may not be for you, but still, it’s easy and costs about $15 for roughly a gallon!
    My dad loved it so much he drank half my batch. And not gonna lie, got a little emotional.

  6. You’ve gotten a lot of great advice, and it’s wicked awesome that John Palmer dropped by! I also have his book on my shelf, and until recently listened to the Brewing Network podcasts all the time. (I even have a hop grenade tattoo — that was a wild night with some pro brewer friends.)
    ANYWAY
    My two cents on a couple of things:
    1. The dishwasher idea isn’t bad, but the folks I know who do that usually run it empty first to clear any residual dish soap. Dish soap in your bottles will ruin head retention and may leave weird flavors.
    2. If your StarSan ratios are correct (which, knowing you, I’m confident they are), you don’t have to let the bottles dry — StarSan is a “no rinse” sanitizer and does not affect the flavor or anything else of your beer. Remember, the more time any of your equipment or beer is exposed to air, the more you risk infection.
    3. I don’t know any homebrewers that still use secondary fermenters unless necessary for the style or particular recipe. (I think even John Palmer recommends against it.) Pro breweries don’t do it (unless necessary), and again, it’s just another opportunity for something to go wrong. Very few styles will suffer negatively from being kept on the yeast until you’re ready to bottle or keg, so long as you crash it as described above before transferring to the bottling bucket.
    Welcome to the club — let us know when you enter your first competition!

  7. Ditto what Arlene said — you and Ryan should make it to NHC in Seattle, we’re shooting to host in Austin in 2014 or later.
    You should join the American Homebrewers Association, benefits include Zymurgy magazine to your door every other month, as well as access to the AHA forum — great resource!
    Can’t pimp Zymurgy without mentioning Brew Your Own magazine, great articles and recipes as well.
    Other recommended reading is “Brewing Classic Styles” by Jamail Zainasheff and John Palmer.
    Good luck with your homebrewing!

  8. Why stop with power tools? You could just get some medical oxygen and a diffusion stone and run it into the carboy at 2L/second for a few minutes…
    Oh, wait. That’s what I did. My scavenge-fu is strong.

  9. Thank you for this. It takes me back to the mid-1990s, when I was brewing with my brother-in-law: We called ourselves “The Brews Brothers,” and designed a logo (featuring us in fedoras and ray-bans, holding big mugs of suds), which we used on our ink-jet printed labels. My son, only about five or six then, and too young to actually participate in the brewing, “blessed” each newly-capped bottle with a kiss.
    Long story short, my brother-in-law moved to Nevada for various reasons and we fell out-of-touch. We moved to a different place that had a lot less room, so there was no proper place to resume brewing, even if I had found a brew-buddy.
    About a year or so, my wife demanded that I clean out the garage refrigerator, in which we had once stored our brews. I discovered an old “library” bottle of our standard pale ale. I couldn’t stand to pour the beer out without tasting it, even after so many years. I popped the top: Nice fizz and mist! I sniffed. It didn’t smell off at all. I poured it into a mug: Nice head, clear color, and good carbonation with tiny bubbles! So I got brave and took a sip. Amazingly, this 15-year old bottle of beer was … GOOD. It did seem a little stale, I admit, but it was very, eminently drinkable and I wouldn’t have been embarrassed to serve it to a friend. I drank that beer as slowly as I could, enjoying every memory it invoked, and I was sad when it was gone.
    So, was it my son’s blessing, the extreme care that my brother-in-law and I took with the ingredients and process, or simple dumb luck that preserved that beer for so long? All I can say is, do your absolute best, put some real heart into the beer — make sure the good memories of the experience get into the bottle — and, with a bit of luck thrown in, maybe you will enjoy a surprising experience like mine, ten or more years down the road. It can happen. Since then, I have harbored thoughts of resuming the homebrew hobby with my son, now 20 and living two hours north. Your blog posting makes me want to get serious about that, now more than ever. Maybe we’ll brew a batch for his 21st. Hmmmm….

  10. Thanks for sharing this part of your life with us Wil. I do appreciate it. My own brewing experience is small and related mostly to Mr. Beer kits and a one shot at making honey mead in a 5 gallon container. I am sure I will be edu-macated by reading your blog. Hope to see you at Dragoncon this year!

  11. No offense to Geoff but that carbonation lid will not use less CO2 than just putting on head pressure. Once the liquid reaches the saturation point for the current temperature/pressure no more CO2 gets used either way. What the lid IS good for is carbonating faster. But IMHO faster is not necessarily better, green beer is still green beer.

  12. I love how many Whil Wheaton fans are home brewers, and this post got a reply from John Palmer. Epic.
    My friends I have started a series of brews based on Game of Thrones. We have “High Garden Honey Wheat Ale” in the primary right now.
    A great tool for tracking and creating recipes is Hoppville. http://hopville.com/
    It’s a great resource and community and it’s by donation.
    Did you get a chance to try any of the great BC brews while filming here?
    Happy brewing!

  13. I’m about eighteen years into homebrewing, and I think it’s the best hobby ever.
    There are two keys to nice low final gravities: good wort formulation and good healthy yeast. With both of those, you can routinely finish at 1.010 – 1.014, making a crisper, dryer beer. Of course, if you *want* a big, meaty beer, nothing wrong with finishing higher.
    The best thing I ever did for my beer’s quality was invest in a temperature-controlled fridge for fermenting. Here (just northwest of LA), I would not be able to brew good beer for half the year without it.
    The best thing I ever did to make brewing enjoyable was to invest in a serving fridge and a kegging setup (yes, I have two beer fridges). Bottling is just such a pain it makes the whole thing seem like a chore. It’s tolerable with a brewing partner, but solo, eugh. Kegging is so much easier it can’t even be compared – now, I can package ten gallons of beer in under an hour, most of that spent having a glass while the siphon runs. Plus, the carbonation is always exactly right.

  14. This is what the conversation between my son and I will be like in seventeen years. Or whatever.
    Honestly, this is close to how I was raised. My folks are both brewers (mom = beer, dad = wine) and from a very early age I learned to appreciate the craft of beer and whatnot. It’s part of that farm-life attitude.
    Rock on.

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