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. My first batch was a little high on the final gravity too, it usually tastes fine, but it may be a little weak.
    Two tips my LHBS (Local Home Brew Shop) told me: 1) for ales, use the wet yeasts that are stored in the refrigerator, I use Safale, and 2) if you want some kick, add an extra pound of maltodextrin to a 5 gallon batch. My usual OG is 1.08, and the final is about 1.01.
    Enjoy your brew (and time with your son). If you wouldn’t mind posting the ‘also ran’ names on your blog after the label is posted, I’d like to see some of the other ideas.

  2. I loved reading this. I’m just wondering how on earth you can have a son in college when you look like you’re in your 20s still. I had to check imdb. :)
    Thank you so much for sharing. I find myself following your posts more and more (not to sound like a stalker, of course). Take care!

  3. I really enjoyed reading this, and I love that you realized this story was more about the connection between you and Ryan than just the brewing process. You two are lucky to have such a relationship; cherish these bonding times. I wish I were able to have similar experiences with my parents.

  4. Thanks for sharing this great slice of life. I hope that one day when I have kids I can find something like this to share w/ them.
    Also, if you get really ambitious, you’ll have to start making your own cheese to accompany your artisan beers. :)

  5. Every time I read your blog I am more impressed! My son is a few years out of college and I love him more each day and love interacting with him as an adult. Such special times. So glad you have this too! By the way, your work on The Guild, Eureka and The Big Bang is splendid – you really play a not so likable person very well!

  6. Your FG is only a little high. That can be for a variety of reasons including having quite a bit of unfermentable sugars. Not likely a real issue with exploding bottles at that low of a level if anything does ferment out even though you’re using recycled craft brew bottles. Sierra Nevada still uses decent quality glass last I heard. Someone stated in an earlier comment that maltodextrin would give you an extra “kick.” I don’t know what they meant by that but it is an unfermentable sugar that increases creaminess or “mouthfeel” and improves head retention, not boost the alcohol content.
    And yeah, the waiting game stinks.

  7. Also, one trick to tell when it’s carbonated is to fill one plastic soda/water bottle that has a good sealing cap. Your beer is carbonated when the bottle is firm. (or even slightly expanded!) You’ll mellow some of the harsher flavors of freshly carbonated beer by waiting an extra week or three before refrigerating it but chances are it will be highly drinkable anyhow soon after becoming fizzy.

  8. I’m glad your experiences at our store have been good and you’re enjoying brewing so much. It’s a great hobby (I liked it so much I bought the store!) Btw, 1.018 is in the acceptable range for a beer of that style and should yield about 4% alcohol. But don’t take the advice of the gentleman who suggested adding malto-dextrin for an “extra kick” it’s unfermentable and is used to add body to beer.
    P.S. I did recognize you eventually but I wanted to check the name on your credit card before I said anything. But you paid cash, so my witty meemaw line went unused. Maybe by next time I’ll have caught up with my Eureka viewing.

  9. This was really awesome to read. It’s got me pumped about doing this with my son someday (got a while to wait, though, considering he’s only 4 months old). Thanks so much for sharing!

  10. Thank you again for all of your kindness and help. I'll be in frequently, so you'll have plenty of opportunities to use your witty meemaw line!

  11. Pretty cool that you brewed beer with your son. I’m a tad jealous, not to mention I’d like to try some of the IPA. Hopefully it turns out pretty good.

  12. Long time listener, first time caller! I wouldn’t find looking over someone’s shoulder during a high level WoW fight interesting either. Blizzard has gotten into overblown spell effects, it’s just stupid. Have you created a character? Starting your own humble little fellow and working up your accomplishments can be a lot of fun. Just don’t make it one of the two new races, the goblin or the worgen. (I tried a goblin and my feeling was OMG if this had been my first experience with WoW, no way I’d be playing. I’ve heard the worgen starting area isn’t any better.) But the game has become friendlier for casual players overall. Anyhoo, I’m glad you’re having fun with family, that’s pretty cool. :0)

  13. (Disclaimer: I’m a professional brewer and brewery consultant)
    I’ll second the advice on cold crashing, especially if you’re going to keg eventually. It’ll help the yeast drop out, which means less yeast left in the beer, and a cleaner flavor. Actually, if you’re going to do five gallon batches and you’ve got the room, I’d advise a dedicated beer fridge and something like this to control the temperature. You can keep your carboy at (for example) 68, then do a controlled crash 52–>42–>32 (or however cold the fridge will go) for the best yeast drop. That’s what (on a larger scale) breweries do. If you are going to keg, I’d recommend getting one of these to carbonate. Uses a lot less CO2 than just putting head pressure on. Let me know if you need any advice.

  14. As I read your post my IPA nearly came out of my nose. Great post, great dad, and I am sure, great beer. Now I hoist my glass to you sir, in the hopes my daughters may some day like beer enough to brew with me.

  15. I’m so jealous. A friend and I started a batch of mead three months ago. It goes into bottles st the end of the month and I can’t wait to bottle my first batch of homebrew. So jealous.

  16. Just in case, we have a spare bathroom shower that now holds all stages of beer until we know it won’t explode. Fewer worries that way (I would mourn any lost beer more than the mess).

  17. I can’t believe Ryan is old enough to drink! I have been reading your blog for so long I remember when he was barely a teen! Man does time fly. Thanks for sharing.

  18. This was a great read. My husband and I started homebrewing at the beginning of the year, and it has become a great hobby for us to share. It really is something you can bond over, at every stage of the beer’s wonderful little life.

  19. I have an offer for you: I’ll be in Atlanta 4 weeks from now; I’ve got some bottles of the #1 rated beer in the world that I had shipped home from Europe, “Westvleteren 12″. If you’d like to meet up and have one, maybe one night for dinner, let me know. I’m having dinner with Larry Elmore and some of his artist buddies one night, but in general I can work around your schedule. Let me know; it’d be fun to meet you and share some beer!

  20. You know, those are the kinda moments and stories between a child and a parent that that child will remember and take with them for the rest of their lives, probably tell their own children later on in life. I loved reading it. Thanks, Wil.

  21. The last time my Dad did home brew I was far too young to a)remember and b) drink it.
    Since that time, my Mom outlawed the home brewing as it apparently made the basement smell like a brewery. Was the smell really all that bad? Or is it not that noticeable just because you’re looking forward to the final product?

  22. Busy post, nice sediment… er, sentiment. It’s not really about the beer, I know, but I’ll still add a comment about it. Back when I did homebrew, I found that 2 liter pop bottles make excellent beer wessels. Once cracked though, they need some willpower to close up and put back into the fridge.

  23. That’s one reason why grolsch bottles are great. You don’t have to worry about them exploding. If the pressure builds too much they just sort of….fart.

  24. Yea, I don’t find the fun in wow either, I like actually rolling dice (while also having the option to “play god”) and WoW just isn’t fun to me, all the story-less grinding…..BUT, THATS HARDLY THE POINT OF YOUR ARTICLE!
    I’m glad you had fun, I’ve never done it so I have no idea what all of the “technical” stuff you’re writing means, but as long as you had fun, that’s what matters, that, and you got BEER! I honestly don’t care what it is I’m doing as long as I’m having fun, making beer, may try it some day…

  25. While I was reading this posting, all I could think about was how much I wish me and my father had been able to find an activity like this so that we could have spent more time together. He’s an alcoholic so beer bottling would be out of the question, but I still wish that we had made a better connection. I always wanted us to paint together because we both have some artistic talent, but he never seemed to have the time. He is also…shall we say old fashioned? And he valued time with my brother far more than with me. Now, he is old and sick and lives in another state far, far away. Ryan is lucky to have you as a father because you have made a great effort to spend time with him, and found an interesting way to bond. He seems to understand how lucky he is, and I’m glad for both of you. It really is a lovely bit of writing. I hope that you add it to another book.

  26. Not sure if you had gotten my message earlier when you sent out that Tweet asking for name suggestions, but I did have to find out if you had gotten a giggle out of my suggestion of “Ale-ofel” for the name of the IPA.

  27. Forgive me if this touches on something you don’t want to discuss or if it’s in this elusive FAQ you keep mentioning but I haven’t found yet (I guess I’m a WilNewb)…but from some of the other blog entries, I gather Ryan is your step-son, right? Assuming I didn’t misunderstand, it’s great to see the relationship you have with him.
    The “forgive me” part is coming up: Did you and Anne ever consider having kids together? Just for the record, I’m asking for personal reasons…not because I find it ridiculous or anything stupid like that. Just asking.

  28. Years ago, while in college, the house I lived in had a grape vine in the back yard. My roommate and I decided to harvest these grapes and turn them into wine, after a lecture in chemistry class (I think) which involved a procedure that was pretty simple- grapes and yeast in a bottle with a balloon over the opening; when the balloon stopped inflating, the wine was finished.
    Took us awhile to track down brewing yeast (This was 1993- no amazon.com yet!) but we finally made a batch.
    It was horrible. We drank it anyway, at one of our weekend parties.
    As gamers, we also had an interest in making our own honey mead, such as was served at the state’s Renaissance Festival.
    In the early days of the internet, we’d explore FTP sites and TELNETs and other fun things kids these days know naught of. We tracked down a book called “The Cat’s Meow”- page after page of brewing recipes. We settled on a simple honey mead recipe, brewed it up, and waited the two weeks until it was ready.
    It was horrible. We drank it anyway.
    While that was the end of our brewing experiments, I was able to track down The Cat’s Meow online … because on the internet, nothing ever dies. Maybe you’ll find something in there to try yourself.
    The Cat’s Meow

  29. I really enjoy reading your blog, Wil. This is a really heart-warming story, and so cool to see how much you love hanging out with your son. =)

  30. Wow, sound like a lot of fun. My husband has been going on about brewing beer and I´m been, eh, let´s say not that intrested. I like beer very much an we both are a bit of beer nerds. But brewing, no. Well reading this made me think that it actually may be fun. So thanks for sharing this.
    I also don´t get wow. It feels like it should, but no. I´m 34 and my 7 year older sister and her husband was really in to it. Just to say that it´s not an age thing.
    I hope your beer turns out great. But if I´m not all wrong that wouldn´t be the best part of the brewing? Well good luck on the stout. I like a nice stout but hubby is very much about the black.
    Well this became longer then I expected. If you ever find yourself in Gothenburg, Sweden say the word and I will tell you where to find the best beer in town.

  31. You should consider other drinks, such as mead. There is nothing like homemade mead! A google search should come up with lots of instructions and recipes.

  32. Funny. I read the post from a parent’s point of view, hoping for nifty ways to bond with my boys as the age.
    The comments, though, reminded me how much I miss my dad.
    I really enjoy posts like this one. Thanks.

  33. Currently I’m…how do you say…between breweries. I am, however, listed as “Brewmaster” for Shanghai Brewery–mostly because I designed all their recipes and vetted their equipment. I’ve been working as a freelance international brewery consultant for the past two years, which sounds a lot more impressive than it actually is. I have, however, helped with startups in China, India, LA, New York…
    Before that I mostly worked for small breweries in California, such as Huntington Beach Beer Company and Hoppy Brewing Company in Sacramento. The only big brewery anyone would recognize that I worked for was Pyramid, which was my first job out of brewing school ten years ago or so.

  34. The thing about mead is that it generally needs a *really* long aging period to be drinkable. Honey is an incredibly complex sugar, and it produces a wide variety of higher alcohols during fermentation–ones the human body doesn’t metabolize well at all. Aging helps to dissipate them. I once made a mead that took three years to stop tasting like gasoline.

  35. Save a couple of those “first bottles” for history. I’ve got three of my c1983 “Pat’s Porter” bottles sitting around somewhere.
    I’d really recommend going the keg route. The re-purposed soda kegs work great, and they’re not all that expensive. Just one big thing to sterilize instead lots of little things. I’ve found that you get a more consistent flavoured brew if it’s all finishing up in one big Container. I like the ceremony of “going down into the basement” to pull a nice pint. If I’m going to have a bunch of folks over I’ll fill up a 1 gallon jug and bring that upstairs.
    Developing a relationship with your local brewing supplier (rather than using the internets for your supplies) is a Good Thing. When you do something stupid, and Ghu knows we all have or will, those folks have seen it all and can usually rescue you from your own follies…and not make you feel like an idiot for having gotten yourself in the predicament in the first place.
    Final thought: you should drop a hint to the Eureka writers to fold home brewing into an episode. It’s just the sort of thing that a geek would do in that town. Think of the Interesting Brewing Setup that could be in the story (and something then Goes Wrong with the setup…and…).

  36. Yeah, it does sound like a decent portion of the expense consists of equipment which does not necessarily have to be repurchased. In this case, each batch seems to be both fun AND cost effective.

Comments are closed.