Stick with me on this one, there is a point!
This past weekend my son Jack turned 21. One of the gifts he received was a homebrewing set-up I had built a few years ago. It was something I had been waiting to do for years. Most of you know brewing is something of a thing for me. I started homebrewing in college and co-founded one of New Mexico’s first breweries in 1992. I am a nationally certified beer judge, published beer writer, and have been recognized as a pioneer in the craft brewing movement by the American Association of Brewers with an archived interview in the Smithsonian.
I don’t brew much these days. Other things have taken priority, but I look forward to tutoring Jack and in a couple of years my other son Keelan as well. It is sharing something that runs deep in me, much like my mom’s artistic heart and my dad’s love of romping around in the woods.
This past Sunday afternoon Jack and I sat down to begin designing his first brewing session. As we put together a recipe, I explained how, on a basic level, all beer styles are variations of a balance between sweet and bitter. That balance is important, so much so that in 1516 Germany enacted its beer purity law known as Reinheitsgebot. This law mandates beer be made with barley (sweet), hops (bitter), and water. German brewers were by no means the first to understand the importance of this sweet/bitter balance. Archeologist have found a beer recipe on a clay tablet from ancient Mesopotamia, dated to around 3500 BC, that used barley bread, soaked in water with dates and local botanicals. Even the ancients understood the need for bitter and sweet.
There is more to brewing than the bitter and sweet balance. There are also the ways the ingredients and process work together. For example, hops not only provide a balancing bitterness to barley’s sweetness, they also effect the PH of the beer and serve as a stabilizer and preservative. Alcohol, which is derived from fermenting sugar and perceived as sweet on the palate, also acts as a stabilizer and preservative. A bit of beer trivia is that pathogens cannot survive in beer because of beer’s PH and alcohol. These elements have been utilized by brewers for centuries. For example, a very popular style of beer is IPA (India Pale Ale). It was developed by British zymurgists back in the days when India was a British colony. The problem was that the common beer was suited for neither the long sea voyage from England nor the extreme heat of India. English brewers were aware of hop’s and alcohol’s properties as a preservative and so developed a differently balanced, aggressively strong and bitter, beer. So, sweet is balanced by bitter and visa versa. Likewise, when fermented, the two elements work together to preserve and stabilize.
OK, I know this is kind of geeky, but there is more, and there is a point. Perhaps you are picking up on the threads already.
Brewing is an intentional process of blending and combining specific elements. It takes time, care and attention to details. It’s a little bit of science and a little bit of art. Barley grain must be germinated and then kilned to create malted barley. The malt needs to be crushed and steeped in water at the right temperatures to convert its starches into sugar and that sugar extracted. The resulting “wort” is next boiled with bittering hops so the lipids in the hop flowers can be isomerized into the wort. The resulting bitter wort must next be rapidly chilled so a specific, desired yeast can be added to insure a clean fermentation.
Brewing yeast is a microbe that eats sugar and excretes, among other things, alcohol. There are all kinds of yeast in nature and the ones that produce beer need a particular environment to thrive. Again, it takes care, nurture and time. What is interesting is that for most of history people had no idea that yeast existed. Fermentation was a mystery. Something happened and things changed, as if by magic or divine intervention. Case in point, that Mesopotamian tablet from 3500 BC was an ode to Ninkasi, the goddess of beer and the brewers were female priestesses. Centuries later the old English word for what caused wort to become beer was “Goddes goode” (God is good). Honest!
So now you have a basic understanding of brewing and I can get on to the point of all this.
It strikes me that brewing is, for me anyway, a rich metaphor for life. Life has such sweetness and that is how we prefer it. We like sunny days, good health, joyful gatherings, delightful meals, coming and going, and plenty of everything. Life also is full of bitterness. We all know grief and want, disappointment and sorrow, isolation and fear, anxiety and distress. The truth is we would just as soon have a sweet life and leave the bitter out, but that is not reality. And I don’t think its honestly a whole life. Life is a blend, isn’t it? And in different seasons it has different balances and through it all we are shaped by it all. I would not be who I am, not able to love and cherish as I do, had I not been touched by loss. My failures and struggles have taught me lessons, just as blessings and joy have held my hand in dark valleys.
The story of faith is as much about wilderness as it is about mountain tops, and we can’t get to Easter without dealing with the cross. And that “dealing with” is “Goddes goode” time, the place where all the bitter and sweet are combined and transformed into something completely new.
If I could I would change our current condition. And I can try to convince myself that there is a beautiful rainbow at the end of all of this. But I can’t and I don’t know where this will lead. There is sweet for certain, but there is also a whole lot of bitter. And in it all there is God and God is good. So, I am grateful that, even though I may not understand it, things are fermenting in God’s intentional grace.