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A Toast to Beer
By Florence Holub
Back in the late '40s -- when I was in my late 20s -- my man Leo and I lived for a few years in Grass Valley, Calif., in the mother lode country. That is where I first began to appreciate beer.
It all started on a scorching summer day when the temperature had risen to well over 100 degrees and I was sitting with my feet in a bucket of cold water, pining for the fog and cool breezes of San Francisco. Seeing this pitiful sight, my sympathetic father-in-law brought his red-faced daughter-in-law a foaming glass of cold beer. Normally, I would have waved off the drink as too bitter. But on this occasion, I accepted it without judgment and found that it was the most satisfying libation I had ever tasted. Since then, I have developed a solid affection for this beverage.
When Leo and I returned to Noe Valley in the early '50s, we lived with our two sons in the cottage behind my father's paint store on Kingston Avenue (not far from 30th and Mission streets). At the time, my father had just lost his store manager, so he asked me to fill in. Soon I became the shop's official manager. I thought this was a great arrangement, because the business was quiet enough for me to mind the store and my two little boys at the same time.
However, as anyone who has a 4- and a 6-year-old knows, my schedule was pretty hectic. At dusk, after I had closed the shop, I would rush down to the corner market to purchase the ingredients for our dinner, and then rush back to the cottage to cook it. One day I was so frazzled I had to sit down and unwind. Leo, who had already arrived home from work, was about to have his usual glass of beer before dinner. Because I looked like I was in dire need of refreshment, he brought me a glass too, which I accepted gratefully. By the time I had finished it, the situation had improved miraculously, and I was able to confront the uncooked food with renewed vigor!
Before long, sipping a glass of beer before dinner became our daily ritual.
In 1955, after our third son was born, Leo and I bought the old, brown-shingled house on 21st Street where we still live today. But prior to moving in, we wanted to do some renovations and get the house in apple-pie order. So, every weekend our family of five would drive up the hill armed with tools, paint, and sandpaper. Often my father and Leo's father would join us and we'd all work until dinner.
Since we had yet to purchase a stove to cook on, I prepared the meal in a pot, a Dutch oven in the front-room fireplace. As dinner cooked, we relaxed with a bottle of some Norwegian beer that Leo bought by the case from a wholesaler downtown. It was a fine label, but after partaking of one particular batch, we all came down with sore throats. While we puzzled over the incident, a friend, John Adams, brought over a 1950s Police Gazette, which had an article about the unhealthy methods some breweries had been using to age their beer. John, who was experienced in such matters, offered to teach us how to make our own home brew.
After we moved into the 21st Street house, he gave our block a personal demonstration in beer-making. The Peras, our neighbors across the street, contributed a huge ceramic crock, and Leo's grandmother sent us the bottle capper that she had once used to preserve catsup. We had been saving bottles for months, so we had only to invest in the ingredients -- malt, sugar, and Fleishmann's dry yeast -- and the caps and hydrometer, which measures the gravity of the liquid (and tells you when it is time to bottle the brew).
After we followed John's instructions, the beer fermented in the crock for about a week before it was ready to bottle. Then we stored the cases under the deck in the back yard to age for 10 days.
With the uncapping of the bottles, we savored success! We all loved our homemade beer, especially Leo's father. The first time he sampled the brew, he quietly slipped off to bed upstairs. In the morning, he came down the steps and declared that he had not had such a good night's sleep in years! He added that our brew reminded him of the Choctaw beer that his mother made when she ran a boardinghouse called the Blue Goose. She served beer to the miners when they came from work in the coal mines in what was then Indian Territory. Even though he was only 8 at the time (the 1890s), he was big enough to help. It was his job to take his wagon down to the river and fill some pails with water, then pull the load back to the kitchen where the beer-making began.
Perhaps this was a mining town custom, for my cousin's mother-in-law, who also ran a boardinghouse, made beer for her lodgers too. Her boarders worked in the underground copper mines of Butte, Mont. -- a fact that shortened their lives considerably. My cousin's mother-in-law was married and widowed seven times! Maybe her fine home brew was a kind of "wife insurance." Or should I say "husband insurance"?
Over the years, we have been delighted to pass on John's directions to our family and friends (see box), and to hear their comments on the recipe. But occasionally we have received questionable advice. The father of one of our sons' chums made one suggestion that I'll never forget: he told me that we could save money by using the same yeast over and over again.
Being a frugal person, I welcomed this helpful hint and found that the reused yeast performed very well! At least until the night we were awakened by a loud explosion, and then another and another. When the sun rose, we discovered that every bottle under our deck had shattered into fragments. What a mess! Apparently a wild strain of yeast had invaded the mixture and caused it to "over-react." Fearing that the glass would be dangerous for little (and big) feet, I cleaned it up as fast as I could, carrying pail after pail out to the garbage can in front of our house. The can was not completely full, so I didn't realize how heavy it was until collection day. Then, as I looked out the window, I saw our garbage man grab the handles to lift up the can and swing it around, but the weight sent him flying across the landing and down the steps to the sidewalk. He turned, glared, and shouted, "Lady, why don't you just get a gun and shoot me!?" He survived the ordeal, I'm relieved to say, but I have vowed to never again run a lab experiment in the house.
Although I no longer brew it, beer is still my favorite beverage. It is nutritious, yet low in alcoholic content. It is a gentle relaxant that has fostered many a warm and friendly family gathering.
My fond memories of beer-making came flowing back recently, as I stood in front of a work of art on view through March 11 at the de Young Museum. It is an installation titled "The Golden Room," by conceptual artist Tom Marioni. According to a plaque near the installation, the bottles of imported beer in the piece represent the male, the elegant goblet the female, and a wall sculpture of yellow butterfly wings symbolizes the human spirit. Elsewhere this artist has noted, "The act of drinking beer with friends is the highest form of art."
I'll drink to that!
John Adams' Home Brew
Here's the recipe, to the best of my recollection! --Florence Holub, Noe Valley Voice
Clean bottles (about 20)
Crock (8 to 10 gal. capacity)
Powdered yeast (1 package, standard size)
5 lbs. sugar
Hop-flavored malt (1 can, standard size)
6 feet of 3/8-inch hose (rubber or plastic)
Place the can of malt in a pan of water with the water almost covering the can, and heat it for 5 minutes. Then turn the can over and heat it for 5 minutes more.
Pour 2 gallons of hot water into the crock. Add 4 pounds of sugar, and stir until dissolved. Open the malt, pour it into the crock, and stir until dissolved. Add water until the contents are lukewarm (70& to 80&F). The brew should total 6 gallons. (The first time you make your home brew, mark the crock with nail polish at the 6-gallon mark.) Sprinkle the package of powdered yeast on top, and stir until dissolved. After 3 or 4 hours, foam will form. Skim the foam off when it becomes more than 1 inch thick. Re-skim it until it stops foaming (a day or two).
Place the beer hydrometer in the brew and cover the crock with cheesecloth. In about 4 days, when the beer almost stops fermenting, or the hydrometer lowers to beer point, it is time to bottle. (If the weather's very cold, it may take a little longer to finish the fermenting.)
Use the funnel to spoon sugar into the bottles before putting the beer in. For quart bottles, use less than 1 level teaspoon. For 1/3-quart bottles, use less than 1/2 teaspoon.
Mark the hose 1 inch from the end. This end is for the crock. Keep the end always under the surface of the brew. With mouth suction, use the other end of the hose to start the beer flowing from the crock to the bottles below. Fill to about 2-1/2 or 3 inches from the top of the bottle. Stop the flow with finger pressure. When all bottles are full, cap them. Moisten the caps for a better seal. Store for 10 days or more in a cool place.
To serve the beer, pour slowly into a large pitcher, stopping before the sediment at the bottom of the bottle flows out. Then pour into individual glasses from the pitcher.
*Note: There are two home brewing stores listed under Beer in the Yellow Pages.