Watching the frothy white wort churn, rising high, almost spilling over the edge of the stainless steel kettle, then dropping back down to a calmer roil, I pretend I’m an alchemist trying to transmute grain into gold, tossing in hops like they are little green cones packed with raw natural magic. I like to sit and watch the science happen, equal parts actively and passively involved in the swirling primordial creation of something great.
There’s something peaceful in the rhythmic dance of that malted water, the smell of wet grain on the summer air, the sticky sugar on the end of a big stirring spoon. When I brew, I’m not concerned with what reports are due at work, who I’m supposed to email, what time I need to be somewhere and if I need to put on nicer pants. Brewing is an activity where my mind can solely focus, find flow, reconnect to some more primal, innate elements of my emotional self that are often lost in a sea of tweets or overgrown fields of HTML.
When we’re out there, it’s just me and the pre-beer – mano-a-malto – with no concerns beyond getting the temperatures right and timings down.
The entire process of making beer demands devoted method and time. Scooping grains into bags, measuring them to match your recipe. Cleaning your buckets and mash tuns in the never ending battle against infection. Mashing at precise heat to make sure those amylase alphas and betas get a well-balanced, nutritious meal.
And then the waiting. The definitely not opening the primary fermentation bucket to check out the krausen. The definitely not sticking an eye dropper in there to taste your progress. The patient weeks of listening to bubbles as the CO2 floats its way to freedom. All necessary. Nothing rushed. In a world where people expect instant responses, the beer in stark, stalwart opposition, demands the opposite. It asks to be kindly left alone, so it can ruminate and flocculate.
This forced slow-down is important for a person like me, the frenetic type who can and will do anything and everything (to the point of it being too much) just because he can. The beer looks me straight in the eye – with little to no bullshit – and says, “No, Oliver, you can’t rush this. Do it right.” And, because I love the beer, appreciate its magic, I listen. Because I rushed a few early batches, and got decidedly meh beer as a result, I fight my instincts and take my time. I slow the hell down. I measure twice and brew once.
And as odd at the connection might seem, this ability to slow down, to take your time, to commit to quality and perfection, is directly applicable to writing. The excited rush to get that presumably delicious beer into a keg so you can drink it is the same as that excited rush to finish a first draft to get a story told. The theoretical beer always tastes delicious on the made up taste-buds of your mind, just like the story always works out perfectly, with no flaws, in your head. You even plan a beer recipe like you outline a story, selecting the correct grains (characters), hops (telling details), and yeast (conflicts), always making sure the water (author’s voice) is of balanced pH and doesn’t contain anything that might give the beer (story) any off flavors (inconsistencies in tone).
In practice, a poorly planned, rushed beer, with the wrong hops or yeast, where fermentation never really finished, just won’t taste very good. A story that wasn’t really thought out, that wasn’t edited objectively, that never really resolved some major plot point, likely won’t be a very enjoyable read. Great literature requires proper fermentation time. No amazing novel was finished, and no whiskey-barrel aged stout is ready to drink, in a week or two or even three. The same amount of slow, purposeful development that goes into creating a world class brew goes into creating an award winning story.
Quality takes time. It takes patience. It takes slowing down from the “I’m definitely going to get hurt if I keep going this fast” pace of our daily lives. It takes knowing when to tell your brain that an investment in the development of a product will yield a vastly superior result. It takes discipline. It takes practice.
But in that slow down, that moment of focus on a single luxurious task, you may find some peace you thought you’d lost. As the wort swirls on its throne of steel and flame, and as a plot forms ranks around a few thousand serifed soldiers, you’ll find a moment of clarity – possibly even of zen – where there is nothing but you and your brain. And in that space, you’ll find your best stuff: the freshest ideas, the tastiest beers.
So take your time. Relish rolling around in the decadence and wonder of your own imagination. Don’t try to push it aside, or run past it. Embrace it, spend time with it. When you’re brewing up a batch of story ideas, give them the time they want. Give them the time they deserve.
Tagged: beer, brewing, but ive read about the book and read the NY times review, craft beer, don't rush, flow, homebrewing, no i havent actually read the book, pace of life, psychology, quality, slow down, slowing down, taking your time, writing, zen, zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance
Very eloquently put, Oliver. Mano-a-malto? I’m still chuckling.
Haha, thanks Candace! I don’t even know where these things come from.
The whole piece is masterful, but my fave part is “with little or no bullshit”. Magic, man. Magic.
Haha, thank you! Calling my work magic is the highest form of compliment (since I’m a wizard).
I can relate very much to this piece. I can remember my first few attempts brewing and running around like a chicken with its head cut off. It took me a bit to realize I just needed to slow down, plan things out, and then wait.
I was the same, for way too many batches. I think it was finally switching to all-grain that broke me of my bad habits 🙂
Nicely worded. I’ve recently come to this epiphany with my blog posts. I’ve tried to stop think about how it “needs to be posted” by a certain date, and tried to focus on when it’s “done and ready” so that like you’re early attempts a beer they hopefully turn out to be better then “meh”.
Thanks! I’ve been trying to link these two ideas for months now, so I’m glad it at least kind of makes sense to someone other than me.
I have to remind myself, on the blog, that my only deadlines are self-imposed. I notice fine lines between “too soon,” “ready,” and “you’ve messed with it enough, Oliver.” Fortunately they’re getting more defined the longer I do this 🙂