Always have. Since I was a kid, I have loved going to Play it Again and perusing their various aisles and departments full of used sporting goods. Regardless the sport, if I need a piece of equipment…or even if I just have the slightest inkling that I might want to try a sport…Play it Again is always my first stop. And why shouldn’t it be? You can find pretty decent stuff at some really decent prices. Some guys need the newest and the best. Not me. I find that second (and often third, fourth and fifth) hand equipment typically does the job just fine.
Plus, it’s no real secret to anyone who knows me, but I’m a bit of a gear junky. I love gear. No matter what the purpose, I like having things to get the job done. To me sporting goods are just tools, and with the right tools, every job is more enjoyable. It doesn’t have to be shiny and new. It doesn’t have to be high end. It just has to be tailored (or tailored enough) to the task at hand.
And I’m the same way with almost everything in life. Sports, filmmaking, woodworking…and now beermaking. Half of my love for the things I do comes from the tools I use to do them. I am not a materialistic guy…but damn do I love equipment.
I don’t know exactly when this fascination with tools, equipment and gear in general started, but I remember the exact trip in which it fully manifested and took a hold of me.
Picture it. Play it Again Sports. Decatur, IL. Summer 1995.
While walking into the store, I passed by a couple of barrels filled with a random assortment of old, very used, golf clubs. At that point in my life, I had a vague knowledge of the sport of golf. I knew that you hit a little ball with a club, and that you wanted said ball to eventually go into a hole. I knew that it was a sport beloved by old men in plaid shorts, often wearing stupid hats.
I had no real interest in playing golf….until that moment. The clubs called out to me. Their $2 and $3 price tags mocked me. I had no idea what I was buying, but I knew that I would regret it if I passed up on this amazing opportunity. I grabbed a handful, went inside, found myself a dirt cheap canvas bag, and walked out 20 minutes later…20 dollars poorer…as a golfer in the making. The woods I had purchased…were actually wood. The irons, judging from their weight, were most likely iron.
My next door neighbor at the time, Lyle, was one of those older gentlemen I had mentioned earlier who wore plaid shorts and stupid hats. Upon returning home with my find, I asked Lyle if he could teach me to play. He was more than happy to oblige, and he took me out to the corn field that ran behind our houses for my first lesson.
My initial attempts at teeing up, were less than successful. Shank, thud, shank, thud. Like any true athlete, my first instinct was to blame my equipment. What was I thinking? I had just blown $20 on crappy equipment that was too old and decrepit to propel a tiny ball more than a few feet. What a waste.
That’s when Lyle set me straight. He took the driver out of my hands. Squared up on the tee, and with next to no effort drove the ball far into the distance. If that weren’t enough evidence…he teed up a second ball, and drove it even further. Then a third….and just for good measure, a fourth.
His explanation: The ball doesn’t know what’s hitting it.
I don’t know if Lyle will ever know how much that single sentence has meant to me in my life. It has stuck with me, and has served as the inspiration behind many of my life’s endeavors up to this point. Truly, the ball does not know what’s hitting it.
So often in life, we humans have a tendency to confuse form and function. Not only does something have to be able to do the job, but it has to look cool doing it. We expect our tools to be shiny, fancy and costly when other…albeit less pretty…options are plentiful.
To me, when I see an object, I try not to look at it for what it is…but what it could be. Trips to Play it Again, Goodwill or even Home Depot for that matter, go beyond simply shopping for a particular thing…but exploring endless worlds of new possibilities.
Such has most certainly been the case with home brewing. I find that my mind is constantly turning, trying to find new solutions and workarounds to a vast array of brewing matters. I am always searching for answers to questions…many of which I haven’t even asked yet.
Very little of the brewing process, if any, is new territory. I realize this. Mankind has been fermenting liquids and drinking them since the dawn of time, and the modern home brewer has been innovating the process in their respective basements and garages for decades. A myriad of brewing methods, setups, and processes have been tested, and detailed online, and if one looks hard enough, they can likely find dozens (if not hundreds) of answers to any question he or she might have.
For those who have the cash, and the means to do so, an equally myriad of off-the shelf options exists for every step of the brewing process. Want to start brewing, but don’t want to go through the hassle of actually figuring things out for yourself? Not a problem. For a few grand, you can buy yourself a fancy new RIMS system. Boom. Your a brewer. Congratulations.
Personally, that’s not for me. Nor, as my wife would certainly and most vehemently remind me, is it for my wallet.
Instead, when it comes to brewing, I go back to my old mantra, “The ball doesn’t know what’s hitting it.”
Or when applied to brewing:
– The water doesn’t know what’s heating it.
– The malt doesn’t know what’s mashing/stirring/sparging/draining it.
– The wort doesn’t know what’s boiling/fermenting it.
– The beer doesn’t know what’s bottling it.
If it doesn’t know, it can’t care. So if the grain doesn’t care that it’s being mashed in a Rubbermaid cooler, why should I? If the wort doesn’t care that it’s being boiled in an aluminum pot, with a bolted on spigot, why should I? If the wort doesn’t care that it’s fermenting in a plastic bucket instead of a shiny stainless steel conical, why should I?
If the beer don’t care, than I don’t either. Function over form.
Personally, I prefer to take my own approach to brewing. It might not be that radically different than many other brewers, but the method’s we use are ones that we have opted for because they work for us. Not because someone on a website said to do it in a particular way. We may have drawn (sometimes unknowingly) inspiration from other sources, but the development of our current brewery has been very organic. The choices we have made have been because they were right for us, met our needs, and ultimately served the function for which they were assembled. I have read quite a few books, and have read thousands of pages of website text, and while they have been immensely valuable, nothing has compared to actually figuring it out for ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not going to take any shortcuts that will make our beer unsafe, or that would have a negative impact on its flavor. Everything we use is food safe. Likewise, I am not going to rule out an off-the shelf solution, if it’s the best option. I love making stuff myself, but I’m more than willing to buy something if it makes sense to do so.
Our brewing setup is not the prettiest in the world. And I doubt that it ever will be. No one is going to drool or ogle over its fanciness, but I am confident that in time that our little setup will be more than sufficient to impress beer drinkers far and wide.
And I have come to believe that this is just an extension of our philosophy. We are regular guys, brewing beer for other regular guys. Our brewery has been built…by regular guys…using the tools and means available to…regular guys.
We aren’t some new fancy store bought brewhouse. We never will be. I won’t stand for it. If the beer doesn’t know what brews it, why bother? We won’t cut corners on quality and sanitation, but form will always come a distant second.
That all said, it is my hope to start sharing with you…the dozen or so people who visit this blog (Hi Mom!) a little bit about our brewing process in the coming weeks and months. We are still figuring a few things out, and working out a few kinks, but I think that we would be remiss if we didn’t document this critical portion of the Regular Guy journey.
So stay tuned to future blog posts for glimpses of the inner workings of our brew process. Maybe you’ll learn something.