To the New Brewer - How Excellent Mentorship Sparked My Love for Brewing

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A year ago, I had no idea how beer, whiskey, or wine were made. Nor did I really care. All I knew was that, come the typical Saturday night, my wife and I were likely visiting our local supermarket to pick up a six-pack of Miller Light and a bottle of Menage-a-Trois cabernet to share with friends at a dinner party, or to relax with at home with while catching up on our favorite Netflix series. Enjoying an alcoholic beverage here and there was something we have always enjoyed, but since turning 21 years of age roughly 8 years ago, my palate for beers and wines was simplistic at best. American light beers were all that I consumed for almost a decade, and honestly, I was fine with that.. That is, until very recently.
This past summer, I met a guy that changed my outlook on beer, and in some ways, my life. My new friend (who we will call "Mike") decided to up and leave his job in East Lansing, MI, to pursue what he was most passionate about: Brewing beer. He settled down in an apartment about a mile away from where I live, and was hired at our local (but I'll be honest, prestigious) brewery, a job that he was, and still is, absolutely ecstatic about. As avid Call of Duty fans, now-retired Dave Matthews Band geeks, and individuals that took monumental risks with our professional careers by up-and-leaving stable corporate jobs to pursue our passions instead, Mike and I really hit it off when introduced at a Halloween party in 2013. As our friendship grew, so did my curiosity about how, and why, a person could be so into making beer. I mean, come on, most beers taste the same, right? I had tried them all... Bud Light, Natty Light, Miller Light, the occasional Blue Moon or, dare I say, the finest of the fine, Hoegaarden (looking back now, I'm almost ashamed to admit all of this). Anything above and beyond these fine products was what I considered to be "weird" or completely out of my realm of interest. The even sadder thing is, there are more people out there that are still living in their comfortable worlds of the stereotypical college-beers, and will likely never venture forth into anything slightly different than what they are used to. I'm happy to report that I am no longer one of those people.

So one Friday summer night, as Mike and I are leaving a bar with friends, we get to talking about his next "brew," as he called it, which he is going to be doing the following Saturday morning. He asked me to join in and see what it's all about. At first, I racked my brain for what I "could" have done instead, as watching a 7- hour brew on one of my precious days off seemed to be about as entertaining as waiting in line at the DMV. However, my wife was working all day and I had no plans other than potentially moving from my bed to the couch to watch 'Criminal Minds" reruns, so I thought, "what the Hell." I told Mike I'd join.
I arrived at Mike's apartment at 9am, and my heart almost stopped when I first noticed all of his intimidating, scary-looking equipment scattered around his kitchen. I remember my first thought being "oh my God, Mike is literally the guy from Breaking Bad, I need to get the HELL out of here..." (It didn't help that a local Sherriff squad car had followed me into Mike's apartment complex, so naturally, my brain started telling me that local law enforcement would be busting down the door shortly to arrest Mike and me and put us away for 25 to life). I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Hoses were everywhere (those are needed to make meth, right?). A big, copper coil was sitting on one of his kitchen chairs (definitely used for making meth). Bags of shady-looking powders were scattered around his kitchen table (all powders = meth ingredients). Large steel pots were on the ground by his stove (meth-pots), and a few Gatorade coolers were sitting on his kitchen counter (I guess Mike needed to stay hydrated when making meth...?).
All of my meth-fears were almost immediately addressed, as Mike handed me one of his homemade beers (he called it "Funky Calabash," a sour ale that he had recently put on tap) and began explaining to me what everything was used for. Those large pots? They were called brew kettles, and were primarily used for preparing "strike" water and boiling the "wort" (what the Hell is wort?). That coil? It's a "wort chiller," which helps cool down the mixture at the end of the boil before "pitching" the yeast. Those Gatorade tubs? We'd only be using one; it's where we pour the grain into the hot water to extract sugars. I didn't' realize it then, but I was literally being educated in All-Grain Brewing 101, a course specifically tapered to me based on what I was observing. Almost immediately, I realized that brewing beer wasn't a chore; it was immensely fun, almost therapeutic, moving through each step. I had the pleasure of re-circulating the water back into the Gatorade cooler (mash tun), doing my best to eliminate any and all pieces of grain that would then be put into a brew kettle. I got to add the hops, and enjoy their sweet, unique aroma before pouring them into the mixture at various times through the 90-minute boil. My favorite part of the process? Cooling the wort down with the amazing, almost supernatural wort chiller, a tool that I now consider to be as useful and progressive as the electric car, or Ninja blender that my wife likes to use but rarely clean. I even got to pitch the yeast (after thoroughly ensuring my hands, yeast-packaging, etc. was all thoroughly sanitized)! I remember looking down at my watch to see that it was 5:30pm. Seriously!? It felt like a couple of hours worth of "work," let alone over seven!

I will always remember that day. Mike's passion for brewing was electric, and dare I say, contagious. He opened my eyes to so many things that I never considered, and had me thirsting for not just my next brew, but understanding the science behind it. To say that I'm fortunate to have Mike as a mentor is a gross understatement; I have a brew-master that is able to explain all of the complexities in my triumphs, my mistakes, and to constantly teach me everything he knows in order to make me a better brewer. He doesn't want me to be a Mike-replica, either; he wants me to surpass him, and venture forth with my own recipes and try new things that I can share with him in an effort to make us both better brewers. Not everyone has the opportunity to learn from someone as knowledgeable and passionate as Mike, but if you have someone that is comfortable with brewing, extract as much knowledge from that person as you possibly can.
I'm borderline obsessed with brewing at this point. Five months later, I built my own 2-tap kegerator convert, I own my own wort-chiller (I'm thinking about building a shrine devoted to it, any ideas welcome), I have three beers fermenting at a given time, and I'm able to share all of my homemade brews with friends and family. I've recently graduated from brewing extract kits, and have finished my first two all-grain batches, of which turned out very nicely thanks to Mike's mentorship and expertise. I've messed up a lot... a LOT... along the way, but I will have more on those follies later. I'm a novice brewer that loves the hobby (erm... lifestyle), and I want to share my experiences with new and veteran brewers alike. For the sake of preventing the novice brewer from making monumental mistakes like I have, to having the veteran brewer chuckle at the thought of reading my experiences that may seem nostalgic, I want to share my journey with as many people as I can, if they are willing to listen.
And to think it all started with me considering phoning my friend into the local police because I was entertaining the thought of him being a meth-cooking drug lord...
Nice article with just the right touch of humor. I have a friend who got a Mr. Beer kit for Christmas and was asking me last night about brewing. I will have him read your experience and maybe he will get "hooked" on home brewing too.
Nice article. I've found a mentor who has taken the time to answer every dumb question that I can find to ask. He's probably taken several years off my learning curve, especially insofar as he's clarified or corrected a lot of information that I've accepted from internet sources, and even books. One day, when I'm humble enough to accept the limits of what I know and don't know, I'll pay his example forward.
Great article. If you brew like you keep readers attention, you've got it made. Enjoyed it immensely.
Great writing! I am just starting and have been using this forum as my panel of mentors. Thanks to you and to all who share their knowledge and experience for those of us just getting started.
Thank you very much for the wonderful feedback, everyone! I'm already hard at work on my next "To the New Brewer" article... Stay tuned!
I enjoyed this article quite a bit.
In reflection, I must credit HBT and the wealth of information here for substituting in as my knowledgeable friend. I've found that just about any question imaginable can be answered by searching this site.
All great brewers have mentors that pass on their passion. Great read and reminded me of myself 4 years ago. If I hadn't had 1 great mentor that put up with my massive emails, drunk phone calls, and annoying texts I wouldn't be the brewer I am today. I thank him every time I see him and remind him that he has now made me a better beer maker. My goal now is to teach someone what I know now in hopes they eclipse my knowledge.