Nuclear Yeti was satisfying in that it worked: it was bubbly, alcoholic, and tasted good. But it felt like a cheat: I wanted to start from the beginning, and I wanted to make my own recipes.
Randy Mosher’s book Mastering Homebrew was an excellent resource to start me on my way. Mosher covers not just the technical and practical aspects of brewing, but also principles of recipe design – constructing a sensible malt backbone, filling it out with other fermentables, how to think about the major families of hops and their behavior when added at various stages of beer production, options for additional flavorings and spices, and so on. He gives an overview of historical and current beer styles, but also encourages you to draw outside the lines and find your own style.
That is what set me on fire: creating a beer that told a story. The first story I wanted to tell was about an orange cat that we often saw in our backyard at night, hiding under the rosemary bush. What kind of beer would tell this story? A beer that was dark, but not heavy – like a cool Los Angeles night. Oranges hidden under the darkness. Rosemary would add a surprising kick. Triangulating on the work of a lot of brewers on the internet, I cobbled together my very first all-grain recipe and purchased the ingredients in Eagle Rock.
Mistakes were made. With no proper mash tun, I tried the Brew in a Bag technique, which culminated with me trying to squeeze as much wort out of a 15-pound nylon bag of grain as I could and topping off with water. I threw 4 big branches of rosemary into the fermenter for 2 weeks (at least they were sanitized!). The thing didn’t look like it was fermenting so I ran back to the homebrew store to get a second package of yeast. But eventually, there were filled bottles, and it was bubbly.
And, it was terrible. Weak, bitter, overwhelmed with rosemary. After trying to convince myself over a second bottle that it was drinkable, I threw the entire batch down the drain.
There is a happy ending here. I continued to believe the recipe was a good idea, and my problems were in balance and execution. After I graduated to better equipment (I don’t think I’ll ever really want to squeeze a bag again), I gave it another go with some rosemary cocktail flavoring I had sourced (the better to control the proporiton of the herb), a greater proportion of oranges, and a different collection of hops.
In its second incarnation it remains a mysterious beverage – but now the mystery is more like a set of of cats’ eyes gleaming at you from the darkness, and less like what was this person thinking?
I returned to Aidan Yetman-Michaelson for the label art, which is really a thing of beauty. The Secret Cat is confident that his sophisticated camouflage makes him entirely undetectable. Who are we to tell him otherwise?
How the hell did this high-strung guy become a Grateful Dead fan? I saw them at Autzen Stadium in 1988 on a bill that was sadly wasted on me: Robert Cray and Jimmy Cliff, at a time of my life when I was listening mostly to prog.
The real entry point for me was “Dark Star“: just a stone’s throw from “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” a mysterious vehicle for longform invention a la Zappa’s finest live work, and blessedly devoid of all that cowboy crap.
Once I learned to appreciate Johnny Cash the cowboy crap got integrated. Hence the annual Dave’s Picks subscription.
I still have an Ummagumma-trained pair of ears within which the early stuff resonates most strongly: Aoxomoxoa sounds more like it was beamed in from outer space than found on a dusty tintype.