Stories

22 Jan

For a few minutes each morning this past week, I have tried to exercise mindfulness. I turned off my devices, foregoing my news feeds, podcasts and music for a bit. I tried to tune out everything around me. I breathed deeply, trying to keep my focus on my breath. If a thought popped into my head, I recognized it without judging and let it go. I tried to always return my attention to my breathing.

After a week of this practice, I’ve noticed some benefits. I feel less stressed when starting my work day. Each morning I am able to slip a bit more easily into that state of mindfulness. The thoughts that occur to me during my practice are often insights that stick with my throughout the day. I have been journaling consistently, often to capture those persistent notions.

One of those thoughts this week was about stories. Specifically, the stories that I tell, whether to myself or to other people. I spend a fair amount of time telling those stories or figuring out how to tell them. Most recently I have recognized that my brewing is about stories, too. Just visit any of the pages for my recipes, the first section is the story of the beer. Each beer often has multiple overlapping stories, some more obvious than others and some harder for me to tell.

When I was young, my attention to stories was more literal. I read voraciously. I still do but back then I had explicit aspirations of being an author. I wrote a fair amount of drivel of which I was far more proud than it deserved. Since my youth, I have realized that all my ideas about writing were largely wrong. Not the least that all successful writing required was a lightning strike of inspiration. I have learned that story telling is more about consistent practice and honing of craft. Talent is useless without the hours and hours in the chair.

I have struggled trying to get into the practice of writing. I don’t always have a clear purpose for writing. When I do, I write, when I don’t, I don’t. Maybe that is OK but some part of me still wants to identify as a writer. The writers I truly respect seem possessed by specific stories, ones they have to get out and onto the page. I have never felt that. When I am most able to find the will to write, it is far more an act of self reflection. I am far better able to process what I experience by trying to put into a story.

When I am more kind to myself, I realize that stories come in all forms. Writing a novel or even a short fiction story is only a limited expression. Without always recognizing it, I have found other outlets, other ways of sharing stories that are just as important to me.

I produced a podcast for over a decade driven by how I use story for reflection. I still put out a more casual, short, weekly show that is largely just me thinking out loud. Podcasting for me is self reflective. What am I reading or thinking, how do I fix that more firmly in my own mind. I am gratified that other people seem to enjoy listening to this process. At my best, I feel I am really able to craft compelling narratives, I am sure most of the time I am just digressing and rambling.

A podcast is a fairly obvious form of narrative. Beer as story works on a few levels. The most apparent is in drinking them. Aroma to foreshadow, taste that develops over time as the beer warms, and a finish that lingers either satisfying or exciting the desire for another sip. Beyond the simple enjoyment of beer, as a brewer I see at least two stories in the creation of a specific recipe.

The first story is about the identity of the beer. The specifics of flavor, aroma and color are often less important than the name, how this beer follows all the others I’ve made, and at most a broad style. For the style there is a seasonal logic and a sense of where I am at in general as a brewer. For the last couple of years, I have been jamming on brews heavily inspired by traditional British brewing. From mild and 80 shilling through IPA and best bitter to a run of dark, heavy and malty beers through the cooling and colder months. In addition there are the beers for special occasions or projects, where the story is even more obvious–one for an admired friend, another for a dear friend’s wedding, an ale made from specially source ingredients, and several to fulfill promises I’ve made myself over the years.

I spend way more time on the identity of a beer recipe than the specific flavors, aromas and other sensory impressions. I am still learning a lot on the process side of brewing. After two years of concerted effort, brew day has begun to feel pretty smooth. Having a sold grasp of the basics, focused on producing a high quality, drinkable product, now I am starting to understand how the finer tweaks affect the specific enjoyment of the resulting beer.

I started a spreadsheet, one I’ve written about before, two years ago to help me track ingredients I have been using. Only now am I really connecting the pieces together in terms of what that means when I chose one malt or another, this hop or that one. What do I use when I want a more complicated, toffee sweetness versus when I want something light and crisp. Which hop will give me more dank earthiness and which more floral brightness. Which yeast strains will amplify or complement the flavors I want and which will mute them.

I have openings in my 2017 brewing schedule to try a few new recipes. For the first time, I am trying to imagine the finished beer much more vividly in my mind. What will this beer specifically smell and taste like if I am successful? I still think about the beer’s identity. For these newer recipes it is as much about how that sets that stage for the actual taste and aroma of the beer as it is about the literal story behind the idea.

The effort feels like a harder kind of story to master but one that also feels right after a couple of years of very consistent exercise of my craft and my passion. I am not yet super confident I will be able to get exactly what I imagine but I feel ready to try.

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