I must have been seven or eight. We had been away for the weekend. I don’t recall the reason. I suspect it was the annual trip to the agricultural show at Gonubie outside East London (South Africa). For a number of years after we moved to Grahamstown, this was a regular thing. Dad judged the horticultural ranges: flower arrangements and produce. I loved it. From the beautiful flowers, the exquisitely decorated cakes to the gymkhana which was preceded by a convoy of cars. Each bonnet draped by a beautiful woman. I thought, anyway. One outfit I remember: granny boots and a purple hat…
I loved the stay on the farm: gooseberry jam; butter making. Milk from the cow’s udder, into my mouth; into the whining separator and the cream and milk out of two very long spouts into milk churns which went, variously to the house and to customers.
The dairy parlour was not mechanised: the milkmen sat on their three-legged stools, cheeks against the cows’ flanks, milking. I still remember the sound of the milk squirting against the side of the empty metal bucket and how the sound changed from a sharp, metallic zing to a soft pfft as the bucket filled with foamy milk. I remember the sounds and smells as though it was yesterday. Not nearly fifty years ago.
We always came home with at least one hen’s egg. Well, only one that mattered to me: the “prize egg”. At the end of the show, the produce was sold to the highest bidder, and as all good dad’s do, mine made sure mine was highest. Mum would fry it for my breakfast: it was generally a double yolker and something I was always impatient to discover.
I still get a thrill when a clutch of eggs includes double yolks…It’s no secret that I have a thing about eggs.
I’ve digressed. As usual.
The big bang
Our live-in housekeeper looked after the house and dog in the family’s absence. When we got home, late on Sunday afternoon, on the large, round coffee table, and on the large, round ashtray, lay a note:
Dear Madam and MasterThere was consternation.
There were big bangs in the brewery.
Oh hell.Or words to that effect.
The bangs, actually explosions, probably in the dead of night, must have been many. The Dad’s first ever batch of home brew had been bottled, capped and left to – brew. The timing of the weekend away (or the brewing schedule) also managed temptation to check on the young beer ahead of time. Not that checking would have helped. Fermentation is an exciting and tricky thing. Making beer, like “proper” sparkling wine, is a two-step process and similar to the methode champenoise, the final fermentation is in the bottle. Get that miniscule quantity of sugar, essential to get that second fermentation going, wrong, and things get loud and messy. To say the least.
Having been shut up for the best part of three days, the smell of stale beer was evident long before anyone saw the physical evidence: shards of brown glass (g)littered the backroom (aka the brewery) which was awash with beer. Embedded in the ceiling were umpteen crown corks. Over the years, some fell out. Others remained – I’m told – for the next twenty-odd years, and long after we moved from that house.
Taking a hit
In the 1960s and into the 1980s and when I was a young adult, it was not unusual to have a drink at lunch time. I remember business lunches with beer and wine flowing freely. My dad’s job in the 1970s entailed much outside work and he used to come home for lunch. Easy considering our back gate opened on to his “office.”
Dad's office - or part of it. Also the pond that dented his dignity. He stepped into it once. No beer was involved.
He’d come home, as he’d say, spitting sawdust, gasping for a beer which would be downed in very short order. As would another three or four at the end of the day.
Cold beer didn’t just beat the heat, it hit the pocket. Abstinence wasn’t on the cards; plan B was to brew his own. So began a process of finding out more. I’m not sure how long the process took – it must have been a few months given that it was the early 1970s: we lived off the beaten track and the Internet was still in someone’s imagination. Somehow, they tracked down a supplier, equipment and ingredients. In Johannesburg. Replacement equipment as well as ingredients were ordered and delivered - by snail mail.
My father was a stubborn, determined Scot. He often told me:
If you don’t succeed the first time, try, try and try again. Thus, began more than two decades – at least – of brewing.So, explosions in the brewery notwithstanding, he drank his way through tested successive batches, so that he and my mother perfected their recipe.
The "perfected" recipe for Standard Beer in my mother's recipe book*
Each batch, as I recall, made seventy two 340 ml dumpies. I know because it was often my job to count, set out and sterilise the bottles ahead of the final phase.
Dad collected these and friends did, too. Once they were discontinued, they were very, very precious. Source
It took about 20 days from start to tankard. Longer for a better result and less sediment in the bottle. I learned, at the tender age of about ten, how to pour a crystal clear beer.
I remember the sums - on the back of cigarette boxes. The upshot, when all was said and done, the early batches worked out at around 1½ cents a dumpy. Less than half the price of commercial beer. So...
The weekend job
Beer occupied at least two Saturday mornings a month. Step one happened roughly once a month – in the kitchen. This was Mum's domain so she took responsibility for most of this step. It involved boiling malt (which arrived in buckets), hops, sugar and water. For far too long – the child Fiona hated it and often wished not to be at home. Once the “baby beer” left the stove and the kitchen, Dad took over, monitoring and managing each of the steps: barrel (if you can call plastic, a barrel) fermentation, adding the yeast and finings and, ultimately, the bottling. That took a full Saturday morning of sterilising, sugaring and hand siphoning until finally, each bottle was filled and capped. The machine looked like a one-armed bandit.
Bottle capper like Dad's. His was green. Source
Then the little brown bottles were lined up on shelves until either the beer was ready or the last batch ran out. Which ever happened first.
Then the brewing stopped
My dad loved beer, but once a heart condition and elevated blood sugar was diagnosed, the family doctor declared that beer didn’t like him. If he had to, he should graduate to whisky. What good Scot wouldn’t? He did, however, continue to enjoy the odd beer until he literally could not. The Husband and one of Dad’s mates would sneak a beer (or two) into his room at the frail care centre. When he died, 20 years ago this month, we retrieved a goodly stash which was imbibed in his honour.
We do miss the old boy.
*Atholl Broase is a traditional Scottish drink that Mum made (as she did, haggis) for Burns' Night each year. Another story for another time.
Until next time, be well
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
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