During the Prohibition the English writer G.K. Chesterton came and toured the United States, expecting to be in every way repulsed by the government suppression of alcohol. But what he found ended up delighting him—in a way. The efforts to quash drinking had driven many to the craft of homebrewing beer and setting up basement stills. As he wrote in Sidelights (available in Volume XXII of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton):
…with this widespread revival of the old human habit of home-brewing, much of that old human atmosphere that went with it has really reappeared… Prohibition has to that extent actually worked the good, in spite of so malignantly and murderously willing the evil. And the good is this: the restoration of legitimate praise and pride of the creative crafts of the home.
This being the case, it seems that some of our more ardent supporters might well favour a strong, simple and sweeping policy. Let Congress or Parliament pass a law not only prohibiting fermented liquor, but practically everything else. Let the Government forbid bread, beef, boots, hats and coats; let there be a law against anybody indulging in chalk, cheese, leather, linen, tools, toys, tales, pictures or newspapers. Then, it would seem by serious sociological analogy, all human families will begin vigorously to produce all these things for themselves; and the youth of the world will really return.
Chesterton was long a champion of DIY, emphasizing that doing things in the home helped realize the vocation of the family. My own family when I was growing up embraced this idea, and some of my happiest childhood memories are of days when my father made dozens of homemade bagels (first boiled, then baked), or of when my mother made taffy or egg noodles, or when my father brewed beer and took the time to also make a batch of root beer for the kids.
For six or so years now, every autumn I brew a Christmas beer of some kind and draw a special label for it. This year it’s a porter, involving black treacle in the recipe, an item I special ordered ahead of time. It has a marvelously designed tin featuring Samson’s lion. Last year I brewed an English ale, and years before that included a vanilla bourbon porter, a Belgian-style “abbey” ale, and a stout. In general, people seem keener on the idea of receiving a bottle of beer than they do receiving a fruitcake.
I learned homebrewing from an eccentric fellow named Griz, an oversized Santa Claus lookalike who always dressed in overalls. Pontificating from his chair at the brewing supply store he ran, his advice always veered toward a loose approach to brewing rather than one involving precise measurement or exotic ingredients. To this day, I’ve never used a thermometer or hydrometer in brewing, and I blame him. You were never quite sure how much to trust him or his stories—for instance, Griz claimed to have imbibed a mystical substance in Amsterdam back in the 70s that led him to a park where he met a monk who brought him to an ancient abbey and taught him the secret of brewing. After imparting the knowledge of brewing, the monk asked Griz to join his order, which Griz considered for a bit, then decided that his sweetie back home wouldn’t cotton to her man becoming celibate. So he declined, but was willing to pass along his secrets to those who asked.
A quick break here for some of my own wisdom. Men wanting to homebrew: if you want your wife to uncomplainingly allow you to brew beer at home, you just need to do one thing. Clean up after yourself. It’s like magic—for some reason, the female mind works in such a way that a woman doesn’t enjoy cleaning up a big pile of pans, towels, sticky spills, and bottles. It’s mysterious, I know, but this is a riddle we cannot fathom as men. So just clean up after yourself. Women wanting to home-brew: Carry on.
Aside from beer, other homemade traditions have sprung up at home. Each year Halloween costumes are made from scratch. Most weekends involve homemade pizza. A couple of times a year we make pasta at home, a process which delights my kids, who love taking turns cranking the pasta machine. Our apple tree produces apples which are turned into pies and apple butter; the garden produces peppers for drying, squash for roasting, and tomatoes for sauce. One year we even made green tomato jam.
As G.K. Chesterton also once said, if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.