'Beer Today, Gone Tomorrow'

by Dan O'Neill


A cautionary tale about alcohol, chemistry and wild optimism.

1969 was one of those years you had to see to believe, and even when you saw it, you couldn't always believe it.

Britain was changing, there were new social and cultural experiences everywhere. Woodstock, Concorde, men on the Moon, Monty Python, the 50 pence piece.... a lot for a kid to take in!

Living through the late 60's and early 70's, it was hard to ignore the tremendous optimism for the future. It seemed there was a new scientific discovery or technological breakthrough almost every week. The future was coming and we could see it...we could smell it...we had Vesta freeze dried chicken curry meals, dammit! we could taste it!

The BBC told us what life was going to be like... "get ready for lots of leisure, robots and flying cars" they said. Our kitchens would be fully automated stainless steel palaces complete with disposable crockery and cutlery. Dinner, just a little green pill. There was a new spirit of adventure. We flew around the world in enormous futuristic 'Jumbo Jets'. We wore disposable clothes made of paper, we even went to the moon!

There was simply nothing we couldn't do. Star Trek wasn't Science Fiction; it was just a snapshot of the future.

But as Neil Armstrong bounced his way across the Sea of Tranquility, and the Rolling Stones reached the top of the charts with 'Honky Tonk Women'...the residents of number seven Overdale Road were preparing to boldly go on their own voyage of discovery...

My mother had left us in 1968, and our father was raising my brother and I alone. The lack of a woman in the household meant that what would have been deemed totally unacceptable to female sensibilities was considered an excellent idea to an all male household and the proposal of brewing our own beer passed unanimously and Dad sent off the two pound postal order..

Alcohol is a central part of Irish culture and like most Irish homes, we were well used to seeing it around. Any visitor to an Irish house will often be offered a 'drop of whiskey' before even being offered a cup of tea. A mark of respect and hospitality that goes back centuries. My father had introduced us to beer on a small, supervised scale as youngsters to get us used to it instead of forcing us to wait until we were eighteen and likely to overindulge in what was always a 'forbidden fruit' to teenagers. It was a policy that worked well, and to this day I am grateful to him for his foresight.

In my father's case, the brewing was not seen as many saw it, an option for cheap booze, but more as an infection of the scientific fever sweeping the country. Dad was a curious man and he often tried things simply to understand them better. (Usually with very mixed results!) As for my brother and I, we just liked the idea of doing something that would have driven our mother completely up the wall!

Home brewing was a relatively new concept to the wider masses in the late sixties. There had always been devotees of course, but the huge surge in interest of all things D.I.Y had brought home brewing kits to the attention of a much wider market. The kits were rudimentary affairs consisting of a large plastic dustbin with a lid, a plastic bag full of what looked like dried onion skins but were actually hops, a bag of yeast, a two pound bag of sugar and three sheets of crude Photostat copies of instructions.

It was August, the school holidays were in full swing and when I wasn't at my pal's house, or off on my bike, I spent my time at the library on Northfields Avenue. One hot afternoon, I arrived back home with a couple of books under my arm to find a large cardboard box completely blocking the small entrance porch. I dragged it inside with some difficulty, opened it up and spread out the contents on the floor of the tiny living room.

Dad was still at work and my younger brother had left earlier in the day with the usual vague description of his movements but I knew he would almost invariably head for Lammas park and the new 'adventure playground' that Ealing council had set up along with dozens of other London boroughs that year. There were lots of 'activities' available...rope swings, tree houses, log walks... and about a dozen seriously injured kids a week. They lasted a year before the lawsuits and health and safety closed them down.

I gave the ingredients a cursory glance and settled down to read the instructions.

I had got to the part about sterilizing the bottles when I heard the front wheel of Dad's bike hitting the front door. He always tried to put his key in the door while still seated on the bike and the resultant thud as he leaned forward was the signal for me to put the kettle on and pretend I had been doing my homework. I heaped the various ingredients back into the plastic bin and dragged it out into the glass roofed lean to on the back of the house.

"Allo Son" my father gave me the usual greeting as he wheeled his bike straight through the house and out into the back yard. (Something else that would have driven my mother mad)

"What's all this?" he pointed at the yellow bin with his bike pump which he always removed and kept in the house as if it was something far too valuable to be left outside.

"It came today" I said, "It's the beer barrel"

You've checked it I suppose he said, Is it all there?"

"looks like it" I said.

"Good, then after dinner we'll take a closer look at it"

I lost count of the number of times I read those photostat instructions out to Dad. He had terribly bad eyesight due to an industrial accident and could only read with the help of a very high powered eyeglass held at close range. It was quicker for me to read out routine items to him, usually utility bills, newspaper articles and the like. It was one of the many little bonds between us that made life interesting. Once, I added a couple of digits to the gas bill just to see if he noticed. He said nothing, but a day or two later I noticed my pocket money was reduced by 30% and when questioned him about the shortfall he said..

"Well son, you know how much that last gas bill was, we'll all have to make sacrifices until things improve."

Then he stared at me with a straight face until eventually he could hold it in no longer and burst out laughing, tossing me the missing sixpence from my allowance.

Of course he understood the instructions the first time I read them, but such was his fascination with this new technology, he wanted to savour the whole experience, much as we do today when we unpack a new computer or mobile phone I suppose.

We decided we would commence brewing at the weekend and the location for storage was to be the cupboard under the stairs in the living room. A dark cool place which contained the gas meter, our overcoats and the box of Christmas decorations.

Saturday morning duly arrived and we spread out our brewery in the back yard and awaited developments. Dad finished his breakfast surveyed the scene and instructed me to read the directions out again..from the beginning. I groaned and started on page one. This time as I read out a section, Dad stopped me and ordered my brother to carry out the procedure I had just described. The excitement grew as the water was measured out, then the hops were added, and finally we got to the sugar. The kit manufacturers had added helpful little explanatory notes all through the instructions. Just to make things interesting and educational. When I read out the notes for the sugar Dad stopped me and said,

"Read that one again son"

I duly complied. "Add the two pound bag of sugar and stir well." I said.

The helpful scientific notes went on to explain the sugar was what turned to alcohol. My father decided that this was the moment to step in and push the boundaries of science and decreed that we would add four pounds of sugar as that would make even more alcohol. My brother was duly despatched at the run to Mr Barry's shop to bring back another bag of sugar. We stirred it in, remarking with wild optimism that the soapy looking mess almost looked like beer already.

The yeast was added, the lid fastened down, and the bin was carried almost reverentially into the cupboard to begin the long two weeks of fermentation.

Almost every evening as we sat watching the telly in the tiny living room, someone would say they were sure they could smell beer and go on to calculate how many days left to the bottling stage.

The great day finally arrived and the night before, my brother and I were tasked with obtaining the 35 screw top pint glass bottles required for the bottling phase.

We paid a visit to Mr Barry who ran the little corner shop at the top of Overdale road and told him what we needed.

Barry knew our family well. His shop was the hub of the little Overdale community and very little went on in the road that didn't find it's way to Mr Barry. He knew us since we were babies and was well aware that Dad was raising us alone and he often acted as a surrogate parent while Dad was at work, making sure we had eaten when we got back from school, allowing us to get groceries on Dad's credit but only if he deemed them "healthy for young uns'"

Barry was an incredibly kind and generous man and was loved by all in the road (but that's a story for another time!)

Barry told us we could help ourselves to the empty lemonade bottles in his back yard. They had been there for years as the soft drink company had gone out of business and glass recycling was still a decade away.

We took them home and the next morning, we set up our bottle processing plant in the back yard.

Our technique was very basic. We washed the bottles with detergent and then dipped them in boiling water to sterilize them. Looking back, it would have sent a modern health and safety inspector into apoplexy, but it looked good enough to us.

Dad appeared in the yard, held a washed bottle up to the light, sniffed the inside and pronounced himself satisfied. We strained the brown soup that really did finally smell like beer through a pair of Mum's old tights and carefully filled and capped every one of the thirty five bottles. All we had to do now was wait.....

Four weeks was the gestation period, after that we would be the proud parents of 35 pints of premium double strength ale. We would be the envy of every kid in our school whose only access to alcohol was stealing a mouthful of Sherry from the bottle in the kitchen cabinet and replacing it with an equal amount of water. With our new brewery empire, we would be treated like kings in the playground. Life was definitely looking up!

We returned to the stair cupboard and my brother crawled in to stack the bottles neatly as far back as they would go. We closed the door and tried our best to forget about them for a month.

Were were watching TV as usual in the living room when, during a particularly violent episode of 'Hawaii Five O' the first bottle exploded. We didn't actually hear it as there was a lot of gunfire on screen and Dad loved to have the sound up high.

"Sure, what's the point of having a volume knob if you don't use it?" he used to say and of course we couldn't fault his logic.

We did however smell the beer a few moments later, and Dad turned round in his chair, his highly tuned nose sniffing the increasingly pungent scent.

He made the pronouncement we had all heard a thousand times in the preceding weeks, "is that beer ?" He said sniffing again even harder, we groaned and started laughing but then we could smell it too...We started to cheer but when the second bottle exploded with a muffled thud deep in the bowels of the cupboard, there was nothing but shocked silence for a moment as the enormity of what was happening sank in.. then the third bottle went off and we knew the dream was over.

Dad stood up slowly and went over to the cupboard door tentatively opening it a crack and then wider and wider, until finally he opened it all the way and a powerful wave of fermenting beer scent surged through the opening forcing him to slam it shut his eyes blinking with the fumes.

"Sweet Jesus, we could have a bit of a problem here lads." As ever his Irish mastery of understatement never failed to impress and our hearts turned to lead as another bottle exploded.

Like a Japanese pearl diver, Dad took several deep breaths in rapid succession and then stuck his head inside the cupboard. Another bottle bursting prompted a rapid withdrawal as the glass shards rattled against the back of the door.

"How many is that now?" he said.

"About five" I ventured.

Two more fractured as we spoke. "Seven" I said to no one in particular.

Dad went into the kitchen and came out with a piece of notepaper and a pencil on a string. On the paper he had drawn seven lines with the pencil, He stuck both to the cupboard door with a drawing pin.

"Anyone who hears a bang, mark it here. In that confined space you could get killed by flying glass so nobody goes in there until we know they are all gone" he said, his voice sinking rapidly into defeated tones as our precious amber nectar soaked into the floorboards of the living room.

It took two weeks for the rest of the bottles to explode.

They were the longest two weeks of our admittedly relatively short lives up to that point. It was like living in a half empty beer barrel. The smell of stale beer was our constant companion. Not just at home, but at school, on the bus, at the library, even at mass on Sundays. Our clothes, our skin, our hair, every fibre of our being reeked of stale beer. We just had to live with it, no one could risk going into the cupboard with all that flying glass.

All our clothes were permeated with the smell. Like cigarette smoke, they simply absorbed the fumes. Washing didn't help at all. I found myself sitting alone in class at school. No one could bear to sit next to me. The maths master stopped the lesson and demanded to know who was drinking in his class. I had to explain what had happened to the headmaster and assure him I was not the raging alcoholic I appeared to be. (To this day, I'm still not altogether sure he believed me)

The whole house stank like a brewery and the worst part was we never even tasted a drop of it. The last straw was when Mrs MacCarthy called for the weekly football pools lottery money.

Mrs. Mac was an Irish widow. Her second career was as the church gossip. She lived in Overdale Road at number 37. with her 40 year old son. A very strange man who hardly ever spoke but then he had no need to, his mother took care of all that. If there was news, Mrs. Mac had it, if there was no news, she made some up. She was never without a scandal of some sort to impart.

Mrs Mac. was on all the church committees, she organized the flowers, the cleaning of the church, counted the collection cash you name it, she was involved. She worshipped the parish priest, Father Lowe and like a faithful old Labrador dog, she was never far away from the poor man.

She called on Sunday night as usual and when my brother opened the door, the blast of beer fumes was so strong she was literally blown off the front door step. Dad came to the door just as she was asking my brother in a low whisper if everything was alright and if there was 'drink being taken on the Lords day' Dad, knowing what a gossip she was, and what she would make of the situation, decided to make things even worse in an attempt to confuse the poor woman further. He lurched to the front door and hiccuped,

"is it yourself Mrs Mac? How the divil are ye?" Would you like to come in for a drop of whiskey? I have father Lowe in here and he's so pissed he can't get up off the sofa. Will you not come in for a drink..I'm sure he'd love to see you."

The look on her face as she grabbed the pools money and scurried out of the front gate was priceless, a mixture of horror, disbelief and frustration all at the same time.

Dad's quick thinking had effectively presented Mrs. Mac with an impossible dilemma. She could broadcast what she had seen to the entire parish but if she did, she risked it getting back to her hero, Father Lowe who could possibly fire her if his drinking problem leaked out. Father Lowe was not known for drinking to excess or at all for that matter, but she may have stumbled on his secret. What a fantastic piece of gossip..but could she take the risk? The torture was exquisite!

She finally decided to say nothing and dad told me for weeks afterwards as he used to pass her the collection plate at mass he would wink conspiratorially at her just to watch her suffer.

So, to sum up, our venture into brewing was an abject failure all those years ago, but we learned a few things along the way.

1. Instructions are there for a reason.

2. The laws of chemistry are not 'optional'

3. When confronted with an embarrassing situation, bare faced lying is not without merit

4.The BBC does get it wrong.

Oh yes, and..

5. A Dad with a sense of humour is worth more than all the beer in world.

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