I was raised in the Deep South. I grew up on typical southern fare; cornbread, fried okra, black-eyed peas, grits and so forth. Not everything on the southern table is fried, despite what some might think. In the summer, we often had vegetable suppers with no meat whatsoever. Almost everything was fresh from the garden. We had fresh tomatoes, fresh peas, yellow squash, cucumbers and cabbage along with other in-season fruits and vegetables. What we couldn’t eat, was either canned or frozen for the winter. My mother always made lots of vegetable soup. A bowl of homemade soup and a grilled cheese sandwich couldn’t be beat on a chilly night in January.
I like to think that I’ve carried the appreciation for simple foods into my adult life. Yes, I do make the complex concoction now and again, but mostly I cherish the likes of a good, hot piece of cornbread crumbled into bowl of cold milk accompanied by a fresh green onion.
By now, you’re probably asking how all this relates to Zen and Beer? I’m getting there. Indulge me a bit longer.
I’ve been looking for the perfect beer for all my adult life. I’ve never found it. It quickly became apparent that the swill that comes from the large, industrialized breweries wasn’t going to satisfy my palette. If you’ve noticed, the large brewers are slowly, but surely moving their products toward water. They all started with a lightweight lager and then started subtracting stuff from it. First it was less filling, then it was lower carbs. Pretty soon, all that will be left is the water and a little coloring. They may be on to something. I never in my life thought that bottled water would have become as large an industry as it has. Maybe the large brewers have rethought their product lines.
Anyway, I’ve consumed my fair share of beer over the years. When I buy beer, I usually look for something I haven’t tried before. The last ten or so years have seen a virtual explosion in the varieties of beer available to the American consumer. Still, even with the variety available, the perfect beer eludes me.
Cooking and Zen
Earlier I wrote that I like to cook. I still experiment in the kitchen. When preparing a dish, I will often go through the spice cabinet, opening each jar, sniffing the contents and imagining in my mind if the essence will work with or against the existing flavors. There is an almost existential peace that comes with cooking this way. It’s very fulfilling. Sometimes you end up with a work of art that can’t be duplicated. A dish created this way is glorious from the first bite to the last. Time stands still. The stars align. The world, if only for a moment, is at peace. These are the Zen moments.
Beer and Zen
In my quest for the perfect beer, I took up brewing. I finally came to the realization that no one is likely to have the same palate as me. Oh, I’m sure many could agree that some beers were “good enough”, but I wanted a beer that I found to be perfect.
Like cooking, brewing is the perfect blend of science and art. Brewing beer is cooking. Sure, as a beginner, you should stick to a regimented, mostly scientific process. You need to learn the ropes. You need to learn how to pick and prepare your ingredients. You must gain respect for the magical process involved in fermentation. You wouldn’t expect someone who has never boiled water to attempt a souffle. Neither would you expect a beginning brewer to malt his own barley. However, when in a quest for the perfect beer, nothing will stop the pursuit of the obsessed. The science is the easy part. It merely becomes a process. If Zen is the destiny, then it is the art that must be mastered. And that is the rub…
From the moment the ingredients are chosen until the first glass is poured, the quest is on. That first sniff, the first taste will tell the brewer if the journey was worth the effort. Is it a beer to be quaffed or sipped? Is the aroma pleasing? Does it satisfy the palate as well as the thirst? Could you imagine any food it would not complement? Is the first sip is good as the last? Does time stand still? Do the stars align? Is it perfect? Is it Art? Is there Zen?
My quest continues…