Raised in a teetotaling household, I believed it was sinful to drink alcohol. That’s in the Bible, you know.
Noah’s first project after arking and disembarking was planting grapes. Then he got drunk and nekkid, and passed out in his tent. Noah’s son Ham glimpsed the old man’s butt, so hung-over Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan, who had nothing to do with any of it.
Not long after the Great Arsonist in the Sky cremated his hometown and most of his acquaintances, Lot was able to escape with little more than the robe on his back, and a jug of proto-Mogen David. His daughters’ former boyfriends were toast, and his wife was now literally a pillar of the community, so he got drunk and committed incest. In a cave. Twice.
Jesus turned water into sin-free grape juice at a wedding feast. The guests had swilled so much “grape juice” that they exhausted the groom’s juice cellars. After remarking “Jeez, you guys saved the good stuff for last,” they resumed chugging, and then, according to scripture, played strip poker.
Apostle Paul advised Acolyte Timothy to “take a little wine for the sake of your stomach.” An obvious reference to grape juice, since wine is more likely to cause stomach upset than to cure it.
A worldwide trade in “grape juice” flourished back then. Distribution had to be fast and efficient, since grape juice starts to spoil (ferment) as soon as it’s stomped, thanks to natural yeasts and athlete’s foot. Drying and salting were their main methods of preservation; neither work well with fruit juice.
Even in the absence of comely daughters, alcohol has liabilities. Drunk driving, cirrhosis, waking up in bed with someone who looks way too much like Nancy Pelosi — lots of risks which ought to dissuade anyone from imbibing. Still, people imbibe. Wassup with that?
As a kid, I asked myself that very question. I figured I could answer it without getting hooked. Or caught.
We lived in the parsonage next to the church building. I spent a lot of summer time in the basement, reading, stealing cookies from the freezer, and performing science experiments. I had a small but effective microscope, and after tiring of salt crystals and pill-bugs, I turned to dissection. The tiny lens of a fetal sparrow’s eye looked exactly like a crystalline lens ought to look.
I preserved a variety of animal specimens in jars of leftover formalin liberated from the biology teacher’s reserves. Before long, that ran out.
I’d read about seafaring explorers who preserved specimens for later study by immersing them in kegs of grain alcohol or rum. Sometimes the working sailors sampled the preservative until they were nearly pickled themselves. “Ahoy, matey, try this armadillo juice — it’s even better than Snake-in-a-Bottle!”
Molasses makes rum; maybe I could make my own preservative right there in the preacher’s basement. The Stockton grain elevator sold bulk molasses as a feed additive. I filled a gallon jug for a few pennies.
After adding bread yeast and enough water to make the molasses runny, I poured the mix into a gallon glass jar Mom used for canning dill pickles. The smell of fermenting molasses permeated the basement, but odd smells often accompanied my investigations. Glad I was interested in science rather than hot rods, my parents disregarded the latest odor.
When the brew had stopped bubbling for a few days, I rigged a stand to support the jar above a makeshift rubbing-alcohol burner. A copper tube channeled the vapors to condense in a small glass floating in a cool water bath.
A tablespoon of clear liquid had collected when the big jar, made of plain ol’ glass, emitted a loud crack-pop, and shattered. A gallon of rank brown glop splashed down on the bench, splattering in all directions.
Only that tablespoon of clear, warm liquid survived. I had totally not planned whatsoever to taste it myself, but there wasn’t enough to preserve a specimen, so — I had a sip. Then I got nekkid and passed out. Who knew?
It was oddly sweet, stung the tongue, but otherwise seemed much ado about nothing. It took me a long time to clean the collateral damage, but I didn’t get in trouble.
I wasn’t permanently deterred. The summer after high school, I stayed in Stockton to work, living in a basement apartment run by a pair of spinster sisters. When Webster’s Grocery offered a pile of overripe bananas almost for free, I bought some. Banana wine might taste good, I bet.
That night I put the pulped bananas in a glass gallon jug with some water, added sugar, and then realized I had no yeast. I capped the jug and left it in the kitchen sink until next day after work, when I brought home the final ingredient.
Yeast packet in hand, I had barely touched the aluminum jug cap when it blew off violently, propelling a geyser of pulp straight up to the ceiling, splashing the whole room. Bananas also harbor natural yeast, it seems. Can’t recall how I explained that mess to the temperance-minded sisters.
Much later, a fellow Rez-doc showed me how to make real beer from springwater and wild hops. Birney Spring produced “Birneybrau,” and Crazy Head Springs yielded “Crazy Head Beer.”
Nowadays I just drink non-alcoholic commercial beers. I don’t miss getting messy. Or sloppy.
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and lives outside Hays.