Tag Archives: teenagers

How I Got Into Beer

Was doing some homebrewing experimentation (sour mash, watermelon, honey, complex yeast cultures…) and I got to think about what I’d say in an interview about my brewing activities.

It’s a bit more personal than my usual posts in English (my more personal blogposts are usually in French), but it seems fitting.

I also have something of a backlog of blogposts I really should do ASAP. But blogging is also about seizing the moment. I feel like writing about beer. 😛


As you might know, the drinking age in Quebec is 18, as in most parts of the World except for the US. What is somewhat distinct about Qc with regards to drinking age is that responsible drinking is the key and we tend to have a more “European” attitude toward alcohol: as compared to the Rest of Canada, there’s a fair bit of leeway in terms of when someone is allowed to drink alcohol. We also tend to learn to drink in the family environment, and not necessarily with friends. What it means, I would argue, is that we do our mistakes in a relatively safe context. By the time drinking with peers becomes important (e.g., in university or with colleagues), many of us know that there’s no fun in abusing alcohol and that there are better ways to prove ourselves than binge drinking. According to Barrett Seaman, author of Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You, even students from the US studying at McGill University in Montreal are more likely to drink responsibly than most students he’s seen in the US. (In Montreal, McGill tends to be recognized as a place where binge drinking is most likely to occur, partly because of the presence of US students. In addition, binge drinking is becoming more conspicuous, in Qc, perhaps because of media pressure or because of influence from the US.)

All this to say that it’s rather common for a QuĂ©bĂ©cois teen to at least try alcohol at a relatively age. Because of my family’s connections with Switzerland and France, we probably pushed this even further than most QuĂ©bĂ©cois family. In other words, I had my first sips of alcohol at a relatively early age (I won’t tell) and, by age 16, I could distinguish different varieties of Swiss wines, during an extended trip to Switzerland. Several of these wines were produced by relatives and friends, from their own vineyards. They didn’t contain sulfites and were often quite distinctive. To this day, I miss those wines. In fact, I’d say that Swiss wines are among the best kept secrets of the wine world. Thing is, it seems that Swiss vineyards barely produce enough for local consumption so they don’t try to export any of it.


By age 18, my attitude toward alcohol was already quite similar to what it is now: it’s something that shouldn’t be abused but that can be very tasty. I had a similar attitude toward coffee, that I started to drink regularly when I was 15. (Apart from being a homebrewer and a beer geek, I’m also a homeroaster and coffee geek. Someone once called me a “Renaissance drinker.”)

When I started working in French restaurants, it was relatively normal for staff members to drink alcohol at the end of the shift. In fact, at one place where I worked, the staff meal at the end of the evening shift was a lengthy dinner accompanied by some quality wine. My palate was still relatively untrained, but I remember that we would, in fact, discuss the wine on at least some occasions. And I remember one customer, a stage director, who would share his bottle of wine with the staff during his meal: his doctor told him to reduce his alcohol consumption and the wine only came in 750ml bottles. 😉

That same restaurant might have been the first place where I tried a North American craft beer. At least, this is where I started to know about craft beer in North America. It was probably McAuslan‘s St. Ambroise Stout. But I also had opportunities to have some St. Ambroise Pale Ale. I just preferred the Stout.

At one point, that restaurant got promotional beer from a microbrewery called Massawippi. That beer was so unpopular that we weren’t able to give it away to customers. Can’t recall how it tasted but nobody enjoyed it. The reason this brewery is significant is that their license was the one which was bought to create a little microbrewery called Unibroue. So, it seems that my memories go back to some relatively early phases in Quebec’s craft beer history. I also have rather positive memories of when Brasal opened.

Somewhere along the way, I had started to pick up on some European beers. Apart from macros (Guinness, Heineken, etc.), I’m not really sure what I had tried by that point. But even though these were relatively uninspiring beers, they somehow got me to understand that there was more to beer than Molson, Labatt, Laurentide, O’Keefe, and Black Label.

The time I spent living in Switzerland, in 1994-1995, is probably the turning point for me in terms of beer tasting. Not only did I get to drink the occasional EuroLager and generic stout, but I was getting into Belgian Ales and Lambics. My “session beer,” for a while, was a wit sold in CH as Wittekop. Maybe not the most unique wit out there. But it was the house beer at Bleu LĂ©zard, and I drank enough of it then to miss it. I also got to try several of the Trappists. In fact, one of the pubs on the EPFL campus had a pretty good beer selection, including Rochefort, Chimay, Westmalle, and Orval. The first lambic I remember was Mort Subite Gueuze, on tap at a very quirky place that remains on my mind as this near-cinematic experience.

At the end of my time in Switzerland, I took a trip to Prague and Vienna. Already at that time, I was interested enough in beer that a significant proportion of my efforts were about tasting different beers while I was there. I still remember a very tasty “Dopplemalz” beer from Vienna and, though I already preferred ales, several nice lagers from Prague.

A year after coming back to North America, I traveled to Scotland and England with a bunch of friends. Beer was an important part of the trip. Though I had no notion of what CAMRA was, I remember having some real ales in diverse places. Even some of the macro beers were different enough to merit our interest. For instance, we tried Fraoch then, probably before it became available in North America. We also visited a few distilleries which, though I didn’t know it at the time, were my first introduction to some beer brewing concepts.

Which brings me to homebrewing.

The first time I had homebrew was probably at my saxophone teacher’s place. He did a party for all of us and had brewed two batches. One was either a stout or a porter and the other one was probably some kind of blonde ale. What I remember of those beers is very vague (that was probably 19 years ago), but I know I enjoyed the stout and was impressed by the low price-quality ratio. From that point on, I knew I wanted to brew. Not really to cut costs (I wasn’t drinking much, anyway). But to try different beers. Or, at least, to easily get access to those beers which were more interesting than the macrobrewed ones.

I remember another occasion with a homebrewer, a few years later. I only tried a few sips of the beer but I remember that he was talking about the low price. Again, what made an impression on me wasn’t so much the price itself. But the low price for the quality.

At the same time, I had been thinking about all sorts of things which would later become my “hobbies.” I had never had hobbies in my life but I was thinking about homeroasting coffee, as a way to get really fresh coffee and explore diverse flavours. Thing is, I was already this hedonist I keep claiming I am. Tasting diverse things was already an important pleasure in my life.

So, homebrewing was on my mind because of the quality-price ratio and because it could allow me to explore diverse flavours.

When I moved to Bloomington, IN, I got to interact with some homebrewers. More specifically, I went to an amazing party thrown by an ethnomusicologist/homebrewer. The guy’s beer was really quite good. And it came from a full kegging system.

I started dreaming.

Brewpubs, beerpubs, and microbreweries were already part of my life. For instance, without being a true regular, I had been going to Cheval blanc on a number of occasions. And my “go to” beer had been Unibroue, for a while.

At the time, I was moving back and forth between Quebec and Indiana. In Bloomington, I was enjoying beers from Upland’s Brewing Co., which had just opened, and Bloomington Brewing Co., which was distributed around the city. I was also into some other beers, including some macro imports like Newcastle Brown Ale. And, at liquor stores around the city (including Big Red), I was discovering a few American craft beers, though I didn’t know enough to really make my way through those. In fact, I remember asking for Unibroue to be distributed there, which eventually happened. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t try Three Floyds, at the time.

So I was giving craft beer some thought.

Then, in February 1999, I discovered Dieu du ciel. I may have gone there in late 1998, but the significant point was in February 1999. This is when I tried their first batch of “Spring Equinox” Maple Scotch Ale. This is the beer that turned me into a homebrewer. This is the beer that made me changed my perspetive about beer. At that point, I knew that I would eventually have to brew.

Which happened in July 1999, I think. My then-girlfriend had offered me a homebrewing starter kit as a birthday gift. (Or maybe she gave it to me for Christmas… But I think it was summer.) Can’t remember the extent to which I was talking about beer, at that point, but it was probably a fair bit, i.e., I was probably becoming annoying about it. And before getting the kit, I was probably daydreaming about brewing.

Even before getting the kit, I had started doing some reading. The aforementioned ethnomusicologist/homebrewer had sent me a Word file with a set of instructions and some information about equipment. It was actually much more elaborate than the starter kit I eventually got. So I kept wondering about all the issues and started getting some other pieces of equipment. In other words, I was already deep into it.

In fact, when I got my first brewing book, I also started reading feverishly, in a way I hadn’t done in years. Even before brewing the first batch, I was passionate about brewing.

Thanks to the ‘Net, I was rapidly amassing a lot of information about brewing. Including some recipes.

Unsurprisingly, the first beer I brewed was a maple beer, based on my memory of that Dieu du ciel beer. However, for some reason, that first beer was a maple porter, instead of a maple scotch ale. I brewed it with extract and steeped grain. I probably used a fresh pack of Coopers yeast. I don’t think I used fresh hops (the beer wasn’t supposed to be hop-forward). I do know I used maple syrup at the end of boil and maple sugar at priming.

It wasn’t an amazing beer, perhaps. But it was tasty enough. And it got me started. I did a few batches with extract and moved to all-grain almost right away. I remember some comments on my first maple porter, coming from some much more advanced brewers than I was. They couldn’t believe that it was an extract beer. I wasn’t evaluating my extract beer very highly. But I wasn’t ashamed of it either.

Those comments came from brewers who were hanging out on the Biéropholie website. After learning about brewing on my own, I had eventually found the site and had started interacting with some local Québécois homebrewers.

This was my first contact with “craft beer culture.” I had been in touch with fellow craft beer enthusiasts. But hanging out with BiĂšropholie people and going to social events they had organized was my first foray into something more of a social group with its associated “mode of operation.” It was a fascinating experience. As an ethnographer and social butterfly, this introduction to the social and cultural aspects of homebrewing was decisive. Because I was moving all the time, it was hard for me to stay connected with that group. But I made some ties there and I still bump into a few of the people I met through BiĂšropholie.

At the time I first started interacting with the BiĂšropholie gang, I was looking for a brewclub. Many online resources mentioned clubs and associations and they sounded exactly like the kind of thing I needed. Not only for practical reasons (it’s easier to learn techniques in such a context, getting feedback from knowledgeable people is essential, and tasting other people’s beers is an eye-opener), but also for social reasons. Homebrewing was never meant to be a solitary experience, for me.

I was too much of a social butterfly.

Which brings me back to childhood. As a kid, I was often ostracized. And I always tried to build clubs. It never really worked. Things got much better for me after age 15, and I had a rich social life by the time I became a young adult. But, in 2000-2001, I was still looking for a club to which I could belong. Unlike Groucho, I cared a lot about any club which would accept me.

As fun as it was, BiĂšropholie wasn’t an actual brewclub. Brewers posting on the site mostly met as a group during an annual event, a BBQ which became known as «XĂš de mille» (“Nth of 1000”) in 2001. The 2000 edition (“0th of 1000”) was when I had my maple porter tasted by more advanced brewers. Part of event was a bit like what brewclub meetings tend to be: tasting each other’s brews, providing feedback, discussing methods and ingredients, etc. But because people didn’t meet regularly as a group, because people were scattered all around Quebec, and because there wasn’t much in terms of “contribution to primary identity,” it didn’t feel like a brewclub, at least not of the type I was reading about.

The MontreAlers brewclub was formed at about that time. For some reason, it took me a while to learn of its existence. I distinctly remember looking for a Montreal-based club through diverse online resources, including the famed HomeBrew Digest. And I know I tried to contact someone from McGill who apparently had a club going. But I never found the ‘Alers.

I did eventually find the Members of Barleyment. Or, at least, some of the people who belonged to this “virtual brewclub.” It probably wasn’t until I moved to New Brunswick in 2003, but it was another turning point. One MoB member I met was Daniel Chisholm, a homebrewer near Fredericton, NB, who gave me insight on the New Brunswick beer scene (I was teaching in Fredericton at the time). Perhaps more importantly, Daniel also invited me to the Big Strange New Brunswick Brew (BSNBB), a brewing event like the ones I kept dreaming about. This was partly a Big Brew, an occasion for brewers to brew together at the same place. But it was also a very fun social event.

It’s through the BSNBB that I met MontreAlers Andrew Ludwig and John Misrahi. John is the instigator of the MontreAlers brewclub. Coming back to Montreal a few weeks after BSNBB, I was looking forward to attend my first meeting of the ‘Alers brewclub, in July 2003.

Which was another fascinating experience. Through it, I was able to observe different attitudes toward brewing. Misrahi, for instance, is a fellow experimental homebrewer to the point that I took to call him “MadMan Misrahi.” But a majority of ‘Alers are more directly on the “engineering” side of brewing. I also got to observe some interesting social dynamics among brewers, something which remained important as I moved to different places and got to observe other brewclubs and brewers meetings, such as the Chicago Beer Society’s Thirst Fursdays. Eventually, this all formed the backdrop for a set of informal observations which were the corse of a presentation I gave about craft beer and cultural identity.

Through all of these brewing-related groups, I’ve been positioning myself as an experimenter.  My goal isn’t necessarily to consistently make quality beer, to emulate some beers I know, or to win prizes in style-based brewing competitions. My thing is to have fun and try new things. Consistent beer is available anywhere and I drink little enough that I can afford enough of it. But homebrewing is almost a way for me to connect with my childhood.

There can be a “mad scientist” effect to homebrewing. Michael Tonsmeire calls himself The Mad Fermentationist and James Spencer at Basic Brewing has been interviewing a number of homebrewer who do rather unusual experiments.

I count myself among the ranks of the “Mad Brewers.” Oh, we’re not doing anything completely crazy. But slightly mad we are.

Through the selective memory of an adult with regards to his childhood, I might say that I was “always like that.” As a kid, I wanted to be everything at once: mayor, astronaut, fireman, and scholar. The researcher’s spirit had me “always try new things.” I even had a slight illusion of grandeur in that I would picture myself accomplishing all sorts of strange things. Had I known about it as a kid, I would have believed that I could solve the PoincarĂ© conjecture. Mathematicians were strange enough for me.

But there’s something more closely related to homebrewing which comes back to my mind as I do experiments with beer. I had this tendency to do all sorts of concoctions. Not only the magic potions kids do with mud  and dishwashing liquid. But all sorts of potable drinks that a mixologist may experiment with. There wasn’t any alcohol in those drinks, but the principle was the same. Some of them were good enough for my tastes. But I never achieved the kind of breakthrough drink which would please masses. I did, however, got my experimentation spirit to bear on food.

By age nine, I was cooking for myself at lunch. Nothing very elaborate, maybe. It often consisted of reheating leftovers. But I got used to the stove (we didn’t have a microwave oven, at the time). And I sometimes cooked some eggs or similar things. To this day, eggs are still my default food.

And, like many children, I occasionally contributing to cooking. Simple things like mixing ingredients. But also tasting things at different stages in the cooking or baking process. Given the importance of sensory memory, I’d say the tasting part was probably more important in my development than the mixing. But the pride was mostly in being an active contributor in the kitchen.

Had I understood fermentation as a kid, I probably would have been fascinated by it. In a way, I wish I could have been involved in homebrewing at the time.

A homebrewery is an adult’s chemistry set.

Blogging and Literary Standards

I wrote the following comment in response to a conversation between novelist Rick Moody and podcasting pioneer Chris Lydon:

Open Source » Blog Archive » In the Obama Moment: Rick Moody.

In keeping with the RERO principle I describe in that comment, the version on the Open Source site is quite raw. As is my habit, these days, I pushed the “submit” button without rereading what I had written. This version is edited, partly because I noticed some glaring mistakes and partly because I wanted to add some links. (Blog comments are often tagged for moderation if they contain too many links.) As I started editing that comment, I changed a few things, some of which have consequences to the meaning of my comment. There’s this process, in both writing and editing, which “generates new thoughts.” Yet another argument for the RERO principle.

I can already think of an addendum to this post, revolving on my personal position on writing styles (informed by my own blogwriting experience) along with my relative lack of sensitivity for Anglo writing. But I’m still blogging this comment on a standalone basis.

Read on, please… Continue reading Blogging and Literary Standards

Adulteen Category

[Yet another old draft.]

Seems to me, there’s an age category that we could call “adulteen.” People who are technically both adults and teens. Ages 18 and 19. Not yet 20 but 18 and older. In many contexts (voting rights in most places I know), they are legally “of age” (what, in French, we call «majeurs»). Yet, the mere fact that the numbers “eighteen” and “nineteen” bear the “-teen” suffix, they are teenagers. If I got this right, this is the “barely legal” category some people seem to be talking about, especially in the adult industry.

Sexuality is certainly important in defining this category as sexual relationships with 18 year-olds is usually not considered paedophilia. In the U.S. especially, paedophilia tends to be rather high on the list of taboos. I have no idea what the numbers are but it seems to me that, within the larger category of rape victims, many people are women younger than 20 years of age.

In the U.S., adulteens are not yet allowed to drink alcohol. They can vote, bear arms, drive (since a much earlier age, actually) but they cannot consume alcohol outside of parental supervision. This, they share with 20 year-olds. But “20” seems to be more adult-sounding in many cases.

What’s striking, to me, is that 18 is already a bit old as defining adulthood. Not too long ago, people who had children at age 16 were quite common. Maybe I’m completely off but it seems to me that “it really wasn’t a big deal, back then.” Especially for young girls/women. Those women who had children at such a young age don’t seem particularly scarred from the experience, AFAICT. I don’t even think there were much of a social stigma about being a mother at age 16. And it seems to me that becoming a parent is as adult-like as can be.

Of course, people also entered the workforce at an earlier age, on average. These days, beginning a career at age 18 is somewhat uncommon. Much of this difference has to do with formal education. At least in North America and Europe, compulsory schooling tends to last until age 16 and it’s often very hard to find work leaving school before age 19. In Quebec, for instance, there are ways to do a professional degree at the end of high school but majority of people go to Cegep which brings them to age 19 or so.

At age 34 (and turning 35 in just a few days), I find it funny to think that, technically, I could have been a grand-father at this point in my life. That is, I technically could have had a child at age 16 who could have had her own child at age 16 so that I would have become a grand-father at age 32. I’m not even a father yet. And I’m not that far outside the norm, at least for academics.

Funny thing is, age does tend to matter to me. Not in terms of “feeling old,” really. More in terms of significance, symbolism, social roles.

There’s a whole thing I’ll need to blog about generation gaps. For now, I just want to let this entry stay as it is.

For Those Who Don't Grok Blogging

A friend sent me this link:

How to Dissuade Yourself from Becoming a Blogger – WikiHow
Cute, but not that insightful. Continue reading For Those Who Don't Grok Blogging

Normative Language and Spontaneity

In an interview (in French) with Bruno Guglielminetti (site not yet updated with the interview), copy-editor François Hubert discussed the “quality” of the French language on blogs (by which he means the grammatical, typographical, and spelling correctness of blog posts in French).

This concept of language quality, as described by Hubert and many others, is an important component of French language ideology. While speakers of other languages often complain about the poor quality of other speakers’ speech (and, especially, writing), normative language seems to be a more important part of the language ideology for the French language than, say, the language ideology for the English language.

The insistence on normative language, on the part of French-speakers, seems to have very important effects on both non-native speakers of French and native speakers of French. For instance, many non-native speakers of French will refrain from using the language with native speakers because they fear the native speakers will judge them negatively. While this does happen with learners of other languages, it seems especially debilitating for people trying to use French across language communities. In fact, insistence by Hubert and others on the “quality” of written French might be one of the motivating factors for my blogging mostly in English.

Of course, Hubert has the right to his opinions on the matter and his preference for normative language could be interpreted as a part of his job as a copy-editor (my wife is also a copy-editor…). Yet, even those who work on prescriptive grammar in other languages may be more open to non-normative language. For instance, comments by the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style in their Questions and Answers monthly column often display a much more tolerant attitude to non-normative language than many French-speakers with minimal interest in language issues.

There’s a strong tendency in language sciences (my wife and I are both in the field) to adopt a much more neutral view of language prescription. Some language scientists may talk in private about their preference for «un bon français» (“a good French,” as close to the standard register as possible) but the general agreement is that any language variety is as good as any other in linguistic terms.

In this specific interview, Hubert was mostly discussing blog entries and their spontaneity. Pinpointing a known phenomenon linking mistakes with online communication (“What? There’s a ‘Preview’ button?”), Hubert sets up a model opposing spontaneity to quality.  Hubert himself not only sends his blog entries in a word processor to check for typographical mistakes (a spell-checking browser makes this much easier to do) but he even prints out some of his entries before posting them. Thankfully his advice to bloggers is less extreme as it centres on rereading posts before submission and going back to older posts in order to revise them for posterity’s sake.

None of this is inappropriate advice, but it leads us to think about the blurring line between oral and written communication. Hubert’s argument is that, if we care about communication so much, we should revise our texts as they might remain available for a long time. Bloggers often take another approach to revision: readers are like an open-source community of copy-editors. Blogs with active readership communities often attract comments on language issues. Simple typographical mistakes are usually spotted by some astute reader quite early on and deeper issues are sometimes solved by the community. “Given enough eyeballs, all typos are shallow.” This is especially true if the author of the entry is perceived as somewhat condescending to her or his readers. Nothing will motivate someone to write a comment than showing the mistakes the author has made!

This all has to do with not only spontaneity but the “release early, release often.” Bloggers do revisit older entries, if need be. Not necessarily by editing the original entry but by posting a follow up. Blog Ă©tiquette seems to have it that entries should be left untouched as much as possible. Otherwise, comments on those entries cease to make sense. And when bloggers are trying to get to publishing quality, they might in fact use the power of the community as an editing team. As such, a blog entry is like a recorded conversation. You don’t change the conversation but you can use it to go further. In such a context, normative language makes fairly little sense. As long as you can post quickly and the gist of your ideas can be understood well-enough to enable readers to ask questions, heavy revision of every single entry is contrary to the very principle of blogging.

IMHO, such emphasis on revision and “language quality” is a reason why so many people have difficulty with writing. Nothing prevents someone from writing more abruptly than thinking about peculiarities of written language. Except if those peculiarities are what this person is writing about, of course!

One thing that few people seem to discuss extensively is the fact that younger people are in fact writing inordinate amounts of text online. Of course, those with a prescriptive and normative view of language will just say that what is written online by a thirteen year old has no value because of the “poor quality of the language.” Yet those teenagers who are instant messaging their way to becoming extremely fast typists are really writing. They are putting ideas into written form. And they develop ways to be as efficient as possible in their writing while still being understood by their interlocutors. More than a skill, it’s an important social change. Writing is not what it was when only a precious few scribes were able to use it for specialized communication and archival (like accounting and religion). Scribes of old have been responsible for a number of changes in language. Why can’t millions of teenagers have more of an impact on written language than a few dead scribes?