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The Truth, Mainly - 07/16/1990

'Marlboro man' has advice on the right way to brew beer

“I suppose,” I say, “we should stop and tell them about the sugar in the bottom of the bottles.”

My wife and I are driving past the new Budweiser plant just off I-25 a few miles north of Ft. Collins. Even on vacation in Colorado, my mind functions in the masculine practical mode.

“They probably already know about the sugar in the bottom of the bottles,” she says. “And they probably know how to read recipes. They probably even know the difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon.”

It’s been nearly 30 years now, but neither of us has forgotten what I refer to as “that little trouble in the basement” and what she calls “another tightwad scheme that almost killed us all.” What we’re talking about is this:

We are eating breakfast in our kitchen when the explosion from the basement rattles our coffee cups. My wife’s maternal logic takes her to the babies’ room while I spill my orange juice and drop my toast, strawberry jam side down.

We go to the head of the basement stairs, my wife still in her robe and slippers, I in my 1961 English teacher’s uniform: inch-wide tie, white shirt, flannel pants, tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, two red ballpoints beside the pack of Marlboros sticking out my left breast pocket. The Marlboros show my students that even though I teach poetry, I’m not a wimp.

“It’s probably the gas furnace,” I explain in my competent-male voice. “It’s probably blown up. Or at least the hot water heater. Sometimes they blow up too.”

But it’s not the furnace and it’s not the hot water heater. It’s the homebrew. Sixteen quart bottles of homemade beer that we filled and capped and stored in a cardboard box day before yesterday, all sixteen touching one another so that when they explode there will be only one big boom instead of sixteen little ones.

The basement smells of something gone bad. It is one room, twenty by thirty feet, and the whole floor is covered with the sticky homebrew and pieces of glass no bigger than a dime, but sharper. Shards of it still dripping foam are imbedded in the bare floor joists overhead.

“Hey, look,” I say. “The beer blew up.”

My wife gives me a look like she thinks maybe I think I’m Dick Tracy and she’s Tess Trueheart.

She doesn’t like homebrew even when it doesn’t blow up. She doesn’t like its scummy look and funky smell while it’s fermenting in the big clay pickle crock I found at Goodwill, and she doesn’t like the taste of sucking it through the rubber tube we use to siphon it into the quart bottles she’s just washed the dead flies out of.

The Truth, Mainly


“Think of the money we’ll save,” I’d said while we were filling the bottles. “This stuff is costing us about four cents a quart.”

“That’s about a nickle a quart more than it’s worth,” she’d calculated as she wiped off her chin.

Now she just looks at the glass shards imbedded in the joists and she doesn’t say anything.

What went wrong, I’ll later figure out when I re-read the recipe, was that I’d put too much sugar in the bottom of each bottle before we’d filled it. The sugar was to give the yeast something to feed on after the bottle had been capped so that the beer would be fizzy when we opened it.

I’d put in a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon.

We sweep up the glass. It cuts into my rubber heels and crunches under my leather soles as it grinds into the concrete floor. Then we mop up the beer. I’m going to be late for class, but I know enough to help out anyway and not say anything. Upstairs, the babies are awake and yelling. My wife speaks.

“You’re a pretty good husband,” she says, “but don’t you ever, don’t you ever make beer again.”

“You know what?” I say, sucking on the finger I’ve just cut from picking a piece of glass out of the joist. “This is just too goshdarned much trouble. I don’t think I’ll every make beer again.”

I haven’t either. But every time I pass a brewery, I wonder if I should stop and tell them it’s a teaspoon, not a tablespoon. Driving down I-25 a couple of miles north of Ft. Collins, my wife gives me that look so I decide the hell with it. Let the Budweiser people learn in the school of hard knocks the way all of us Marlboro men did.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.


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