Our laundry – a small, darkish, seemingly innocuous room toward the back of the house – is home to a plethora of living things. Some of these things scuttle, back under the washing machine from whence they came. Others seem to tap dance across the off-white walls, quickly, back to stringy homes high in corners near the ceiling. The biggest living thing though, sits next to the water heater and doesn’t move, it doesn’t scuttle or dance, it squats and occasionally bubbles and burps, delimited within its plastic barrel. Bubbling and burping.
This thing is my child. It began as a mere twinkle in my eye one night not too long ago and became a reality soon after, born of the contents of a large tin, litres of water, a special sort of sugar, a small packet of yeast. I’d lovingly sterilised its new home, I’d carefully mixed all the aforementioned ingredients, I’d paid close attention to the temperature and the light and the positioning and now it’s alive. I’m a proud father. I plan to take many photos once it’s grown.
Years ago, when I was young, from about the age of six to 14, we would visit my grandparents in Brisbane. They had an old Queenslander in an outer southern suburb, a house high on stilts with plenty of space underneath to park the car, store tools and the like (my grandfather was good with his hands), and to house their laundry. It was in this cement floored room, an ancient washer and dryer up against one wall, that my grandfather, Papa, brewed his beer. It was almost a shrine, and it was from there that my own brewing dreams sprang.
Not at the time of course. As a six year old, I had no idea what beer was. Now though, some 26 years later, I’m well aware of what beer is – perhaps a little too aware. But I digress. The art of brewing, as a friend of mine calls it, is something that interests me greatly. Firstly, it’s a good way to have plenty of beer on hand (providing you’ve got a continuous brew happening) without breaking the bank. Secondly, it’s a way for me to remember Papa, who meticulously handcrafted his beer, bottled it into longnecks, and brought it out once the humidity began to hit 80, the temperature 30, and we all came to visit. Mum and Dad would sit with him and they’d drink his brew. I remember that well.
I also remember, more recently, not long before she died when I was in my late 20s, my Gran fondly recalling Papa’s whole process. Her favourite story was how they’d bottle together, he filling the longnecks to a specific volume, handing them to her to cap and store, quickly turning back to the steady flow, a regular production line. My Gran told me that story many, many times, usually with a tear in her eye, as she remembered those days, long gone.
When I was 14, Papa died. He had throat cancer and it got him pretty bad. I don’t remember too much about it, but talking to my uncle recently, Papa’s son, it wasn’t a good way to go. It never is. After his funeral, which I remember all too well, we all gathered at Gran’s house – my mother and her brother and sister sat out the back together for a while, quietly talking about Papa.
Gran came out with a bottle after a time. Not just any bottle, but a bottle of Papa’s brew. Because he’d been so sick, he’d not been able to brew anymore, and so this was the very last one, the final monument to his hobby, his passion, his life. They drank Papa’s last bottle of beer, on the day of his funeral. They drank to him.
Drinking, particularly drinking beer, has always had a place in Australian lore, sometimes not always a good place. But to me, sharing a beer with friends is one of the most complete ways to be. It’s not about the actual beer per se, the alcohol, it’s about sharing and sitting, talking and thinking. That’s what Mum and Dad, my uncle and aunt, my Gran and Papa did, and it hits home harder when they were drinking something Papa made himself, something born of patience and care, in an act that brought the family together.
Now his grandson is doing the same. When this first batch comes out, kicking and screaming no doubt, a robust, full bodied little number, I’ll bottle into longnecks. I’ll attach a plain white sticker and write Papa’s Brew in black texta, and I’ll take some up to Brisbane, to my aunt’s place when Mum is up just after Christmas, and we’ll drink it together. We’ll drink it to him, and in his honour, our laundry will always, forevermore, be full of living things.
Samuel J. Fell