My son Porter turns 12 this coming Tuesday. In his dozen years, he’s visited more breweries than the average adult. He’s listened to countless tour guides, brewers, Daddy’s beer friends, and me ramble on about beer and brewing for his entire life. Apparently it started to sink in. A few years ago, he began asking me if we could homebrew together. A casual question initially, but his desire intensified over time and earlier this year I promised him we could start homebrewing when he turned twelve.
Regular readers will no doubt know at least a little about Porter. By age three, he barely spoke. We visited numerous specialists and eventually he was diagnosed as being autistic. I quit my job as the General Manager of the Celebrator Beer News to stay home and do whatever we could to help our son. We found a special pre-school, hired tutors, took him to physical therapy, worked with endless flashcards, and basically did anything we could in the hopes of changing Porter’s fate; we read so many horror stories about worst case scenarios that we were committed to preparing him for a best possible future, at least. Happily, he responded magnificently, and by the end of the first year he was doing well-enough that I started freelancing. That’s also when I started the Brookston Beer Bulletin. Porter’s progress continued, but we decided to hold him back from starting kindergarten for a year (primarily because we’d been convinced that all boys tended to do better in school the later they started). Whatever it was we did, at least some of it worked. Academically, Porter flourished. His math and science (scores and grades) were off the chart. And perhaps more importantly, he caught up in language. When people meet him now, they’re astonished to learn he once didn’t talk. He’s certainly made up for lost time. In his last round of state-mandated testing, he scored perfects on four out of the five math sections, and even managed three perfects in language skills.
His autism mostly manifests itself these days in social awkwardness — but then he has me (and Sarah) for parents, so that’s not too surprising. We notice little things because we’re hyper-attuned to him from years of closely monitoring his behavior and progress. But most people don’t, and he appears more and more like a typical middle-schooler each year. He plays in band, loves Minecraft and was an all-star in little league baseball, where his team won the league championship this year. He even has a girlfriend and several good friends, something we thought impossible as recently as five years ago. The other way that his autism manifests itself is that he’s incredibly detail oriented. Some might say anal retentive. He often takes things literally, missing the nuance of humor or sarcasm. But I’m working on him. But that attention to detail I also thought would serve him well in homebrewing. A lot of brewing is precision and consistency.
I’d been eyeing Russian River Brewing’s pilot brewery — a 20-gallon brew sculpture from MoreBeer — and over time had asked brewer Vinnie Cilurzo how he liked it. I wanted to recreate commercial brewing at home, as best we could, for Porter to learn the brewing process along with the chemistry and science behind it. I spoke to Chris Graham, COO at MoreBeer, about getting a slightly smaller 10-gallon system for Porter and me to brew on. In anticipation of homebrewing, Chris recommended that Porter read John Palmer’s How to Brew. He made it through 18 chapters before he decided it was getting too complicated and felt overwhelmed. Chris and I lamented the fact that there were no books on “homebrewing for kids,” and suggested I work on the problem.
Because the last time I homebrewed was over twenty years ago (when I was a messy carboy homebrewer at best), I thought I’d ask a few friends if they would be willing to help. To my delight, everybody I asked enthusiastically agreed and we set a date, September 7. Vinnie Cilurzo, from Russian River Brewing, agreed to come and brew with Porter for his first time, and we concluded that his first beer most certainly had to be a porter. I thought we’d use one of Vinnie’s old porter recipes, but he surprised us by creating a brand new porter recipe, which he named “Porter’s Porter.” We also got some help from Rich Norgrove, from Bear Republic, Sean Paxton — the Homebrew Chef — and Dave Keene, owner of the Toronado.
Since we were going to do all-malt brewing, our first job was milling the barley, which Porter’s sister Alice seemed to love doing. Along with some friends, she ran the mill and got ready about twice as much of the base malt as we needed, just because she was enjoying herself so much. She’s now talking about becoming a maltster when she grows up.
The next step was weighing and measuring out the base malt and specialty malts needed to start the brewing. Porter weighed it out and kept track of the grain build.
Then Vinnie and Porter started the homebrew and got things really going. If you noticed that camera in the corner, my friend Justin Crossley, from the Brewing Network, brought a film crew to record Porter’s brew day. He interviewed father and son, along with all of the helpers, and is planning on creating a short film about families brewing. After the beer is finished, we’ll take some to the Brewing Network studio, and everyone except Porter will try the beer for the first time on the Sunday show. Should be fun.
Vinnie watching the numbers, while Porter measures the kettle, getting ready to move the wort for the hop additions.
Porter making the first hop addition.
Porter trying the sweet wort for the first time.
Getting everything set up to transfer the wort to the fermenter using a counterflow chiller, while Vinnie and Rich lamented the fact that we had no glycol.
Brewmaster Porter and his intern/assistant Vinnie Cilurzo posing for a photo after the brewing was done.
After a six-hour brew day, the wort was in the fermenter and we had to wait for the temperature to drop so we could pitch the yeast. In between, we drank some great beer, ate some tasty food, and enjoyed a beautiful day in Sonoma County. We can’t thank Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo enough for making Porter’s first brew day such a special one. He was thrilled and excited the entire day. In addition to Vinnie and Natalie, it was great seeing (and having the help of) Rich, Tami and Sam Norgrove, Dave and Jennifer Keene, and Sean, Arlene and Olivia Paxton. Five families getting together to eat, drink and brew. And thanks to Justin Crossley for recording it all for posterity. What a day!
Porter’s Porter fermenting. Stay tuned to see how it all turned out in a couple of weeks.