I believe it was the summer of ’64 and I had 3 good friends who were inseparable that summer, There nicknames were: “Strap,” “Doc,” “Bull,” and “Shifty,” that was just in case the statute of limitations had not run yet.
Over that summer, we had developed a keen curiosity about beer. As with most teens in a small town, we were on a severely limited budget, but we all thought we were smart enough to go off to college. It wasn’t so much that we liked beer, I think that beer is an acquired taste (since acquired), and we were relative beginners. But the appeal was that it was forbidden, and like anything that the adults don’t want teens to do, was immediately deemed “cool.” So, we as budding high school delinquents, we put our nimble little minds together and came up with a plan. Not since Custer decided to surround all those Indians, has a plan been so ill-conceived.
So, here we were, teenage boys with limited budgets who wanted an unlimited supply of beer. What we did have was an unlimited supply of testosterone, and a barely visible I.Q. activity. With these meager tools going for us, we devised a plan; and that boneheaded, witless, idea was to: . . . .”make our own beer!” We considered it an act of fiscal responsibility that would be hailed by every dunderhead between the ages of 15 and 19.
The recipe for beer making can be gleaned out most home-brew books including one at the library, and if we had studied Shakespeare and history like we poured over that book on beer making, we would be Rhodes Scholars. What we found out from further research was that, even though buying beer at the local bottle shop or bar, was illegal, buying the ingredients was perfectly legal. We bought bottle caps and Strap remembered that his father bottled his own root beer and had a crimping/capping mechanism. The malt, hops, yeast and sugar we bought and we carried water by the bucket to our secret place. We brewed in two identical 30 gallon antique clay pots that Strap “borrowed” out of his grandmother’s basement.they were both old pickle barrels. They were the old antique pots that were made for storing pickles in old general stores. All we had to do was mix the ingredients and wait 10 or 12 days depending on the temperature to start our bottling operation. The warmer the better.
Strap’s family had an old, wooden building that had been abandoned for years. It was an old garage building that used to be used as the Ford dealership back when they sold model “A”s. It was very old and dilapidated, it was weather beaten, unpainted, and barely safe. But it had an attic and no one had used it in years. It was not insulated so it was cold all winter and hotter than Hades in the summer. It was built in the days when insulation was more expensive than the coal used to heat it. The summer heat would be perfect for our brewing conditions. So, we toted the clay crocks up to the loft where it was warmest and started mixing our ingredients.
Our research on beer indicated that it was the yeast working on the sugar that formed the alcohol. Reasoning that more was better – all four of us snuck in a bit more sugar for the yeast to work on. (Curly-meet Moe!)
With this part of little scheme now complete, we turned our attention to rounding up close to 200 empty beer bottles. We did this by sneaking out of our bedroom windows at 3 in the morning – all of us, and stealing the empties from the loading docks of the various bars in town. (There were 4 bars at the time.) The bars would leave them on an outside dock and the beer vendors would pick them up on their normal delivery. We took just enough from each so it wouldn’t be noticed and besides, we were going to put them back when we were done with them. Our propensity for trouble was rising in geometric proportions. I will tell you that among the adjectives used to describe our role as teen role models, that sensible, sane and smart were missing. We had the chemical to clean and disinfect them.
The day finally came when we were to siphon our brew from the crocks into the bottles for capping and storage for another 7 to 10 days. Again, the building without insulation in the summer sun, was HOT! Plus, without any insulation between the walls, we could hide the bottles between the inside and the outside walls. We tore off some of the inside boards and began laying our cache of fresh brew into the spaces between the walls.
In seven days, on a hot Saturday morning, we went down to check on our little project. It was a particularly hot summer day in late July and when we opened the door, we heard a muffled explosion. Minutes later – we heard another, followed by the unmistakable sound of tinkling glass.
I will confirm your suspicions. Our precious beer, made volatile by too much yeast, too much sugar, and too much heat, was exploding between the walls. The whole building smelled like a fraternity house carpet and foam was beginning to run down the outside wall. You could hear audible gulps of fright and frustration from all of us.
We did what any responsible teenage would do. We left town. We spent most of the day on the lake, thinking that would be our alibi. Reason and logic were unfamiliar comforts to us. We were not a citadel of brain power as we took off for the lake, put the boat in the water and tried to forget what we would be in for if our little scheme should be found out. We figured that if we put enough distance between us and the exploding beer bottles, we would be above suspicion. A thought that put a temporary salve on our terror, but took undue liberties with actual truth. So we headed back into town when we got hungry hoping that we were going to dodge that bullet and our secret would be safe.
We could not have been more mistaken if we had telegraphed ahead. When we turned the corner to view our little “scene of the crime” the entire west wall was pure white, as gallons of beer foam seeped through the cracks of the old wooden siding and ran down the side of the building. You could smell it for blocks.
The city policeman was there complete with his red blinking lights, as well as two patrol cars from the county sheriff’s office and their blinking lights. The Mayor was there, most of the city council, some representatives from the fire dept. complete with a fire engines and crowd of about 100 people that the police were begging to get back and clear of what they didn’t know was happening; but there was definitely exploding glass in there somewhere. But the worst was, our fathers were all there too, to witness this amazing “foaming wall.” Our dad’s looked pained, like they had been through 3 IRS audits and they were hotter than the hinges on the back door to hell. Some days you’re the dog, some days you’re the hydrant.
I don’t know about you, but I think a growing boy of 17 is too big to take a whipping from his dad. This was not a view held by my Dad.
About a week later we showed up in juvenile court and after a good chewing out from the commissioner, I thought I detected a smile as he left the bench. He ordered us not to associate with any dangerous or unsavory characters and we all left wondering if that meant each other.
I don’t know if my Dad was relieved when I went to college because I was out of the house, or if he worried about the more intelligent trouble I could get into with more education and a bigger city and no curfew. (I never asked, the wounds to our relationship were too new.)
The building was torn down a few years after that summer fiasco and the group went on to other (and we hope, more intelligent) mischief. But I will never forget the summer that I was the co-owner of over 200 bottles of beer, and NEVER GOT ONE SIP!
It still brings tears to my eyes.