Friday, February 15, 2013

Sarah Gerkensmeyer's Guide to Books & Booze

Time to grab a book and get tipsy!

Books & Booze  premiered as a new mini-series of sorts here on TNBBC back in October. The participating authors were challenged to make up their own drinks, name and all, or create a drink list for their characters and/or readers using drinks that already exist.

A Homebrewer's Guide to What You Are Now Enjoying

When I learned about The Next Best Book blog's Books and Booze series, I jumped right on board. I was going to come up with a list of potent cocktails and get you nice and soused. First, I was going to ask you to take a shot of something—anything strong—before even beginning What You Are Now Enjoying, because these stories are weird. But I know nothing about making cocktails. And as I was talking to my husband about how I might pair up my stories with different drinks, I realized that he was the perfect partner for this essay. Several months ago, he took up a new hobby—homebrewing beer. And now my basement is littered with coils of plastic tubing and bottle caps and empties and yeasty residues. The hobby has spread out from our basement and taken over stair landings, coat closets, and kitchen cabinets. There's the constant bubbling of CO2 burping out of the airlocks of carboys and brew buckets. My four year old son thoughtfully chews on grains. The base malt grains are his favorite, because they are especially sweet.

I've realized that my husband has his own stories to tell through his new hobby. He researches the origins of various styles, tracing all the way back into pre-prohibition history. Tasting a finely crafted beer is like tasting a story, a complexity that can take us somewhere else entirely. So the following are craft beers that my husband would brew specially for the stories in my new book. He's come up with the perfect 12-pack. And apparently he knows what he's talking about. He just entered his first homebrew competition and two of his beers took third place in their respective categories. You can follow his brewing adventures at his blog, Drew's Brews.

What You Are Now Enjoying”—Milk Stout
My husband found this first pairing to be a bit awkward. The title story is about a group of young women who take part in a kind of therapy in which they breastfeed infant orphans, reaping the physical and therapeutic benefits of nursing without having to be a mother. So my husband found this first assignment to be “creepy.” But he was brave.

I'm going with a milk stout. Yeah, I went there. Milk stouts are smooth and a little sweet because of the addition of lactose sugar, which the yeast can't eat.

Dear John”—Double IPA
The narrator's husband disappears. But it's not as simple as it sounds. His vanishing is a gradual, strange process. My husband thought that an IPA would pair well with the mystery of this story.

The IPA style originated when Britain started shipping beer to India. The higher alcohol content and the extreme hop additions prevented bacterial growth during the long journey. So this is a brew that is going somewhere, which will make sense when you read the story about a disappearing husband. Also, hop character degrades quickly. Hoppy beers need to be enjoyed when they are fresh. Finally, because this is a Double IPA, if you drink too much you just might forget who you are.

Careless Daughters”—Belgian Trippel
This story takes on secular polygamy. Some men post ads on the Internet for multiple wives. And some women answer those ads. In “Careless Daughters,” there are three wives.

Belgian trippel has one of the strongest alcohol contents when it comes to Belgian beers. With three sister wives, I just had to go trippel on this.

Produce”—Spiced Pumpkin Ale
In this very short piece, the narrator distantly observes the raw precision of a stranger's grief. And the story takes place in a ritzy, overpriced grocery store that is full of strange fruits and vegetables from all over the world.

For this one, I'll go with a pumpkin ale. You add pureed pumpkin directly to the mash. But here's the difficulty with pumpkin ales—the higher protein content of the pumpkin makes it nearly impossible to avoid a cloudy beer. I like that complication and possible cloudiness paired with this story.

My Husband's House”—American Lager
Here's a story full of hard-working, Midwestern men who are rough around the edges. They hand-fish for giant catfish while guzzling cheap canned beer. Oh, and there is plenty of mystery and intrigue and infidelity and possible ghosts in this story, but these men want to be simple men.

These dudes wouldn't recognize anything other than a standard American lager as a beer. In his book Brewing Classic Styles, Jamil Zainasheff has a recipe for an American lager that he has named “What Most Americans Call Beer.” This is the brew for the men in this story.

Monster Drinks Chocolate Milk”—Founder's Breakfast Stout
The narrator of this story hangs out in the middle of the night in his kitchen with the monster who has been haunting his dreams since he was a little kid. They chat about the monster's anxiety and depression and drink chocolate milk.

I'd make the milk stout that I recommended for “What You Are Now Enjoying” and simply add about 4 ounces of Baker's Chocolate at the very end of the boil. And because I imagine these meetings with the monster happening frequently, perhaps at breakfast after a rough night, I'm going with a clone of Founder's Breakfast Stout, which includes not only generous additions of Baker's Chocolate, but also generous additions of ground coffee.

Vanishing Point”—English Mild
The characters in this story are at an odd group therapy retreat in the middle of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. Drinking is forbidden at this retreat, but the lonely characters figure out plenty of ways to self medicate.

An English Mild beer is fitting for this story because it is illegal for outfitters in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to sell beer with an alcohol content above 3.2%, and some milds go as low as 2.8%.

The Shopkeeper's Tale” and “Hank”—Apricot Wheat
For my husband, this pairing was even weirder than thinking up a brew for a story that focuses on breastfeeding. But once again, he pulled through.

It's weird to think of a beer appropriate to drink while reading two stories that are about babies who feel overlooked or neglected or despised. But here goes... I've been wanting to brew an apricot wheat for a long time now, but apricot puree is expensive. Recently I realized that I could make my own apricot puree in the little steamer machine that we used to make baby food for our two sons.

The Rockport Falls Retirement Village Rescuers”—Clone of Batch 19
My husband has created one of my favorite brew backstories here—one that really taps into the sense of longing and loss that haunts this story, which is set in a retirement community.

I imagine the people in this retirement community being about the same age as my late grandfather and his surviving brother, my great Uncle Donald. Uncle Donald really likes the fact that I'm homebrewing and tells me that I'm carrying on the family tradition. He remembers his dad (my great, great grandfather) brewing in the house. The people in this story, however, (like my grandfather and my great uncle) are post-prohibition children, born just a few years before it was repealed in 1933. Prohibition destroyed the craft brew industry. Only the large lager houses survived that period. Today, homebrewers long to find old pre-prohibition recipes, to rediscover what was lost. Coors even claims to have found a pre-prohibition lager that they call Batch 19. I'd brew a clone of that and share it with my Uncle Donald and say something like: This might have been what your dad was trying to recreate in your kitchen.

Wonder Woman Grew Up In Nebraska”—Drew's Brew (American IPA)
My husband did some awesome research for this pairing, tackling a story that imagines the cartoon-colored version of Wonder Woman growing up in the middle of nowhere Nebraska, killing time with her high school girlfriends each weekend at the airport bar. My husband has given her his favorite beer—a hoppy IPA with bitter, rich, and complex undertones.

I googled “What beer would Wonder Woman drink?” and a list pairing comic book heroes with beers came up. It was awesome. But sadly, Wonder Woman did not make the list. In the comments section, people mentioned Wonder Woman and suggested things like Smirnoff and Hard Lemonade. I thought: Screw that—Wonder Woman would break your face with that Smirnoff you just handed her. Drew's Brew is my house IPA, and that's what Wonder Woman gets.

Edith and the Ocean Dome”—Clone of Sapporo
This story takes place in Japan, so it seems natural that my husband would pick Sapporo, the classic Japanese version of a German-style pilsner. But his reasons are more complex than obvious. The story features a gigantic indoor water park that includes a fake stretch of beach and the world's largest wave pool. The water park is set right next to the real ocean.

Japanese style lagers tend to be brewed with rice as an adjunct. Beer purists get worried when you start adding too many fermentable sugars that do not come from the malted barley itself. Japan even bars you from calling it beer if you use too much rice. Your product would be too fake, not authentic enough. Any beer from Japan, Sapporo included, skirts the boundaries between the fake and the authentic by including non-malt adjuncts.

The Cellar”—Old Ale (Christmas Spiced)
Here is my favorite pairing. In this story, an elderly couple discovers their memories and various moments from their long relationship preserved in glass jars and boxes within the depths of their cellar.

For this story filled with nostalgic memories, I will brew an Old Ale made with treacle (a kind of British unsulfered molasses). This is the beer I want to brew for the next Christmas season. Old ales are best when they are aged for six months to a year. I will probably start this batch within the next few weeks. And to make it a Christmas Ale, I'll add dried orange peel and vanilla bean at the end of the boil, along with ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Then I will let it age in our own cellar until Christmas Eve. When the kids have finally settled down to sleep, I will enjoy one with my beautiful wife.

And after that, dear beer drinkers, I could care less about sticky residue on the stove after a late night of brewing. This homebrewer has stolen this storyteller's heart.


Sarah Gerkensmeyer's story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying, was selected by Stewart O'Nan as winner of the 2012 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize. A Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction and the Italo Calvino Prize for Fabulist Fiction, Sarah has received scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Ragdale, Grub Street, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her stories have appeared in Guernica, The New Guard Literary Review, The Massachusetts Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, and Cream City Review, among others. Sarah is the 2012-13 Pen Parentis Fellow. She received her MFA in fiction from Cornell University and now teaches creative writing at State University of New York at Fredonia. 


  1. Great tale of great beer pairings... for books. What a novel idea. Now it has me thinking "what food should I pair with that beer and that book?" To Drew, hopefully, I'll get a tasted of those beers. To Sarah, keep up the great writing and the help you probably don't realize you're giving to the home brew and craft brew movement.


    1. Thanks, Steve! We had a lot of fun working on this essay together.

  2. Lovely, charming -- and a great inducement to read the book! Which I will do very soon. I'm hoping to stop by the book launch on Saturday after Ben goes to bed. Congratulations!!!

  3. So glad you want to read the book, Julia!