Friday, February 7, 2014

The Session #84: Autism in a Glass

For this month's Session, Oliver Gray encourages us to go in the novel direction of reviewing a beer without describing its taste, mouthfeel, look or giving it the obligatory 1-10 scale rating.  It reminds me of two home brews I made a couple years ago. As a tribute of sorts to my eight year old daughter Verona, I brewed a Verona Coffee Porter using cold filtered Starbuck's Verona Blend Coffee added at bottling. Forgive the bragging, but the beer turned out to be a perfect representation of Verona: sharp, sophisticated and vibrant.

Encouraged by this, I turned to my next project, a brew for my then 10 year old son Brandon. Brandon is different. He has autism, a disorder that affects at least 1 out of every 100 children born in the United States. Autism is a neurological condition which greatly affects social skills and people with autism often engage in odd and repetitive motions. No two autistic people are alike. In severe cases, a person can be rendered completely non-verbal and perpetually rock back in forth, their mind completely closed off to the world. At the other end of the spectrum are people with Asperger's syndrome, eccentrics with awkward social skills but in some cases, great talent in math, science or art. There is reasonable speculation that Albert Einstein, Michelangelo, and Thomas Edison had Asperger's Syndrome.

Brandon is pretty much smack dab in the middle of the autistic spectrum. He talks to people only when spoken to, although will solemnly recite the words from movie trailers and TV commercials non-stop in his own form of soliloquy. He'll flap his arms wildly when he gets excited or stressed and sometimes bursts unpredictably into a carefree state of big smiles and laughter. I catch a few glimpses of my lucid, personable son through the fog of autism, but these moments are always fleeting.

For Brandon, I chose to brew Brandon's Maple Brown Ale, since he enjoys Saturday morning pancakes so much. In addition to the standard roasted malts used in a Brown Ale, I added some cinnamon and vanilla, since I add these spices to the pancakes, and maple syrup in the secondary fermentation. When I first tasted the final product, the flavors harmonized unexpectedly into a unique, undefinable brew that unfortunately was overwhelmed by an obvious brewing infection. Contemplating this odd brew, I suddenly realized I had stumbled into brewing a good representation of Brandon.

Like Brandon, I could sense a fascinating brew struggling to get out from underneath the suffocating off-flavors. I certainly didn't intend to brew a flawed beer after Brandon, but there it was, an undeniably accurate representation of him in my glass.  Bad beer can simply poured down the drain.   Children thankfully don't work that way.

I always enjoy hearing brewers talk about their beers. The way they describe what they did to create them and how they brought them into the world, many sound like they are talking about their own children. Then there was the time I asked a brewer at a summer beer festival about his wheat beer, and he made a face and nearly sneering, told me "I just brew it for the summer crowd because they like the light stuff ".  His indifference to his wheat beer showed as it was timid and frail.

We've all met home brewers who despite the fact they brew fairly underwhelming beers or ones with noticeable flaws, still talk enthusiastically about them whenever given the chance. Most of us totally relate. We realize a crucial element of the creative process is simply loving what you've created.

I work hard with Brandon to help him overcome his autistic deficits, but one of the things I've come to terms with is that loving Brandon means embracing the autism. If you've ever brewed a flawed beer and loved it anyway, I think you'll understand.


  1. I talk about food like you discuss your beer adventures. It's a treat to stumble across your blog. What a beautiful tribute to your son. Your words describe autism well and without the strong negativity that is often associated with the condition. I love the last 2 paragraphs here where you mention the beer being flawed, yet beautiful. Cheers my friend! Doesn't that describe us all?

    1. Hi Angela, thanks for dropping by and appreciate all the kind words.