Our confidence was pretty high. My friend and I were ready to unleash our first home brew on the world. A room full of dinner guests sat around the table as we pulled out our first bottle. Several weeks before we had bought a kit from a local lawn store and followed the instructions as closely as we could— and here we were, prepared to enjoy the fruits of our labor. What could go wrong?
It was a disaster. As I popped the top off that first bottle, an orange, foamy substance exploded from the lip and on to the floor. Once the carbonation had subsided and the floor was cleaned a taste of the remnants told us that this batch– in which we had invested time and money and energy– was simply undrinkable. We thought it might make good compost for the garden. It killed the plants.
We were homebrew failures.
Years went by before I would try again. This time I ventured out solo, and my results were mixed, but mostly I was left with this “meh” feeling of spending hours alone over a boiling pot. It wasn’t much of fun.
So, with these experiences behind me, I made one more attempt, to pull together a small group of guys to brew. We met to purchase supplies, for a main brew day and for a bottling session– and then came the big moment, when we’d open up and (hopefully) enjoy the fruits of our labor.
It was a smashing success. The New England IPA and Belgian Trippel that we produced were not just drinkable — and non-volatile– but really enjoyable! We had done it! And not only did we now have 60 plus bottles of successful homebrew to share– we had built relationships via common experience.
I think brewing beer is a lot like the work we do as community agents of change. It is a mysterious process– most of which occurs without human intervention, hidden under the lid of a bucket or concealed in a bottle. There is so much that is out of control and there is a whole lot of waiting that has to go on. Fresh off the taste of this successful experience, I wanted to share four lessons from home brewing that I believe can we applied to our work in the community
- We’re Better Together: When I was brewing alone in my kitchen, it was relaxing– and I don’t mind that sort of internal retreat that solo brewing might afford, but it wasn’t as effective and fun as doing it in a group. In a group, we were able to troubleshoot together. There were times where the directions we had were simply not clear. We had to discuss and make a communal decision about what we wanted to do. There were times where we weren’t sure how to do something. By sharing resources and ideas, we were able to come to the best decision. And the by-product of this was not just spent grains and oxygen bubbles– it was community, forged out of common experience. The same is true for the work we do in the community. While this may seem obvious, too many individuals or organizations go it alone– laboring in solitude, and the primary and secondary results simply aren’t as good.
- Ingredients Matter: This is an obvious statement to those who engage in any type of culinary pursuit, but it is an important lesson for those thinking about creating community change. Our friendly salesman at Cask and Kettle Home Brew made a great case for us to invest in Cryo Hops. Not only do these super-science-induced hops produce better taste, you have to use less of them than the normal hop variety. In our community work, we’re often coming with a set of ingredients that we have– and a common refrain in circles is “If we only”— had that grant, knew this person, got this funding, etc. Building the right ingredient mix is essential to making a batch that matters. Sometimes that means bringing a new stakeholder to the table. Sometimes that involves thinking outside the bounds of our normal relationships and resources, but whatever it is we have to put the right stuff in to get the right product.
- Fear Contaminants: In beer brewing the biggest enemy is bacteria. Every piece of equipment that touches the beer must be meticulously sanitized– otherwise you end up with the foaming orange stuff from my first batch. The same is true for community development. There are so many things that can inhibit the work– mistrust can seep its way in between potential collaborators, often undetectable at first until it blows up down the road. Small, indiscernible things can create disengagement, especially when people come to the table for the first time. Just like in brewing, we have to be extremely mindful of the potential contaminants that may affect our collaboration. This can be challenging because we always like to stay positive. We like to talk about the potential of this shared venture, which is important… but we should also stay really focused on things that could potentially go wrong so that we can do our best to avoid them.
- Embrace the mystery, magic and waiting: Despite all our best efforts, in the end we don’t really know how something is going to turn out. That is the beauty of craft brewing, really. Because it is a process that is creative and collaborative– as opposed to standardized and systematic– it creates beautiful variation. And all of this takes something we don’t like talking about– time. In the “same-day-delivery” world that we are in today, the idea of aging things is a lost art. But there is no way around that in beer brewing, nor in collaboration for community change. Relationships, even between two individuals, take time and effort to form into meaningful collaborations. This becomes all the more complicated when talking about organizations or multiple stakeholders. And these relationships always occur in a context…there is history, there are cultural and social norms– that either facilitate or slow down the process. But, herein lies that most critical lesson from brewing– sometimes you just have to pitch in the yeast and let it do its work. Start the process with the right people, the right ingredients and the right intentions– and who knows something magical and tasty might happen.