Archived Story

Confessions of a one-time bootlegger

Published 11:10am Friday, May 17, 2013

My dad and I have a new hobby. And up to a week or so ago, I wouldn’t have dared write about it in print.

The story begins Christmas of 2012. My dad is one of those guys that is notoriously hard to buy for. It was easier when he had a motorcycle because we could always get him some Harley-Davidson swag and call it a day.

He’s like me in that he doesn’t like to shop – he only likes to buy. So if he needs something, assuming it is financially feasible, he gets it.

When Christmas comes around the game is trying to figure out something dad hasn’t figured out he needs (and therefore hasn’t already purchased) – which was my approach this year – or guess something he would like but would never buy for himself.

My sister used the latter method.

She decided to get him everything he needed to brew his own beer.

The reasoning behind this was quite simple – my dad is a do-it-yourselfer.

This has occasionally caused dad and I some trouble, like the time mom came home to find we had transformed the front yard into a full-blown miniature golf course (she was not pleased). Secondly, my dad loves to cook (and has done so professionally most of his life), and lastly my dad is a connoisseur of beer.

When thinking on how to combine these three elements, a homebrew kit only seemed natural. Brewing is essentially cooking (with a little science and a lot of waiting), and it gave him a chance to make his own version of an adult beverage – for better or worse.

My sister had heard about a company called Brooklyn BrewShop that made small-batch homebrew kits while at the Brooklyn Flea, an open-air market of sorts just down the street from her apartment in New York City.

Instead of choosing dad’s first brew, she gave him a carte blanche – and after perusing the company’s website, dad settled on an option and sis ordered a kit for a smoked wheat ale.

While the kit was making its way down the east coast, I read all I could about brewing beer, determined to at least help dad by doing the research. I learned the essential do’s and don’ts. Then I found out an interesting little tidbit of information – homebrewing beer was actually illegal in Alabama.

I knew making moonshine was a crime, but I knew plenty of people that made their own wine. I figured beer was along the same lines.


But with the kit now in our possession, dad and I decided that our one-gallon homebrewing operation was not likely to attract the attention of law enforcement.

So began my one-month career as a bootlegger.

When the mass of tubes, bottles and airlocks arrived, dad and I thought we had bitten off a little more than we could chew. But the packaging offered a simple message of hope – “If you can make oatmeal, you can brew beer.”

I don’t know what kind of oatmeal they have been making, but I have to say it was a little more involved than that.

Our kitchen was transformed into a madman’s laboratory. Three of our four burners on the gas stove were prepped with pots, some with near-boiling water, others with steeping grains. All available counter space was occupied with siphon tubes, a glass fermentation jug, bowls of sanitizer and printed sets of instructions.

Two hours into the brew and a dozen or so beers later, the oatmeal promise was becoming more of a bad joke.

But we pushed on, following the directions to an obsessive extreme. I mean, if we were going to be criminals, I was determined that we do it right.

Four or so hours later, dad and I pitched the yeast into the fermentation jug. It was sort of anticlimactic. I guess I was expecting a reaction closer to the baking soda volcanoes I made in grade school. But we rigged up a blow-off tube into a bowl of sanitizer, wrapped the jug in a paper bag to protect it from light and hoped for the best.

Two weeks later, dad called me to tell me that the final stages had been completed. The bottle conditioning, which involved adding a few tablespoons of maple syrup to bring the brew up to the (hopefully) right carbonation, was done, and our creation was siphoned into bottles. Scared that we had instead made an undrinkable six-pack of glass pressure bombs, dad placed the bottles in a cooler and set the cooler inside their spare bathroom.

Again, we had to wait two more weeks.

But the second I watched dad pour our first brew into a frosted glass for it to rise to a perfect, frothy head, I knew the entire process had not been for naught.

We spent the rest of that weekend drinking all the evidence of our crime. We only made about six pints, equal to about eight 12-ounce beers, but I was hooked.

A few weeks later, the Alabama legislature ended my career in bootlegging making our state the 49th to legalize homebrewing.

Now, I am already dreaming up the next batch. But next time, we are going to make more beer than we can consume during the brewing process.

Nelson is news editor of The Outlook.