I can’t say that it was love at first sight. It certainly wasn’t at first taste. I was 9 years old when I first tasted beer. My mother allowed me to have a sip of her bottle. While I can’t recall what kind of beer, I do remember being rather indifferent, if maybe a bit displeased. I wasn’t put off by the flavour, but I certainly wasn’t expecting something malty and bitter. I suppose I hoped for something sweet, like a soda. It was a bit of a let down.
Throughout adolescence, I definitely indulged. There was no respect though. No respect for the craft, for the brew, and certainly not for the effects of intoxication (the only reason teenagers drink in the first place). I certainly had no dreams of aspirations to brew.
It was in my early adult life that I started to garner an appreciation for booze (in all forms), and the artistry behind it. More specifically, I started to truly enjoy beer. No more drinking big brand name light lagers that are made for drinkers looking to get an easy buzz, no offense to their fans, but I wanted a bigger, stronger flavour. I wanted higher alcohol content, but balanced by robust flavours. Sours, Stouts, Ales. You name it and I’d try it. After a while, when it proved to not quite be enough, I began to brew.
The learning curve was steep. Surprisingly enough, my first batch turned out quite well. It was a simple Ale, but still worth being proud of. I’d always used the same yeast (as my controlled variable), but experimented with different lengths of fermentation, temperatures, additives, malts, etc.
I had some epic failures, where the rats in the sewers probably grew fat on my malty mishaps. “Every failure is a lesson learned” my friend, and local brew-master, Harold, would always say.
I’d been so fascinated with fermentation that I’d started creating my own brews of other sorts. I always had a running batch of kombucha, fermented tea. The SCOBY, (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast) I’d use to make it became like family to me.
In the case of SCOBYs, they don’t die off, or go dormant in the batch. They grow like a massive bacteria colony, infesting agar in a petri dish. They shed old layers, as they grow newer and stronger ones. They certainly appeared somewhat gross, as gelatinous and alien as they were, but I felt I had he power of evolution at my fingertips.
I’d run a ton of interesting and exciting experiments with my SCOBY, and eventually, decided to take a clipping and ‘train’ it. I’d use it to ferment more and more challenging things. Liquids that contained preservatives (regular cartoned juices), or difficult and hostile produce (garlic or pineapple). One day, I decided to create my own sour beer with the trained SCOBY. It seemed like such a fitting use for my pride and joy.
I began by doing my normal primary fermentation, except I broke my cardinal brewer’s rule. I changed 2 huge variables. I used a new, hardier brewer’s yeast (brewers yeast is typically quite delicate), as well as adding in the SCOBY. The yeast came from a small brewery out west called “Auspicious”. It probably wasn’t a great idea to try an untested yeast, but the package said “...so strong, it could thrive in a vacuum!” I doubted any yeast could thrive alongside the SCOBY, but at best it could survive a bit longer. Everything was going as planned, until I added the SCOBY. My god, I must have created the most powerful SCOBY known to man! I thought I actually saw the small tendrils reaching down into the tub of virgin Ale as soon as I put it in. The SCOBY even twitched a little, it seemed that the yeast from the SCOBY had already taken over. There were small gas pockets forming under the thick, gelatinous puck.
I figured I’d leave it to continue it’s secondary fermentation for 3-5 days before checking on it again.
I woke up in the early hours of the morning, to a briny stench in the air. The closest scent I could relate it to would be if someone decided to flood a brewery with vinegar, to wash away the smell of malt and yeast. I laid there trying to get back to sleep for a bit, attempting to fool myself into thinking it was some passing smell from outside. Eventually I got out of bed, accepting that I wasn’t going to slip out of consciousness until the intense aroma would cease.
Down the stairs, I stood in front of my brew room. It was definitely coming from inside, the stench stung my eyes, making them water. Vision obscured through involuntary tears, I opened the door and was almost floored by the pungent miasma. It wasn’t like the smells of fermentation I knew, there was something else. Something putrid. As I turned on the light, I thought I heard movement, almost like a slithering.
In the yellowish light of the shatterproof bulb, I saw an absolute disaster. The colony had somehow grown so large, so fast. It popped the airlock and the lid straight off of the fermentation tub. It was stretching through the air to my other fermentation jugs. All of my brews were contaminated. “This can’t be possible!”
I shuffled my slippers down into the room. The floor was sticky. Turning to the storage cabinet I noticed it was slightly ajar. The SCOBY had somehow crept over a meter, along the cool concrete floor to get into it, but why?
I opened the cabinet to see all of my malt tins, over a dozen batches (almost 300L of beer worth) destroyed, the malt leaking out as several rubbery tendrils of SCOBY greedily lapped up all they could. There’s simply no way this could be possible. A SCOBY couldn’t grow that fast, let alone survive outside of a moist, acidic environment. The ambient moisture content of the brew room couldn’t sustain it alone.
I went to open all the adjacent windows, as I was getting light headed from the fumes. The floor was almost entirely covered in the SCOBY on the far side of the room. The floor squelched and squealed underfoot as I stepped. Once I reached the last window, on the far wall, I saw some bricks strangely cast aside. Upon further inspection, it looked like the SCOBY had somehow pierced the mortar, and bullied the bricks out of the way. I didn’t even know there was hollow space on the other side of the wall. Not further than a half meter away from the damaged wall was a sight that gave me chills. Like something out of a sci-fi horror movie. There was a rat, almost entirely submerged in a thick pocket of the gelatinous mass. I only knew it was a rat, due to the tail still attached to the hind quarters. I could see the flesh was stripped clean through the translucent gel casing of the SCOBY around it. It was working its way down the unfortunate rodent’s body.
Fear began to take hold. How can it break down flesh? It should only be able to digest sugars, and alcohols. If it grows like this, and spreads this fast… My god, what if it got into the water table?
I grabbed my tin of chlorine bleach powder and began to sprinkle it all over where the abominable atrocity I used to love met the cracks in the brick.
It began to discolour and turn gray, I could hear what sounded like a shrieking coming from the core tub. I sprinkled more around the perimeter of the whole room to try to prevent the SCOBY from making another break for it, emptying the contents of the container.
I noticed movement on the shelves by the door where I kept my finished ferments. All of the beer bottles in the case closest to the ground had the tops popped off. Small tendrils of from the main body were dipped inside. One of the tendrils was slowly withdrawing, like a slug out of the husk of a decaying fruit. The gooey translucent tendril began to wrap around the neck of the bottle, and attempted to lift it out of the case.
I couldn’t believe my eyes, I’ve committed a vile obscenity in raising this basic flora. Had it gained sentience? Did it know who, or what I was?
The bottle was jerked free with a fraught motion, spilling some liquid in the process. In no time a small, opportunistic tendril from the ground mass quickly wriggled toward the spill. The bottle was then placed on a slightly higher level of the shelves, as the tendril rested next to it.
“Is… Is that for me?” I asked, feeling fearful that I may actually receive a response. The tendril pushed the beer slightly closer to me.
How could it have acquired this level of intelligence overnight? From a colony of bacteria and yeast, to a thinking, carnivorous, fungal organism?
I picked up the beer dubiously, held it under my nose, and began to sniff. It didn’t smell too bad, it smelled like a sour beer. Had I achieved my intended result after all? The cost seemed far too great.
I debated about taking a small sip, tasting it, but as I withdrew the bottle from under my nose. I noticed small leathery vines reaching out of the bottle up towards my face. Thoughts of the half-digested rat popped back into my head, as I dropped the bottle out of shock and disgust. The entire room began to quiver. It looked like a massive blanket with hundreds of tiny mice running around underneath. I knew what must be done. I grabbed the empty jar of chlorine bleach to go fill it back up in the adjacent laundry room before thinking “Screw it, I’ll just bring the whole damn tub of bleach in here!”.
I turned to the door, or where the door was, only to see a thick wall of slime. My heart sank. I heard bubbling from the fluid inside the main tub. I turned about the entire room. The walls were slowly becoming covered in this unstoppable, predatory gel. I saw one of the windows, on the far side of the room, wasn’t completely shrouded yet. I made a break for it. The goo began to quiver rabidly, as if working harder. I kicked off the side of the main tub, firmly planted in place by the gel laden floor, and heaved my head and arms through the opened window. I could hear what I could only describe as irate squishing and sloshing through the window as I closed it, and the others, from the outside.
I ran to my back door, for once thankful I forgot to lock it. I knew I had to go get the chlorine bleach and finish this once and for all. As I moved through the house I saw the web-like lining of early strands forming on the ground level. It was too late, it had spread too far. I had to do something drastic.
Gently blowing out the pilots, and turning the gas stove on full, I quickly darted to my garage to get the jerry can. I spread the gasoline thoroughly throughout the main floor, trying to fully saturate the area adjacent to the basement stairs. I grabbed the early morning paper from my front stoop, used it to wipe up some of the gasoline on the floor, and lit it with my lighter as I stepped back looking at the house.
“I’m about to lose everything,” I could hear the voice in my head saying.
“Yeah...” I muttered back to myself, “...but at least I’ll put an end to this.”
I threw the brightly burning makeshift torch through the open doorway. The flames eagerly licked along the trail of gasoline until I heard the belch of gas catching. It wasn’t a huge explosion, I didn’t have time to pool enough gas, but hopefully between what gas would keep pushing in, and all the gasoline I spread, there wouldn’t be any trace of this damn SCOBY left.
“I’ll never brew again…” I told myself softly, as I sat on the lawn and watched my house, and everything in it go up in flames.
I knew I couldn’t stop the fire crew from putting out the flames. In fact, I’d probably be in a hell of a lot of trouble for starting this fire to begin with.
I stood absentmindedly, glossy eyed and tired, watching them douse the skeletal remains of my once cozy home.
“How did the fire start, any idea?” the fire chief asked me. I just kept staring at the house, wondering if I got it all.
“Well don’t go anywhere, the police will have questions for you, I’m sure.” He shrugged and walked away. They’d figure it out eventually. I shambled over to my car, the only thing I had left, parked in the street. As I sat on the hood, head in my hands, I saw something wriggling out of the corner of my eye. I dared to look over.
I see the sewer grate in the middle of the road protrude, then eventually fumble out of its socket. Lifted off by a thick, slimy braid, slithering towards me.
Written by Tewahway