About 45 seconds before the bottle exploded, my friend Brace held it six inches from his face to read the label. It was a large 22-ounce bottle of dark brown glass that had originally held a micro-brewed stout from one of the better breweries in Portland. Some months before, that dark, foamy liquid had served its higher calling by being drunk before a meal of pasta. The empty bottle was washed, put in a box in a basement, then later retrieved, sterilized, washed again, and ultimately refilled with a copper colored liquid that tasted similar to, but not entirely like, root-beer.
There is a basic theory that scientists have been studying and refining for decades to better describe and understand the universe. This theory states that: “If an individual enjoys beer and lives in the Pacific Northwest, they will eventually try to make their own homebrew.” This theory, known as the Relative Theory of Beer Conservation, has further permutations that state that the homebrew will usually taste like murky swamp water and that the maker will encourage you to sample many of the said bottles of homebrew at various parties and holidays.
Back around the turn of the millennium, Brace and I had been operating under this theory for a while. We had experimented with our own beer by adding different ingredients that included jalapeno peppers, ginger, coffee, chocolate, and a few stems from a sage bush that Brace had growing in his yard. The result was almost always a liquid that tasted like, well, a carbonated swamp but we drank it anyway because it was our beer. Plus, no one else would drink it when we brought it to parties.
I eventually moved back to drinking the store bought stuff while Brace continued his beer research, eventually creating liquids that not only tasted like good beer but that people actually requested. A good homebrew is a labor of love and Brace took his beer as serious as any of his relationships.
In 2001, Brace and I decided to go to Victoria, BC for Thanksgiving. Jen had moved up there the year before and I was using my holidays to go visit her. So, we got up early on that Thanksgiving Day morning and drove up to Port Angeles to catch the Coho Ferry.
We were about half way across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which separates the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island, when Brace reached into his bag and pulled out a large brown beer bottle. We were sitting in the rear cafeteria section of the ferry, which was crowded with people taking advantage of the four-day weekend. Brace placed the bottle on the table between us.
“Is that one of yours?” I asked, speaking loudly to be heard above the noise of the other passengers and the ship's engine. There was a label painted directly on the bottle, unlike Brace's normal blank-bottle look.
“Sort of, I tried making some root-beer last month,” He replied. “I thought I’d bring a couple of bottles for the weekend.”
“How did it turn out?” I asked.
“Not bad, not bad,” he said. “At least for the stuff that I used sugar in. I tried making some sugar free stuff by using stevia. That stuff’s not as good but it’s drinkable. Sort of.”
“Sort of drinkable is always the goal,” I said. “So, which is this?”
He picked up the bottle to stare at the label. “It’s Thanksgiving. It’s the good stuff, of course. Let’s have some.”
He put the bottle back on the table and reached into his pack to find a bottle opener. He was just unclipping a buckle when there was a loud BAM! as an exlosion went off. I sat there, my brain needing a few micro-seconds to interpret the raw data that life was presenting before it could understand what actually happened.
The noise was the first thing to register. It sounded like one of those firecrackers that border on dynamite, an M-80, going off. The noise steamrolled over all of the other sounds in the ship, seeming to silence everything. A split second later, I noticed that the bottle of root beer was gone. A fraction of a second after that, I noticed that I was covered in shattered glass and, well, root beer. Across the table, Brace’s eyes were wide and he had a slightly dazed expression. Small slivers of brown glass stuck to his face. I looked up – dark drops of root beer dripped from the ceiling.
Root beer and glass covered all of the tables and people next to us. The entire ship had gone silent and there was a slightly panicked feeling in the air. It was only a few months after 9-11 and it was clear that loud explosions on international ferries weren’t something anyone was really comfortable being around. My ears were ringing. People were looking at us suspiciously.
“Uh, my root beer exploded,” Brace said loudly to the silent room.
There was a long pause and then someone laughed and the silence slowly ended. People talked with slightly hushed voices and snuck weird looks at us. We talked with the people around us and were amazed to find out that no one was cut or even very mad. We had avoided getting cut ourselves, although we were very sticky.
“Wow,” said a guy who walked over from across the room to talk with us. “I’ve never heard of such a thing. That was just root beer you bought at a store, huh?”
I looked at Brace. “Oh yeah, store bought, no doubt,” we quickly replied.
“Hmm,” the man said thoughtfully. “I guess the vibrations from the engine caused the carbonation to build up until it exploded.”
“That’s probably it,” I said and went to grab a mop from a member of the crew. We cleaned up the mess as best as we could, finding that some pieces of glass had been flung across the entire length of the room. After returning the mop, we sat back at our table for a second and then decided to make ourselves as scarce as possible by sitting outside, in the cold wind.
“Man,” I said. “I hope we don’t have problems with immigration.” I could imagine some other passenger telling the customs agent to be on the lookout for two sticky looking individuals that had set off some sort of explosive device on board. “You can’t miss ‘em,” I imagined the person saying. “They smell just like root beer.”
“Uh,” Brace said, pulling me from my thoughts, “I probably should have told you that I was having a small exploding problem with the root beer.”
“Well, I’ve been storing them in my beer closet and have had six or seven bottles explode in there. It’s been weeks since the last one exploded. So I figured if they hadn’t exploded by now, they were never going to and that they were safe.”
We sat quietly, lost in our thoughts. A few people walked by, giving us suspicious looks. We didn't talk much until eventually the ferry sounded its loud horn, ripping away our introspection and signaling that we were entering the Victoria Harbor.
And so, this Thanksgiving, I find myself once again giving thanks for not being around any homemade root beer. It seems that not having your beverage explode is something we take for granted far too much. I’m even more thankful, though, that no one has asked me to try their homemade ginger-chocolate-fennel-jalapeno beer at any parties this year. That stuff's really dangerous.