How much is too much when it comes to exposing kids to alcohol?
One evening a few months ago, my five-year-old son, Sebastian, asked me over dinner how beer was made. Reflexively, I held my pale ale to the light to show the color; I told him how the sweet malted barley was balanced by the bitterness of the hops; and I explained how the yeast ate the sugars and made carbon dioxide. (“Bubbles!”) Then, I had what I thought was a terrific idea: Sebastian loves learning about science and conducting experiments, especially if the experiments are messy and involve chemical reactions that might result in explosions. Why, I asked, with perhaps too much enthusiasm, don’t we brew a batch of beer together?
Only then did I realize that my suggestion could be construed as inappropriate. Would it be too flip to brew with my kids? Would it demystify the idea of beer and booze too much? After all, making beer is not much more than whipping up a complicated batch of oatmeal. Was it irresponsible? Would I be crossing some sort of invisible moral boundary? I was torn.
As parents, my wife, Stefania, and I always try to be transparent and honest with our boys, and even at their ages (our younger son, Leo, is three), that applies to alcohol, too. We’ve explained that alcohol is an adult drink that tastes strong or bitter, and that people aren’t allowed to drink it until they’re 21 because it can make you feel funny. But, we thought, having it around frequently with meals would demonstrate to our boys that booze could be enjoyed without being abused. It was, and is, our hope that by modeling this kind of behavior, we’re providing Sebastian and Leo with the foundation to make smarter choices about drinking when they get older. Maybe, we thought, they won’t be tempted to raid our bar when they’re in eighth grade.
Still, I wasn’t convinced about our potential home-brewing adventure. Stef and I talked it through, and I discussed the idea with family and friends. No one was strongly against the prospect. Finally, I too came around, and on Father’s Day, my gift was a basic home-brewing kit. A few weekends later, there we were, Sebastian and I, sterilizing the equipment, boiling the grain, adding the hops, and then transferring the brew to the fermenter. We sampled the leftover grain, which tasted like sweet, hot cereal. And then we checked the fermenter every few days and watched as the CO2 bubbles wiggled their way to the surface of the liquid.
Several weeks later, I came home from work and instead of popping a Dale’s, I reached into the fridge for our “Everyday IPA.” It was cloudy, and there was a thick layer of sediment at the bottom of the bottle. I wasn’t optimistic. I grabbed a pint glass and filled it over the sink. Then I poured a small glass for Sebastian. Stef and I decided, in what we hoped was a bit of European-style enlightenment, to let him dip his finger in the glass and taste the product of his labor. He stuck his finger in, jammed it into his mouth, made a goofy face, gave it a thumbs-up, and then ran off to play with his Transformers.
Stef and I looked at each other and shrugged. All of the ambivalence about whether embarking on this little experiment was right or wrong seemed ridiculous in retrospect. It was neither right nor wrong, really—it just was. In the weeks since we first tasted our brew, Sebastian has neither asked about it nor asked about any of our other drinks; he did, however, regale one set of his grandparents on Skype with a detailed account of the brewing process. It was funny and sweet and innocent—enough of a reason to start planning our next chemistry lesson. With fall on the way, I think we’ll try a porter.