Oh, sweet Jeebus, "Magic Carpet Ride" as interpreted by the entire membership of the International Plumbers' Union while drunk. And on acid. In the midst of an epileptic seizure. I nearly fell out of bed from the godawful noise. Why hadn't giant glowing beach towel Elvis protected me? And who the hell was messing with the pipes? And worse, why did my bedside alarm clock say eight a. m.?
"Rise and shine, little buddy," Ron shouted from the bathroom, his voice only slightly muffled by toothpaste. "Time to rub the sleep out of your eyes and greet the new day!"
Oh, of course. Ron was one of those horrible morning people.
"Who the hell are you, my mother?" I shouted back. "What happened to 'the crack of noon?'"
"Meh. You're going to squander the best part of the day. We've got things to do and places to go. Stuff to move and stuff to buy."
Slowly, painfully I attempted to focus my eyes and roll out of bed. "You know," I said, a bit blearily, "when normal people don't have to work they like to sleep in. Late."
"One," Ron said as he threw open my door, "we're not normal people and we never will be. Two, we are working, or rather, we will be once you get up and put some clothes on."
"Are you on meth or something? You're awfully chipper for a guy who spent yesterday driving around all over the state."
"Exciting times ahead, John! A new day, new beginnings, new projects, we've got to get cracking if we're going to get ahead of the game. Oh, and there's coffee and Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the kitchen."
I looked at the window and said, "thank you, Jeebus; thank you, Elvis, thank you, J. R. 'Bob' Dobbs."
"Who are you talking to?"
"Deities. My very own short duration personal saviors with whom I will be sharing a very caffeinated and very sugar-laden communion as soon as I can find my pants."
"Well, okay then."
"So are we moving your stuff this morning?" I said.
"Actually, there's good news and bad news. Mostly good news for you and some bad news for me."
"Well, there's not a lot of my stuff to move, courtesy of the Girlfriend From Hell. Apparently, she went on a rampage after I called her, burned most of my stuff in a backyard bonfire, and now all I've got are a couple of suitcases, a trunk, that stained mattress we were using as a doggie bed, and my computer stuff. I got lucky, I suppose, but some of it is kind of smoky, so heads up. I did manage to rescue, well, you know."
"Oh, Christ," I said. "The layout."
"Yeah, the layout."
Have I mentioned that Ron is a model railroad buff? Yeah, HO scale all the way. He got into it in his early teens and over the years has amassed a huge, and I mean huge, collection of brass locomotives worth thousands of dollars along with rolling stock, miles of track, tons of scenery, and who knows how many itty-bitty metal figures. When he got into model construction, he built what amounted to a small city's worth of structures complete with weathering, advertisements, graffitti, electric lighting, myriads of geeky goodness. It's his pride, his joy, and his singular obsession-- excluding inappropriate women-- an entire world on a nine by twelve foot table.
"Where is it now?" I asked.
"You know the front room across from the living room slash library?"
"What I assumed was the dining room? Yeah."
"It's has been officially commandeered and designated the Train Room."
"Oh. Okay. I've never been one for formal dinners, anyway," I said. "I'm more into microwave burritos and paper plates. Where's all the stuff now?"
"It's here. Downstairs. My sister's husband helped me load it into his truck and those four guys from across the street helped me get it into the house."
"Oh, yeah? Was Sarah with them?"
"No, unfortunately, Ron said with a slight leer. "She's pretty hot in a goth trash sort of way. Oh, who am I kidding? Given the chance, I'd hit that so hard whoever pulled me out would be the rightful king of all England."
"And can you imagine a threesome with her and Tara? Oh, man! What do you want to bet they both have piercings in places you wouldn't expect?"
"Changing the subject," I said. "What, exactly, are we doing today if we're not moving you in?"
"I'm thinking it's time we check out The Little Old Winemaker and spend a little money."
"Color me confused, but who do we know that makes wine? Hell, who do we know that drinks wine, unless it's Boone's Farm? Is this person a consultant or something?"
"The Little Old Winemaker is not a person, it's this funky store in Lakeside that sells beer and winemaking supplies. The guy in Goochland was telling me about it, said it was your one-stop shopping source for all things booze-related."
"What, the guy with the still?"
"The very one. He's done it all: cider, beer, wine; in fact, he had such good luck with wine he wanted to branch out into brandy. He even had wooden casks for aging. You know, we might want to think about that at some point."
"Uh, don't count your barrels just yet. We've got a lot of things to do before we can even think of trying out our still."
"Exactly, and time's a-wastin'. Grab your shopping list and let's see what's what."
I got my notebook, filled a big travel mug with coffee, and grabbed a couple of doughnuts Okay, three doughnuts, but it was early and my blood sugar and caffeine levels were nowhere near optimum.
When Ron said the place was "funky," he wasn't exaggerating. Set back in a little strip mall parallel to Lakeside Drive, The Little Old Winemaker was completely at odds with its surroundings. It was as if a tiny piece of 19th Century rural Bavaria had been magically transported to Richmond and plopped down to live placidly amid the appliance stores, service stations, soul food eateries, and 7-11s. Funky, too, were the smells we encountered as soon as we passed through the door: yeasty bread, dusty grains, a faint whiff of wood smoke, a hint of ripe apples... I was reminded of when I used to visit my grandfather's tobacco farm as a child and play in the hay loft. The walls were darkened wood and covered in advertising posters for obscure beers, exotic wines, and vineyards local and foreign. Well-dressed, soft-spoken customers browsed the aisles and shelves.
It was charming.
"So what are we looking for," Ron asked.
"Well, yeast for one, a couple of ten gallon fermenters, which are just glorified food grade plastic buckets, unless you want to go the stainless or copper route."
"Are they better?
"I don't know if they're better, but they're certainly more expensive."
"Then plastic works for me."
"Let's see, lids for the buckets, a couple of airlocks..."
"One way valves. When we start fermenting stuff, we want a way to keep out the airborne nasties while venting all the carbon dioxide we'll be making."
"This is getting complicated," Ron said.
"I warned you. And we're going to need cheesecloth for filtering, some kind of sanitizing agent for the buckets, some plastic tubing, oh, and a decent grade hydrometer. Then there's corn, malted barley, rye, rye malt..."
"Enough. Let's start shopping," Ron sighed.
The store's layout was a little confusing, but the sales associate was busy briefing this nice-looking gay couple on the finer points of home-aging sherry and port, so Ron and I fumbled around for a bit before finding all the stuff we needed. That was fine as far as I was concerned, since even a cursory glance would tell any astute home brewer exactly what we were planning on doing. Let's be clear: home distilling is illegal. Highly illegal. The Feds don't care if it's a little or a lot; if you're running a still to make alcohol for human consumption, regardless of the quantity and regardless of whether you drink it or sell it or give it away, you're breaking several state and federal laws and can wind up in a dank, dark prison cell for a very long time. Someday the laws may change, just as they did for wine- and beer-making, but someday is not today. I was a little nervous.
We hauled our stuff over to the main counter.
"Okay," said the clerk. "What have we got here?" He began muttering to himself as he tallied up our purchases, then said, "You know this is a Tralles hydrometer, right?"
"What's a Tralles hydrometer?" Ron asked
The clerk looked at Ron for a second. "You use a Tralles hydrometer to figure out the alcoholic content of a liquid based on its specific gravity. You take pre- and post-fermentation readings and from that you can calculate..." His voice trailed off when he saw the expression on my face.
"You're not..." the clerk said.
I stood there open-mouthed.
The clerk's voice dropped to a whisper. "Because I don't want to know if you are."
I stood there at a loss for words.
"Let's speak hypothetically for a moment," he said, glancing to his left and right. "Purely hypothetically."
"If someone, not you two, but someone, wanted to, oh, let's say, ferment a large volume of material really fast, he might want something a little more powerful than champagne yeast."
"He might want a variety of what is called a turbo yeast. It's fast, it's resistant to alcohol, which means it can survive when the concentration is high and make more alcohol, and most importantly, it comes complete with a slew of additional nutrients and pH adjusters so as to make futzing with it significantly trivial. It can survive. It can kick ass. You, uh, he just adds the yeast at the right moment and at the right temperature and lets it do it's thing."
"But it's tricky for wine-making. It brings things to a ferment really fast and it generates a lot of alcohol. A lot. A wine-maker could, entirely by accident, ruin his otherwise perfectly good wine by turning it into something only useful if he were interested in distilling it, which he would not be, in which case the winemaker would not have wine. That would be sad. You understand?"
"Okay." I smiled a little.
"A wine-maker would have to be extremely careful with a turbo yeast or he's going to wind up with a high-proof wine that would be completely undrinkable as it was. It would be beyond insolent and ill-mannered; it would be a pugnacious bully. One would be overwhelmed by the alcohol burn. And that's not what one looks for in a good wine. Excuse me for a moment."
The clerk disappeared behind a curtain then returned holding a couple of test tubes sealed with black plastic screw caps. Inside them was a noxious-looking brown slurry.
"This is a new product, a strain called THX-1138 from the W. A. Sallee labs in Chicago. It's for experimental wine-making purposes only, though it may possibly have other uses. You may also find it... amusing." The clerk smiled and handed me some stapled papers. "And these are the instructions. They reiterate what I said about it being tricky for wine-making. Be sure to read them carefully."
"Okay," I said.
The clerk rang up our purchases, smiled again, and said, "Well, gentlemen, I look forward to hearing about your disasters in... wine-making. Please keep me posted." He winked.
"What just happened?" asked Ron, as we carried our stuff to the truck.
"In legal terms, I think we just gained an accessory before the fact."
"Is that a good thing?"
"I guess we'll find out." I looked at the instructions the clerk had handed me:
So You Want To Make Some Tasty Booze: A Guide to the Effective Use of THX-1138 in Home Distilling.
"It's a good thing, Ron. Let's go buy some sugar."