The legacy of strong women, strong beer
Handwritten note by Irene Holland Clay adjacent to family beer recipe
It’s a beautiful summer morning and I’m standing in the kitchen of Holly Clay-Buck’s midtown bungalow, watching her stir a giant pot of secret ingredients with what people who know their way around the beer brewing world call a “big spoon.”
On the counter, a cookbook is opened to the pages containing old family recipes for homemade wine and beer written in perfect penmanship by Irene Holland Clay, or Granny, as Clay-Buck called her. With the recipe, a warning: “It is good and has quite a buzz to it. So, if you make it and drink it, be careful—it ain’t tea!”
A fifth-generation brewer, Clay-Buck has matured as a brewer beyond the simple and pared-down beer recipe passed down from Granny, but it’s that recipe that ties her to childhood and to the tradition of home brewers.
This morning, Clay-Buck is making Granny’s old family recipe to be kegged for the annual Fourth of July family celebration in Stigler, Oklahoma, where she was born and raised. This will be the first year without Granny, or her dad David Dean Clay, both of whom passed away this year, which has made this tradition all the more important.
“My dad was the one who brewed from that generation, I think he was just holding space for one of his girls … with my dad gone there is a sense of urgency now. Like, holy shit we’re gonna lose all this stuff.”
Working as she talks, Clay-Buck sticks a pump siphon into the pot and feeds the hose into a five-gallon carboy, which is a giant glass jar where the initial fermentation will take place. She then quickly pulls the hose out of the small opening and fills two large shot glasses.
“At this stage, called sparging, we get to taste it … It is traditional and good luck to take a shot of whiskey or scotch mixed with the sparge. It’s good luck, we don’t want to curse ourselves.”
Down go the good-luck shots, and I get my first taste of the family recipe. It’s sweet and simple, full of sugars that will eventually turn into booze.
The finished product will be different than what most people expect from a beer—it’s sweet due to it high sugar content, and more carbonated. I could imagine drinking it over ice or using it as a mixer, or straight from the keg on a scorching summer day. The recipe is basic on purpose, created and modified over the years to make sure brewing, and beer, stay accessible in lean times. Like a homemade pie crust or jar of homemade jelly, Granny’s beer exists in a place where tradition, simplicity, craft, and know-how intersect to produce a little piece of backwoods Americana.
“I consider [making] it a folk art, and almost like being a historian. Beer was traditionally a woman’s drink … it was important to women in families because it was nutrition. I mean, its cooking. It’s really heat-intensive cooking, and my theory is that it was always just the purview of women.”
Seeing brewing as an extension of traditional women’s work led her to invent a recipe called “Mothers Milk Lactation Stout” with her husband, Daniel Clay-Buck. Inspired by a joke made by a nursing mother about needing a beer to be able to breastfeed, something clicked for Holly.
“I kind of went, ‘Okay, we can do this.’ I researched what foods and herbs are good for lactation and the Venn diagram of things that taste good in beer and the things that are good for lactation [makes] a [complete] circle.”
A decidedly more complicated and time-consuming process, brewing a batch of “Mothers Milk” takes all day and requires multiple people, but the product is dark and robust with a hint of sweetness, and absolutely worth the effort.
While Holly Clay-Buck has a no-nonsense attitude about brewing, she knows it can be intimidating for some women to enter the male-dominated world of craft brewing. After all, not everyone had a straight-shooting, beer-brewing Granny and a dad who was happy to share family traditions with his daughters, and those initial steps into a world filled with intense people with intense opinions can be overwhelming.
Her advice to women who want to make beer, which would undoubtedly be the same advice Granny would give:
“Ignore everybody and get shit done.”
For more from Amanda, read her article on the heavy-metal karaoke band, Satanico and the Demon Seeds.