How I got started in homebrewing

"Bumper sticker that says Relax, Don't Worry, Have a Homebrew!"

January 2012- my nephew tells me there’s not enough personal in this story, that it would be more interesting if I let you all see a little more of me in here.  I am re-writing it, trying to make it a little less news-reporting and a little more of a story.

I’m trying to remember back to my very first ever homebrew.  How did I ever get started in this hobby that is slowly but surely becoming such a huge part of my life?

As those of you who know me are already aware, everything with me is a story.

Elspeth in a sundress with a big backpack on standing at the bottom of some stairs
In my wilderness days

Late 1980s – I was in my twenties, hale and very healthy.  I completed a semester with the National Outdoor Leadership School, and became an Outward Bound instructor, wandering the Rockies and the western deserts in off-seasons.  Outward Bound, or OB, is a wilderness program for people over 14 that taught self-reliance skills usually in wilderness areas (it’s not a survival school).   OB takes away all the extras – in those days we didn’t have to worry about cellphones and iPods, but books, watches, and recreational drugs all stayed behind (we even checked prescription drugs to make sure they were what our students said they were).  Students could bring what was on the list we’d sent them, nothing else; packing was done under instructor supervision.  Then we gave them hard physical labor with a task or goal: paddle canoes together to get to this place by this time, set up a ropes course together, go through the ropes course together, take it down again, travel to this other place by this time for this other reason, while keeping the brown bears out of your food and cooperating to get through all the daily maintenance  tasks like making dinner and carrying 75-lb canoes over portages.  Like all travel, when you strip away everything familiar, the only thing left is yourself.  As an instructor, I had to have mad skills and be stronger than any student, able to respond in an emergency and teach them to get through a day or to accomplish a task, but otherwise I mostly stayed out of their way, intervening either to narrate or to facilitate problem-solving.  It’s a really valuable process.  I could’ve used to have gone through an OB course myself.  In the winters I taught handicapped skiing in Breckenridge, Colorado   Living in a V-shaped town that starts at ten thousand feet above sea level has its own special features, all of which I loved.  My first season I lived in a staff cabin halfway up the ski mountain, with woodstoves made out of old chair lift parts that worked indifferently well to keep us warm. We would ski to the base of the mountain to meet our groups, or they’d would stay with us in the cabins and we’d ski them down.  It was hell, I tell you, having to ski to work every sparkling, clear morning; we commented on it nearly every day.  A couple of years later, I moved to an apartment just north of town with some friends (indoor hot running water is awfully nice in a place that routinely has a yard of snow on the ground).  One day, a few days before Christmas,  I was headed home in some pretty nasty weather.  Snow was coming down hard but there was ice underneath, which was pretty unusual.  The road wasn’t usually warm enough to melt the snow so it could freeze like that.  Snow was falling so fast the giant plows hadn’t gotten to clearing ramps and turn lanes yet.  It was rapidly getting higher than my doughty little Honda Civic’s clearance could manage, and visibility was very poor.  I was driving very cautiously.  I made it to the turnoff to home, a left turn across traffic.  My boyfriend, my roommates and I were going to cut a Christmas tree in the forest that evening, and everyone was gathering at our apartment.  Friends were waiting; it was going to be fun, tromping through the woods and then setting up a Christmas tree.   I didn’t see her coming until entirely too late – a new Jeep, hurtling along at 50 mph (as she said later).  The noise was terrific.  My car went spinning – thank goodness, neither of us hit anyone else.  I remember sitting in the car when it was finally still, thinking through my emergency medical training.  They’re going to want to know person, place, and time.  Can I answer those questions? Yes, I can.  Good.  They’ll need to get a backboard in  here to get me out, how is that going to work?…

A red Honda Civic very smashed up
This was the best car ever

It was a small town.  The rescue squad were all friends; I’d spent the previous weekend in an avalanche emergency training workshop with most of them.  Later I learned that two more friends had been in minor accidents a half mile or so to either side of ours – the weather really was awful – so they were out directing traffic for ours.  I won’t bore you with the details – how Hurtling Jeep Girl broke a bone in her wrist and sat by the side of the road literally screaming so hard none of the EMTs wanted to deal with her; how we spent the shared ambulance ride, with all of us trying to talk her down until the EMT monitoring me told her firmly to pipe down ’cause I was hurt a lot more than she was and he needed to pay attention…the upshot was that I spent the winter in a wheelchair, in a place with deep snow, learning first-hand about the frustrations of transferring yourself into bed, or onto the toilet, being able to get your chair through the door if you didn’t have your hands on the wheels to propel it ’cause the builders made the door only as wide as the law required…by spring (May) I was off crutches but could hardly walk a mile yet, limping painfully on feet that had been crushed in the accident.  I certainly wasn’t up to hiking for miles carrying an 80 lb. canoe on my shoulders while encouraging ten or fourteen students, which was a typical day on the OB job.  So I started to look for work locally.I found two half-time jobs as an office manager for a couple of private health care practices.  Neither paid benefits or much salary. One was an acupuncturist, the other a physical therapist with a lot of soft tissue manipulation skill.  They used their respective expertise to patch me back together, straighten me out from months of wheeling, then crutches, scrunched up from pain and trying to cope.   I shall be forever grateful.

Peak Nine in Breckenridge, CO with a sunset
My first cabin is in this picture

Thanks to their skills, I have no physical reminders of that accident – no old bone breaks that ache when weather changes, nothing like that.  I lived on in the high country of Colorado for several years, working and doing all the outdoorsy things one does there.  There are excellent bike paths, but you can’t go far on them without having to cross a fourteen thousand foot mountain pass, so I got used to riding long steep inclines (actually, for a long time I liked that better than anything which required I put weight on my feet).  I sang for the National Repertory Orchestra and Breckenridge Music Festival, glorious music in a place where there just isn’t enough oxygen to be contemplating the kind of deep breathing Beethoven or Berger scores required.  I was plop in the middle  of four excellent ski areas, so in the winters I skiied downhill as much as I could, and cross-country for variety.  Telemarking, when I got around to it on my backcountry gear, was a blast.It doesn’t seem to have occurred to me to go back to Outward Bound after that first summer.  I surely can’t say why not.  I remember my grandmother asking if I were ever going to move back East, and writing her back saying there was nothing for me to come back for – words I’d take back if I could.  That would’ve been a good time to move home, but I didn’t.The acupuncturist I was working for also ran a state-approved two-year acupressure training program.  His own schooling back in Chicago had been with Japanese teachers.   He was president of the state acupuncture association at the time, and they were wading their way through the legal morass of getting some kind of professional certification recognized at the state level, which would make insurance billing and the like much easier for them. In the office, I was helping with paperwork, creating ordering systems and keeping school records.  It didn’t take long to figure out the students were having more fun than I was; being an office manager was not particularly challenging, though I was grateful for the work. It didn’t take me long to negotiate tuition as a job perk and get myself enrolled.

We spent a full quarter of the program getting basic Japanese traditional medical theory under our belts – all the body’s meridians; each point on them, and all their myriad interconnections and associated properties and imagery.  We recited the associated color, element, partner and opposite for each and every of the more than three hundred acupressure points.  At the halfway point, we had to be able to complete a treatment plan on a real patient to continue.  The acupuncturist would give us the “formula” of points he wanted worked, and it was up to us to locate them and clear them with our fingers.  By the end we had more solid Oriental Medical theory and more clinical hours than many acupuncturists I’ve  met.  Needless to say, there was a lot of homework and a lot of study.  I wasn’t great at studying at that point, but there really wasn’t much choice.

Now, this was the late 1980’s in Colorado.  It was the very beginning of what is now the vigorous, booming microbrewery culture there (Breckenridge Brewery opened when I lived there).  Our acupuncturist was just learning to make beer (even school directors have hobbies).  If we wanted extra study time with the master,  we volunteered as brew slaves when he was making beer.  And so I saw my first wort chillers, smelled my first mash, and heard my first horrendously punny beer names (homebrewers love puns).  Remember Dan Quayle, VP of the US under Ronald Reagan, master of continual malapropisms?  A local wag made a batch of beer he called Thrash And Flail Dead Quayle Pale Ale.  (Nowadays that would be considered a threat to the Vice President and totally unacceptable, but then it was just a pun on the man’s hopeless, continual verbal mistakes.  No harm was intended beyond making fun of the man. )

I didn’t make beer at that point – I didn’t actually like beer at first, and it far too expensive for the tight budget I lived on.  I did learn about beer; learned to like stouts and porters, an improvement over the  bitter, thin Budweiser and the low-cal Coors Light favored by my outdoorsy friends.

The acupuncturist did, eventually, make a sweet mead, and of course, being young and having a massive sweet tooth, I loved it.  It tasted good, was a lovely golden color and was ever so romantic.  I thought it was just beautiful.

Fast foward a few years.  I moved out of the high country, down to Denver, to start an acupressure practice.  I was attending a Hakkoryu JuJitsu dojo; I married the senior student.  My old acupuncturist and school director made a batch of mead for our wedding.  Here’s the pivot to this story: he gave me the recipe.  I probably still have that bit of paper in my files somewhere.  I remember 18 lbs of wildflower honey, and Espernay 2 yeast – before they re-jiggered it, when it was pretty much a straight champagne yeast.  This was the early 90s, before the Internet.  Everything was by word of mouth or courtesy of a few good books.   It wasn’t long before I was trying to make a raspberry mead in the basement, which blew the vapor lock off the carboy and made one hell of a mess all over the floor.  I didn’t do it very often, but for all the reasons people like to make things by hand, I liked to make mead.  I was in full newlywed nesting mode, painting our new house, gardening, learning to can and preserve vegetables, quilting the way my mother had taught me.  Once in a while I made mead too.

A woman putting a man's wrist in a judo hold
How I met my husband

A few more years passed.  My husband decided he didn’t want children after all, which pretty much guaranteed the marriage was going to fail, though I tried sticking it out a few more years.  Fellas, never ever joke about having children to a woman – not as pillow talk, not for any reason at all if you don’t absolutely mean to do it.  Having my husband not want have children with me was the most devastating rejection I can imagine – and it begs the question, would he have children with someone else, just not me?  (I have no idea whether he ever did; he pretty much disappeared after our divorce.)  My family runs to life-long marriages, not divorce; I’d always wanted a family; and I loved him. I’d married him in good faith.  I don’t suppose I’ll ever know what was going on in his head; he didn’t share it with me.I was crushed, and disoriented.  I moved into a phase when I didn’t make mead, didn’t keep a garden, but could only grasp at a world spinning beyond my control.  My personal prayer in those days was, “Lord, I know that trouble tempers the soul, but by now I should be a f***ing katana.  Could we lighten up please?”.  Some years passed.  I grew a successful practice, sold it, went to work at a technical college, lost my job, and started to hear from my sister that my mom’s health was failing (mental and physical).  The cards were stacking to shape my next move.  I inherited a few thousand dollars from a surprise source. Then there was my home invader.  I woke up one night to find a man I didn’t know holding me down in bed.  He didn’t rape me, but I did try to kill him, and was genuinely chagrined when he got his throat out of my hands and ran for it.  The cops caught him and put him in jail, but I knew it was time to move back East.  Colorado just wasn’t working out for me any more.

So I moved back East, in a long and lonely journey – several friends had offered to travel with me and then had to reneg – and moved into my mother’s house.  She was by now in an assisted living facility not far away.  I shipped my household goods, some 4,000 lbs.  The day that was all due to arrive a college friend came to help me organize it and make sure I got all my boxes, metaphorically hold my hand and provide sanity and solid common sense.  That was also the day we discovered the old freezer in the basement had given up the ghost, still full of food.  It was ancient and had done years of good service feeding my family.  We sealed it shut, still full, and let the trash men take it.

I started a brand-new high-tech job with a huge learning curve and lots of opportunity.  Weeks later my mother died.  I needed to find a place to live so we could clean up Mom’s house and sell it – it was too big for me alone, though I still revisit my decision not to stay on that lovely shady street with nice neighbors.  I found a snug house on the other side of the city and moved into it fairly quickly.  We were dissolving my parents’ estate; as I brought loads home I stuffed them into every available closet.  I could feel a sort of reckoning coming, when I started to sort through my portion of the inheritance.  Job and home, check.  Family business, in progress.  Now about re-building a social life….

Another college friend in the area had started a historic enactment group many years prior, focussing on pre-Roman Britain (Britain before 53BC and Julius Caesar).  I love the artifacts and history of that era, so I started hanging out with them.  After several years, I made a few tentative meads and fed them to my enactor friends.  I don’t remember what got me started, exactly.  Not too long after, friends at Ambrosia Farm started making quick-mead kits (mead that only gets to 2-4% alcohol and is ready to drink in a week or two), and I experimented with several of those.   My mead and the mead kits were being well received; I started to think of myself as someone who brought mead to events.

I started experimenting with different honeys, and figuring out where to get them.  I found them enchanting, intriguing.  Whatever part of me liked gardening vegetables and spinning wool loved that there were different kinds of honey.  Bee stings are one of the few things I’m genuinely allergic to, so I’ve never gotten to know bees up close and personal; this was all new information, and remember, I hadn’t taken my meadmaking terribly seriously yet.

An odd disadvantage of being back in a major metropolitan area was the homogeny.  Distinctive small stores had long since been driven away by ridiculously high rents.  I ordered a batch of varietal honeys from The Bee Folks through the mail.  When I went to the post office to pick up my package,  the man behind the counter said, “Oh, THAT one.”  There were knowing glances; he wasn’t the only one who recognized which package I wanted.  Curioser and curioser.  One of the big three-pound jars had broken, and the box was drenched in honey.  They’d put it in a mail-carrier’s plastic “banana boat” box and told me to take the whole boat with me.  Shortly thereafter I figured out that The Bee Folks are actually within an easy drive – forty minutes or so – and have been picking up honey from them in person ever since.  I’ve never asked anyone to ship honey to me again (besides, the shipping fees are steep – honey weighs a lot: a gallon of water is about 8lbs compared to a gallon of honey at about 17lbs.).

Here the threads start intertwining so thickly I’m not sure I can make sense of them.

I was ready for a larger enactment environment, and investigated the Society for Creative Anachronism, a worldwide network of medieval enactors.  I looked around at the dazzling array of things to do in the SCA, wondering where I might fit in.  I loved to knit and weave and spin and sew, but there were lots of (mostly) women doing that already, and there was a keen competition for attention I didn’t want.  The only other thing that I could already kind of do was brew.  So I did.

I entered my first competition anywhere probably in about March 2007 or so; it was a kingdom-level SCA event.  I knew nothing about historical brewing at all, and overcompensated by documenting pages and pages about when and how all the ingredients had come to Europe, how and from where.  I had a batch of my most prized mead to enter, what was then a rare and wonderful accomplishment.  In August I entered another big competition, and stewarded for it; that’s when I made the acquaintance of the Interkingdom Brewers Guild.  Stewarding a big competition like that was fascinating, and I do it for them every year still.  In the process, of course, I was meeting other historically-minded brewers, and discovering some of the people who were already friends were also accomplished brewers.   (Karen Lassiter of Boscos Nashville Brewing Co., already an enactment friend, was one of them.  Now she’s a  two-time medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival.)

In the process I got a grip on what historical documentation was actually wanted: the recipe and its source, what you did that differed and why, and what you’d do differently next time.  Three pages, tops, not the twenty I’d been submitting.

A year or so later (2008-2009) I competed for the position of Royal Brewer and won.  That gave me the opportunity – well, really, to do anything with it I wanted to support brewing activities in our Kingdom (a four-plus-a-bit state region).  I went to town.  I hosted brewing competitions where I could.  If I couldn’t, I found someone local who would – talked a couple of folks through their first time running a competition.  I wrote newsy updates about upcoming events in the Kingdom event booklet that came out monthly.  I worked on our website – it’s grown beyond my skills now – anything I could do to advertise that we had activities running, I did. I even came up with some wacky competition themes – best (and most documentable) period blue drink for the Sapphire Joust, for example (a cabbage cordial won – I knew I was in for it, blue drinks are always questionable). It was enormous fun, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

That was the first year I submitted anything to the American Homebrewers Association national competition.  I’d never entered a local one, mind you – start at the top without a clue about what I’m doing, that’s my MO.  I made it to the final round.  Well.  Hrm.

I started to brew with a much more experienced and knowledgeable friend, Misha Suggs.  I started to actually read books (gasp!) and blogs about brewing.  I started to make beer as well as mead!  And I wrote my first monograph for Compleat Anachronist, Origins of Mead.  The manuscript was about 74 pages with over a hundred sources and about that many footnotes.  It was four years before I wrote another of those, on Intoxicating Beverages in the Middle East (the title is cumbersome, but I wanted to include coffee).  In the mean time I wrote shorter articles about history and brewing for Tournaments Illuminated.  I love researching and writing about brewing history.  There’s something about figuring out how people lived day to day that I find appealing, and I’m interested in how they made their beer/mead/wine/etc.  I read up on economic/trade patterns in the Mediterranean in classical times, and other crazy stuff.

And I began to compete in BJCP-sanctioned brewing competitions around the country.  I’ve done pretty (surprisingly) well, mostly with meads.  I’m honestly intimidated by competing with beer.  I even got a perfect score on one beer, but people who love beer really know about it, and I don’t have nearly the depth of  knowledge they do.  I’m not that technical yet.

I’ve made it to the final round of AHA Nationals several times now; a medal is still beyond my grasp, but I’ll try again.  I came in third at the Mazer Cup International, possibly the oldest modern mead competition and very much an international event.  My technique and control keeps getting better.  You’d be amazed if you saw how basic my setup is!

I’ve started to write about brewing for non-historical publications – this summer  Zymurgy is publishing an article of mine on two-row versus six-row barley!  I wrote a piece on medieval cordials for Renaissance magazine.  In 2012 I finally started a website – I’d been meaning to do it for a while – and I went to my first U.S. Beer Bloggers Conference.  Did you know there are more than 900 beer blogs in the U.S. alone?


A corner of my basement filled with shelves of bottles of homebrew
This is only one corner of my basement now

The regular ol’ homebrewing world is so big and so busy, I’ve barely scratched the surface there.  I love the historical brewing scene and really enjoy encouraging participation there.  Something I realized pretty early on was that home brewers tend to be pretty relaxed, mostly nice people.  I mean, the national home brewing motto is “Relax, have  a home brew.”  How can you beat an attitude like that?

And that, my dears, is how this all started.

"Bumper sticker that says Relax, Don't Worry, Have a Homebrew!"
The home brewing national motto

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  1. Much better story about your first then mine.

    I was 20 and just moved to PA. I had read about Home Brewing and wanted to try making Cider. I found a recipe in the back of a book and decided to give it a try.

    I was living off of about $75 a week, so my budget was VERY tight. I couldn’t really buy any equipment, but I scrounged together six 2 Litter Mt. Dew bottles. A friend of mine worked at a Grocery store and she got me about 2 paper sacks of various apples that were bruised and they were just going to toss. I knew nothing about yeast so I just used regular bakers yeast.

    I cut up and simmered the apples for about an hour , as per the recipe, and pressed it in a colander to get as much of the liquid out. I then scrounged some whole cloves, 6 cinnamon sticks and some crystallized ginger and divided it up into each bottle. I then filled each bottle about 2/3 of the way full and let them cool. I through the yeast directly into the bottles and pressed the air out of then and capped them. Twice a day I would burp the bottles. I kept them in a cool basement.

    Once they only needed to be burped once every other day or so, I strained them and bottled them into some more 2 litter bottles, keeping the yeast in the old bottles, and put them in the refrigerator. I let then sit for about 2 weeks.

    What came out was just short of Prison Hooch, but it was drinkable and I did get a bit of a buzz off of it.

    I would LOVE to try the recipe again, but this time use the proper equipment and yeasts.

  2. I always found you to be an interesting person and reading this just reinforces what I already knew. You have truly become a master brewer! Keep it up and I’m looking forward to having a pint around a fire with you!

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