Building a homebrewers website (not this one)

 Posted by on October 28, 2014
Oct 282014

I’ve been building a homebrewers website for a club with some special parameters. Since homebrewers’ clubs are sprouting up like mushrooms (do NOT take that as inspiration, the world does NOT need ‘shroom beer) I thought I’d take some time to look at the kinds of decisions made to get this new site up and running.

First, of course, you have to know your audience, then your goal for that audience.  In this case, the audience is brewers who play in the Society for Creative Anachronism in the Kingdom of Atlantia, an area that stretches from the Maryland-Pennsylvania border down into north Georgia.  What does this say about them?

  • First, they’re interested in beer, mead, wine, cider, and sometimes even cordials.
  • Second, most of them are doing two things at once: trying to become better homebrewers, and learning about fermented beverages and how they were made in western Europe before 1600.
  • Third, they’re spread across a large region with one megalopolis, another fairly dense area, a few small cities, a lot of relatively small towns and rural space.
  • Fourth, we have a real cultural divide. The megalopolis is the Washington, DC region, which spreads into northern Virginia and Maryland, and tends to attract very well educated, extremely hard working people.  It is crowded, expensive, and uptight.  Let’s face it, the folks who work here participate in running this enormously powerful and relatively wealthy country. The rest of the Kingdom is much more relaxed. Participants from up north tend to comment on how nice the folks further south are.

I designed this new website to serve the Kingdom Brewer’s Guild,.  The members are all the homebrewers in the Kingdom who want to share brewing activities at an SCA event within the Kingdom (membership in the Guild is by participation).  The activity could be a roundtable, class, demonstration, competition, or a whole-day collegium of brewing classes.  There were two ways Guild members could know something of interest was going on:

  1. They could check the Kingdom calendar of events and open the description of each individual event. Those descriptions have rarely includes much detail on smaller groups like the Guild, which tended to plug into an event long after it had been posted on the Kingdom calendar (editing the calendar has not been an option in the past).  The next step is to navigate to the website for each and every hosting group – there are more than seventeen – and see whether they have more detail posted. The Guild wanted a better way to coordinate efforts.
  2. They have a Yahoo group email list. Someone could get the word out that way and try to build excitement. They could echo it on a Kingdom-wide email list to try to catch the eye of a brewer who might not be paying attention to the Guild email list.

There was no way to centrally coordinate brewing activities across the region, or encourage participation in events or in Guild management.  They desperately needed a detailed calendar, and all the lore and detail anyone could need no matter what their degree of familiarity with the Guild us.  Events and the kitchen sink. Well, all righty then.

First (once the basic WordPress framework was set up), the calendar. I wanted brewers to find other brewers and geek about brewing.  I created color coding for different types of activities, and made sure they were all colors you could distinguish pretty well (plus or minus color blindness; the text was all too small to add patterns as well). On the front/landing page you see the calendar without having to scroll for it. Dates with brewing activities are bold. Each calendar post should have a contact person, details of where/when/what activities for each event, who to contact and what to expect (there are often themes and challenges).

At first I thought it would include only brewing events.  Homebrewers like to meet and share their latest efforts. Now, the brewers can’t hold activities at dry sites. If someone is trying to add a brewing roundtable, say, it is kind of surprising how many conversations have to happen before someone in the know checks up on the wee detail of whether the site is dry or not. Therefore I am also including dry site events on this calendar, nota bene dear brewers, don’t bring beer to share to that one.

a long line of large oak beer barrels on their side, three deep

Oak beer barrels!

In secret, I also hoped that if they knew which events were going to occur on wet sites, people would grasp the opportunity to host brewing activities during the event. It needed to be easy to tell which events constituted opportunities.Next up, because theCA requies it, are all the layers of legal restriction – Federal, State, and Kingdom law.  As an international organization, the SCA has its own charter and rules (we call it the Corpora). Each layer of law gets its own post with details. We’ll have to watch for updates on all of them, which means some maintenance. All right, more than a little. None of us currently are lawyers. There, legalities observed.

Next, I decided to add a page of descriptions of all the types of live events we tend to have, matching the entries to the color coding on the calendar. What is a round table, and how do you run one? How do you talk to the autocrat in charge of an event if you want to host a brewing activity? What are the usual requirements in a competition, and where is there leeway to design your own? This section combined the wisdom of a number of us “old timers”, lessons learned and experiences shared. The intention was to give folks who’ve never hosted something the courage and all the information they need to give it a go.

drawing of a medieval brewer in a warehouse

Sixteenth century brewer

OK, so now people had a resource to know what kinds of activities to look for at events. It would help if they had someone to talk to, who could answer questions – either someone local who can usher them in, guide them through an event if they’re kind of new, or just someone who’d tell them what’s going on. We needed a list of local contact people, and it had to be right up front on the landing page. I put it next to the calendar, so they don’t have to scroll down to find the list, though the list is long enough they may have to scroll to find someone in their area.Just for good measure, I decided to add a page with pictures of as many of these contact people as possible, and their registered devices – sort of like coats of arms – in case they had a banner up or were wearing a tabard with their arms on it or something. At medieval events that sort of thing happens a lot. Well, their devices are readily available, I just plundered a Kingdom site for those, but getting photos out of people is an entirely different matter. I’m going to be working on that one for a while.

The brewers have a couple of other notable people around.  There’s a Royal Brewer, so I added a page explaining what a Royal Brewer is, how you become one, with the name and photo of the current holder of the title. There’s the Guildmaster, who’s guided of this whole effort (I got a great picture of him). I added them to the page of local contact people – all are folks you can talk to if you’re interested in homebrewing in the Kingdom.

People should be able to use the website to talk to us, too.  I added a contact form in two places, on the front page (you have to scroll for it) and on the contacts page.  Questions will come to me and the Guildmaster.

From Li Livres dou Santé by Aldobrandino of Siena (France, late 13th century).

From Li Livres dou Santé by Aldobrandino of Siena (France, late 13th century).

We’re having Guild-wide discussions about whether to open a Forum on the site – our Yahoo group could use a better venue – but that’s still out for discussion. The intrepid Guildmaster is holding moots around the Kingdom canvassing opinions. (It’s always fun to find the right participation balance in a feudal society with a hefty awards system acted out by citizens of a free democratic society.)As long as we’re thinking of networking the brewers, making local contact people and brewing events accessible, let’s list all the local guilds inside the Kingdom, and the Guilds in other Kingdoms. There are something like nineteen Kingdoms in the “Knowne World” of the SCA, stretching from Australia to South Africa, it surprised me to find how few had a registered kingdom-level Brewers Guild. Those who do are now listed on our site, with such contact information and links as I could dig up. If you travel, you can find sympathetic souls. It’s not every homebrewer who geeks out over redacting recipes from 1453.

OK, we’ve got Who pretty well covered.  If you’re new to the whole medieval thing, you probably don’t know where to find period recipes.  We do.  The next call was for a resource page with a bibliography of pre-1600 books with brewing recipes. All right, I have fairly extensive bibliographies on my website here (search on Books for Brewers), so I plundered my own lists to get the basics of both primary and secondary sources.  I made sure to link them to free sources wherever I could find them such as Google Scholar or the Gutenberg Project (the book links here mostly go to Amazon, as I’ve noted on each page; the affiliate fee goes toward paying for this site).  I enjoy research, I like documenting where my recipe comes from and what I know about it.  I think it’s the thrill of the chase.  It’s hard for me to imagine not having any idea how to do that. This book list is basic, but should really help.

Alimenti vino rosso from Taccuino Sanitatis Casanatense

Alimenti vino rosso from Taccuino Sanitatis Casanatense

I described the difference between a primary and a secondary source. That’s another thing folks get very confused about. In most of our competitions, we want to know where you got your recipe, how you redacted it to a five or ten or anything but the usual tun (about three hundred gallons) batch, and what you would do differently next time. We expect to see a short bibliography at the end.  A little nudge on how to create one properly can’t hurt. It’s not hard once you get the hang of it (I hope).Hm. I’d better turn comments on. Someone might have a good source suggestion to add to the list. So we have comments, which I have reformatted once or twice to work better on the site. We’ll know who contacted us and how to reach them.  The Guildmaster and I moderate all comments; commenters have the option not to supply metadata that would be visible. I got the form cleaned up so it’s pleasant to read. We quickly got some longish discussion threads. Score!

As long as we’re being helpful on period source material…we do run “universities” and “collegia”, where we’ve had a number of brewers teach really interesting classes. The Hanseatic League, manners in a Norse mead hall, the questions inherent in Anglo-Saxon words for drink, how to write competition documentation, we cover all kinds of crazy things.  Now there’s a place people can post their class notes if they’re willing to share. I’ve taught a few classes in my time, I need to get some of my own notes up there!

Resources, resources…your average local homebrew suppliers would be a good list to have. If someone moves into the area, they can find the local retailers we’ve had good experiences with, and online ones with good to great prices are in there as well.

That’s something I can summon from the corners of the Kingdom – tell me about your local great homebrew store! We are, after all, covering four states and part of a fifth. That’s a lot of area, and the yellow pages don’t tell you which retailers are nice to deal with. Most homebrew suppliers are friendly, many hold classes and have special events – it’s hard to hate people whose motto is “Relax, have a homebrew!”. But some are nicer than others, and prices vary. It’s ok with me if we play favorites some.

Specialized brewing supplies for the medievalist merited their own pages. Medieval recipes often include a list of herbs a mile long, and some of them are a bit obscure (galingale) or difficult to find (pellitory). There aren’t that many trustworthy herbal suppliers who know their medieval lore – we want it documentable, dammit! We have one particularly well-trusted honey supplier in the Kingdom, a great source of varietal honey, and with crowdsourcing we’re turning up some more.

A page still in development will hold information on tools and calculators. There are many, and they definitely each have their own flavor. Many of our brewers are not so experienced, so maybe these will help or maybe they’ll be too much info. That’s where friendship and mentoring come into play. Let’s hope they use all those contact numbers.

In the background, I needed to build in a backup system, and a spam filter. That’s just normal website stuff.  Once it’s all shiny and pretty it’s easy to forget about the critical infrastructure, but it is indeed critical. Lordy but the spammers found us right away, and I’m not even making any attempt to build SEO in!

I put in a photo gallery, but don’t have any pictures there yet. That’ll be fun, I think. Everyone likes to see themselves involved at an event, in our medieval clothes, geeking about beer, wine, mead, braggot, pyment, rhodamel, mulsum….

Ancient Mesopotamian art showing people around a beer jar sippign through long straws

Drinking beer in Mesopotamia. One queen was buried with beer straws made of gold, and lapis lazuli.

The whole thing is still developing, but at this point we’re gathering content rather than structuring the site’s bones.  I’m the “webminister”, as we say in the SCA, but it’s a lot less work to maintain a site than it is to create it from the ground up – well, maybe not if you’re running a site for a multinational sensation, but this is just a little informational little club site.

I’m tickled that I’ve built a whole new functional website all by myself – skills gained! Building a homebrewers website was a great challenge for me to take on.

What, might you ask, is the difference between that site and this one? In truth, I started Beauty In Beer as a way to help struggling new brewers in the SCA find resources on better brewing and on medieval brewing. Now, the Guild website will be a network and resource tool for the SCAdian brewers. In the process of building this blog and writing these articles, I’ve had a whole world open up before me – beer blogger conferences, brewery tours, beer events (so many!), brewers who’ll talk to you about just about anything they’re interested in…Beauty In Beer’s scope has widened a lot since its inception. I’m free to carry more depth of material here than the Guild website will, or needs to, and I can focus on more modern phenomena.  I like the research, and publish articles brewing fairly regularly for an amateur, so it’s lots of fun for me.

I hope to get back to our regularly scheduled features here on Beauty In Beer – the 200th anniversary of the Great Beer Flood of London,   Guinness’ shiny and massive new brewery, how to use Yorkshire Squares (and who’s doing it), fun things like that. The story of the international food chemist who’s opened a brewery and is looking for ways to upmarket the spent grain and other byproducts (something better than dog biscuits). How Arthur Guinness got interested in brewing in the first place. The list goes on and on….

Beer is just so much fun.







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