Why Make It Yourself?

Not long ago, our forebears regularly drank a rich variety of wines, ales, and aperitifs that make today’s range of choices look impoverished by comparison. While most of us today peruse a wine list to choose between grape wines—a Cabernet or a Pinot Noir, for example—previous generations might have chosen between grape wine, cider, honey-based mead, metheglin (a mead with herbs added), perry (pear cider), peachy (you can guess what that was made of), or a variety of herb-based ales. Not only could this wide range of beverages be purchased from the local tavern, but homemade versions lined the cellars of many homes.

“A lovely addition to the expanding field of traditional, non-hopped beers and herbal wines. The recipes are a delight.”Stephen Harrod Buhner, author of Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation

There’s a tendency to think that our culture is the most advanced in history. And while that may be true for much of the technology we enjoy, it is certainly not true for either the quantity of our leisure time or the variety and quality of the drinks we enjoy. Why the decrease in choices? Economics plays a large role: The narrower the range of finished products, the cheaper they are to mass-produce and market. It’s also often cheaper to buy a finished product than to make one of similar quality at home.

But both of these trends may be reversing, at least for alcoholic beverages. The recent increase in the number of microbreweries, the expansion of varietal wine types, and the dozens of differently flavored liquors that explode onto the market each year are all signs that we consumers want more variety in what we drink. Also, the increase in the quality of home winemaking and homebrewing ingredients and supplies greatly simplifies these do-it-yourself projects and provides us with a greater ability to be creative in what we consume. These changes, coupled with the increased availability of fresh, pasteurized, and frozen fruit juices, exotic herbs, spices, and other foodstuffs, mean that we have the potential for enjoying the greatest variety and quality of alcoholic beverages ever. That’s why I wrote this book and why you may want to read it.

The commercialization of modern life has always enabled us to taste the good life if we were willing and able to spend enough money. But it’s often inhibited us from learning how to make the good life ourselves. Today, many of us do-it-yourselfers don’t want to just buy a jar of pasta sauce to serve our guests—we want to make sauce from scratch. We don’t want to just hire a designer to come into our homes and upgrade our kitchens—we want to go to a kitchen-design center and do it ourselves. Why? Because it’s fun—and ultimately more rewarding. When we make some of our own products instead of buying only those that are mass-marketed by corporations, we expand our own tastes, define our own style, and become more connected to our environment. We become more “us.”

Given the symbolic place alcohol holds in our shared culture—consumed at celebrations and often accompanying important rituals or rites of passage—making our own alcoholic beverages is a particularly rich form of self-expression. The human relationship with fermentation is long. Some of the earliest discovered writings are Sumerian brewing instructions, and some of the earliest known paintings show people making and drinking beer. The regular availability of fermented beverages was one of the principal benefits in the prehistoric switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture. As people began to create and inhabit increasingly larger cities, fermented beverages saved millions of lives by killing off bacteria and providing an alternative to contaminated water. The purpose of the earliest agricultural studies was to enhance wine and beer production and quality. The process of making alcoholic beverages led to many of the first laws, to the early specialization of labor, to guilds, and later to labor unions. Both drinking and prohibitions against it have deep roots in many of our religions.

And while today almost all of us buy our alcoholic beverages readymade and prepackaged, making them was as common as cooking dinner throughout nearly all of our history. Countries, regions, and families each had their own cherished recipes for alcoholic beverages. Most of these recipes are lost, but some of the best—at least among those that were written down—appear updated and standardized on the pages of Strong Waters.

“Strong Waters will be your companion on your adventures in making tipple, giving you sound advice and pointers...a world of new flavors is waiting for you...have fun!" Anya Fernald, founder and Director of Live Culture, co-founder and CEO of Belcampo