The Fundamentals of Fermenting Alcohol

I had no idea how easy it was to make booze.

Truth be told I now know that I’d made it many times as a lazy adolescent who had a habit of leaving the jug of cider on the counter after pouring a glass.   I can remember more than one occasion that I returned to find it ‘spoiled’ as it bubbled and frothed on the counter.  I would wash it down the sink (even if I knew it was booze I probably would have any way – I was ‘straight edged’ and dead sober through my teenage years).

When I started to learn about making mead or wine or beer I had a really difficult time figuring out where to start.  Everything I read suggested big giant books and lots of reading and research and these things are good ideas if you want to learn how to make REALLY GOOD booze but I’ve always been the type that simply wants to learn the basics from top-to-bottom and then learn how to improve my creations.

GREAT BOOZE includes something that’s dependably safe to drink, tasty, often has a controlled and measured alcohol content, is repeatable and often made to some form of scale.  But that’s a long way from the fundamentals; which are, to me, essentially something that has alcohol and is safe to drink.

I’m not suggesting that this is how you should make your alcohol nor am I recommending the technique (though I’ve done it and do it with mixed results).  But I think it’s helpful to understand the very basic process of creating alcohol via fermentation.  By understanding the basics you can grow your technique and it’s easier to understand the fine print when you know where each step is headed.

There are a few basic principals when it comes to fermenting things to create booze:

  • Yeast helps convert sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol.  Too little sugar will starve the yeast; too much will also prevent fermenting.
  • Not all yeast is equal.  You can use ‘wild yeast’ (that’s the stuff floating around your kitchen at all times) but you won’t know what type of yeast you’ll get and you could end up with mixed results (for example, some yeast is prone to creating vinegar which, while tasty, is a different end-goal).
  • Many use a campden tablet to kill wild yeast before adding brewers yeast to sugar and water to make booze.  This is often an overnight process.  Yeast and campden tablets are available at most homebrew stores or online.
  • Fermenting happens when sugar and yeast are introduced to each other at the right temperature (avoid extremes on either side).  Sugar can be in many forms including raw, honey, molasses or even from fruit.  Most yeast will not tolerate alcohol greater than 20% (40 proof) which is often created with a still.
  • Sometimes people add a yeast nutrient which will help ensure the yeast grow strong and bold.
  • Sanitizing everything is important as you go.  Again, a homebrew store is your friend to get you started here.
  • Yeast will have a certain alcohol tolerance.  Once it raises a certain percentage, the yeast will die.  This often creates sentiment at the bottom of that fermenting vessel which you remove by siphoning the liquid above it (this is often called ‘racking.’)
  • Most fermenting is done in an anaerobic environment (i.e. without oxygen).  An airlock is a device which uses a small amount of water to form a barrier between the inside of the fermenting vessel and the outside world – as CO2 is created it forces the oxygen out of the environment.  This is important because a sealed jar (i.e. with a lid) could easily shatter with the pressure created by the ferment.
  • Fermenting is sometimes done in stages (often referred as ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’).  This is sometimes done to remove the sediment but often used to add other flavors (such as fruit) at different stages of the process.

Booze made is this way is often referred to as country wine, fruit wine or (in the case of honey), mead.

When sugar, yeast and liquid are combined with the lack of oxygen, they will create booze.  This is often aged then bottles where it’s sometimes aged again.  Sometimes people add a small bit of yeast just as they bottle their final product.  You must take care not to add too much yeast or the bottle can explode (you can get guidance from a brew-shop once again).

When I was young I was making booze by accident; the cider fermented with wild yeast in the air (or yeast that was already in the unpasteurized cider we got from a farmer) and booze was being created when I tossed it.

If you’re more experienced, would you add anything to the list above?

Looking for more information?  Here’s a recipe for T’ej which is an Ethiopian Honey Wine that’s made with water and honey and the wild yeast around you!

Comments

  1. Rodney R says:

    Great Posting! You’ve hit all the basics that would allow anyone to make a drinkable alcoholic beverage. I only have one additional comment. When bottling, sometimes a little sugar is added to the brew to give the yeast something more to eat while it is in the bottle. As you pointed out, too much sugar will cause a big mess but for bottle conditioned beer, it is critical to good carbonation.

    Thanks for all the great info!!!!

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