How to Hooch
The easy art of fermenting alcohol at home.
Thursday, October 20, 2011
The fermentation exploration began with some deliberate experiences, some accidents, and one particularly sweet surprise product of procrastination.
Back in a college viticulture lab we spent two afternoons a week caring for several varieties of wine grapes, eventually turning them into booze. Later that year I made a visit to my aunt’s place and noticed hundreds of softball-sized pomegranates ripe and bursting wide open on the tree. I was determined not to let them drop to the ground, leaving red stains and a feast for the crows, so I set to scooping the red seeds from white skins and squeezing them for holiday elixirs.
I made one amateur mistake: Bottled too soon, pomegranate wine continues to ferment.
When the lid popped off on Christmas Eve – exploding like a foamy shot gun – it scared the daylights out of my entire family. What little was left in the bottle was too sour to drink.
Merry Christmas, everybody.
A few years later I took a truck full of apples to a pressing party and left with enough jugs of juice for a year, but no space to store them. Researching further I learned that goat whey (the liquid remaining from the cheese process) would work to preserve our juice and release beneficial bacteria and enzymes by way of lacto-fermentation – an old school process using a dairy byproduct instead of vinegar. The result was rich with butterscotch-apple flavor like none I’ve ever tasted.
Recently I tried macerating strawberries – toss with sugar and let sit overnight in order to release juices and soften – to bring out natural pectin for a thicker jam. The two-part process is nice, allowing time between destemming the berries and actually cooking them down and jarring. However, when my farm got busy the jam project slid down the priority list. I did open the lid and peer into my science experiment periodically, creating the perfect situation for wild, airborne yeast spores to inhabit my glass vat of sugared strawberries.
This started the natural fermentation process, which eventually generates ethanol along with carbon dioxide. A few spores hopped into my crock too, but luckily the vat had a spigot so beneath the funky top layer I tapped into a lightly sweet, bright red strawberry elixir, sparkly and alive with bubbly alcohol action. Victory by procrastination.
All the yeast needs is access to a continuous supply of carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus and other vitamins and minerals, which are conveniently contained in the fruit and sugar. Ignore the berries longer and a lovely fruit vinegar for salad dressing emerges, which will store for years in the pantry.
Here is how you do it: Find some abundant fruit of your liking. Toss with organic cane sugar and place in a glass crock with a spigot. Cover with a lid or thick cheesecloth. If covering with a lid, be sure to occasionally remove the lid to let the fruit breathe and allow time for natural yeasts in the air to mingle with the sugared fruit. A little funk and bugs on the top are even OK, provided you have a spigot to retrieve the elixir without disturbing the top layer – just like kraut, this protective layer seals in everything under the liquid and the sugars are eaten away by natural yeasts that cause a spontaneous fermentation.
Warning: Take care to insure that the fermentation is complete before you bottle. This would include purchasing a fermentation lock at a winemaking store like Seaside’s new Bottoms Up (see sidebar) to vent gasses safely. Or a balloon will work as a temporary gas release over a bottle as long as you check it every so often and release the gases. There have been many close calls and screams coming from my kitchen as a result of overzealous fermentation projects I’ve forgotten. Don’t let that be you.
Not in the mood for a fermentation experiment? There is a cheater method to instill the spirits with similarly delicious and fresh flavor, but it’ll cost more because you’ll need to buy pure grain alcohol, aka Everclear, or vodka. Then it’s as simple as popping in fruit and waiting. If you are looking for a sweeter version reminiscent of a liqueur, macerate the fruit first. The infused spirit will only be better with time. In other words, procrastination pays off again.
For a list of hooch do’s and don’ts, visit the Weekly food blog at www.mcweekly.com/edible