People have been making alcoholic beverages for at least the past 7000 years. All that is required is a vessel to ferment in, yeast, and a source of sugar. However, things get a bit more tricky if you want to reliably make something that actually tastes good!
There are many books and website out there that deal with the specifics of making alcohol; so I won’t delve into every little detail. I am going to focus on a few simple alcoholic beverages that can easily be made at home.
⇒NOTE: Every country has their own laws about homemade alcohol… and even though I love fermentation in all it’s forms, I’m not condoning illegal fermentation.⇐
Types of alcoholic beverages that can be fermented at home:
Kombucha and Kefir: both of these cultures contain yeast so they make alcohol. The alcohol content rarely gets above 0.5% since the fermentation time is so short. However, there is the potential for higher alcohol content, which is why store bought kombucha and kefir generally don’t contain a live yeast culture.
Beer and Meads: Mead is fermented honey, and beer is fermented malt. Usually hops is added for flavour and preservation. Mead is generally between 8%-20% alcohol, and beer generally ranges from 4%-8%.
Fruit Wines and Ciders: Cider and wine are both made from fruit. Cider is sparkling, and the alcohol usually ranges from 3%-12%. Wines are usually 12%-14%.
Rice Wines: There are many types of alcoholic rice beverages, and the fermentation process is more similar to beer than wines as it involves fermenting the starch in rice. Rice wines are generally 18%-25% alcohol.
Kvass and Other Alcoholic Ferments: Any sugar or starch mixed with yeast will make alcohol, so there are many other fermented drinks out there!
Keep out the bad bugs:
The only way you can be sure that you’re making something safe to drink is to make sure you don’t have any free-roaming bacteria in your ferment. Follow your recipe and try to control the temperature, light and oxygen exposure as directed.
It’s important to make sure all the equipment and bottles used are completely sterile. The are a number of methods for sterilization, but here are two that are easily done at home:
-submerge everything in boiling water for 5 minutes.
-soak everything for 30 minutes in a cold water and chlorine bath (1 oz unscented bleach for a gallon of water) rinse, then air dry.
-there are a number of other sanitization chemicals available. Check your local brewing and wine making shops for alternatives.
Yeasts break down sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. For some drinks we want to capture the carbon dioxide to make them “sparkling”, whereas for other drinks we release the CO2 for a still drink. Either way, you need to account for the pressure that will build up during the fermentation process. You can use plastic bottles, or swing-top bottles for storage, and airlocks are used for releasing CO2 during the fermentation stage.
As long as conditions are right, yeast will keep fermenting until most of the sugar is gone or until the ferment reaches alcohol levels of around 17%-20%. (This depends on the strain of yeast. Wild yeasts usually die off at 5% alcohol). The two main methods of prematurely stopping fermentation are refrigerating and adding sulfur dioxide.
Traditionally all alcohol was made from wild yeasts. However, this doesn’t always result in a tasty brew (depending on regional variations in wild yeasts). Also wild yeasts tend to die out at 5% alcohol, so they aren’t ideal for stronger beverages. Over time, specific strains of yeast have been cultivated to make beer, wine, etc. These specific strains of yeast are selected to ferment at particular temperatures, and influence the flavour of the end product. You can buy yeasts online or at your local brewing and wine making shops.
Beyond a vessel to ferment in, there really isn’t any specialized equipment required for fermenting. However, it is handy to have a little more control if you are aiming to make a particular beverage or if you want long-term storage for your beverage.
Tubes: Food grade tubes are useful for moving liquid around.
Chemicals: to test fruit ripeness, total acidity, pH of any fruit you want to ferment. These aren’t necessary if you plan on drinking your beverages right away.
Airlock: This is very important if you are serious about making alcoholic ferments. It allows the CO2 to escape, and maintains a sterile fermenting environment. In general a cylindrical airlock is easier to clean than a S-shaped airlock.
Hydrometer: This measures the approximate alcohol levels of your beverage, by comparing the amount of sugar in your mixture before fermenting, and after fermenting. The level of alcohol is assumed by the decrease in the sugar levels. It can help you determine when enough sugars have been consumed, and your beverage is ready for bottling.