I once got an email from 'Allan J.', a young guy who said he actually tried to make booze in his basement like I had described doing in some old essay I had written long ago on a previous iteration of this web site that was copied and reposted on some 'homemade booze' site somewhere and he had come across it.
My email link was stuck to the bottom of the article, as it is on all my articles, and he sent me a note. He said that he and his friend had tried this very thing after reading what I and a few others had written about on that site. He said what they ended up with tasted like "total" crap and they quickly dumped it all down the drain, never to try it again and that homemade booze is garbage.
Oh well... that's fine, I guess...
Then I read, "if your a kid and you want to party your better off finding someone older to just buy it for you at a store" [sic].
Hmmmm. Yeah, ok.
… well, rich kids maybe? (Which seems to be most normal kids nowdays in our increasingly affluent society).
Booze ain’t cheap anymore. Especially in Canada. Wow. A six-pack of just lager beer is shockingly overpriced, not to mention wine or whiskey. Add a popular 'name-brand' to it or eclectic craft-brew moniker and watch it shoot up even higher in price.
But, I was a bit curious so I emailed him back and asked a few questions. He actually replied and that amused me. His quick jots reflected a symptom of what I see a little bit too much of around me these days. (Maybe more on that later…)
When I think back to my youth, it’s hard for me to exactly weigh it all in my mind because I didn’t drink alcohol at all until I was in my late twenties. Even though I certainly dished out money from time to time for booze for my buddies and the little money-pools collected at parties for the next trip for off-sales, I didn’t drink myself so it wasn’t an issue with me as far as getting booze on a regular basis or how expensive or not it was.
I suppose everything is relative. A case of beer was well under 10 bucks back then but certainly people made a lot less on average per-hour at whatever jobs they had. When I did a little bit of research out of curiosity recently, I discovered that a huge expense contributing to booze these days is the government hand in the pocket. Surprise, surprise. Taxes on the retail product, on the wholesale product for the stores buying it for their shelves, on any ingredients purchased across border by manufacturers, etc. are incredibly high in proportion to most other common products (except, of course, tobacco the big cha-ching!) Not to mention that the supply of booze to the retailer in Alberta is controlled by government owned warehouses. We are under the impression that the booze industry in Alberta is privatized but actually it’s controlled incredibly by the government at the ‘source-of-the-river’ so to speak. Liquor stores buy their booze from unionized government warehouses. Price fixing is a huge part of it all and just gets passed down the line, and added to, because consumers continue to be willing to fork over crazy dollars for a simple, mere liquid in a cheap bottle with a colorful label stuck to it and we're Canadian up here and don't bitch (at least not where or when it counts).
I make alcohol.
I too make the odd trip to the liquor store for booze, but for the past 25 years I’ve also made numerous gallons of the stuff myself, in my own house. Over time, I’ve learnt many of the secrets, techniques and craft of brewing beer, wine, cider and have even tried my hand at making whiskey and plain old ‘shine’. People might be surprised at how uncomplicated a process it actually is to create very decent-to-excellent drinks and also quite cheap. It certainly would open eyes to the phenomenal costs tagged onto our commercial products that everyone just silently accepts and continues to pay, oblivious.
It’s an occasional hobby of mine and I find the chemistry aspect of it all very interesting. But booze making is also a subject that touches a lot of different areas of the human experience…
There are people in the world, Mormons or devote Muslims for example, for whom alcohol is taboo. Then there are those health conscious, suspicious people who suspect alcoholic drinks of harboring harmful, unwanted chemicals that they suspect brewers, vintners, and distillers add to improve the color, the clarity, the flavor, and the shelf life of their products. There are the ‘churchies’ who rail against it because of the social harms it seems to invite. Yet for every person who opposes the ‘demon-drink’ there are many more ardent supporters of alcohol. Personally, I find it amazing to find such a collection of emotions, warnings, hazards, bad side effects and even possible benefits surrounding what is, in the end, only a simple molecule.
I enjoy my little brewing hobby when I kick it into gear from time to time and I guess I feel like talking about booze a bit today so I hope I don’t get too rambly…
Wisdom in a bottle...
The elixer of love...
Alcohol has been the root cause, indirect cause and instigator of many wars, discoveries, and noble or not so noble causes embarked upon, throughout history. Booze, it's been discovered, has been with mankind for at least 6000 years, but in all likelihood even longer still. It is as much a part of our cultures as simple eating is and I doubt will ever be phased out.
Yes, there are many ethical questions that alcohol raises which my scant accumulated knowledge of some of its chemistry cannot answer (and I doubt I want to get into that aspect of it all very much anyway), but it is still very interesting how this substance works within the human body and affects the very minds of people. I think, were alcohol to be discovered today, its sale to the public would never be permitted because of its potentially lethal side-effects. I don’t think of it as a food, medicine, or a tonic, although in earlier times alcohol was advertised as all of these — it is mainly used by people these days as a relaxant.
We actually all have alcohol in our body in small amounts. It is produced naturally within our intestines by bacteria and yeasts, which have enzymes that can turn carbohydrate into alcohol, and this alcohol gets into our bloodstream. But it has no effect because there is so little of it. However, when we suddenly increase the amount, by drinking a lot of it, then we experience some rather unusual effects — the pleasant elation, to begin with, but the anticlimactic deflation a few hours later.
Alcohol universally affects all people in much the same way. It raises our pulse and blood pressure, which increases the sensation of warmth in our bodies. Technically alcohol is a depressant, but this does not mean that it makes us depressed. It means that it slows down the activity of the central nervous system so that messages take longer to travel along nerve fibers. Alcohol has this effect on the brain because it replaces water molecules around nerve cells, and this interferes with the movement of electrically charged atoms that are responsible for transmitting information along a nerve fiber. Alcohol makes us feel happier, more at ease with people, and less inhibited about what we say and do. We also become more relaxed and overconfident in our abilities, but slower to react, and our speech becomes slurred. Alcohol also slows the movement of chemical messenger molecules that carry information from cell to cell. In our ears, where we get our sense of balance, alcohol changes the density of the tissue and fluid in the ear until we lose our normal sense of balance. The result is that we unconsciously begin to sway and stagger, trying to compensate for the feeling we have that we are always about to fall over.
Nevertheless, the bottom line is that our body treats it as a poison.
It immediately endeavors to filter it out of our blood and expel it from our bodies. Ten percent of the alcohol we take in is lost from our body without being digested. It is exhaled on our breath, sweated through our pores, or passed out in our urine. Naturally, if a person is eating while consuming alcohol, some of it is trapped in the fibrous, bulky material of the food as it travels through the stomach and intestines and is expelled before being digested also. The other 90% is processed by the liver. The liver filters our blood. Our liver has an enzyme produced by our bodies called alcohol dehydrogenase (commonly called ADH) which gets rid of this unwanted chemical and converts the alcohol to acetaldehyde. This molecule is then turned into acetic acid by another enzyme, and the acetic acid appears in our urine. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is also created in parallel chemical reactions during the process. It is expelled in a gaseous state or trapped within excrement.
The liver can deal with large
amounts of alcohol, but it needs time to do so. As it works away on what it can
handle for the moment, any excess alcohol is flowing around our body, within our
bloodstreams, and is affecting things it comes in contact with. If a person
takes in too much alcohol in one session, he may even die. A lethal dose can be
as little as 400 ml, the amount of alcohol in a liter of booze (spirits).
Remember, the body thinks alcohol is a poison and it is right.
A normal, healthy liver can process about 12 ml of alcohol per hour. That’s not a lot. It’s the amount found in a normal glass of wine, which is about 12% alcohol, or about half a pint of beer which is around 5% alcohol, or a shot (shot glass full) of spirits which is generally 40% alcohol. Diluting whiskey, tequila, or whatever, in Coke or orange juice or tomato juice, etc. doesn’t take away from the fact that there is still one entire shot of 40% alcohol in there somewhere. (Or more, if you order doubles).
Men digest alcohol more quickly than women because males have more ADH in their stomachs. Consequently, men can tolerate more alcohol than can women, because drink-for-drink, less alcohol gets into a man's blood stream from his stomach. Indians (Native Americans) and Japanese men, as a coincidence of evolution, have the same lower level of ADH as women. Male and female kidneys dispose of alcohol at the same rate but if a person has lower ADH levels in their system, they experience all the effects of alcohol more quickly and to a greater extent than someone who has higher levels. This lower tolerance in Native Americans has been the cause of much suffering and hardship in their population since booze first showed up in huge quantities in North America in the middle of the last millennium.
Your kidneys are also affected during the processing of booze. Kidneys normally filter, reabsorb and reuse water in our bodies and are prompted to do so by a hormone called vasopressin, which is released by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. Alcohol, when present in our systems, reduces the amount of vasopressin, and so the kidneys fail to recycle the water within our bodies, which then passes to the bladder and out of the body. As a result, you lose more water from your system while under the influence of alcohol than normal. If you drink 250 ml of wine (about two normal glasses), you will lose at least 500 ml of water from your body as urine during the next two hours. The result is dehydration unless this fluid loss is replaced with plain water.
One of the causes of hangover headaches is this dehydration, although not the total cause. The acetaldehyde produced by the body while processing alcohol also dilates the blood vessels in the scalp and around the brain, helping to contribute to the result of a bad headache. Drinking piles of coffee to sober up has little benefit over just drinking a few big glasses of plain water and sitting back and relaxing, while your system recovers. You need to replace the lost water in your system.
Some of my buddies swear that drinking a stiff drink the next morning or a couple beers, also cures hangovers (hair-of-the-dog) but all they’re really doing is adding alcohol to their systems again and numbing their minds to the irritation, that’s about it. After all, drunks feel no pain right? But, as long as they’re happy who am I to argue with them?
I’ve already said I don’t really think of alcohol as a food but I should mention that it certainly contains calories. One normal serving unit (the 12ml I mentioned earlier) contains approximately 70 calories. This is just the alcohol content. I’m not including here any sugar or other ingredients in the drink. A glass of wine or a wine cooler can be as much as 110 calories if it’s a sweet wine, for instance. Alcohol cannot supply energy in the same way as carbohydrates, so it does little to help us work or exercise, but its calories can certainly be converted to fatty tissue and contribute to weight gain. Alcoholic drinks such as beer and wine also provide other dietary nutrients but spirits (whiskey, vodka, tequila, etc.) and other distilled drinks lack these. The yeast usually present in beer, for example, is a great source of B vitamins. Wines have less of them. So nutritionally speaking, booze isn’t high on the list but it certainly can contribute calories to your waistline especially if you add to the intake by eating a lot of food while consuming it.
All alcohol isn’t the same.
The alcohol we drink is called ethyl alcohol or ethanol for short.
When you buy a bottle of whiskey, it usually says it contains 40% alcohol ‘by volume’. This means that a standard 750ml bottle of booze actually contains 300ml of 100% ethyl alcohol inside. The other 450ml in that bottle is water and the various minute and trace ingredients that give that particular bottle of booze its flavor and color.
If you could take that 300ml of ethanol out of that bottle and separate it from the water, you could actually use it as fuel for your tractor. That’s what biodiesel, the big 'green-movement' rage of the moment, is — simply ethanol. But you can’t drink biodiesel or fuel ethanol. The manufacturers of this stuff add certain unpleasant chemicals to the batches to make it all undrinkable (methylated). Huge volumes like biodiesel aren’t generally made through the process of fermentation either, like beer and wine alcohol, but through industrial-chemical-reaction processes with water and ethylene. Yet the basic molecules are identical and both have biological sources.
Methanol is another commonly known alcohol type. It’s a good disinfectant and solvent/cleaning agent. You can’t consume it. It is definitely poisonous to humans if consumed in even relatively tiny quantities. One of its legendary side affects, if consumed and the person survives, is that it can cause blindness. Poor techniques in distilling and creating booze during prohibition years lead to myths and tales of batches of moonshine and whiskey with methanol mixed in with the good ethanol and people would drink them only to become blinded or worse. A lot of this was probably not totally true and more of a propagated scare tactic than anything else.
During the distilling of a batch of whiskey, at the start of the process, a very tiny amount of pure methanol is produced but any good whiskey maker knows to capture the first 50ml of this very bitter distilment and throw it away, anyway. It’s not really a big problem.
The alcohol made by the fermentation of agricultural fruits, grains and vegetables is produced by the activity of yeast, a fungus. These microscopic organisms grow and reproduce by feeding on sugars (such as glucose or dextrose) and as they do this, they excrete alcohol and carbon dioxide gas back into their environment. They’re anaerobic beings which simply means they can survive in an environment without oxygen. (Good to know if you ever get stuck on the Moon and want to brew up a batch of beer).
Yeast, as it turns out, appears naturally on the skins of many fruits, grains and vegetables in the wild. Especially grapes. Grapes also contain a lot of natural sugars and are usually found in warm, semi-humid climates. I suppose it was inevitable that some hunter/gatherer human, way back in time, would have gathered a container of grapes to eat but left it sitting around her camp for a while, maybe partially crushed in their own juices. Probably forgot about them for a week or two and then her oldman, maybe one day was desperate for a drink of something and decided the old juice in that container was just as good as anything else and certainly easier than walking all the way down the path to the creek. The natural wild yeasts found on grape skins would have acted on the sugars in the grapes all that week and the resulting fluid was grape flavored juice with alcohol mixed in — or what we like to call wine! The guy would have drank it, too thirsty and lazy to care, experienced the sensations of getting drunk and maybe liked it! Thus starting a process of discovering and deliberately repeating the fermentation process.
Because of the unique condition of grapes often having wild yeasts living on their skins and that this fruit contains much sugar content anyway, I think alcoholic wine was probably destined to appear on Earth whether a human discovered the technique or not. I've read accounts of overly ripe grapes actually fermenting on the vine as they hung there and ended their life cycle. It's a good thing we haven't got wild grape vines growing in our Rocky Mountains over here in Alberta or we'd end up with a problem of drunk bears crashing around through the woods, feeling ten foot tall and bulletproof...
There are records of wine being made as far back as there are records of anything in mankind. It's interesting that it wasn’t known, all those years, exactly what was causing the fermentation. In fact, it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur and the invention of the first microscopes that the process of yeast organisms was discovered and understood. For millennia alcoholic drinks were simply made from ingredients that had their own natural yeasts occurring in them. Mostly it was grape wines because they were the most likely to begin fermentation. More enterprising individuals would culture and propagate a good working ‘cake’ of yeast sediment from one batch of wine or beer to the next. Certain stocks of yeast became family or tribe prized processions and were nurtured and guarded jealously from vat to vat of wine.
Wheat and barley also have naturally occurring wild yeasts within them, though not as commonly as grapes. This probably lead to the discovery of risen bread when wet bread dough was unexpectedly set aside for a while and later discovered to puff up on its own as a consequence of the yeast action inside. When baked anyway, the baker discovered a delightfully new, puffy, full style of bread different from the old packed, flattened style they were used to.
In old days, on the American and African continents, where yeast fermentation wasn’t as understood, the cultures of different people certainly each had their own styles of alcoholic beverages but most hadn't made the connection to using the carbon dioxide expansion properties of yeast fermentation in their cooking techniques. Their bread styles remained as usually flat, disk shaped baked products as compared to European and western-Asian bakery products of even a few thousand years ago which widely used the leaven bread technique.
When I try to imagine how mankind initially discovered beer it only seems logical to me that buckets of barley or wheat left laying around in storage or in cooking areas may have become wet or filled with water from time to time and the sprouting of the grain would have caused enzymes to convert the starches in these grains to sugars that the wild yeasts would have began acting on. The owner maybe discovered these buckets of fermented, soaked grain mash a week later and maybe experimented drinking the brew and liked the taste and the feelings that resulted? The beginnings of beer and ale brewing? Ancient Babylonians of around 4000 B.C. are thought to have brewed a form of simple ale (it was a flat, non-carbonated beer) as surmised from certain writings and pictographs found by archeologists. This is the earliest known brewing of a beer but by this time wine had been around for thousands of years already. (It's preparation process is a lot simpler).
In fact, alcohol brewing (especially with grapes) is almost so naturally occurring, it's fanciful to think that Nature almost intended it to be part of human existence and consumption doesn’t it?
This leads me back to one of my initial statements. If people realized how easy it is to make extremely good wine, beer and booze on their own, they’d suddenly be shocked at how expensive it is to buy these products in Canadian liquor stores. However, ignorance is bliss I suppose.
Let me point out a bit of relatively contemporary history…
It wasn’t so so long ago that beer and wine making was as common as making dinner in every household. Back when the Europeans invaded America and began to set up their new lives here, they found their communities soon contaminated the water sources around themselves, usually because of human and animal sewage waste. It wasn’t an easy matter to just pick up your entire household and move to a new source of water, somewhere else, like nomadic cultures did. They had to discover creative ways to continue to live in their chosen towns or villages in spite of problems created by congestion. Brewing beer and wine created a safe and sterile source of drink. Beer and wine alcohol kills bacteria in the fluid and these drinks had a pleasant flavor as well. Most households brewed their own batches of wine and beer for personal consumption. There were even common recipes for creating batches of lower alcohol content for consumption by children, commonly known as ciders and brewed with apples or other fruit.
Some household brewers became very good at it and made extra to sell to the neighbors or strangers passing through who were too busy or not as good at making their own. These became known as places where you could stop by and buy a tasty drink or two, usually in a room in the house, facing the street, set aside for the purpose. These ‘public houses’ or ‘pubs’ soon became common fixtures in every neighbourhood, most devoted only to this type of business.
The culture of the eastern coast of North America during the early days of settlement was one of evening gatherings of men in pubs to discuss the events and concerns of the times over a good mug of wine or beer brewed, of course, right in their own villages and quite often right within that very pub itself. I’m positive many a fur trade adventure, or political maneuver, or business transaction had roots in one of these very pubs between men crouched over their glasses and mugs at a candle or lantern lit table.
I once read that Thomas Jefferson penned his draft versions of the US Declaration of Independence in a pub not far from his house, over the course of a few evenings. No doubt he didn’t sit there all those hours without having something on the side to wet his palette. Such grand words from a loosened train of thought hey?
It is said that John A. MacDonald of Canada (considered a pretty clever orator) gave his most passionate and moving speeches in parliament while obviously under the influence of more than a couple glasses of alcohol.
As time passed, and everyone and everything became more and more specialized in our society, common home brewing slowly disappeared and became the realm of businesses and companies set up specifically to handle the demand of the market.
By the early 1900s, hardly anyone made their own wine or beer anymore. It was cheap and easy to buy. Then the right-wing religious movement of prohibition kicked in on the continent, the legal booze tap was basically turned off, and a new effort to fill the demand started up in the form of an underground world of speakeasies and booze peddlers. Greed among these shady characters led to the concocting and trying-to-pass-off of some pretty pitiful batches of hastily slapped together booze. When those crazy times had passed, the legends and disparaging beliefs among the general public of the inferiority of home brewed product remained, even to this day.
As we approach our own time, however, we start to see a renewed interest. Certainly with government interference in almost every aspect of our lives these days, especially when they can peel another buck off you in a fee or tax, we’ve seen the price of booze climb very quickly in the past decade.
Out of frustration, many people have tried to brew some wine or beer at home, mostly with intentions of saving money. Many, like myself, have discovered the simple secrets and have realized they can produce wines and beers equal and sometimes superior to anything you can buy at the corner liquor store.
However, many others, unfortunately, have failed.
But not for reasons you might think.
It all goes back to my very first paragraphs about my interaction with the young kid, Al, who tried to make beer with his buddy but it didn’t work out…
Our society seems to have become one that demands instant gratification in all things. I’m not very old but I remember having to actually wait a little while at a burger counter while they actually cooked my burger and prepared it for me. You walked in, ordered your burger, sat down, and THEN they cooked it up and got it ready. Most younger people can’t get their head around a concept like that while us older people have also grown accustomed to the fast paced world and by now are intolerant of any 'pause conditions' in life too. Now if we have to wait for anything, we immediately abandon it and move on to the next thing that grabs our attention, rather than patiently sit it out. Commercials and TV shows have to flash pictures, images and concepts very quickly, one after the other, in fear a lull in action will lose the short attention span of fickle viewers and cause them to click his channel changer to the next channel up.
I think you know what I mean — it's pretty easy to see this condition occurring around us in all sorts of ways...
But brewing isn’t like that.
It’s from ancient times.
It’s older than old-school.
It’s the ultimate in patience.
It requires careful observation and thought.
It runs totally on its own clock.
It’s all about the experience, soaking in the ambiance, the sensation. It’s about attention to detail with cleanliness and ingredients. It’s about doing some stuff, watching and waiting, doing some stuff, then watching and waiting some more. Sometimes it’s months before you find out if some simple, new, little thing you tried while starting your batch, 2 months ago, worked or didn’t work out at all.
If I ever had to sum brewing up quickly, it would go something like this:
If you haven’t got real patience, forget it. I’m not talking about pretend patience where you say you’ve waited but really haven’t. I’m talking about ‘nature’ patience. The kind you can’t fool. You can maybe fool your friends or family about your patience but you can’t fool Nature into believing you’ve waited when you really haven’t.
You’ve entered a world where yeast acts on its own time scale. It can’t and won’t go any faster than it ever has. A world where a batch of grape-must becomes wine after a certain number of weeks or months no matter if you can hold your pee that long or not. The still, silent liquid slowly matures, intermixes with its components, clears and comes into its own after weeks and weeks (sometimes months and months) of sitting there in the dark and quietly interacting with its molecules. There is nothing that will make it go any quicker.
If you weren’t careful about sterilizing your equipment or maintaining clean processes and techniques throughout your preparation and procedure, you’ll wait for weeks and weeks to find a foul, ruined batch of vinegar, flat ‘dishwater’, or putrefied mush.
I think that once you understand and accept these two prerequisites, patience and cleanliness, the rest is easy.
The young guy who wrote me hadn’t paid much attention to keeping himself and his equipment for his beer batch very clean. He had bought one of those beer kits from a brewing store and said he bottled it on the fifth day. Three days later, he told me, when he popped the bottle open the beer was cloudy, flat and tasted like crap, so he dumped it all and never tried it again.
I wrote him back and congratulated him. Considering how he had done things, the batch turned out EXACTLY as it should have under those conditions… skunky smelling, cloudy, totally flat, dishwater beer.
Apparently, there were instructions but he chopped a few days off here and there. It’s the patience thing again. By not waiting the 2 or 3 extra days after your beer is finally all done fermenting, to me, means you should just save yourself the trouble of bottling and just throw the batch out now. He also told me his dog didn’t seem to mind the taste of it. He said he noticed it licking the spoons and measuring cups that were laying around while he was going about working with his batch. Apparently, the point of needing to keep things sterile and clean as possible passed right over his head. It’s a good thing dogs haven’t got any germs in their mouths hey? And popping the cap off your bottled beer only 3 days after you put it in the bottle to carbonate, even if you had waited long enough for it to settle and clear, isn’t long enough. You need to wait at least 2-2½ weeks before you pop and pour it in order to see a good head of foam and those nice little beads of bubbles streaming through your glass.
I suppose it sounds like I’m contradicting myself.
First I say wine almost makes itself and now I seem to imply that it’s some kind of science bordering on chance and impossibility.
It’s not that bad.
I just wanted to impress upon you that if you don’t respect the patience and cleanliness required in the process, these alone can make the difference between success and failure, many times.
It’s like the difference of popping your bread from your toaster before it’s done toasting and settling for eating a barely toasted, floppy slice of bread with your ham and eggs.
Or baking a potato in the microwave for too short a time and attempting to eat a still mostly raw, hard vegetable.
Or we don’t go to restaurants and eat our meals with the fork and knife of the previous customer, unwashed, to become sick later on because of it.
All these things, if handled with a little bit more patience or cleanliness, completely alter the experience and outcome.
My intention here isn’t to give a blow-by-blow instruction on how to make beer, wine or whiskey since there is plenty of information out there already for the interested person to find. However, there is the odd thing, here and there, that I’ve come across over the years and these are things usually not mentioned… things you just discover the hard way or along the way. I’ll assume that you know and understand the basic procedures already and I’ll just touch on some of these odd things and points…
Over the years I’ve made wine from kits, from raw grapes, from grape concentrates. I’ve made it from crab apples from a ravine near me, I’ve made it from tomatoes, strawberries, from oranges, from chokecherries, on and on. I’ve had some outright failures and some not so proud batches but I’ve persevered and over time and experimentation have come to some very good techniques and recipes for creating very good drinks, over and over.
To make wine you need to initially invest a few bucks in some basic equipment. Maybe about 80 to 100 dollars or so to get going. After that you’re only buying ingredients for every batch you make.
You’ll usually need some bottles to put your finished product into.
You can get bottles from just about any bottle depot for cheap, cheap prices but you’ll have to clean and sterilize them well. Friends and family are good sources for bottles if you ask them to save them for you and offer them a couple bottles of your finished batch, later on. I would recommend you try to get Bordeaux style bottles, the kind with the long cylinder style body. They stack nicely on each other, on their sides, in a shelving unit for aging and storage. Too many different style bottles and shapes make storage difficult sometimes.
I clean my bottles in a tub of hot, hot water with a cup of bleach thrown in. Then I rinse them well in hot water and stand them on their necks to dry.
A 5 gallon batch (22.7 litres) of wine will fill about 31 or 32 750ml wine bottles. A 5 gal. batch of beer fills about 60 to 65 beer bottles (330ml) or about 4 dozen re-capable pint bottles (473ml). For beer I like to use the Grotsch bottles or Corona bottles (which still take the old style press-on, non-twist caps).
As far as the equipment and what you need, there are many web sites or books in stores and libraries that can tell you that. It’s all pretty much the same standard list no matter what source you use and any brewing supplies store in most cities sell the same stuff. Even some major grocery stores sell some of the equipment you’ll need.
If you’ve never made a batch before I’d suggest you start with a wine kit from a grocery store or brewing supply store. Buy a mid-range priced one (currently about 40 to 50 bucks). The cheapest ones will work o.k. too but the quality (taste) is a bit less than the mid-range priced ones and if you are very fussy, it may make you think all home brewing is of that quality.
It’s like buying food. You can buy a very fresh bag of red potatoes or a cheaper bag of older, brown, tough potatoes. Both will taste like potatoes but the fresh, red ones will taste a bit better. Same thing with wine kits. The quality of the grapes they use in the juice concentrate varies with price usually. They all will make wine but you might enjoy a mid-range priced one a lot more. The higher priced ones make excellent tasting product.
Just follow the instructions provided in the kits (they also come complete with all ingredients you will need) and everything will work out fine. I’d suggest you buy a few kilos of table or corn sugar to supplement the batch at the beginning if you find the specific gravity too low for the alcohol level you’re shooting for. Kits don’t say that you’re required to add sugar to the starting batch but they tend to vary from 8% to 11% potential alcohol so if you want a stiffer table wine of 12% every time, you may have to supplement the initial batch with extra sugar to bring the specific gravity up.
Table sugar (ordinary white sugar) gives batches a fruiter flavor than corn sugar which tends to give it a more slightly malty (dry) flavor.
You should also understand a bit about the various sugars used in brewing.
If you ever get to the point in your brewing hobby of buying just the separate raw ingredients to make your batches of wine, one thing you’ll soon notice is that table sugar is much cheaper in price when compared to buying corn sugar. (Almost 1/3 the price actually). Can you use the cheaper table sugar from normal grocery stores in your batches instead of the more expensive corn sugar that most brewing supply shops sell?
Sucrose (ordinary table sugar) is what is called a ‘two-unit’ sugar.
Each molecule of this sugar is made up one glucose and one fructose sugar molecule joined together. Glucose and fructose are what are called ‘one-unit’ sugars. Yeast cannot digest ‘two-unit’ sugars so it begins its fermentation of sucrose by having enzymes within it first split the sucrose molecule into a simple glucose and fructose molecule. The yeast then consumes these two sugars easily and normally and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. The only drawback in any of this is time. Because of the sugar conversion of each molecule, the fermentation of the batch is a bit slower and takes a few days to a week longer for primary fermentation to complete.
Dextrose (the corn sugar most brewing supply shops sell) is a one-unit sugar and ferments immediately with yeast. Because it also gives the brew a slightly malty taste, I prefer it in making batches of beer but hardly ever use it in wine except in priming.
Another interesting sugar is lactose (made from animal milk). It’s also a two-unit sugar but yeasts do not have the enzymes needed to break it down so it cannot be fermented at all. This is a good thing if you want to sweeten the taste of your final batch of wine and don’t want to risk restarting the fermentation after bottling it.
You should also know that different styles of sugar, even when in exactly the same quantities, yield different specific gravity densities. A little less than a cup of sucrose (table sugar) is equal to the specific gravity of roughly 1¼ cups of corn sugar (dextrose). (Remember? Table sugar is a two-unit sugar and corn sugar is a one?) But hey! That only means cheaper! AND you'll need less of it in recipes which usually are quoting using dextrose.
I wouldn’t worry about measuring sugar quantities too much anyway. It’s much more accurate and easier to simply add it slowly to the initial batch, stirring and dissolving it into the mix, while you keep an eye on your hydrometer and then stopping when you’ve reached the specific gravity or potential alcohol reading you are shooting for.
It's important to realize that yeast dies or becomes stagnant in an environment of TOO MUCH sugar just as it does in an environment of too high of an alcohol content. So it is crucial to not mix up batches shooting for a potential alcohol level much stronger than 14% or 15% otherwise your diluted sugar mix may choke your yeast and nothing at all will ferment.
If you want much stronger alcohol levels than this, it’s time for you to start thinking about getting into distilling or 'icing' your final batches.
When you’re making your own ‘from-scratch’ batches of wine, the type of yeast you use is important. In fact I've found it makes quite a difference in the taste of the final product and sometimes in its potential clarity.
You might have read or heard that you can use plain old bread yeast to make wine. Yes, you can and I have a few times. However, it tends to give the final wine a tiny bit of a bready, yeasty flavor. That’s not bad for beers and ales, and it suits meads and some ciders fine, but for wines and sweet juice wines, I find the taste distracting. It’s not terrible or anything, but it’s there. (By the way, if you do use breast yeast, the longer you let your wine sit and age, the less and less the yeasty flavor tinge gets).
Wine and beer yeast packets from a brewing supply shop are about a buck and half each but they contain specially developed yeast strains that can tolerate high levels of alcohol (up to 18%) and generally don’t leave any of their own taste in the final product. Champagne yeasts work very well. I now use EC-1118 (saccharomyces bayanus) for almost everything and haven’t ever had a problem with any strange tastes or fermenting issues.
Beer kits, like wine kits, come with simple instructions and everything but the little bit of extra corn sugar you will need to make them. The malt extract syrup in the can is enough to make about 5 to 6 dozen beer (5 gallons) for a cost of around $3.75 a dozen. It takes me about 3 weeks from start to finish to get to a 6% alcohol final beer product that is basically identical to store bought. Most of that is just waiting for things to happen. The actual time and effort of the procedure takes maybe 3 hours total, including getting the initial batch mixed and brewing and later priming and bottling it.
To make beer carbonated so it produces a head of foam and the nice little CO2 bubbles streaming through it, a procedure called priming is carried out at bottling time. Basically, when the beer has stopped fermenting and no carbon dioxide is being released from the mixture any longer, the yeast within it begins to die off and drift to the bottom of the fermenting bucket. As you let it sit for a few days longer, the liquid quickly becomes clearer and clearer almost to a point of complete clarity.
At this point there are still millions of microscopic yeast cells suspended within it but they are stagnant and basically in a form of stasis in there. Most of them have died off and are now collected in a 3 to 5 millimeter thick silty deposit at the bottom of the bucket. The suspended ones are invisible to the naked eye but rest assured, they’re there.
On about day 7 or 8 after the day you first started your beer batch, it will finally be clear enough to bottle. It has all the alcohol content it will ever have but is totally flat. No fizz or bubbles at all.
There are a couple ways to carry out the priming function but after trying them all I prefer this one since it has always yielded the best results for me:
I lay out all the Corona style bottles I need for bottling on a counter (60 or 70 of them). I then take a narrow funnel and put a slightly heaped teaspoon of corn sugar into each empty bottle. (For pint sized bottles (473ml) I add just under 2 teaspoons per bottle). Then it’s just a matter of filling each of them with your beer, being careful not to disturb the sediment at the bottom of the bucket.
Cap each bottle, give them a bit of a shake to help dissolve the priming sugar. That's it.
Now the hard part —— more patience required.
Let it all sit in a warm room, each one standing upright for 2½ weeks or longer. Before drinking them, put them in the fridge or on the ledge of a cold window in your basement.
When you crack them open and pour them into a glass, there is always a tiny bit of sediment at the bottom of the bottle. This is the spent yeast that created the carbonation in the bottle. You’ll want to pour carefully and stop just before this sediment begins to leave the bottle, in order to leave it behind. It’s not terrible to drink it (it’s actually full of B vitamins) but it’s a yeasty, bitter taste and your glass of beer will taste and look much better without it.
I’ve also used this priming technique with rose and red wines. It produces a ‘Baby Duck’ style of bubbly wine. Very similar to a wine cooler.
Another tip I'd like to pass on (while it's fresh on my mind) is that you should document things. This will never seem important at the time but believe me... if months pass and you suddenly discover your last batch of wine is somehow fantastic, you'll be scratching your head as to what the recipe was exactly if you didn't document the ingredients, steps, and readings as you went along. Not a good thing if you want to try to repeat the process again.
The most surprising wine I’ve made (and I still make batches of it from time to time) came about when I was looking for a way, years ago, of making wine as cheap in cost as possible but still with the best taste possible for the price. (I've been asked, now and again, to help make large batches of wine for weddings where the couple or family is trying to cut down on the cost of providing good tasting dinner wine for all the guests).
I had read about the wines people had made with frozen Welch’s Grape Juice Concentrate that you can buy in the frozen juice section at any normal grocery store.
I was curious and decided to try it myself. These recipes usually follow standard wine recipe formats, are simple, and claim to make excellent tasting sipping or dinner wine. And best of all, the price for the ingredients is incredibly cheap compared to wine kits.
The Welch’s wine recipes in books and on the Net always call for a few other ingredients beyond the basic sugar and juice. Stuff like pectic enzyme or yeast nutrient sometimes or even acid blend. I’ve never used these in my Welch wines. They’re relatively cheap to buy and I have no beefs about using them but I didn’t bother since the goal of the exercise was to shoot for the absolute cheapest end product and I wanted to see if not adding them would cause problems in my final product.
So I've experimented over the years.
I now have a Welch’s method and recipe (if you can call it that) among my small list of favorites that I like:
I buy 10 cans of frozen Welch’s Grape Juice Concentrate. I prefer the ones that come with the yellow caps on them (better quality grapes used) but the normal one is fine too. (Other brands that sell frozen grape juice don’t use pure grape juice but add apple and other fruit juices to their concentrates. Welch’s uses only grape juice). I prefer the purple juice to the white grape juice. It is also important that there are no sorbates in the ingredients of the concentrate. Sorbates disable the yeast’s ability to reproduce itself so your fermentation may never begin at all if you use juices with these in them.
I also buy a 4 kilo bag of ordinary table sugar.
I use 1 packet of EC-1118 yeast.
Sometimes I add about 2 cups of boiled, squished up raisins to the mix. It gives it a bit of a tarty tasting edge (a slight bite) but it's not absolutely necessary so if I don’t have any already laying around, I don’t bother. If you want a bulkier, fruitier taste and deeper red colored wine, you can add an extra can or three of juice concentrate (11, 12 or 13 instead of 10) to the initial recipe. I prefer just the 10 cans.
I mix it all together with tepid water (25°C) to a total of 5 gallons (23 litres) in a food-grade pail and let it sit for a week and half to primary ferment. The 4 kilos of sugar combined with the natural sugars of the juice usually works out to a potential alcohol level of about 12% each time.
- With the rest of it, you just follow normal, basic wine making procedure.
The entire batch usually costs about 14 to 18 bucks total (including the Champagne yeast), depending on if you shop around and/or are able to buy the ingredients on sale or not. You end up with about 30 to 32 750ml bottles of surprisingly tasty, smooth wine. I've tasted a lot of different styles of wine, both store bought and home made (mine and others) and this simple procedure strangely yields very good results in spite of what wine people would probably assume by reading about it. It tastes very much like Mateus Rose or Baby Duck if you carbonate it, but at 12% to 13% alcohol, it makes you pretty tipsy, pretty quick if you’re not careful about how fast you’re sucking it back. It's like pop with attitude, for the masses.
The clearing of your wine batch, no matter what style of wine you decide to make, is another area people tend to get concerned about.
Well... I hate to pound the point too much but this falls, once again, right into that patience thing again.
For you 'non-brewers' out there I should probably clarify this clearing thing...
When wine ferments, the yeast within it doubles in volume every few hours or less.
After days and days of fermentation, the liquid actually becomes quite cloudy, opaque and dense from the volume of yeast suspended throughout the wine must ('must' is what we call the fluid that we're fermenting into wine). When all the sugar in the fluid has been totally eaten and consumed by the yeast and converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide, all this yeast is left with no more food to consume. The entire batch of wine at this point is cloudy... saturated completely with billions of yeast cells. Wine brewers and drinkers obviously don't want this yeast suspension in their final product. The challenge or concern then becomes how to remove all this unnecessary yeast particulate from the pure wine it is all suspended within.
To clear wine after all fermentation is done, you simply let it sit quietly for a few weeks or months until all the suspended particulates in it sink to the bottom and the liquid naturally, slowly clears. You can also speed up the process considerably if you take a single egg and separate the white from the yolk, then stir this egg white in some of your wine in a cup. Next, stir this mixture back into the main batch. (There’s no danger of salmonella due to the alcohol content of your liquid).
In only one-day’s time, you’ll already see an incredible clearing begin to form from what it was the day before. You can also buy little bottles of clearing agent from brewing places made exactly for 5 gallons. These also work very well.
Most wine will clear on it’s own but once again, clearing agents help speed up the process but some may strip a bit of flavor out of the liquid as well.
What if I want a stiffer drink than strong wine?
To make drinks with a high level of alcohol beyond basic brewing fermentation it is necessary to use a device called a still. Distillation was actually discovered by the ancient Romans over 2,000 years ago, and brought to a fine art by the monks of the Middle Ages.
Distilling is simply the process of heating up your fermented wine must, grain wash, or fermented vegetable brew to a point where the alcohol within it begins to evaporate. Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water so it is the first to begin to leave the liquid as the temperature approaches about 172°F. (Water begins to fully evaporate around 212°F or less, depending on your altitude in the world of course).
The vast majority of water is left behind as the alcohol is driven off in the form of vapors or ‘spirits’ as they were called in the old days (and the term has stuck!). If you did nothing but maintain this temperature, soon your entire batch of fermented brew would be void of alcohol as it all would have escaped into the atmosphere, gone and wasted. You would be left with a flat, bland, non-alcoholic wash, certainly not worth drinking.
However, the equipment of distilling provides a method of capturing and collecting these vapors as they leave the liquid and then cooling and condensing them back into a liquid through a specifically designed tube and cooling system.
The condensed vapors are never pure alcohol, especially in the first round of distillation, but also contain a lot of water and much of the character and ingredients of the wash that gave the original brew its flavor and color. Because of this, spirit flavor and color are distinguished by the brews used to produce them. For example, brandy (...♫..she's a fine girl..♪...) comes from distilled wine, whiskey from distilled fermented barley similar to beer, rum from distilled fermented molasses, bourbon (corn whiskey) from fermented corn, and tequila (the pride of Mexico!) from fermented cactus. Vodka is made from fermented grain or potatoes and is the purest drink of all because it is usually triple distilled and finally passed through a charcoal filter to remove everything except the alcohol. This is why it is almost tasteless and perfectly clear.
Distilling alcohol is illegal in Canada and the United States . I'm not exactly sure why that is but I suspect, as with most things, money is the root of it. Even the selling and purchasing of the equipment is illegal but any mechanically inclined person can build a mini one quite easily with a kettle or pressure cooker, some copper tubing and a few other items easily found in any hardware store. It's really quite simple actually.
Home distilled whiskey made from a simple beer kit from the grocery store makes about 3 litres of 40-45% whiskey. It tastes like a low-end whiskey you can buy off the shelf at the liquor store but I'm sure if you refined your technique and aging you could produce higher and higher qualities. Since a beer kit costs roughly what 1 bottle of store bought whiskey costs, the entire time and effort really doesn’t save you a lot of money. You’d have to have a bigger, more efficient still that was capable of processing much bigger batches of fermented brew to make the effort and economies of scale worth it.
Distilling is a whole culture unto itself and the people involved in it have somewhat of a snobby attitude toward anyone who just brews wine, beer, or cider and nothing beyond that. The distiller's raw material, after all, is the brewer's finished product. That's certainly a kick-in-the-pants for the brewer I guess.
Anyway... even though home distilling isn't too economical on a small scale it’s still a hoot to go through the process and experience the chemistry of it all. Just be sure to disassemble and dispose of any and all vestiges of a still contraption when you’re done.
You know, the still that Hawkeye had in his tent on the television show M.A.S.H. has always puzzled me. I don’t remember seeing a source of heat on the contraption like a Bunsen burner or something like that to apply and control the heat to the wash. It’s pretty important to regulate it at a certain, constant temperature. And it certainly didn’t appear to have a method of cooling the extremely hot vapour tubes that would be carrying off the fermented brew spirits while being distilled. You also never see them mixing up and brewing a big tub of potatoes or corn or grain that would be required as the fermented ‘wash’ to run through their contraption in order to produce their booze in the first place.
Stuff like that in shows bugs me sometimes.
I think I’m all 'boozed out'
now. There's certainly tons more I could say on the topic but I’ve already just spent a few hours writing about not much in particular, really, and have come to this end without really getting to any
point at all.
You know what? It's funny —— talking about booze, it appears, is just as much a rambling, weaving endeavour as drinking it seems to be.
I suppose blog write ups are just destined to turn out that way now and again, especially if you’re sipping some of your own home brew while typing it all up…
Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson...