The Booze Bag: Making Your own

Old ideas such as canning, urban poultry farming and Victory Gardening are becoming de rigueur once again. So perhaps there is no better time than the present to jump into the world of home alcohol fermentation. At least it will ease the pain on your slow slide to the bottom.

I have long been fascinated by the prospect of making my own booze.  But after a guy down the hall from me in college created a huge mess (and stink) in his dorm room attempting to brew his own beer, I figured such things were best left to folks who owned barns or other outbuildings. And so I left it to them. Beer brewing and hard liquor distillation definitely require know how, equipment and often a considerable financial investment. Fermentation however, depending on what you are trying to produce, can be a low-tech, low-budget, DIY way to dip your toe into the home-alcohol-pool.

Any readers out there who have spent time in a correctional facility may recall making “prison wine” by leaving a slightly opened juice box just a little too near a warm radiator.  These readers knew that heat plus the natural yeasts ever-present in the air were all they needed to kick start the sweet fermentation process. Now that they are back on the outside tho’ they are unlikely to impress any significant others with “icky prison-esque” juice box wine.  But what about home fermented hard cider? Now that is likely to impress!

It’s Fall in New England and since I like to promote eating seasonally (not really), well since I have a friend who is an expert in the area of home fermentation, I’d like to make an introduction and ask him to share exactly what is involved in taking regular apple cider and turning it into a delicious, smooth, hard cider.

Without further adieu, I give you Dr. Fermento:

How long have you been fermenting and how did you get interested in fermenting?
Dr. F: About one and a half years. I got interested in it by reading Sandor Katz’s book Wild Fermentation and hearing some people on Youtube talk about fermented food.

What is the first thing you fermented? How did it come out?
Dr. F: I followed one of Sador Katz’s recipes for fermented oatmeal. Here is it – boil some water, throw in oatmeal, cover your pot with a cloth to keep out any insects and let it sit at room temp for 12-24 hour. When you see some bubbles, wild yeast fermentation has started. It worked but I didn’t like it. I’m not a big fan of sourdough, so I should have realized that it wouldn’t be something I liked. I ate about half though and had no ill effects. That’s when I realized that as long as you have some control over the process and follow your nose, leaving food out at room temp is not going to create a biological weapon of mass destruction.

Is small batch fermentation for home use legal?
Dr. F: Yes, now the prohibition is over. Since alcohol fermentation is a natural, spontaneous process wherever sugar is left with water at room temperature, the whole idea of prohibition was kind of silly as history has shown us. Alcohol didn’t go away it just got a lot more dangerous as it got harder to get and unscrupulous people added things like wood alcohol and formaldehyde to it to stretch the limited supply.

I want to make my own hard cider what do I need to get started?
Dr. F: The first thing you need to know about is yeast. It eats sugar and produces a lot of carbon dioxide and a little bit of alcohol. That is what you want. Unfortunately floating around in the air with yeast is a class of bacteria that eat alcohol and produce acetic acid (the acid component of vinegar). That is what you don’t want. Luckily there is a solution. Those bacteria need oxygen. Yeast does not. If you have a mechanism that lets the CO2 that is released push all the O2 out and keeps new air from coming in, then you get alcohol with no vinegar. This device is called a fermentation airlock and cost about a buck or two from a brewing store (I buy from They are a great resource for all kinds of fermentation related supplies.) Stick that in a drilled rubber stopper and cap a one gallon glass jug of natural cider that has had some white wine or cider yeast added to it and you are in business.

How long does it take and what sort of conditions do I need?
Dr. F: It can vary but the longer it takes without the fermentation getting stuck, the better the brew. Higher temps and higher initial sugar content can make the process happen faster but the end result can get a little rough and bitter. It’s better to keep the temps in the 70s-60s and have the whole process stay in balance. Fermentation produces its own heat so a cool basement is probably your best spot. Also, light can destroy the taste of your cider so it’s good to keep your jug in the dark.

I had a friend once who home brewed beer and it really stank to high heavens … is there a negative smell associated with Hard Cider fermentation?
Dr. F: Brewing grain mash can get messy. If you don’t know what you are doing it can ferment very quickly and “blowoff” though the airlock spilling yeasty mess everywhere. Cider doesn’t have that problem There can be a bit of a sulphur smell or a yeasty smell at first but that dissipates fairly quickly. When your cider has been brewing for about a week or two and you see a thin line of yellow yeast collecting in the bottom of the jug, you need to rack the cider and this will allow all of the sulphur and/or yeasty smell to dissipate. Racking is basically siphoning off into a new bottle, all but the last ½ inch of your cider leaving behind the spent yeast and sediment. You do this one or two times after some sediment has accumulated. When the fermentation has slowed to about a bubble every two minutes you are ready to siphon into bottles. You will need some swing top bottles like an old style Grolsch or Fisher beer bottle that will keep pressure. Make sure your fermentation is really slow at this point or those bottles will become little cider bombs if you plan on aging them for awhile.

Are there any dangers in making cider, if I don’t do it properly? i.e can I go blind?
Dr. F: No. People go blind from methyl (wood) alcohol or some of the other coproducts called fusel alcohols. There is only one way to concentrate those substances enough for it to cause harm,that is distillation by freezing (i.e., making apple jack brandy the old-fashioned way, bad idea). Strangely enough, freeze distillation is legal. The safe way, distillation with a good still that will fractionate just the alcohol and separate out all the water and bad coproducts, is illegal. Go figure.

Besides cider what else have you fermented?
Dr. F: Honey. Fermented honey was the first alcohol that humans ever tried and apparently they really liked it because fermented honey beverages sprang up independently all over the world before agriculture and the more complex process of grain fermentation was discovered. Honey by itself has enough anti-bacterial properties that it won’t spontaneously ferment, but if you dilute it with water 4 to 1 or more, it will ferment slowly. So, if someone stored their wild honey in a gourd or calabash and added some water to stretch it and make it flow easily, they might wake up one morning and notice that honey had a little kick. Ethiopian honey wine or Tej is also now widely commercially available in the US.

What other things do you plan on fermenting?
Dr. F: I’d love to make perry. Perry is hard pear cider. It was as popular as apple cider in England and France, but never caught on in colonial America as far as I know. I’ve tried some of the perry that they still make in France and it is delicious but too expensive to drink regularly. So, if I ever buy a fruit press and find a good sources of pears I’m going to make that too.

What is fermented food all about?
Dr. F: So, besides alcohol fermentation there are many other types of fermentation that improve either the nutritive value or the taste of food. One common one is lactic acid fermentation. In conditions were there is no oxygen, some bacteria will convert plant sugers to lactic acid. This is how yogurt and sauerkraut are made. Like alcohol for yeast, the lactic acid creates an environment that is unfavorable to other bad bacteria and alters the thing they ferment in a way that makes it more digestible and unlocks its nutritive value to humans. Before the advent of refrigeration, fermentation was one way for people to save their harvest and maintain their health. Part of our natural state is to have a diverse, healthy symbiosis with those beneficial bacteria in our digestive tract. Our modern fear of all bacteria and the constant low dose of anti-biotics we get in our food works against that and our natural healthy state of bacteria symbiosis. We need to rethink that mentality because it is not to our benefit and not even our tradition.

Anything else readers should know about Fermentation?
Dr. F: Don’t be afraid of live food! Not all microbes are out to hurt you. Armed with a little knowledge and a willingness to try new things you can increase your health and make some really delicious food. Check out Sandor Katz’s website for fermentation information or to buy one of his books. He has a lot of great info, recipes and perspective.

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