On a day with so much bad in the news ( I’ll have a posting on that a bit later, so please hold comments for that one about it…) I though I’d indulge in something more positive.
On Sunday, I was busy bottling my second batch of “hootch”. Well, really, Apple Cider, of a sort.
As we’ve talked about before, among the earliest writing known is a Babylonian recipe for making beer from bread, ancient Egypt paid workers in quarts of grain and beer (with higher value workers getting more beer), and in the earliest European history there is a place where Bavaria meets Czech that has evidence of beer making in “Oh Dark Thirty” B.C. at the dawn of civilization. Celts were sharing that area then too… so the three great peoples of Europe met at a place and time to make and share beer… Celts, Germanics, and Slavs. As, then, “Italo-Celt” was one group, this includes the folks that eventually went on to make the Roman Empire; also remember that France is named for their Germanic tribe while Gaul was their Celtic side. The foundation of civilization was beer…
So it is clearly natural and a civilizing force to make beer.
Being civil, unlike those tribes that find beer evil, and being a smith of a few generations (even if not a very good one… Dad taught me some smithing…but doubt I could make a gun barrel) it is in my nature to master the art (or at least get good enough to have a few ;-) For those who do not already know, the smith by working very hard at the forge from sunup into the evening, needed a LOT of calories and a LOT of hydration. Water being risky to the health of the smith, they traditionally drank beer instead. A lot of beer. That, being a major cost factor if bought, had the smith typically also running a small brewing operation. It also didn’t hurt business that customers could say “I’ll be back in a few hours, dear, I need to get the horse shoes inspected down at the smithy”… and lift a pint while you waited…
So with that, on to The Craft.
Poor Man’s Brewery
Somewhere out in the garage I have my full brewing kit. Bought some 30? years ago, it includes hydrometers to check the brix (sugar level), various sanitizers that can’t leave a chlorine favor behind (basically “oxygen beaches” of different kinds), vapor locks to prevent bacteria getting into the ferment, and a glass 5 gallon ‘carboy’ from back when water was delivered in giant large glass bottles… and more. But I didn’t go digging to find it.
For some “celebration” or other, perhaps a Christmas? I was given a Mr. Beer beer making kit.
This one looks like an improved version of the one I have. Mine has a white lid, a more marginal drain valve, and silly “Mr. Beer” stickers you apply to the outside that then fall off a few months later… But it works.
I’d used it to make the beer that could be made from the cans of malt that came with it, and even bought a couple of more (at reasonable prices a decade or so back…). Then it went into a box in the office. Why? Lost to the mists of time… likely the contract I had in Florida about then. Part of the “pack up and be gone a few months at a time” process. In it, also, were my “crown cap” metal caps and a bottle capper (the plastic bottles and screw on caps like soda bottles that came with my Mr. Beer work OK, but recycled good beer bottles with real crown caps are better).
The top comment (as of now) here:
has a rotating add / display of the basic real brewing kit (as opposed to Mr. Beer) including a red ‘wing capper’ like the one I’ve got in the Mr. Beer box. My larger metal “stand” capper is in the garage kit. It dates from the 1970s and I have no idea if they are still made… Amazon sells a wing capper for $15:
I find it funny that in the “and these too” banner at the bottom they have 24 beer bottles for $20. Just go clean up after any [frat party | tail gate party | 4th of July | or…] and get all the bottles you want for free… Run through the dishwasher is fine. Yes, to get really nice 1/2 liter and quart sized bottles you will need to selectively buy Really Good Beer in them and drain them yourself. Oh, the humanity…
I have capped ‘twist off’ type bottles, and it works, but takes a more delicate touch on the capper. Starting out, use regular “church key required” type bottles. Soda bottles work fine too, but keep clear ones away from light while things age… IF they age ;-)
Oh, and the astute observer will note this posting is tagged for “preparedness”. That means exploring marginal, risky, and “works in a disaster” types of methods as well. To that end: A nice collection of old 7up or other green or brown plastic bottles works fine too. Wash well and make sure the caps are not damaged. I’ve done it (just to prove the concept as I do have all the ‘legitimate’ bottling gear) and it works nicely. I used the 16 oz bottles, but the 1 liter sizes ought to work fine also.
So that’s the basic “kit”. A Mr. Beer or better, some old bottles, and a way to seal them – be it a capper or just a twist on cap for pressure resistant plastic soda bottles.
One further prepper item:
A few years back when last I ran my Mr. Beer, I got to wondering: How minimal / ersatz CAN you go? Mr. Beer, for example, has no vapor lock. Normally you have a little puddle of sanitizing liquid that the escaping CO2 must bubble through on the way out. Bubbles get out, bacteria trying to get in get killed in the liquid. Mr. Beer doesn’t have that. How? I wondered. Inspecting the cap, it has a little ( about 1 mm) notch in the rim of the the mating surface. Essentially, it is a leaky cap where the gas must go down and out via the threads. “Good enough” for occasional use, but not “industrial strength”. OK, “good enough is Good ENOUGH”… But could I “push it”? So I did. For a few batches of “hootch” / cider, I bought gallon jugs of Apple Juice, added yeast, and then screwed the caps tight, then backed off about 1/4 turn. Just enough to allow a vent to form. Worked a champ. Extracting is a bit of a pain (aquarium hose and plastic tube help to avoid extracting yeast in a pour) but careful pouring into a large pitcher can also be done. In a “real emergency” all you need to make hooch is a bottle of fruit juice and some decent yeast. The biggest problem was figuring out how to consume a gallon of hooch fast enough… but not too fast ;-) Keeping one of these jugs running (it takes about a week to ‘ferment to just right’) gives a gallon a week… about 2 bottles a week day. I can keep up with that, most of the time. Unless I miss a couple of days…
Making A Batch
There are all sorts of “picky bits” about craft brewing that are semi-valid. Doing things “high end” works, and works well. I’ve done it. As a disclaimer, I’ve taken Viticulture and Enology at U.C.Davis, so I have formal education in some of this stuff. Yes, I know “the right way”. Yet long before beer making was turned into an academic research project, or an object of condescendence among snob home crafters, it was just a regular kitchen process. Yes the “industrial” methods (and their craft reflections) ARE improvements. BUT, you do not need them at all and you certainly do not need to pay a fortune for some particular exotic mix just because “The Home Craft Beer Book” says to. So, some shortcuts useful both in post-apocalyptic End Of The World Party prep, and just as cost saving measures.
This is essential. Wash things well. Yes, with “enough” yeast it will out produce the decay bugs and you will get usable hooch even if contaminated. As long as you have any access to fresh clean water, wash. I run bottles through the dishwasher. I get a large plastic tub in the sink and fill it with a 1 TBS (about 30 ml) to 1 ounce of common bleach to the gallon of hot water. This is used to wash everything else. The Cognoscenti will now be cringing. But BUT BUT!!! the CHLORINE FLAVOR!!! As each item is lifted from the cleaner, it gets a perfunctory rinse in the HOT water from the faucet. As this water has sat for a hour to a day at about 150 to 160 F ( I run mine hot, but you can just turn it up before this process if you “save energy” by risking your family health with sub 140 F ‘hot’ water…) and is both slightly chlorinated and pasteurized. It has always worked with no problems.
But YMMV depending on local water and temperature and ‘what is in the air’. I have several packets of “one step” no-rinse percarbonate cleaner / sterilizer from my Mr. Beer kit that are still unused (and “someday” I need to compare them with ‘oxygen bleach’ to see what is different, if anything…) so my choice is NOT due to lack of the “right” material. I’ve used both. Both work. I can’t tell any difference of flavor and I’ve not had any bottling failures either way. Bleach is a lot more available and cheaper. Do what you like… but wash and sterilize. (In a real EOTWAWKI you would save the bleach for drinking water sterilizing and boil the bottles to sterilize).
I also use a small dipper of this mix to sterilize the spigot of the Mr. Beer any time I drain a sample by the expedient of dipping his ‘beak’ into the dipper of bleach water. Perhaps over kill,
The Mr. Beer came with a couple of cans of “Malt” and each had a packet of yeast on top. The True Believers will assert it is a capital offense to not use brand new dehydrated packets of yeast bought fresh each time (and some would even assert kept under refrigeration too…) Yes, if you are making 10,000 gallons of Industrial Beer at your commercial brewpub, or even if you have sunk 20 hours into getting your home made malt and home make smoke and home made wort and all into perfect condition, the LAST thing you want to do is “risk it all’ on reused yeast. But we are not talking Brew Pub Quality ingredients here. We’re talking hooch. Cheap stuff. Why spend $4 on a packet of yeast to ferment $5 of apple juice?
I have reused bottom yeast many times. “Eventually” it will become contaminated with something else. Bacteria may make it funky, alien yeast may change the flavor. Worst case some acetobacter from your trendy natural vinegar gets into it and you end up making vinegar. At that point, return to the “sterilize” heading…
What I have typically done is “pitch” (put into the fermentor) about 1/2 the original small packet of Mr. Beer yeast. The remainder gets the top folded down to help seal it, a paperclip applied, it goes into a 1 cup mason jar in the freezer as a ‘deep archive’ should I need to recover a pure strain. After the first batch of Mr. Beer, there’s a decent layer of yeast on the bottom of the fermentor. Scoop out about 1/2 of it (about an ounce or two) into another sterilized mason jar and put that in the fridge. It is your F1 for first level recovery if your yeast ever goes off. Now just add the new ‘wort’ or juice to the Mr. Beer and let ‘er rip. Repeat this process for as long as you like. So far I’ve never needed to resort to the stored yeast due to failure. Then again, I’ve rarely gone past 4 generations without needing to shutdown the fermentor due to too much production… So it would be ‘reasonable’ to assert I’ve generally never needed deeper than F2 nor really tested much beyond it. How long your yeast strain can be propagated will depend entirely on your sterile technique and how much crap is in your air. Since folks were able to do this in smithys and horse barns for a few thousand years, It can’t be that hard… or that “wrong”…
BTW, there is a class of Belgian Ales made by throwing open the brewery windows and letting whatever yeast is on the air land in the wort. Folks go out of their way to do this and buy it. Makes it hard for me to be too worried about ‘stray yeast’. BUT, if the flavor of a batch starts to go funky, pitch it out (or drink it if not bad funky), sterilize everything, go one batch higher in the stored yeast, and start over.
Just follow the Mr. Beer directions. Basically boil some water, dump in the can of “malt extract”, let it cool, put in the Mr. Beer, add yeast. Now wait a week.
Cider / Hooch:
I went looking for some new cans of Mr Beer Malt Extract. Bevmo had it for some outrageous price like $24. Since part of the idea of a Mr. Beer is cheaper beer ( you will not be making better beer than professional brewers as even THEY can’t beat each other for long) the idea of paying up for essentially a can of sugar syrup offended me. OK, my usual response is “move upstream in the process”. For that I’d need raw malted barley and some hops. Making wort is easy. Dump in a tub with water and boil. A trip to the local brewing supply store showed them pricier than I’d remembered with canned malt extract at similar prices to Bevmo. Sigh. OK, I didn’t price their hops and raw malt. I will eventually, but I didn’t feel like making wort just then.
I did drop about $20 on several (refrigerated) packets of high end freeze dried yeast. 3 of the 4 packets are unopened in a jar in the freezer. The last one had one tsp (about 5 ml) of dry yeast used to ‘pitch’ my first Mr. Beer Cider run 2 weeks ago. Saving yeast can be very economical… In theory I have a lifetime supply of yeast in the freezer now. I’ve got about 4 “fresh starts” from one packet, and I’ve got 4 packets. Then figure a dozen or three batches per ‘fresh start’ about 16 x 36 = 576 batches, at 2.5 gallons each is 1,440 gallons. Figure about 10 bottles / gallon (yes, 128 oz at 12 oz / bottle has 8 loss) gives me about 14,440 bottles of product via a bit of yeast reuse. BTW, that kind of “deep pure archive” and repeated grow out and divide binary process is how commercial yeast production is done. Always flowing from the pure deep source to the less perfect ‘several doublings’ product used. I’m just extending a bit into my operation.
At home, I took my Mr. Beer out of his storage box. Gave him a deep cleaning to assure storage cruft was gone. Rinsed in hot water, and poured in about 2 1/4 gallons of apple juice from Walmart’s Finest Jugs… I’d have done the full 2.5 gallons, but for some bizzare reason it now comes in 3 quart jugs. 3 x 3 = 9 or 2 gallons + 1 quart. Pitched in one tsp (5 ml) of the dry yeast, and set it under my desk in the dark for a week.
One Sunday Later:
The wash tub got the hot bleach water again. Old bottles had been washed in the dishwasher and inspected. Taken from their covered box, about 6 at a time went into the wash / bleach tub. Mr. Beer on the counter. First bottle gets a rinse, and set on the counter next to Mr. Beer. Funnel to fill bottles gets a rinse and is set into that bottle. It just holds the funnel in a clean way… Put caps in a cup, fill with bleach water, count to 20, drain and rinse in hot water, then drain again. From that point forward, I pick up and drain two bottles (you can start just doing one) and rinse them. Set on counter. Pick up funnel and one of those bottles (tip it to assure drained) and put funnel in bottle under Mr. Beer spigot. Fill to the base of the neck and set aside (optionally put a drained cap on top of it) and repeat with the second bottle. Apply cap and capper. Set aside two nicely done bottles of cider (or hooch if other juice used). Repeat until Mr. Beer nearly empty.
On the bottom of Mr. Beer is a nice layer of yeast. Open the top, dump in more apple juice, and return to the dark place to ferment.
This Sunday I bottled that batch. At this point I’ve got about 3 gallons of bottled cider and simply could not drink it in time for a third batch. Soo… after this bottling I fully drained the cider from Mr. Beer, then used a large spoon to spoon out the bottom yeast into a 1 cup (dipped in the bleach water and rinsed) jar. I saved about 1/2 a CUP of it… Enough for a dozen more batches before I’d reach F3 generation… That jar, with the lid slightly loosened so any gas still being evolved won’t pressurize it, is now in the fridge door awaiting next week, or two, and a restart.
My investment in yeast for these 4 gallons of cider is about $1 with cost to drop with future batches. The cost for apple juice is running about $1.25 / quart. Likely could be less with better shopping on my part. Still, a quart of cider for the price of a 12 oz bottle of so-so beer ain’t bad.
Bottling without measuring brix has risks. One risk is that there is NOT enough sugar left to carbonate the brew and you get flat beer or cider. As my ancestors didn’t use a hydrometer, I figure I can work that out. The other risk is bottling too soon, and the fermentation goes on too long in the bottle. Then it explodes.
IF you are worried, buy a fermentation hydrometer and learn to use it. I have a couple. It isn’t hard. But one of my goals here was to learn (or recreate) “the old ways”. About $8 here:
There are a couple of other ways you can handle this. First off, if using plastic bottles, they become turgid as the pressure builds. Give them a bit of a squeeze each day and you will know how they are doing. Too hard? Open and drink pronto, or at least vent to ‘soda hardness’.
Another old and tried method is just to “ferment to dryness’. Let the fermentation go on long enough that there is NO sugar left. As you bottle, add “just enough” sugar to each bottle. IIRC it is something like 1/2 tsp but you need to adjust it for YOUR bottle size and the particular sugar used. (Table sugar is not the same as corn sugar).
After many trials, I’ve learned that for the strength of wort / juice I ferment AND the temperature where I brew it things are just about right at the 1 week point. I’ve also learned to use a flashlight to look at how bubbly the fermentation is inside the Mr. Beer. When bubbles have peaked, then dropped off to near nothing, it’s just about right. Then I taste a sample. (cup under spigot, squirt an ounce into cup) You can calibrate your taste for a given mix. Do note that beer tastes very different for ‘residual sweet’ than does cider for a given ‘right level’. Also note that added corn sugar does not taste as sweet as added table sugar…
Finally, I usually open a bottle every 2nd or 3rd day to ‘check on things’. The first two are a bit flat, then they get to about right and stabilize. IFF the next couple are too gassy, it’s time for a party so they don’t over pressurize and explode. Yes, this is a ‘risky business’ and it is strongly recommended to use plastic bottles for your first few batches this way. I’ve had 2 glass bottles explode on me ( about a decade and a half back…) and make a mess in the storage closet. Since then I got better at it ;-)
Since cider is pretty good “young”, I don’t expect these to age long enough to get too high a pressure anyway ;-) But do check a bottle from each batch every day or two, for safety reasons ;-)
Finally, juice doesn’t make very strong hootch. To “amp it up”, corn sugar is used in brewing. I had a left over packet of “corn syrup solids” that I added to my first batch. This is basically just corn syrup with some of the water removed. Adding a bottle of corn syrup / jug of apple juice gives a significantly higher alcohol level. Treat it about like the “malt extract’ in terms of % alcohol / ounce. Use carefully, though, it will tend to lengthen the time to ferment and increase risk of bottle breakage if you are not careful to allow for that. This also works with other juices, like pear and even Welch’s Grape juice. One of the first bits of hooch I ever made was using peach “juice” left over from canned peaches. (Made in a plastic gallon milk jug… hey, I was in high school… what do you want? It wasn’t bad, though…) So lots of things “work”. I just find cider to be both easiest and pleasantly mild flavored.
That’s pretty much it. The basic point is just that it isn’t hard to make beer, or cider, or hootch. Folks have been doing it for as long as we have history, in in all sorts of conditions. It doesn’t require any fancy equipment or methods or even exotic sterile conditions. All those can help, but are not essential.
Losing a 25 ¢ bottle of cider in a recycled bottle due to not getting the final in bottle fermentation sugar right just isn’t that big a deal (the clean up is the worst part… but the “emergency draining” of the rest of the batch makes up for it ;-)
I have slowly collected a bunch of 24 oz, 1 quart, 1/2 liter and ‘whatever’ very good very sturdy bottles (along with SOME champaign bottles – Cooks seems to have too large a neck – and Sparkling Apple Juice bottles are great ) that take high pressure well. Put up most of it in those and have one cheap thin disposable bottle as “sentinel” and there is little risk of loss from high sugar at bottling. The bigger bottles also cut down on crown cap costs. Oh, and recycled Grolsch bottles with the rubber gasket stoppers work really nicely too. Become a connoisseur of bottles…
In any case, be not afraid to experiment with zymurgy for beverages. (It is also a GREAT scrabble word…) It isn’t hard to brew up some beer, or make wort, and is darned near trivial to make cider. THE biggest risk, IMHO, is just that cider is deceptively mild tasting. The first bottle tastes like “not very sweet apple juice with fizz” and it isn’t until you have a couple of them under the belt that the alcohol level makes itself known. So pace yourself on the first few. You have been warned 8-)
With that, I now return you to your regularly scheduled reality…
Update: Picture of the final product
Crisp, cold, tasty and being enjoyed as I type this update…