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Beer Kills, Too

My last post had the somewhat blasé title “Beer Saves Lives.” There are a lot of wonderful things about beer and alcohol in general. After all, we’ve been living with occasional fermented concoctions since our species evolved – and before that our bipedal ancestors were known to take a nip or two. But the key word there is occasional. Back in the old days – say, 100,000 years ago or so – we didn’t have things like cans of beer at the Kwik-E-Mart, or Simple Brew Kits to make our own alcohol. In fact, we only busted out the togas on those rare occasions when we would come across a bounty of fermented fruit on the ground. Another substance, sugar, was also a rare treat, often found right there with the fermented fruit – and then it was time to gorge.

But now that we have constant access to sugar and alcohol, our genetic programming tells us to get it while the getting’s good. That means we’re prone to obesity, and problems with alcohol. A new study from the CDC finds that over 2200 people die from alcohol poisoning each year in the U.S. – that’s six people a day. Three-quarters are male. And, though your first thought may be that most of these people are in the frat-boy set, 76% are aged 35-64. Your second thought may be that most people who die from alcohol poisoning must be alcoholics, but alcoholism is only associated with 30% of these deaths.

To put this in perspective, 38 million people in the U.S. report binge drinking* an average of four times a month, so .006% of these people (or 6 in 100,000) end up dying from alcohol poisoning each year. But it’s tragic nonetheless. And this doesn’t account for all the health- and injury-related problems associated with binge drinking.

My little berg, Longmont, CO, was set up as a temperance colony in the 1800s, where alcohol was banned in the city limits. The temperance movement gained enough momentum that Prohibition took effect in 1920 and lasted until 1933. That sucked. What we obviously don’t want is a teetotalitarian society. But I like the word temperance in the sense of tempering one’s appetites. I resolve to try a little more of that kind of temperance in 2015.


*Four or more drinks for women, and five or more drinks for men on an occasion.

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Beer Saves Lives

Recently a friend from my beer club (we don’t even pretend to read books) wrote an article about how beer helps him with Crohn’s disease. I’m blessed to live in an area where I’m surrounded by great brews. I didn’t think it was possible, but David’s article has given me an even greater appreciation for beer.

Check it out.

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Making Hard Smreka – Juniper Beer

After starting the smreka project in late spring, I finally have some cool refreshing liquid to drink. Smreka is a simple fermented drink found in Bosnia. People there pick juniper berries, let them sit in water for a month, then enjoy it with a bit of sugar. Because the juniper berries have only a small amount of sugar, smreka has negligible alcohol. One thing to be cautious of, when choosing your juniper berries, is that some species are poisonous. I have Rocky Mountain junipers (Juniperus scopulorum) growing in my yard – some of the local microdistilleries use these berries for their gin.

One thing I realized once we embarked on the actual juniper berry picking, is that one reaps meager rewards for one’s effort. That’s why I enlisted my kids to help, and making it a family affair made it much more fun. Once we had the berries, I let them dry for a couple months (more out of not having enough time to start the brew than out of any practical concern). When I was finally ready to ferment the berries, I boiled eight gallons of water, let it cool, and added 2 cups of berries to a 6 gallon carboy and smaller amounts to a couple growlers.

I intended to use the growlers to make a more traditional smreka, without adding anything but the berries. The traditional drink is generally ready after about a month, when the berries sink to the bottom. I agitated the berries almost daily for a few weeks to keep any surface mold from growing, but then I dropped the ball for a week or so at the end, and sure enough there was a whitish film growing at the top of the lid by the time I was ready to test it out. Not one to readily waste things, I tried it nonetheless. I don’t drink a lot of cat pee, but this had a distinct cat pee taste to it. Still not one to waste things, I put it in the fridge, and surprisingly, a week later the cat pee taste was much diminished in one of the growlers – enough so that I got my daughter to try some. Sadly, the other bottle was irredeemable, so it went down the drain.

Fortunately, I had much better success with the 6-gallon batch. To this batch, I added enough household sugar to get the alcohol potential just over 6%. I added Pasteur Champagne yeast, threw in the stopper and airlock, and let it ferment in the basement for well over a month, agitating it every day or two. Fermentation was visibly apparent for over a month, with little bubbles effervescing through the berries at the top. The berries never did sink to the bottom. When fermentation was done, I checked the alcohol and it was indeed a little over 6%. I tried some flat and decided, despite my aversion to bottling, that this would be a drink best drunk carbonated. The flat stuff was about what I expected, tangy, slightly ginny.

So the smreka experiment was a huge success – one of the best drinks we’ve made thus far. Here’s the vid:

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Party Animals

Drinking ChimpIn a new study, scientists determined that we’ve been partying for a long time – 10 million years to be exact. That’s when our ancestors (and chimpanzee and gorilla ancestors) evolved the ability to effectively break down ethanol. Because fermented fruit no longer caused them to immediately get sick before they got their buzz on, the proto-apes were able to get the party started in earnest. Part of the reason we crave alcohol, the scientists surmise, is that we associate it with food.

Note, too, that our fuzzy little ancestors were imbibing fermented FRUIT, so the first alcohol consumed was what we make right here at Simple Brew Kits – the drank! It’s really just part of human nature.

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meadI started my mead experiment about a year ago. At first I tried doing it lambically, just exposing it to the elements – the idea being that yeast that already resides in the honey will begin fermenting once water is added (kind of like Sea Monkeys – just add water). I was following a recipe from the amazing book The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz – incidentally, this is a must-have book for you aspiring fermenters.

Maybe I did something wrong, because yeast wasn’t the first thing to colonize, some other fungus was, and it looked suspiciously like that stuff you find on moldy oranges (maybe Alexander Fleming actually discovered penicillin while trying to make mead). Not being one to waste good honey, I scraped the mold off, added some yeast, and threw on the airlock. In a month or so the glucose had become alcohol, but it was still kind of sweet, so following Katz’s advice, I let it continue to ferment.

About nine months later, this baby was ready – the yeast took care of business with the remaining fructose, and I now have in my fridge something that may or not resemble mead. I haven’t had actual mead, but the stuff I have is definitely something – no longer sweet, certainly alcoholic, and, shall we say, an acquired taste. I’ve had a few sips here and there – much better with ice. Maybe I’ll add a little honey and see how that goes.

Time to get some more juice from the store to work on a simpler project. I think I’ll get something exotic this time – pineapple?

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Simple Brewing Realized

juice3Welcome to Simple Brew Kits!

After brewing beer for a while, I decided one of the things I really don’t like is bottling. What I do like is turning sugar into alcohol, some honest-to-God alchemy. I also like doing my own thing and experimenting. And, well, I’m cheap, so I like the idea of creating some decent hooch without breaking the bank. How do I put those things together, I wondered.

After enjoying some great home-brew hard cider that a friend made, I had an idea: had anybody tried fermenting fruit juices right in the bottle? That would allow you to skip a lot of the brewing steps – no need for a carboy, no messing around with different concoctions on the stove, no need for heavy lifting and tedious cleaning, and no need for bottling. Just buy some cheap, sweet juice at the store, throw in a little yeast, put an airlock on it, wait for a week or so, and voila, you got yourself a nice little 5-10% alcohol beverage.

Being an ambitious (and naive) sort of guy, I bought six half gallons of three different kinds of juice: white grape, apple, and a vegetable medley. The veg drink didn’t have enough sugar in it so I added a bunch. Then I tried two strains of yeast (champagne yeast and bread yeast – yes, simple bread yeast from the grocery store) in each kind of juice and away they went. In a day or two my basement was alive with bubbling, fermenting juices.

After a week, the grape and apple juices measured in the 5-8% alcohol range, much of their sugar having transformed into alcohol, but I couldn’t measure the alcohol content of the veggie juice because it was too thick for my hydrometer. The hard grape and apple drinks were delicious. I had pictured my veggie drink turning into a perfect bloody mary, but alas, it was more like a blood clot – chunky and hard to swallow – so I gave it to my compost. Yeast-wise, the bread yeast seemed to do just fine in comparison to the champagne yeast.

Since then, I’ve created numerous yummy concoctions with all kinds of juice. I’ve even done fermented milk, a poor man’s koumiss (not bad, although it was pretty low-alcohol since I didn’t want to let it sit too long). You can even make beer this way with the right ingredients (but you’ll have to bottle it if you want it carbonated). Currently I’ve got some mead fermenting in the basement – I used honey from my own bees, mixed about 1:1 with water. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Let me know what you come up with.

Happy Fermenting!