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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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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!