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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:

2 thoughts on “Making Hard Smreka – Juniper Beer

  1. Hello,

    I have been trying to look up how much sugar would yield a 6% PA level in a 6 gallon batch…

    I am new to this arena. Would you be able to point me in the right direction, or share the amount of sugar used?

    Much obliged!

    1. I found this handy calculator. According to this, you would use a little more than four pounds of sugar in five gallons of water to get an alcohol content of 6%. Note that there are other variables, such as length of fermentation (granulated sugar can take a while to fully ferment), type of yeast used, acidity, temperature, etc. that will ultimately determine how much alcohol by volume you get. If you want to be more accurate, you can get a hydrometer and measure the specific gravity (which is generally translated to alcohol potential) before and after fermentation. Enjoy!

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