Image via Flickr by mbeldyk
In our country, where strict lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have prevented people from buying alcoholic beverages, many have reverted to making their own homemade brews. The internet, and especially social sites like Facebook, have been awash with folks showing off their beverages and sharing recipes. Whereas some have managed to concoct well-tasting and “effective” alcoholic beverages, others have had a few mishaps — think an explosion of carbon dioxide, for instance.
There are many different ways to make your own homemade brews, ranging from relatively complex processes such as distillation to easy-to-make fruity drinks that require no expertise or expensive equipment. Here are a few tips and some basic information for beginners who are planning to enter the exciting, and sometimes perilous world of homebrewing.
A Question of Yeast
Yeast is probably the most important factor to consider when making homebrews. In short, without yeast you won’t get any alcohol. Yeast is a fungus that occurs naturally in the environment and can be found, for example, on fruit peels, in flower nectar, in soil, and in the air.
Some homebrewers prefer to use these wild yeasts through a process called spontaneous fermentation when making their brews. To do so, simply place the must you have prepared in a warm spot in your home or garden, and cover it with a muslin cloth to allow wild yeasts from the environment to enter and start the fermentation process.
However, using wild yeasts will not provide you with consistent results, as the flavours they yield can range from strong and distinct to overpowering and even unpleasant. In addition, along with the wild yeasts come other organisms, such as bacteria, which may completely spoil your brew. And lastly, wild yeasts deliver low alcohol percentages.
For these reasons, brewers mostly opt for cultivated yeasts, and more specifically, saccharomyces cerevisiae — otherwise known as baker’s or brewer’s yeast. Despite the fact, though, that baker’s and brewer’s yeast form part of the same genus, they represent different strains. Although you can use normal baker’s yeast for brewing, you will gain better results from using brewer’s yeast.
Baker’s yeast typically does its work within a short period of time and is not ideal for the fermentation process, which could involve days, weeks, or months. This strain of yeast also adds unwanted off-flavours, and as it doesn’t clear out very well, will leave a considerable deposit at the bottom of the fermented brew.
You can choose from a variety of brewer’s yeasts, which are all tailored for specific kinds of alcoholic beverages, be it a fruity cider, a malty beer, or a crisp, dry wine. These yeasts have distinct characteristics with regard to aging time, sulphur output, and the preferred temperature at which the yeast becomes active. This means that with cultivated yeasts, homebrewers have more control over the end product they wish to achieve, and can also do so consistently.
In addition, different yeasts produce varying alcohol percentages. Whereas you’ll reach a maximum of around 8% with baker’s yeast, champagne and wine yeasts, for instance, can tolerate a much higher level of alcohol before attenuating. The highest percentage of alcohol you’ll achieve by using brewer’s yeast and the normal fermentation process is typically around 18%. If you want to go higher than that, you’ll have to start distilling.
To Airlock or Not?
Popular opinion has it that yeast needs oxygen for its cells to respire and grow before the fermentation process can get going. However, it’s not true that yeast needs oxygen to reproduce. Although you don’t have to venture too far down the scientific pathway to learn about the metabolic actions of yeast before you can start brewing, it may be helpful to have a rough understanding of how these microorganisms function.
Yeast, like all living organisms, needs a supply of energy in order to survive and grow, and it finds this energy in sugar. One way that yeast can release energy from sugar is through oxygen, and this process is called respiration. The end result of this metabolic process is water, carbon dioxide, and energy. However, in the absence of oxygen, yeast can still release energy from sugar through the process of fermentation, which results in ethanol, carbon dioxide, and energy.
Ethanol is just a fancy word for alcohol and you need fermentation, not respiration, to produce it. This is where things become interesting, though. The growth of yeast is determined by nutrients, independent of whether the environment includes free oxygen or not. If a high concentration of fermentable sugars is available, yeast will default to the fermentation process, regardless of the amount of free oxygen in the mix.
This means, then, that during the primary fermentation process — in which sugars are converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide — it doesn’t really matter whether you airlock or not. For those who may not know what an airlock is, it’s a small device you insert into the lid of a tightly sealed fermentation container. The device allows carbon dioxide to escape so that the container doesn’t explode, while also preventing oxygen from entering.
However, during the secondary fermentation process, which takes place after most of the alcohol has been produced and sugars been used up, oxygen can completely ruin your brew. To this end, you should either airlock from the get-go or should do so once the primary fermentation process is complete, which may be anything from three to five days.
What Do You Need?
There are many different kinds of alcoholic drinks you can make, ranging from hard ciders to ginger beer to mead to wine to ale. Although these all call for different processes and equipment, there are a few basic things you’ll need before attempting your first brew. Ensure that you properly sterilise all utensils before using them, to prevent contamination.
- Airlock/s: Airlocks are only really necessary during the secondary fermentation process. As it’s best to use glass carboys for this process, you may need more than one, depending on how much brew you’ve made. However, as you can tell from the air bubbles present in airlocks whether your concoction has started to ferment, it may be nice to use these devices from the get-go. Once the bubbling starts to decrease, the primary fermentation period is over and you should strain the liquid to get rid of dead yeast cells and other unwanted by-products.
- A fermentation container: The size of this container will depend on the amount of brew you wish to make. You can either opt for a bottle-shaped container or, if you want to supply the whole family with pineapple beer, you can go for larger containers like buckets or cooler boxes. If so, you’ll need to make a hole somewhere in the lid if you wish to fit an airlock. In the absence of an airlock, you can always stretch cling wrap over the opening and secure the edges with duct tape. Remember to add a few pinholes for the gasses to escape.
- A sieve: Once the primary fermentation process is done, you need to pour the brew through a sieve in order to separate the liquid from the fruit and any other unwanted sediments. An even better option would be to pour the liquid through muslin or cheesecloth.
- Glass carboys: If you wish to go for the secondary fermentation process, opt for glass containers if possible.
- Bottles: You’ll also need a few bottles in which to decant and store your brew, once it’s ready.
The length of the secondary fermentation process, where to store your brew, and how long you should wait before you drink it, will depend on the type of beverage.
Homemade Pineapple Beer
If you’re new at the brewing thing, it’s advisable to start off with an easy recipe that doesn’t require any fancy equipment. Homemade pineapple beer isn’t only delicious but also full of natural probiotics. For this easy brew, you’ll need the following:
- Two medium-size pineapples, heads chopped off
- Five cups of sugar
- One cup of raisins
- A packet of brewer’s yeast (ale, cider, wine, or champagne yeast will do)
- 24 cups of lukewarm water
Wash the pineapples, peel and all, in vinegar water and then chop them into small bits and place in a fermentation container. Mix in all the other ingredients, except the yeast, which you should rehydrate for about 20 minutes in some warm water before pitching. It’s important to not use boiling or very hot water, as this will kill the yeast. You do, however, need the water to be at a certain temperature for the yeast to activate. Check the instructions on the packet of yeast you’re using for specific guidelines.
Once you’ve added your yeast, stir the whole mixture quite well. Lastly, close the container and add an airlock. Or, as it is still ok for oxygen to enter the mix during primary fermentation, close the lid of the container but not too tightly, so that gasses can escape. If you don’t, you may very well wake up to a very loud explosion in your house.
Leave the container in a warm place for three to five days, after which you can strain the liquid through a sieve or pour through a cheesecloth. At this stage, you can do one of two things. You can either bottle your brew — close the lids/tops but not too tightly, to allow for any lingering gasses to escape — and store in the fridge.
Or you can opt to go the secondary fermentation route. Although this isn’t a necessary step, this process allows the brew to clear more, which means you’ll end up with a less cloudy drink and less sediment at the bottom of your glass. During this process, your brew will also develop more complex flavours. It’s extremely important that no oxygen enters during this period, as the result will be a foul-tasting, vinegar-like liquid. Once you’ve tasted your concoction and feel the time has come to enjoy it, decant into bottles and store in the fridge.
This is only one of many, many recipes you can find online. When you become a bit more knowledgeable in homebrewing, you can start experimenting with more refined methods by investing in added equipment like a hydrometer, which will allow you to measure alcohol levels. Making your own brews will not only save you money in the long run, but it can become an interesting hobby. Whatever the case, you will be enjoying some fresh, homemade drinks, made just the way you like it.