Editor’s Note: This post is another entry in the Prepper Writing Contest from Doug B. If you have information for Preppers that you would like to share and possibly win a $300 Amazon Gift Card to purchase your own prepping supplies, enter today.
Disclaimer: I am going to be somewhat verbose and poetic when setting the stage for this article, but I promise to be as concise and matter of fact as I am capable of with the bulk of it. Please indulge me in this, as I not only want to share the knowledge I have gleaned about this topic, but also a little bit of the passion I have learned for it that motivates this article in the first place. Thank you in advance for your patience!
We all think about it, some more than others: that period in the future which may or may not come when society and civilization as we now know it has suffered some catastrophe, whether man-made or otherwise, and those who survive it must pursue some semblance of stability and normalization utilizing only the resources available to them, the assistance of their personal community, and the knowledge that they themselves personally possess. The term ‘normalcy’ will mean different things to different people at that time, but in general I think that we can all agree that it will necessarily include not just our basic human paleo needs being met, but also a generous helping of those creature comforts that allow even a citizen of the new normal to enjoy at least a tad of respite and relaxation. We will still crave music and social events, we will want our delicacies and sweets; and we will desire that thing that so many find profitable to the gentle uncoiling of a tightly wound and worried mind; we will crave that ancient elixir that, when applied in mature moderation, enhances our interaction with others and acts as the world’s oldest and best social lubricant. We will want our occasional indulgence of alcohol. And if you personally do not partake, I’m willing to bet my left…I’m willing to bet that it will be considered as valuable a currency as any other! Heck, it practically is now.
The art of making alcohol is one that is as broad and deep as any professional pursuit, and to master it requires literally years of not only intimate scientific knowledge of the chemistry and components involved, but also an acquired “feel” for the process itself. Like a master husbandman, the maker of fine liquor, beer, or wine knows that they are only an assistant to nature, and a guide to and privileged participant of the magic that makes it all possible. I myself do not lay claim to any level of expertise, but like any person who truly comprehends their small role in the production of a beverage that is able to be called “alcohol”, I humbly appreciate what knowledge of it I have acquired by my experiences in making it for myself. The real beauty of it, and a fact of which you should be aware, is that even the beginner and novice can produce a result that is satisfying and sufficient in every way! And so in this article, my friends, my desire is to impart to you a high level understanding of what this process is, how it works, why it works, and to leave you with a solid foundation of knowledge that you can use as a springboard to your own adventures into making your own alcohol. Or, as I much prefer to call the concoctions I produce, hooch. Let’s take a journey.
Alcohol, in its most purest form, is a molecule. Just visualize five or six small legos stuck together in some unimportant way. That, as far as we’re concerned, is a molecule of alcohol. Alcohol exists in nature in many places, most of which we are completely unaware. For instance, next time you peel an orange or a lemon or a grapefruit, take a piece of the rind and bend and squeeze it near an open flame. The alcohol contained in the rind will be expelled and, upon hitting the flame, will burn impressively. But, that’s not the form of alcohol we’re after as a hooch maker. No, the molecule that will form our elixir will be extracted from another, larger bunch of stuck together legos: the sugar molecule.
How can we get an alcohol molecule out of a sugar molecule? The obvious answer is that WE cannot! However, nature has provided our Earth with a group of tiny single-celled fellas who can, do, and will: yeast! You see, yeast is really just a very small plant, and like any plant (and us!), it is alive and needs energy in order to grow and multiply. How and where does yeast get the energy it needs? Let’s go back to the analogy of the sugar molecule as several legos stuck together. The yeast grabs hold of that block of legos, SNAPS it in half, and the energy released from that little ‘click’ is what keeps it alive. Ah, but whereas we started out with a single block of sugar legos, now we have two blocks of legos, neither of which is sugar any longer! One of those blocks is carbon dioxide (the same stuff that makes your beer bubbly); the other block of legos is alcohol. The carbon dioxide, because it is a gas, floats to the top of the sweet liquid in which the yeast is swimming; the alcohol just stays right where it is. The longer the yeast cells work at breaking sugar molecules up, the more alcohol that accumulates in the liquid. I think you can see where this is going, right? Eventually, one of two things happens. Either the yeast in the liquid has broken every sugar molecule that existed in its world and runs out of food, or it has broken so many sugar molecules that the level of alcohol present kills it dead. Typically, depending on the species of yeast (yes, there are as many varieties of yeast as there are trees! Or thereabouts, anyway) and how sweet the liquid is that you begin with, your hooch is going to achieve a maximum alcohol percentage that is in the low to mid twenty percent range. That’s some doggone strong hooch there, my friend! Store-bought wine averages only twelve percent by comparison. Alright, science lesson is over (I think).
Now that you have mastered the concept of breaking legos, let’s talk recipe concepts. I say concepts, because making decent hooch isn’t as much a matter of ingredient choices and amounts as it is making sure the yeast is made as happy as it can be. After all, he’s the one doing all the work, so we have to ensure that we give him the best environment we can to do his job!
Yeast likes heat. Not hot heat, but warm, cozy, toasty heat. The warmer the yeast is kept while doing its job, the faster it will do it. Now, faster is not always better, and you’ll learn through your own experimentation that the end product will be different based on how quickly all those sugar molecules were snapped. But then again, maybe you’ll prefer the hooch you produced at warmer temps in shorter time as opposed to making the yeast take its sweet time at lower temperatures. But at least initially, when you first introduce the yeast to its new home (a one or more gallon jug of some sweet liquid you concocted), that liquid should be very warm. How warm I’m not going to cover in this article (I told you it would be high level!), and honestly I never use a thermometer anyway. If you can put your hand on the jug and it feels really warm but doesn’t burn you, it’s the right temperature.
I keep mentioning “the sweet liquid”, don’t I? Let’s chat about that. Hear me now, believe me later, the quality of the sweet mix you create at the very beginning WILL be a reflection of the flavor of your final, mature product. If you boil up some fruit, add a bunch of white or brown sugar, honey, molasses, agave nectar, or whatever kind of natural sweetener you choose, and then when it’s cool enough to taste you take a sip and think to yourself, “well, it’s a bit weak on the fruit flavor, but it’s plenty sweet! I think this will do just fine!”, then you are fooling yourself. Unless you take that sip and say to yourself “oo, now that tastes gooood!”, then six or eight months down the road after you have lovingly nurtured your hooch to maturity, you’ll taste it and be fairly disappointed. You don’t want to be disappointed, you want to say “wow! I have to make my spouse try this! It’s amazing!”. That is the reaction you want when you crack a bottle of your hooch, so you have to begin with as great a flavor as you wish to end with. This is a law. I don’t know the name of the law, but I’ve violated it and obeyed it enough times to know that it IS a law. You have been informed.
So at this point, we know that we need yeast, we need a sweet liquid, we need the liquid to be warm, and we know we need some kind of container (please, always use glass. Just do.). You also need to be aware at this juncture that hooch has enemies in the world. Bacteria, some wild yeasts blowing in the wind, fruit flies, etc. Given the chance, any of these will happily insert themselves into your baby hooch liquid and completely ruin it. We need a way to keep those things out and at the same time allow the carbon dioxide that our yeast is producing when it snaps sugar to get out. Sealing yeast up in a jug of sweet liquid with no way for the co2 to escape is what we call a BOMB. You don’t want a bomb in your kitchen or garage or closet, now do you? So what we do is add something on top of the jug that allows air to get out but none to get in. The easy way to do this is to simply put a good size balloon on top. It will expand as the process happens, and you can quickly lift the edge of it once it gets full to release the excess gas. What the real pro hooch makers use, however, is what I call a bubbler. It goes by other names, I’m sure, but the concept is that of a P-trap shaped tube with a certain amount of water in the bottom of it. Just like the P-trap under your sink that allows water to leave the drain but prevents any sewer gas from coming back UP the drain, the bubbler allows the co2 to bubble out without allowing any outside air and bad guys to come in. Using a bubbler also serves to provide a soothing background sound if you happen to sleep in close enough proximity to your batch of hooch as it develops. Yes, the introduction of the yeast to the sweet liquid is your hooch’s conception; the rest of the process is it growing in the womb (glass jug); and once you finally get it bottled (birth it), it will then begin to learn to walk, talk, and eventually have all kinds of intelligent conversations with you as it ages in your closet.
One more concept I want to cover before talking actual ingredients, and one that took me far too long to figure out, is the concept of “racking”. Pay attention to this one, it will mean the difference between something that will potentially impress people and a hooch that will likely be dreaded by anyone unfortunate enough to taste it. Yes, you’ll probably like it even if you don’t follow my advice, but only because you invested yourself into making it, not because it tastes great. It will be a hooch only a parent could love, and not one suitable for entertainment or barter. Racking. Let’s see what that is.
Picture this: on your kitchen counter sits a one gallon jug of hooch that has been bubbling now for, oh, four or five weeks maybe. The bubbling has been nice and steady for a long time, but now has begun to really slow down significantly. What was a whirling swirling stormy cloudy concoction of thriving yeast has now settled down to an only partly cloudy, calm jug of liquid with a half-inch or so of sediment resting on the bottom. That sediment is the dead and dying bodies of all the yeast that grew and lived and broke sugar for you for all those weeks, only now the alcohol levels have risen sufficiently that a lot of them have died off, their little one-celled lives expended. So what to do? In my early days, common sense told me “hey, just pour this liquid through something to strain all that junk out!”. This, my friends, does not work. Even if you took the hours to get your hooch to drip through a coffee filter, the dead yeast would STILL get through enough to taint the flavor and make it taste, well, yeasty. The right answer then: racking. We need to get the liquid off of that bed of dead yeast, without disturbing or stirring up that sediment. The only way to do this is to siphon it off. Take a clear plastic tube, like the kind used with aquarium air pumps, only larger diameter; sterilize it so you don’t introduce bacteria into your baby hooch; put the tube inside the hooch jug, close to the sediment without touching it; place another jug with a sterilized funnel in the top down lower than the first jug; then give the tube a little priming suck until the liquid starts flowing and let it drain down into the second jug. Be mindful of where the end of the tube is in the first jug so that you don’t suck up a lot of the sediment. Be okay with letting a little bit make its way up the tube, but you must also be willing to sacrifice a half-inch or so of your hooch at the bottom so that the majority of the sediment is left behind. Congratulations, you have just racked your hooch! The liquid in the new jug will now go through the same process again. There will still be some live yeast in it, some sugar, and so you need to replace the bubbler or balloon. A new, much thinner layer of sediment will begin to collect again. The liquid will become clearer and clearer. And in another two or three weeks, you’ll rack it yet again. Typically, I end up racking my hooch three times before I’m satisfied enough with its clarity to bottle it. And typically, when I open a bottle of hooch that I have let mature for six months or more in order to have a conversation with it, I find that more sediment has collected in the bottle and I wish I would have waited just two or three more weeks and racked it yet one more time. But, sediment in a bottle is normal (it’s called “the lees” in the Bible), and won’t hurt a thing. I just like going for as clear and lee-free a bottle of hooch as I can get.
I mentioned earlier that making hooch is tantamount to making a baby (and in many circumstances, probably just as fun). Unlike a baby in a womb, though, I as the hooch creator have always taken tiny samplings of my baby as it matures in the jug, as you probably will do as well. By doing this with dozens of batches, I have discovered a beautiful thing that I want to share with you now so that I can properly set your expectations and prevent you from possibly becoming discouraged. The beautiful thing is this, that the hooch growing in your jug is tantamount to a Shakespearian play in progress. The stage is your palate, and like any play, different actors have more prominent roles at different points in the plot. After the initial jug storm has died down and you can begin to see light through your hooch, you’ll sample it. You’ll expect to taste the explosion of flavor that you experienced when your hooch was initially conceived. But, you will not. You see, at this stage in the story, the yeast is the prominent actor, and yeast is what you will primarily taste. You’ll wonder, “where on earth did all that flavor go?!?”, because indeed, it will be almost nowhere to be found. But trust me on this, the flavor is most definitely there, it’s just backstage waiting patiently to recite its beautiful monologue in its turn. Once you’ve racked your hooch a couple of times, you’ll then begin to discern this transition. The yeast will be behind the curtain, and your amazing flavors will be marching out onto the stage. The more time passes, the more this transition will occur until finally, one evening six to eight months from initial conception, you will be utterly amazed that little ol’ you was able to produce something so wonderful. This transition of flavors is absolutely normal, so set your expectations accordingly. Hear me now believe me later.
Okay, you have endured with me this long, so in closing let me just share a few actual recipes that I have personally made and enjoyed. Because “hooch theory” requires yeast, sweet liquid, a glass womb, and warmth, you can use anything that fulfills these needs to make hooch. I have made apple hooch using organic apple juice sweetened with frozen apple juice concentrate (no vitamins added) and brown sugar as my sweet liquid; I have used loquats (a common fruit here in south Texas); I have used calamondins (miniature oranges); rose petals; cherries; lemon; honey (honey hooch is mead!); strawberries; white onions (not a flavor everyone can appreciate); peanut butter (this was a dare…still not sure if I like it or not); and probably a few other flavors I’m forgetting about right now. The key, like I said, is to make a flavorful and sweet liquid. I bought a little glass hydrometer that I can pop into a sample of my liquid that gives me a good estimate of the alcohol content of the end result. Just make sure that you sweeten it to the point where the hydrometer says you’ll end up at fifteen percent if you like a dryer end product, or closer to twenty percent if you want it to retain some sweetness. As far as yeast goes, I buy (and stock up on) mine at Amazon. You can experiment with different kinds of yeast at first, and you should; but because all yeast is different and you need to become intimately familiar with how to best make the yeast happy, I recommend settling on one kind relatively soon. It’s the difference between dating several women simultaneously and trying to make them all happy versus just choosing one to marry and taking the time to get to know who she really is at heart and what fulfills her needs.
Alright folks, for those of you who endured this long, thank you for your kind attention. There are endless resources and recipes on the net, more than you could read in a lifetime probably. But nothing, NOTHING is going to teach you the art of making hooch except simply diving in and doing it.
Happy prepping, and do consider adding hooch making to your skills list! I’m more than willing to answer questions based on my experiences and love of the craft. Feel free to email me at [email protected]