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The Lost 31 Days: How to brew your own alcohol

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Jason and I are not alcoholics. We do, however, enjoy the brew and bubbly from time to time (to time). One of the great accomplishments of our marriage has been Jason convincing me to start drinking beer. REAL beer, not the super-fruity stuff I drank before to say I drank beer.

In the midst of my spectacular failure that was the “31 Days” project, I stumbled across a tutorial on how to make cheap alcohol from fruit juice and my Spidey Sense started tingling. Homebrewing is huge right now, especially in Colorado – I can think of at least five people I know who are bottling their own beer or wine – so the supplies are easily accessible and plentiful. I shared my idea with Jason, and he was immediately on board. We like alcohol, we are cheap – let’s do it! We went shopping:

  • Fruit juice. You want 64-ounce containers of 100% juice with at least 20 grams of sugar per serving. We considered getting juice from our local hippie grocery store, but between the cost and all the extra goodness that wasn’t filtered out (that could affect the fermentation process), going with Welch’s or even the store brand juices at our regular grocery store was a better option. For our first batch, we tried Welch’s White Grape and Welch’s Black Cherry Concord Grape.
  • Yeast. Like the tutorial, we started with champagne yeast (the things you can buy online!). Each bottle of juice requires one gram of yeast. We bought a 10-pack of 5-gram packets, so we can make enough alcohol to survive the zombie apocalypse. $5.50 for the 10-pack.
  • Airlock. Technically a twin bubble airlock and carboy bung was what we ended up with. The airlock is intended to prevent oxygen from getting in and slowing the fermentation while letting carbon dioxide out so you don’t poison yourself while drinking if you were to cap the containers. We messed up the airlock part a little, but it all worked out in the end. $6.99 for a set of two (which is why we tried two flavors in our first batch – why let one airlock go to waste?).
  • We conveniently also had a tiny scale on hand to measure out a gram of yeast from the 5-gram packets. You could eyeball this, I suppose; the taste of your finished product (as well as its alcohol content) would vary slightly.

With our supplies gathered, we settled down on the kitchen floor to begin the brewing process. I’m not gonna lie – even though what we were doing was totally legal, it felt right to be camped out where no stray glance from a window could discover us.

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And now the fun began.

Step 1. Measure out the yeast. Jason uses this scale to measure out his coffee grinds; he’s really into coffee at the moment. I don’t know what I was expecting from the yeast. Something more powdery maybe? Instead it was more like tiny sesame seeds. And a gram isn’t very much at all. I went slightly over but didn’t stress too much – more alcohol content for us!

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Step 2. Pour off a little of your juice. This can be used if you have a hydrometer and want to test the alcohol content before and after you brew, but we mostly just wanted to make some room at the top of the bottle in case things started bubbling or foaming.

Step 3. Add the yeast to your juice. Ours briefly floated before sinking to the bottom of the bottles. We didn’t shake up the juice after we added the yeast, but it’s perfectly fine if you do.

Super appetizing, right? Dig in!

Super appetizing, right? Dig in!

Step 4. Seal off the bottles with the airlocks. We made a misstep here, and we didn’t discover it until the next day. An experienced brewer will probably spot it.

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Step 5. Set aside for 72 hours and watch the magic happen. Ours sat on our little makeshift bar for a day and we watched as the fermentation began. The “red” changes were harder to see, but it was obvious something was happening in our “white.” Little tiny bubbles were coming off the yeast, which had settled at the bottom of the bottle, and the whole solution had turned cloudy. Excitement! And then, 24 hours into our experiment…

Step 6. Discover and correct your mistake. In the original instructions, there was no mention of the airlock other than the fact that you put it on the bottle to seal it. Google to the rescue! We watched some YouTube videos, and… turns out it’s not much of an airlock if you don’t put some fluid in it to act as a barrier – the whole thing is basically a bendy tube, so we had carbon dioxide escaping but we also had oxygen coming right back in. The airlock conveniently has fill lines for when you’re adding the liquid; I totally didn’t notice them. The brewing pros we know recommended distilled water or cheap vodka in the airlock for purity, but being cheap and having neither of those liquids on hand, we just used tap water. Still ended up with booze. And for the next two days we heard the airlock bubbling as the carbon dioxide escaped. The bubbles mean its working!

Much better.

Much better.

Step 7. Decant your concoction. If you leave the juice in its original bottle, it will keep fermenting and you’ll end up with rocket fuel after a while (although the yeast will eventually stop working). There will probably be some yeast that makes it into the new container, but the fermentation will slow down a lot. We carefully poured one bottle into a growler we had lying around, washed out that bottle, and then poured the second bottle into the clean first bottle. Jason even chopped the top off a water bottle we had lying around to make a funnel. I married MacGyver.

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Cleaning was important; here’s what was left when we poured the bottles out:

Pay no attention to our messy kitchen. Instead, pay attention to all that sediment. Mmmm, yeast!

Pay no attention to our messy kitchen. Instead, pay attention to all that sediment. Mmmm, yeast!

Step 8. Enjoy. And enjoy we did. Since we didn’t have a hydrometer, we had no idea what the alcohol content was of our brews. But we started feeling it less than a pint in, so… yay! Booze! Jason preferred the red, I preferred the white, but they both got finished off pretty quickly. Just in time to decant our second batch, which we’d started as soon as the first was finished. And since then, we’ve made several more batches and are starting to experiment with different kinds of yeast. It’s addictive!

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So go forth, impress your friends and brew your own hooch! Your pocketbook will appreciate it. And if you do decide to venture into the world of homebrewing – let me know how it turns out!

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