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Where would a hillbilly be without his moonshine? As Homer Simpson once exclaimed, “Alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!” Well said. When you hear the word “hillbilly” the first image that most of us have would be of a mountain still guarded by a disheveled man with a sawed-off shotgun. There are still wily woodsmen in the Appalachians that make their living dodging the law and making their forbidden spirits.

I do not do any actual distillation (the process of making real moonshine) for two reasons. First, I do not want to go to jail. Second, a still is one blocked pipe away from becoming a steam powered grenade. Instead, I do a little brewing; just a gallon or two here and there as I get thirsty. Unlike distillation, brewing is legal without a license in most places unless you try to sell your products or brew hundreds of gallons per year.

I have been learning the tricks of the trade from my cousin Ben. He is not just a microbrewer, he is a MICROBREWER (all caps). He measures things like specific gravity, and has tables to track his efficiency. His brewing rig has pumps and insulated kettles and is powered by propane burners (at least until his fusion reactor comes on line). He grows vines, harvests rhubarb, and has pressed plums from my backyard to make wine. He makes the kind of drinks that you could label and serve at the class of restaurants that will not let you in without pants. I keep telling him that he should go pro, but he does not seem to buy in to my plan (perhaps because the plan has me on the staff as bookkeeper and official taste tester).

In contrast, my current set up consists of a plastic jug in my closet. My stuff will not win any contests, but it is drinkable, has alcohol, and won’t make you go blind. We all have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is the closet.

While brewed beverages are regarded as mostly recreational now, for most of human history since the discovery of fermentation they have formed an important staple of human survival. As a beverage they were far safer to drink than many water sources; waterways were often full of human and animal waste, or pathogens like giardia and cryptosporidium that we still contend with today. As a food they provided valuable vitamins and carbohydrates, and alcohol itself acts as a preservative (although drinks with less than 18% alcohol will still spoil) and with later additions, such as hops, they would keep even better. Brewed beverages were a staple of medicine from ancient Sumeria and Egypt until very recent times. They still are important in many parts of the world for folk healing, and many modern doctors still tout the health benefits of alcohol in moderation.

Brewing exists in many forms from cauim (an Amazonian beverage made from cassava that has been chewed and spit out by the brewer to utilize her saliva in turning starch to sugar) to kumis (a Mongolian specialty brewed from horse milk; apparently also good for folks who are lactose intolerant), but to start let us do something a bit more basic for those of us without access to a milking mare.

In my neck of the woods apples are an abundant fruit that grows well in our often cold climate. Hard cider has been a staple of American drink since colonial times; beer was the beverage of choice for most Europeans right off the boat, but barley was often in short supply. Apple trees, an import from the old country, grew well in the colder areas of North America, and soon people were planting orchards all over the place. Cider was well regarded by most people as a healthful and nutritious beverage; even our second president (John Adams for those of you who were not paying attention in history class) drank a full tankard of cider every morning with breakfast. It is simple to make and delicious to drink.

cider-materialsIf I were truly devoted to the pioneering lifestyle I would have pressed my own apples, but since we turned most of the apples from our trees into applesauce and I don’t have an apple press, I bought my apple juice for this experiment. You can buy your apple juice/cider in whatever volume that you see fit, but the critical thing when you buy it is that it must contain no preservatives. Preservatives are wonderful for keeping food fresh by killing the microbes that cause spoilage, but since we need certain microbes for the process of fermentation be sure to buy juice that states “no preservatives” on the label. Then we need yeast. Yeast are the little microbes in question that make bread rise, sourdough sour, and cider ferment. They are airborne and exist everywhere (in fact the fine white powder you find on wild fruit and smooth tree bark are wild yeasts), but in their wild form can be too unpredictable for consistent brewing. Instead, buy a package or two of wine or beer yeast; they can be found on eBay for a good price. Add to your list a simple balloon and a paper bag and you will be all set.

The set up is quite simple. Just do the following:

  1. Drain a little juice from the container – We will be brewing in the container that the juice comes in, and fermentation can cause a totally full container to overflow.
  2. Activate the yeast – There will be directions on the package; usually it will involve suspending the yeast in warm water for a few minutes before adding to the cider. Some brewers just add the dry yeast right to the juice, but I usually try to follow the directions.
  3. Shake the container to aerate A tip from my cousin. Yeast need a little oxygen to breed, and shaking the container vigorously while the yeast is activating will add some air to the mix.
  4. Poke a needle through the balloon near the top – The balloon will serve as an airlock, and the needle prick will keep the balloon from bursting or flying off the container. Why an airlock when the yeast need oxygen to breed? Because too much oxygen will turn the alcohol to vinegar and unwanted microbes will get into your brew.
  5. Add the yeast to the juice when done activating – Pretty straight forward.
  6. Cover the opening with the balloon – Then just cut the paper bag to fit over the container (yeast like the dark).

Your final set up should look like this:


Fermentation is temperature sensitive, so pay attention to what kind of yeast you are using. The yeast I used here works well between 60 and 70 degrees F. The balloon, as well as being an airlock, will also tell you how well fermentation is going.

cider-fermentingThe balloon will eventually stand upright due to the carbon dioxide produced during brewing. The little bubbles formed in the juice are also a sign of fermentation. Fermentation, in a nutshell, consists of yeast eating sugar and producing alcohol (in the same way that a cow eats grass and produces manure). Apple juice already contains natural sugar, and so I just brew the cider alone. If you want to boost the alcohol content you can add white sugar, brown sugar, honey, molasses, or any other sugar source as long at it does not contain preservatives. Different yeast types can tolerate differing levels of alcohol, so choose a hardier strain if you want to have a higher potency.

Depending on temperature, aeration, and quantity of yeast used, fermentation will take between five and nine days in my experience. When the bubbles start slowing down to a trickle, you have probably gotten most of the alcohol out of the sugar. At that point you can cap it and put it into the refrigerator (or chill it in the creek if you are a proper hillbilly). It will still naturally ferment a little bit after capping, and will naturally carbonate the cider. Be careful and check it periodically to make sure that the bottle doesn’t rupture from over carbonation; just twist the cap open for a second if you have any concern and it will bleed off the pressure.

The finished cider will taste like white wine or even cheap champagne depending on the carbonation level. It will be a bit cloudy and have yeast at the bottom of the container, but you need not be worried as yeast are good for you (and not the same as the yeast of yeast infections). I am drinking a glass of the pictured cider right now and it tastes great. Plus, at around $5.00 a gallon to make, it is hard to beat on price.

So start your cider today, and it will be waiting for you as New Year’s Eve approaches. If it is good enough for John Adams, it is good enough for the rest of us. I can hear the next batch of brewing cider fizzing beside me that I started the other night. So everyone pass ’round the bottle, howl at the moon, and remember to pee downslope.

I wish you all a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, a joyful Kwanzaa, and a kick ass Solstice!