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The best meals are cooked on a fire. Period. End of story.

However, camping stoves are here to stay. I don’t use them because I believe that somehow they are more ethical than burning wood; you are just depleting resources from somewhere else instead (and most camp fuels are nonrenewable to boot). I use them because much of the BWCA is so scoured clean of dead, fallen wood that you would swear you were in a city park if not for the fact that you had to paddle a canoe to get there.

I still try to cook over a fire whenever possible, but if there is no good firewood to be found within a reasonable distance or there is a fire ban, I turn to the ol’ Jetboil. It is a great stove; everything packs up neatly in the pot, and its high efficiency nature means that you use less fuel.

However, isobutane canisters are a double edged sword. They are great in terms of being spill-proof and low maintenance (no pumping required), but they cannot be refilled (which is a pain when you are starting a trip and you have a bunch of almost empty canisters to use up) and more importantly, they are really expensive. Jetboil brand canisters can be 5 or 6 bucks for 100 grams of fuel. For longer trips I have been buying the larger Snow Peak and MSR canisters which give you 2 to 3 times the fuel for the same price (you just cannot fit them in the pot), but they are still expensive and bulky.

So I had an idea that you could rig the Jetboil pot to work in conjunction with an alcohol stove. I don’t have much experience with alcohol stoves (although I do have plenty of experience with alcohol), but I knocked up one fairly easily:

Alcohol stove running at full power

I apologize for the blurriness, but to see the flame I had to turn off the camera flash, and that makes it blurry for some reason. Anyway, it is a simple double walled chimney -type stove with a metal ring riveted to a binder clip for adjusting the heat output. The holes at the bottom suck air into the main chamber where it creates a hot flame. If you slide the ring over the intake holes it will reduce the air flow into the stove and make a smaller flame for simmering.

An unopened soda top makes a good snuffer for putting out the flame


I am not going to even try to explain how the stove is put together as I still have some bugs to work out. If you are interested in building a stove, check out the Zen Stoves website; it has everything you could want to know about alcohol stove design. This was just a testbed stove so the fuel chamber is too small to be truly functional, and the ring is hard to adjust when the stove is hot (aluminum expands when heated, who would have thought it?). I recommend you get your stove plans from someone who knows more than me.

The Jetboil pot stand / windbreak

The pot stand for the Jetboil is pretty simple to make. It is just a piece of aluminum flashing that is riveted to make a ring, and punched with air intake holes at the bottom. What is nice about the Jetboil pot is that it is already built to sit on the ring that is built into the stove, so you just need to make the ring the same diameter as the original stove head:

The pot sits firmly on the ring. You can see the stove buring inside.

I would give you measurements, but the easiest way to build it is to wrap the flashing around the seat on the bottom of the pot, mark it and go from there. I used a cheap manual rivet tool (about $10 at Home Depot), but you could use bolts too. I am not sure if JB Weld would be a good idea; if it failed you could have boiling water everywhere. If I build another stand I would probably use a heavier gauge aluminum, or double up the flashing. It is pretty stable, but aluminum can get weird at higher temperatures.

What is also great is that the ring will fit perfectly inside the Jetboil for storage along with the stove and fuel bottle, and still have room to spare. Just try not to spill any alcohol inside the Jetboil; it will probably all evaporate if you do, but wood or denatured alcohol can blind or kill you, and if you spill moonshine that is alcohol abuse (what a waste of good whiskey).

When testing the rig out, I made some macaroni and MRE cheese (you can never go wrong with mac and cheese). Here is the recipe:

  • 2 cups Water (just fill it to the line)
  • Salt (just a pinch)
  • about 1 cup of the Pasta of your choice
  • 1 Packet MRE Cheese Spread

Basically you make it the same way as Velveeta Shells and Cheese. Bring the water and salt to a boil, add the pasta, reduce the heat, cook for 8-10 minutes (stirring occasionally), drain (easy with the Jetboil), mix in the cheese, and serve. Add a wiener or a broiled and diced slice of SPAM (and maybe some ketchup as a garnish), or serve it beside a fresh caught trout or perch, and you are ready to do battle.

I don’t eat to many MREs (nothing against them, I am just cheap), but I do love MRE Squeeze Cheese and MRE Peanut Butter. Light, packed with energy, tasty, and I hear they make pretty good trap bait in a pinch. Squirrels love their peanut butter.

It's not pretty, but it will do...

Peace out.

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:

cider-rig

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!