Beer, Wine, and Vinegar – Introduction

Beer, Wine, and VinegarAlcohol is produced by yeast under anaerobic (little or no oxygen) conditions, whereas vinegar is produced by bacteria under aerobic conditions. Both bacteria and yeast spores are present in the air, and conditions favorable to one organism or the other determine the product. However, a covered crock of cider will usually change first to wine and then to vinegar. Fermentation ceases when sugars are completely changed to alcohol or when the yeast is inhibited by the alcohol content. The yeast that causes a cloudy appearance when fermentation slows has the highest alcohol resistance; if some of this liquid is saved from each batch, the alcohol content of future batches gradually increases. About 2 Bu. of grapes make 5 gal of wine. The strongest wine (12% alcohol) requires the equivalent of 3 lb. sugar per gallon of juice. Sugar can be added, or weaker fruit juices can be concentrated by boiling before fermen-tation begins. All fruit has a sugar content and can be used to make wine, but grains have a higher fermentable content, and sweet potatoes have twice as much as grapes and apples. Next highest are Jerusalem artichokes and potatoes.

The pioneers made wine and beer from molasses, honey, maple syrup, bran, malted corn, corn stalks, persimmons (and all other fruits), Jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, pumpkin, and squash.


Southern pioneers ground corn, boiled it with water to make a thin gruel, stirred in sour milk or buttermilk (as nutrients and to inhibit other bacteria; the famous sour mash), and exposed the barrels to the air for fermentation by wild yeast. For controlled fermentation, however, the grain should be ground to a fine meal and heated with acid or malt to convert starch to sugar. For acid conversion, mix 1 Bu of corn meal, 20 gal water, and 3½ cups of battery acid (sulfuric acid; see “Security and safety”) from an auto parts store; soak several hours; boil and stir for 60 min; cool; add yeast and another 10 gal water; and ferment. Barley is used to make malt (grain sprouts) and beer commercially because it has the lowest content of protein, which can interfere with fermentation. However, malt can be made from all grains except wheat and rye. For corn malt, soak the kernels until swelled; drain; rinse and stir gently 2- or 3-times daily until the sprouts are ¼ to ½-inch long; and dry them in an oven or attic at 120 deg F. When dry and brittle, raise the oven temperature to 140 deg F (no higher or the enzymes that convert the starch to simple sugars will be decomposed) until the grain is slightly brown and has a roasted smell. For malt conversion, mix 1 Bu corn meal with 15 gal water and 6-8 lb. corn malt. Heat at 140 deg F (no higher) for 30-60 minutes, and allow to sit overnight to complete the conversion of starch to sugar. The next morning, heat to a slow boil for 30 minutes to kill all bacteria. Cool below 140 deg F, and mix in another 15 gal of water, yeast, and, if available, 3-6 gal of spent beer from an old still run; spent beer is acidic, which inhibits vinegar bacteria, and it contains nutrients for the yeast. Adding hops produces the familiar bitter taste in beer. Green wood chips from oak trees contain tannin and have been used as a substitute for hops, as have several bitter herbs.

Ferment the beer until bubbles of carbon dioxide cease (4-10 days, depending on air temperature; yeast is inactive below 60 deg F), but skim off floating yeast after 3 days. Cover the container with a wet blanket or ferment in a closed container with a vent; both methods release gas but keep out bacteria. Strain through a bed sheet. Distill the beer, or seal it in an airtight container and store in the refrigerator. The spent mash has a strong smell but makes an good food for hogs because protein content is higher than in the original grain; they love it. The spent mash can also be dried at low heat and then boiled or added to other food for people. A similar procedure can be used for potatoes, sweet potatoes, and Jerusalem artichokes. However, first cut them in pieces, cover with water, cook until soft (3-4 hr for J. artichokes), and mash. Then add 3-4 lb. of malt for starch conversion to each 100 lb. of potatoes, and proceed as above. Corn stalks (remove all green leaves) can be processed the same way after grinding or shredding.


The best tasting vinegar is made from sweetened (1 lb. brown sugar per gal) apple juice that has first been fermented into hard cider, but other foods with a sugar, starch (convert to sugar as above), or alcohol content can be used. The skimmings from boiling syrup make good vinegar. A little brown (unpasteurized) vinegar can be added as a starter. Instead, the pioneers added wild bacteria by pouring the fresh juice or syrup through a mat of twigs and leaves from beech or maple trees. The environment for vinegar bacteria can be improved with a warm temperature (100 deg F is ideal) and an aquarium aerator (or pour the liquid from one container to another daily). The jelly-like mass that forms on top of a crock of vinegar is clumped bacteria and is called mother; pieces can be used as starter. A gallon jug of homemade vinegar need never run out; when it is half full, add 1-2 cups of sugar or syrup and refill with water. Caution: vinegar must be stored in glass or plastic; it is corrosive to copper, zinc, and iron.


A sugar syrup like molasses or honey makes mead with a high alcohol content. Dilute 1 part syrup with 3-4 parts of water; add yeast and 1 pint/gal of buttermilk or spent liquid from a previous still run as nutrients. Fermentation takes 2-8 days.


The bloom on the skin of most grapes and apples is yeast; there is no need to add extra yeast. For grapes, avoid breaking the seeds, which produce a bitter taste. Other fruits are best stewed in water. If sugar is available, boil 1 gal of fresh fruit in 1 gal of water, cool, use a colander or a press to extract the juice, and add yeast and 2 lb. of sugar. If sugar is not available, use half as much water in the fruit, let stand 12 hr, strain out the solids, and add yeast. When fermentation ceases, the cloudy-looking suspended yeast will settle out with long standing (6-60 d). A bitter taste in homemade wine is usually caused by tannin; a sour taste usually shows that some of the wine has turned to vinegar. For either condition, neutralize with hydrated lime. A full bottle of wine should not change to vinegar, but wine can be pasteurized by heating to 130-140 deg F for a few minutes; this temperature will not kill the one yeast strain that completes the fermentation.

A few people made wine from tomatoes: 3 lb. of brown sugar were added to each gal of juice, which was then fermented for 9 days.


The bloom on the skin of most grapes and apples is yeast; there is no need to add extra yeast. For cheap and easy cider, crushed apples were not pressed; they were simply mixed with water and fermented. However, apple pomace is commonly exposed to the air for 12 hours to increase the sugar content. If so, the cider should be pasteurized to kill vinegar bacteria, and yeast must then be added. Also, adding a little malt breaks apart the pectin in fruit and changes starch to sugar in grain and potatoes; fermentation is faster, and the alcohol content is higher.