The Art of Fermentation

While out with friends last night at a Mexican restaurant we started discussing the source of the adult beverages we were consuming. We eventually determined that Tequila comes from something called an Agave plant (thanks Cecil) but this didn’t tell us much since we still don’t know what an agave plant is. We then started discussing the source of various drinks and came up with the following list.

[ul][li]Beer - “Grains” (Wheat, Oats, Barley, Rye) + Hops (What are Hops?)[/li][li]Wine - Grapes or “Berries”[/li][li]Cider - Apples[/li][li]Tequila - Agave (What is Agave?)[/li][li]Vodka - Potato[/li][li]Saki - Rice[/li][li]Rum - Sugar Cane[/li][li]Whiskey - “Grains” + Corn[/li][li]Gin - “Grains” + Juniper Berries (?)[/li][li]Bourbon - Whiskey made in Kentucky[/li][li]Cognac - Distilled Wine[/ul][/li]A few questions. Is this list correct? Are we missing anything? We also started speculating on what other things you could ferment to make drinks out of. (We were joking about coffee beans or peanuts). What property is it which makes a substance suitable for fermentation and turning into an
alcoholic beverage? (We guessed high in sugars or carbs.) Any home brewers or chemists out there?

“You can’t run away forever; but there’s nothing wrong with getting a good head start.” — Jim Steinman

Dennis Matheson —
Hike, Dive, Ski, Climb —

Agave is a type of cactus.

Hops are the bud of a plant. They are a natural preservative, that’s why they were e originally added to beer. People soon got a taste for them. Some beers are more hoppy than others - ie, India Pale Ale. It was originally brewed to ship to India from England, and they had to put lots o’ hops in it so it didn’t go bad over the long journey.

Most of the better gins have a mixture of herbs including Juniper to give it taste.

Don’t forget mead = honey.

Hops are actually a cousin of the marijuana plant. :smiley:

“I’m surprised that you’ve never been told before, that you’re lovely, that you’re perfect, and that somebody wants you.” - Semisonic, f.n.p

Former home brewer here (it is now dangerous for me to try and lift a kettle of boiling wort).
I note that several of the beverages on your list are not (merely) fermented, but distilled.
Anything fermented from grain (including non-cereals such as buckwheat and quinoa) is a “beer”, as anything fermented from fruit as a “wine”. In the U.S., and much of Europe, of course, barley beer and grape wine are generally considered to have the sole rights to those. A ferment of grain that one intends to use solely in distilling is a “low beer”; I don’t know if a similar term exists WRT wine.
Any distillation of beer meant to be drunk as such is a “whisk(e)y”; any distillation of wine is a “brandy”. Actually, most whiskeys do not contain maize; Scotch, Irish, and rye do not (I’m not sure about Canadian). Bourbon must not only contain maize, but be mostly maize (IIRC, the legal limits are between 51% and 80%).
*For fermentation to produce alcohol, one naturally wishes a liquid high in glucose. Various varieties of yeast can also ferment other sugars.
*You could undoubtedly ferment a peanut mash, although I’m not sure if the resultant product would be at all palatable, unless rectified by distillation to such an extreme degree that it might have originated anywhere. I’m not certain about pure coffee “beans”, but they can certainly be used in amounts of up to one pound per five gallons of wort (pre-beer) as a gruit.

“Kings die, and leave their crowns to their sons. Shmuel HaKatan took all the treasures in the world, and went away.”

“Tuba” (Filipino name, but commonly called that around the Pacific) is beer-like, made from coconut sap; occasionally from other palms (eg. buri palm), and sometimes with flavorings and/or preservatives (e.g. mangrove bark). Natural yeast fermentation, BTW.

“Tapuey”: natural yeast fermentation of sweet rice (Cordilleras, Philippines)

Similar “beers” are made in the Andes from corn (pers.exp.), and IIRC from bananas and cassava in Zaire.

Won’t go into distilled; list is too long…

“Proverbs for Paranoids, 3: If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

  • T.Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow.

Actually, I don’t think gin has juniper berries and whatnot in it to start with (during the actual fermentation); the flavors are added later during the distillation step by putting trays of juniper berries (and whatever else you’re using to give your particular brand of gin its distinctive nasty taste) in the distilling tower. At least, I can remember seeing gin ads that implied that.

I can’t think of the name of it right now, but the Mongols used to (and for all I know still do) drink fermented mare’s milk. I’ve also heard that some cultures in the middle east and Africa drink fermented milk.

And there are vodkas made from things other than potatoes. I think the difference lies in what is done with the product of distillation - vodka is the distillate mixed with water (I believe it distills out at higher than 80 proof? Or does that require multiple distillations?) and bottled; whiskies are aged in charred wooden casks, during which time they absorb ‘stuff’ from the wood, then bottled. Different manufacturers use different techniques, perhaps they also put other things in the casks(?), all of which contribute to the “unique” flavor of the product in question.

Now don’t get started on liqueurs…(but someone once told me they thought there just might be an opiate in the “secret” and ancient recipe to Drambuie - and that the stuff available in Europe (the Netherlands?) had a considerably different “kick” from what can be obtained on this side of The Pond.)

One potable you missed is Kool-Aid wine. How to make this was taught to us by my favorite biology prof.

Equipment:[ul][li]1-gallon glass jug[/li][li]Single-hole rubber stopper that fits jug[/li][li]1-ft (30 cm) hose (aquarium variety) that fits stopper snugly[/li][li]Drinking glass full of water.[/ul][/li]
Ingredients:[ul][li]2 cups sugar[/li][li]1 packet baker’s yeast[/li][li]Kool-aid, enough to flavor 1 gallon[/li][li]Water, enough to fill jug to rim.[/ul][/li]
[li]Place dry ingredients in jug.[/li][li]Add water to fill jug.[/li][li]Place hose in stopper.[/li][li]Place stopper atop jug.[/li][li]Put other end of hose in glass of water[/li][li]Wait 1-2 weeks.[/li][li]Open and drink.[/list=1][/li]
The yeast, of course, uses the sugar & water to produce alcohol & CO[sub]2[/sub]. The CO[sub]2[/sub] is pushed out the hose and bubbles out in the glass. This mechanism prevents foreign yeasts from entering the bottle while allowing venting of the CO[sub]2[/sub]. After the 1 or 2 weeks (I can’t recall exactly), the yeast dies in the 15%-or-so alcohol. You then have 15% alcohol fruit flavored drink.

(The foreign yeastie-beasties make other by-products that aren’t palatable.)

More notes on Tequila:

The agave cactus is a relative of the Aloe plant (it looks just like an aloe, maybe a bit bluer), and Tequila is made of the fermentation of the juice squeezed from its “leaves.” The Blue Agave is supposed to produce the best Tequila, and top-sheld brands often advertise the use of Blue Agaves. The “Mescal” agave (no relation to the mescal plant from which we get “mescalin”) is a popular one as well, though it tends to make lower quality tequila. “Mescal” as a drink is either (depending on the source) a term for a broader class of Mexican spirits which include tequila, or a tequila that has been produced in Oaxaca, a province of southern Mexico.

and now a question:

So Beer is to wiskey as wine is to brandy, and vodka is un-aged spirits made from just about any starchy product, and gin is practically vodka flavored with juniper berries, so what is schnapps? Is it distilled fruit wine? Flavored Vodka? Is Triple Sec/Cointreau/Grand Marnier just orange schnapps? And what about cordials like Drambuie, B&B and the like? Are these just flavored brandys?

Jason R Remy

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”
Warden in Cool Hand Luke

Our own dear Unca Cecil weighed in on this thread over in Comments on Cecil’s Columns concerning tequila vs. mescal and agave et al:

As to fermented milk, once milk has been fermented it does not need refridgeration thus making it popular in cultures that are wandering or highly mobile and have little access to modern refridgerators.

As for hops, type of vine usually grown with a pole. Used to be one of the main crops in this area in the late 1800’s, up until there was a hop blight. A little useless information for you.