Take the guesswork out of the finished alcohol content in your natural fermentations by using a simple tool to determine potential alcohol content -- the hydrometer. Let wild yeast strains help you produce naturally fermented wine, beer, hard cider and even non-alcoholic drinks such as ginger beer, while still controlling the alcohol content along the way. Fermentation takes place naturally, but you are still able to control some things. Keeping an eye on the sugar level will ensure that you end with a stable and tasty finished product.
Natural Fermentation Basics
Natural fermentation differs from cultured yeast fermentation in that the starting solution is not inoculated with yeast, but is instead fermented by natural yeast through prolonged air exposure. Most wine and beer makers inoculate their musts and worts with yeasts that are proven to produce good results for the type of wine or beer they are making. Natural fermentations rely only on spontaneous fermentation to involving wild strains of yeast and bacteria present in the environment.
Fermentation is simply the process of yeast or bacteria changing a starch or sugar into alcohol or acid. By measuring the amount of sugar available in a starting solution such as must (wine), wort (beer) or apple juice (hard cider), you are able to determine the potential alcohol of a finished fermented beverage. Beyond the alcohol levels, one of the most important things you can do to create good wine, beer or cider is to pay close attention to cleanliness. Be sure to clean and sanitize all equipment used throughout the entire process to discourage the introduction of new yeasts and bacteria.
A hydrometer is a necessary tool to determine potential alcohol content of a beverage. To use a hydrometer, you need to place a sample of your juice, wort or must into the hydrometer jar and gently insert the hydrometer. Spin it one time with your thumb and middle finger and take a reading where the center point lies on the Brix and specific gravity scales. Check your recipe to ensure that you are in the correct range of sugar; if you are too high or too low, either add sugar or dilute with water to obtain a reading in your goal range.
Fermented beverages are typically inoculated with yeast strains that are tested to work best under certain conditions and alcohol levels; however, you can make a great brew using natural fermentation as well. When making wine, take a sample of the must 24 hours after crushing your grapes and allowing the juice to settle. Typical sugar levels for grapes vary from 22 degrees Brix to 25 degrees Brix depending on the variety, which creates a finished wine with 12.9 to 15 percent alcohol. When making cider, be sure to use unprocessed juice; chemicals in processed apple juice will prevent fermentation from taking place. Aim for sugar levels above 12 degrees Brix to end up with a finished cider with 6.2 percent alcohol; add sugar or use sweeter apples if your juice is not there.
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