Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Making Your Booze from Spontaneous Fermentation

     Spontaneous fermentation is what happens when a distiller leaves the inoculation, the moment when yeast and bacteria come in contact with the wash.  Whatever organisms happen to be in the air or on the fruit that they are fermenting are the ones that make the fermentation work.   This is different from the process of most mass-produced booze, where industrialized, controlled yeast strains or blends are deliberately poured into a sugary liquid. All they know is that the fermentation will be, as advertised, spontaneous.
Classic Spontaneous Fermentation in Haiti for Clarin Production
     As we learned more about yeast, the more regulated and controlled it became. The goal of any alcohol producer was to deliver a consistent product, and the more they refined yeast strains, the easier it was to replicate the exact recipe of a beer or wine. But as any post-punk enthusiast will tell you, humans were born to rebel. After all this control in the world of fermentation, the focus has started to shift back toward the unexpected, the spontaneous. We're embracing ancient fermentation methods, and it's something to get excited about.

     100 percent exciting is the right word to describe spontaneously fermented booze, each sip pushes you closer to the edge of your seat. There is no right or wrong flavor. There is no certainty, no clear path to perfection. A second after the glass leaves your lips and is lowered to the table, you're already lifting it back up for clarification. What am I drinking? What was that flavor? Where can I get more?

     This fermentation method is nothing new. In fact, it's the oldest method of booze making there is. Before humans knew what yeast, bacteria, or ride-sharing apps were, they made party liquids by letting fruit juice or sugary water hang around in big jugs until something happened. It wasn't until the 17th century, when a Dutch scientist named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (great name, btw) observed microorganisms under a magnifying lens that we even knew that these little bugs existed. And it wasn't until Louis Pasteur actually discovered how yeast works in 1859 that we realized the role it played in fermentation.

     Spontaneously fermented liquor is seen much less frequently than other alcoholic beverages, but that scarcity is what makes spontaneously fermented liquor so special.   Clairin, a spirit that has been made in Haiti for hundreds of years and recently started being imported into the United States, starts with sugar, as rum does, but the liquid is inoculated through spontaneous fermentation. The resulting spirit tastes something like drinking a plantain smoothie through a straw made from just-chopped sugar cane. The fermentation technique brings a fruity, vegetal element, part palm leaves and caramelized bananas. From a flavor standpoint, it's a most captivating flavor from a liquor, Clairin makes many other rums seem boring.

But here's why spontaneous fermentation is something to seek out right now: It's a sign that the makers are so confident in their technique and understanding of fermentation that they're willing to forfeit control of the most vital part of the process. And they're having fun doing it. "I love the dedication it takes to start up a spontaneous program.  The results can be so beautiful."
Spontaneous fermentation is equal parts obsessive mastery and blind trust, and it's as much a result of the makers as it is the places, plants, and soils from which the ingredients come. It's about getting as close to the word natural as you can. It's a finger in the face of an industry obsessed with control, industrialized production, and a dogmatic adherence to tradition.