Almost any organic matter can be fermented and distilled into alcohol fuel, but corn or sugar cane are well suited to the purpose.
When this publication interviewed Lance Crombie, the Minnesota "homemade alcohol" pioneer expressed his hope that our article would inspire 100 other folks to set about distillin' fuel-quality (NOT drinking! ) "alky" to heat their homes, power their tractors and autos, and so forth.
Well, judging from the thousands of letters and phone calls that have poured into our offices over the past few months, Lance's goal has been met and then some! People all over the country are beginning to experiment with alcohol fuel, aka "farmer's fuel," and an overwhelming majority of the backyard researchers who've contacted us want to know how to go about preparing a" mash" (the to-be-distilled fermented mixture).
Just about any type of organic matter can be fermented and distilled to produce alcohol, though some substances are better suited to this purpose than are others. It's essential that the basis for your mash contain either fermentable sugar or a material (such as starch or—with the addition of an extra step or two—cellulose) that can be transformed into a ready-to-be-fermented sugar.
We chose corn for our initial mash experiments because it's readily available, an excellent "raw material" for alcohol production, is fairly inexpensive to buy or produce, and leaves a residue that can be used as animal feed after the distillation is complete.
Fermentation (the process by which raw corn becomes mash) is simply the action of microscopic yeast fungi upon a sugar solution. The tiny "plants'' consume the sweet substance (which is either added to the mixture in the form of cane sugar, or "freed" from the corn itself by sprouting, or both) and give off carbon dioxide gas and alcohol.
However, a fully fermented mash mixture ready for distillation is only between 20 and 25 proof, the equivalent of 10% to 12.5% ethanol. Distillation will then drive the alcohol vapors out of the solution and allow them to condense in a purer (less diluted with water) form. Of course, much of the liquid mash will be left behind. Depending upon the type of still used, this leftover mixture can either be run through the apparatus again or simply drained off. (In a really efficient still, most of the liquid left after one "run" will be water.)
The alcohol yield by volume usually equals about 14% (or less) of the amount of mash used (again, depending upon the efficiency of the distilling equipment). That end product should be high grade alcohol, which will test out to anywhere between 140 and 195 proof.
The Secret's in the Sauce
There are, of course, any number of mash formulas that can be used successfully. We've compiled three different recipes that have been proven effective by our researchers to get you started on your own mash production.
SPROUTED CORN MASH: This is a very inexpensive mixture which—because the sprouting (or malting) process transforms the corn's starch into sugar—will produce a mash with a fairly high alcohol content. The recipe is an adaptation of an old North Carolina moonshiner's formula that MOTHER EARTH NEWS' experimenters came across in their search for information about alcohol.
To begin, mix 25 pounds of malted corn (the sprouts should be between 1/4 and 1/2 inch long) with 50 gallons of 80°F water. Add 1/2 pound of finely crumbled baker's yeast—don't use active dry yeast (your local bakery can probably sell you this ingredient)—and 5 pounds of cane sugar. The mixture is then poured into a sealed mash barrel (see the sidebar that accompanies this article for details on building your own recycled fermentation container).
[EDITOR'SNOTE: In order to sprout your own batch of corn, you'll need several large plastic or wooden trays—most any shallow, large container will do—or a sprout cabinet.
Start the sprouting process by cleaning your trays thoroughly with a ten-parts-water to one-part-bleach solution (use a scrub brush if necessary), and rinsing them—just as carefully—with warm water. With this done, place a layer of unground corn seeds in the bottom of each pan, and cover 'em with three times their volume of temperate tap water. (You can, of course, produce and use less sprouted corn than our recipe specifies if you adjust the other mash ingredients proportionately.) Allow the containers to sit in a warm, dark spot for 24 hours, then drain off the water and respread the kernels thinly over the bottom of each pan. You might want to place a sheet of burlap beneath the seeds to help them retain moisture. They should be kept damp, but not allowed to remain wet enough to rot.
Rinse and drain the kernels once or twice a day to prevent the accumulation of mold-forming bacteria. In about two days you should have a fine batch of malted corn.]
CORN AND COMPOST MASH: This unusual formula was suggested to us by a fellow from Alabama, Jim Langely, who tackled the whole solar-produced alcohol problem by the seat of his pants and came up with a number of interesting ideas. In fact, Jim is now producing enough 195-proof "juice" to power his motorcycle and lawnmower! MOTHER EARTH NEWS is currently testing the Alabamian's still design, and if it works as well as Mr. Langely's results indicate, we plan to feature it in an upcoming issue of this magazine.
Jim's mash recipe, however, does require a good bit of sugar (and is obviously the result of some "by guess and by gosh" figuring). So, although the compost mix will certainly produce a product that's high in alcohol content, it might not be cost-effective unless you can locate an inexpensive source of the cane sweetener.
If you want to try the Cotton Stater's unusual formula, add 5 pounds of cornmeal to 4 gallons of 90-100°F water. Then, mix 1/4 pound of baker's yeast with 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of 98°F water. Stir the yeast mixture until the solid ingredients are dissolved, at which time you can pour it—along with 2 additional pounds of sugar—into the corn and water "soup."
After three days have passed, add another 1/8 pound of yeast, 2 more pounds of sugar, 1 or 2 pounds of any non-meat table scraps (such as most vegetables, starchy foods, or fruits), 1 cup of potato peelings, and 2 cups of green wood chips.
GROUND CORN MASH: We're including this recipe because of its simplicity and because it'll produce a quality mash for folks who might not have access to whole corn kernels in quantity. Just pour 25 pounds of coarsely ground cornmeal into 50 gallons of 80°F water, then mix in 1/2 pound of finely crumbled baker's yeast and add 5 pounds of cane sugar.
Probably the most important detail to remember when preparing any of the above mashes is to keep your containers clean. The fermentation process depends only upon the action of the yeast. Outside microorganisms—such as those found in the air all around us—can render a whole batch useless.
Therefore, it's very important to use bleach-scrubbed plastic or wooden vessels for every step in the mixing and fermenting process. (Metal drums can also be used if they're lined with fiberglass—or a plastic sack—and made to seal.) Furthermore, the containers must be equipped with some sort of air lock, which is a device that lets the fermentation-produced CO2 out, while not allowing any air in.
After the mash is poured into the "brewing" container, it'll only be a matter of time before the mixture is ready to run through your still. Depending upon the formula used, and the ambient temperature, the fermentation process can take from three days to more than a week. While the yeast is working, be careful not to move or jostle your containers, and be sure to keep them at room temperature or slightly above (anywhere from 72°F to 90°F is fine).
Watch the action of the bubbles in the air trap closely after the third day (but don't open the containers). When carbon dioxide gas no longer "perks" through the vent hole, your brew is ready. (Be careful, though: Mash has been known to stop "working" for a day, and then set to bubbling again with a vengeance.)
Another method of telling when your batch is ready is to wait for the "cap"—a layer of matter that will build on top of the mash—to drop to the bottom of the container. (This technique, of course, is best used with a transparent or translucent vessel because opening and closing the bucket could introduce outside bacteria that might stop the fermentation action.) When the mash has finished working, simply uncap the container, strain the mixture through a few pieces of washed burlap, and pour the resulting pure mash into whatever still you're planning to use.
There's More to Come!
And speaking of stills, MOTHER EARTH NEWS' researchers are hard at work testing three "backyard distillery" designs. At the time of this writing, all the prototypes show a good deal of promise.