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A Guide to Tropical Cider Alchemy

Chilli Lime Tamarind Cider:

10I don’t drink much these days, but I do make a lot of alcohol. As I write I have a rum mash fermenting and I’m cooling down the mash for the chilli lime tamarind cider (recipe below). I mostly share or trade the cider and rum, most recently for car mechanic services and yoga classes. Being able to share homemade beverages adds to one of the great joys of my life, hosting friends. But my interest in brewing and using tropical ingredients in my brews goes far beyond that. I’m personally interested in brewing for a number of reasons:
  • I want to use as many plants from my garden in my daily consumption patterns, especially herbs and medicinal plants.
  • It is an excellent way to preserve excess harvest.
  • It is delicious, fun and makes a great gift or trade.
  • I don’t support large alcohol companies and the type of agriculture their ingredients come from.

I’ve put together this simple overview of my brewing process to encourage others to take up the brewing task. This is merely a dip into a vast topic. This article is based on my experience being around many wild brewers over the last decade and the past year of a deep dive into the topic of brewing. I’ve had the chance to learn under some wonderful brewing teachers, starting with Laura Killingbeck and her ginger beers over a decade ago, and more recently Sharleen Ortiz and Connor Harron. At the end of the guide you will find additional resources for all your brewing schemes.


A note on: The difference between a beer, a cider, chicha, wine, etc.

The distinctions between these brews are quite modern compared to our species’ long history of turning sugar into alcohol. People always brewed with what was available seasonally and regionally until globalisation contributed to the homogenisation of our food system and choices. I find the distinction between these words only useful to help set expectations for what friends are about to drink. Pascal Baudar covers this topic well in “The Wildcrafted Brewer.”


The Tropics and Alcohol

As the micro-brew movement takes off here in Costa Rica, it seems like an ideal time to present an opportunity and challenge to the brewing community. Can we make a shift to tropical and local ingredients? The hops, barley, and wheat used to brew nearly all beers do not grow easily in the tropical latitudes. They are all imported, and although we continue, and likely will for a long while, to participate in a global economy, we also have to recognise its fragility.

What if we shifted to brewing and drinking ciders, beers, hooches, wines, chichas, and such that were made with only local ingredients? Sugar cane and mangos, corn and sweet potato, lemongrass and ginger, cacao and vanilla, jackass bitters and hombre grande—the possibilities of tropical ingredients are endless. You are only limited by your creativity.
fermentation costa rica permaculture

A note on: Yeasts
My primary recommendation is to use a diversity of yeast sources: a ginger bug, kefir water grains, pineapple peels, bread yeast, and wine/cider/beer yeast are all good options. The yeast you use will significantly alter the flavour of the final product. It is possible to collect your own yeast from good flavoured beers and reproduce these for your future brewing. The easiest way to do this is to backslop, which is when a small amount of nearly finished cider is added into a new batch 

Shifting to Tropical Ingredients

What I am requesting is a shift in our culinary habits away from modern European style ales and lagers. These are very recent arrivals to our diet, and do not reflect the vast brewing history that we find in the tropics. Traditional tropical alcoholic beverages were mostly thicker gruel-like drinks, low in alcohol content, produced from starchy plants like sweet potato, aguaje palm, cassava, or pejibaye. Additionally, sugar wines produced from abundant harvests of sweet fruits, palm sap, cactus pulp or fresh pressed sugar cane juice were historically common in the tropical latitudes. These beverages were almost always consumed fresh, as storage in this climate is challenging, and they were always based on what was in season. They were not clear and cold liquids like the modern beers so many of us enjoy.

I believe that we can find a middle ground. I believe it is entirely possible to create a beverage with the mouthfeel, clarity, and carbonation of the alcoholic drinks that we enjoy, while using exclusively tropical ingredients. This blog seeks to inspire you to do just that.

Fortunately there are a number of folks doing just this already in our country. I encourage everyone to try a beverage from the Costa Rica Meadery, Chichitas Cusuco, and Ginger Elixirs.


A note on: Supplies

At a minimum you will need a vessel with a lid or cap that keeps oxygen out. This can be an old two litre soda bottle with a screw off top that can be used to release CO2 pressure. For slightly more advanced brewing I recommend the following supplies: food grade brew buckets with airlocks, a thermometer, a hydrometer and flask, a caper for beer bottles, bottles and bottle caps, a scale, and an excellent garden, naturally.


fermentation costa rica permaculture

The Basics of Fermentation

When you make an alcoholic beverage you are participating in one of our planet’s most ancient and powerful technologies, fermentation. Much has been written about fermentation and I won’t attempt to add to that library here. The references at the end will be an excellent guide.

On the most basic level alcohol fermentation occurs as follows: yeast consume sugars and release two bi-products, alcohol and carbon dioxide. Happy feeling and fizzy drink, respectively, two birds with one stone.

Different species of yeast participate in this process, consuming and replacing each other while slowly converting the different forms of sugar (carbohydrates, glucose, fructose, sucrose) into simpler and simpler molecules.

The entire fermentation process should be done in an anaerobic environment to provide some control over the microorganism population and to prevent the alcohol from converting into vinegar.

fermentation permaculture costa rica

A note on: Vinegar

Brew in an aerobic environment and you will get vinegar. So leave the top of your brewing vessel open, just cover it with cloth to keep the creatures out and a few shorts days after the alcohol is produced, it will quickly be converted to vinegar by a different strain of microorganisms, Acetic Acid Bacteria (AAB). Often we get vinegar by accident in the brewing process by not properly sealing our vessels; this is a happy mistake.


Brewing Process

The basic brewing process looks as follows.

  1. Make a tea with all the wonderful flavours you want. Herbs, spices, bitters, fruit juice, and more can be added.

  2. Dissolve sugar into the tea.

  3. Cool the tea down to below 37 C or 100 F.

  4. Add yeasts, water, and any other ingredients, such as fresh fruit.

  5. Put into a fermentation vessel and watch it bubble.

  6. Drink when you like the flavour.

That is it. You can get far deeper into this topic. You can research enzymatic and Maillard reactions, you can attempt to create a drink that tastes a lot like a traditional grain and hops based beer using bitter tropical herbs, you can replace the sugar with your fruit juice, and so forth.


A note on: ABV, Brix and specific gravity

How strong do you want your beer to be? A good rule of thumb is that 450 grams of sugar in 3.78 litres of liquid will give you 5% alcohol by volume, or ABV. This is translated from one pound per every gallon of liquid, again sourced from Pascal Baudar’s work. Do some math and add more sugar for a stronger brew and less for something weaker. A more technical way to measure ABV is through measurements of Brix and specific gravity. Brix and specific gravity are measures of sugar content in your cider. They are useful to determine the ABV of your brew and are a good feedback tool as the brew progresses. Brix is obtained by using a Refractometer and specific gravity through a hydrometer.


permaculture costa rica
Image provided by author

A Few Recipes

All of the following recipes are for either 6 or 12 Litre batches.  These should help get some creative ideas flowing. Use these recipes to understand the amount of sugar and yeast to add to get the brews fermenting properly.

Tamarind Lime Chili Chicha: 6 Litres

Tea

  • 36 grams dried chilli picante

  • 170 grams fresh chilli picante

  • 2 packs tamarind

Sugar

  • 700 g cane sugar

  • 150 g tapa dulce

Fruit

  • 3.5 c limon mesina and calamondin juice

Yeast

  • ½ pack Safe Ale T-58 Yeast

  • 3 c ginger bug

  • Peel of 1 pineapple

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Image provided by author

Spiced Araza Cider: 12 Liters

Tea

  • 1 large bundle lemongrass

  • 1 large bundle basil

  • 1 large bundle tarragon

  • ½ c white pepper

Sugar

  • 1200 g cane sugar

  • 1 c tapa dulce

Fruit

  • 2 Liters araza pulp

Yeast

  • Peels from 1 pineapple

  • 1 c ginger bug

  • 5 g Red Star Yeast: Premier Cote Des Blancs

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Image provided by author

A note on: Bottling and Carbonation

If you want to bottle your cider, simply wait until all the sugar has been consumed. This is best indicated when the airlock bubbles less than once per minute or the plastic capped bottle is no longer pressurised. Once this has happened you can do a secondary ferment to create carbonation by adding a very small amount of sugar back into the brew and then bottling this. It is important to not add too much sugar, as your beverage can become over carbonated and explode, but if you don’t add enough you get a flat beverage. A good rule of thumb is ¾ cup of sugar for a 5 gallon batch or a ½ teaspoon per 350 millilitre bottle as per instructions from Pascal Baudar in “The Wildcrafting Brewer.”


Cacao Orange Rosemary Black Pepper Cider: 12 Liters

Tea

  • 2 c cacao nibs

  • 1 c black pepper

  • 1 large bundle rosemary

  • 1 c cacao husks

Sugar

  • 1200 g organic cane sugar

  • 1 c tapa dulce

Fruit

  • 2 liters orange juice

Yeast

  • 1 c backslope yeast

  • 1 c ginger bug

  • 5 g Safe Ale 33 package yeast

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Image provided by author

Passion Fruit Ginger Cider: 12 Liters

Tea

  • 2 large bundles hierbabuena

  • 3 cups grated ginger

Sugar

  • 1.5 kg cane sugar

Fruit

  • Pulp of 20 passion fruits

Yeast

  • 2 tbls bread yeast

  • 5g Safe Ale 33

 

Brewing with Porvenir Design

Our team at Porvenir Design would love to help you design and plant your garden and orchards to specifically grow food for creating wildcrafted ciders and hooches. Please contact us to learn more about our services.


Resources

Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz

The Wildcrafting Brewer by Pascal Baudar

The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart

The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz

The Permaculture Book of Ferment and Human Nutrition by Bill Mollison

Sacred Herbal Healing Beers by Steven Buhner

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