By: "Karl Dembling"
It started with a packet of yeast ordered from the Internet and a jug of apple cider from Wheatsville Co-op. My friend Elijah put the yeast, and quite a lot of sugar, into the jug and let it sit for two weeks. That’s what the article he read online said he was supposed to do. He kept the jug in his dorm room closet until, two weeks later, he called me and told me it was time to bottle the mixture. The night before I was leaving Austin after my first semester of college, I walked upstairs to Elijah’s room to help put the liquid into bottles. The two of us opened the jug and sealed the cloudy, bad-smelling cider into old beer bottles we cleaned with bleach and water in our dorm’s communal showers. The first batch was sour and tasted slightly like rubbing alcohol. That was expected. We didn’t have the correct equipment.
We were freshman in college, 18 years old, and running out of ways to get alcohol. Keith, who was 21 and still lived in the dorms, thought that we used him for his ID and that we didn’t like to hang out with him otherwise. A fourth-year who lived down the hall never picked up his phone. Therefore we would seize the means of production. We decided to brew our own alcohol in Elijah’s dorm room’s closet.
Neither of us had a car. At the beginning of the next semester, we walked to the corner of Dean Keeton and Guadalupe Street to catch the bus. We had two empty backpacks, a gym bag and a $70 budget. We took the 803 heading north.
The bus ride took almost an hour and the homebrew store was a half-mile walk from the bus stop. Inside, I felt a familiar sticky feeling that I hadn’t felt since high school – the same nervousness I felt every time I bought a pipe from street vendors on St. Marks Street in Manhattan while under 18. We wandered around the store, rifling through carbines, brew sets, piping and a fridge full of yeast. I tried to act normal and knowledgeable by scratching my chin and nodding in agreement with the descriptions I read on the backs of different packages until an employee asked if we needed any help. Elijah responded by asking directly: “Can an 18 year old buy all of this stuff and make a ton of alcohol?”
“You, young man, absolutely can.”
We explained that we wanted to brew the highest alcohol content for the least amount of money. And that we didn’t have access to a stove top. She pointed us towards a hard cider brew kit. “It is much easier to get started brewing cider,” she explained. “You don’t have to boil the mixture before the first fermentation.” It was approximately $40 for a six-gallon kit. We left with a bucket, one bagged kit of blueberry hard cider, a champagne yeast, a package of sugar, cleaning salts, a package of American flag bottle caps, a bottling apparatus called Black Bessie, and a strong desire to poison ourselves just enough to have a good time.
All of the contraband fit into various bags we brought. We sat down on the bus with our full, odd-looking bags and excitedly talked about how we would pull this off.
Elijah’s dorm room was across the hall and fifteen feet down from the communal bathroom which Elijah shared with the thirty other men who lived on his floor. He also shared a wall with the Resident Assistant, who I could guess would not have wanted us to be doing this. The bucket had to be sanitized before the fermentation process. I stuck my head out of Elijah’s room, looked both ways to ensure that neither the R.A. nor the more religious or prude freshmen were around. We ran across the empty hall and into the bathroom quickly, carrying the bucket and the tubing. We took the equipment to the shower in the back of the bathroom and cleaned it. Once clean, we returned to Elijah’s room, checking the hall beforehand, and began to brew. We emptied the contents of the brew packet into the bucket and mixed it thoroughly with water.
There is a hole for a rubber stopper cut into the tops of brew buckets. Inside the rubber stopper is a hole for an airlock, a piece of glass with a bend in it. You put water in the airlock to keep outside air from getting inside the bucket. When fermenting correctly, air bubbles escape the bucket through the water in the lock and spread a bread-like smell through the room. Throughout the fermentation process, when Elijah climbed into his lofted dorm bed just before going to sleep, he could hear the air bubbles escaping the bucket, as more yeast died from anaerobic respiration and more alcohol took its place.
When the fermentation period ended, it was time to carbonate the cider. To do this, we had to bottle and seal it. Before bottling, we cleaned out the tube and the funnel in the showers, maintaining the same level of caution as before. We placed 24 empty beer bottles, a half-gallon growler, a gallon jug, and an empty Tito’s Vodka bottle in neat rows on Elijah’s floor. We elevated the bucket by placing it on a chair, placed one end of the tube into the bucket, and sucked on the other end to pull the cider out of the bucket. The first taste of cider was sour and had bits of yeast and other unknown solids floating in the liquid. But after the first sip, the flow began. We evenly distributed the cider between all 24 bottles and tried to add an even amount of sugar to each bottle for the carbonation process. We grabbed Black Bessie and the bag of American flag bottle caps and sealed the beer bottles shut. The carbonation process was supposed to take three weeks.
Approximately two weeks into the carbonation process Elijah, while in bed, heard a bang and saw a dark blue fluid on the floor. Elijah’s roommate had a penchant for scientific experiments and Elijah assumed his roommate had poured the liquid on the floor. When he went to get dressed that morning he opened his closet and saw sticky glass and cider all over his closet and his clothes. One of the bottles had over-carbonated and exploded. He swept up the glass, did a load of laundry and told me what happened. Exploding bottles is a home brewing industry hazard.
The cider was ready for consumption on a Wednesday. Elijah, his roommate Joey and I gathered in their room on the fourth floor. There had been reports of below-freezing weather that evening, and thus UT had cancelled class until 2 p.m. the next day. We stuffed the generic mini-fridge, found in each dorm room, with as many bottles of cider as it could hold. Elijah had a cooler which we filled with ice and bottles of cider as well. But we could not wait for the cider to get cold before tasting it. We each opened a bottle, clinked the tops together, and took a swig. It was admittedly better than the first batch, but still quite disgusting.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity