Simplified Brewing, Winemaking, and Infusing at Home


By Scott Meyer

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For anyone who has considered brewing a batch of beer or mead at home, or making a custom barrel of wine with local fruit, this thorough guide will clear a path to the bottle. It demystifies the process: from planting hops and fruits to pruning, harvesting, fermenting, flavoring, and bottling one-of-a-kind drinks from your own backyard. It serves as a starting point not only for wines and beers, but also hard ciders, meads, and infusions, and even touches on at-home distilling

Perfect for the city-dweller, urban gardener, or anyone with limited space and a desire to make custom concoctions, Hooch offers projects to suit any lifestyle. With recipes for brews made from grapes, hops, and herbs, DIY boozers will find everything they need to begin a brewing journey.



HOOCH USED TO MEAN ROTGUT, SWILL, OLD GRAPE JUICE, FIREWATER, moonshine, and a lot of other unappealing terms for something you drink only because it’s all there is or because you don’t want to offend whoever is passing it your way. The new hooch is altogether different. It may be wine, beer, cider, mead, or spirits, and its purpose is not a quick and cheap buzz. It’s made from ingredients raised with care and it’s crafted with attention to quality from harvest to glass. Today’s hooch is all about hands-on experience and the deep satisfaction of starting with a handful of seeds and turning them into a glassful of cheer you’re proud to share.

Making your own hooch doesn’t mean you are a bootlegger, cheapskate, or eccentric. Well, maybe you are a little of each. But when you grow (or gather) the ingredients, then handle them yourself every step of the way from raw material to bottle, you become an artisan with a great story you can offer along with the drink: This comes from right here; its terroir is my home. Not that you need a vineyard that stretches for acres or a vast cellar to grow and make a batch of brew, wine, or spirits. You can do something in a city apartment, a lot in a suburban backyard. You don’t need to invest in expensive equipment to get started, and you can make drinks worth sharing even if you flunked chemistry in high school.

Transforming ordinary garden crops and foraged foods into sublime alcohol seems like it must be complicated, but it’s remarkably easy. The earliest civilizations discovered—most likely by accident—how to make wine and beer. Medieval monks and farmers managed to produce drinks that inspired poetry and earned fortunes without really understanding how it happened. Today, we know that yeast has the unique ability to make alcohol from sugar, and researchers have documented the variations in each strain of yeast’s reaction to different ingredients and conditions, making it simpler than ever before for anyone to capture nature’s purest flavors in a bottle.

Ancient people surely appreciated—and often celebrated—the sacramental and intoxicating qualities of the alcohol they had. But they may have just as well valued fermenting and distilling—the processes of producing and concentrating alcoholic content—as a form of food preservation. (A really pleasurable kind of food preservation.) You can’t overestimate the benefits of a safe supply of drinking liquids in times before sanitation made water a trustworthy option. We don’t have to worry about a safe water supply anymore, but fermenting homegrown ingredients lets us capture and refine their flavors, and enjoy them for years after they are harvested.

Our world has been so shaped for our convenience, we can press a few buttons on our computers or phones, and anything we desire can be delivered right to our door. So why bother growing a garden? Why go to the trouble of making your own wines, brews, and spirits? I say it’s worth it because the flavors of homegrown and homemade are the purest. Because you get to enjoy unique tastes that are not available commercially. Because many of us have discovered that something is missing from our convenient world. We are hungry for the genuine confidence that comes with providing for ourselves and we are thirsty for knowledge on how to do it simply. We’re growing gardens because we love fresh food, we’re preserving it to get a taste of homegrown food in every season, and we’re sharing our bounty with family and friends because there is simple joy in offering your effort and care to those you love.

This book is meant to show you how easy and rewarding it is to grow and make your own hooch. I believe the goal is to enjoy the process as much as the outcome, so I’ve emphasized the most natural methods every step of the way and purity over convenience for each ingredient and additive. When sharing information on growing, I focus on the organic approach, not only because I know garden chemicals are toxic to people and the environment, but primarily because they leave behind residues that affect the flavor of your ingredients. (If you don’t trust my admittedly biased opinion, ask any vintner or chef about that.) Likewise, I’m inclined to pass on adding sulfites when making my own hooch, though I realize many successful professionals and amateurs include them in their wines, ciders, and meads. I also prefer to use natural ingredients such as black tea and citrus fruits rather than purchase commercially produced tannins and acids. I don’t intend to badger you with this point and I certainly won’t condemn you if you find that you feel more confident relying on synthetic fertilizers and such purchased additives. I do hope you’ll first try to do without them and trust that over time you will acquire the knowledge needed to keep your hooch pure from start to finish.

In the twenty-five years since I planted the first seeds in my own garden, I’ve gained so much insight on what will work in my conditions, both from talking to other gardeners and from my own experiences. Mostly, I’ve learned that I’ll never stop learning, that every season is different than all the others, and that even if I dedicated all of my time and attention to my garden, there would always be new things to try and new insights to pick up.

The very same can be said for making hooch. The basics are very simple—as you’ll see in this book—and you can expect to succeed on your first try. But as you become more familiar with the process, you can vary your ingredients and the choices you make along the way, learning how each affects the outcome and discovering the formulas that create the results you want. No matter how many batches you make, you will find there’s always more to learn.

There is no substitute for trial-and-error learning, but, like gardeners, hooch crafters tend to be very generous with information and advice that can help you solve a problem. Local supply shops are not only a good place to purchase gear (while supporting a business in your community), they’re also a fruitful place to meet and talk to people with more experience. The members of forums on such websites as www.home-brewtalk.com and www.winemakingtalking.com also eagerly answer questions and share their findings.

In researching this book and learning all I could about the best ways to ferment and distill homegrown ingredients, I was helped by many generous experts, and I am indebted to them all. A few deserving special note include Diane Flynt, Vince Shook, Paul Zimmerman, Harry Collins, Zeke Ferguson, Jeremy Kidde, Jason Grizzanti, and Christopher Boyd.

The research and writing of this book was encouraged and supported by Christopher Navratil at Running Press and nurtured and guided by Kristen Green Wiewora, an editor with boundless enthusiasm and invaluable insights. Right here, I raise a symbolic glass to toast both of them. I’m also grateful for the thoughtful design by Amanda Richmond, the diligent fact-checking of Louisa Hargrave, and the smart production work of Carolyn Sobczak and the rest of the team of the Perseus Books Group.

Last, and anything but least, I toast you, dear reader, for your time and attention. You could just buy a bottle or six-pack and switch on the Food Channel. But here you are (at the end of a book introduction, no less) and about to embark on an adventure in growing and making hooch just because you can. I can think of nothing more toast-worthy. Cheers!



FERMENTATION HAPPENS: IF YOU LEAVE A SOLUTION THAT CONTAINS sugar and water exposed to air, naturally occurring microbes will feast on the sugars and turn them into alcohol or (depending on the kind of sugar) into acids. Prehistoric people, and maybe many other creatures, must have discovered this transformation by accident and found that fermented foods and drinks were not only safe to eat, but beneficial in a variety of ways. They found that fermented honey, fruit, and grains were pleasurable to drink and had medicinal and even spiritual uses. The earliest civilizations had learned to manage the fermentation process and by the time of the classical Greek and Roman periods, making alcohol and fermented foods was commonplace. In fact, fermented beverages were essential for public health in places where people settled and polluted their own water supplies. Still, it was not until Louis Pasteur studied and explained the activity of yeast and bacteria in the 1860s that fermentation was clearly understood to be the result of yeast’s digestion. Before Pasteur, fermentation was thought to be the result of spontaneous generation—a gift of God.

Fermenting is not just a way to make alcohol—it’s a food preservation process. Fermenting milk into cheese and yogurt are ways to keep milk consumable longer, just as pickles and sauerkraut keep fresh cucumbers and cabbage edible well past the time when they would spoil. Fermentation unlocks the precursors to and reveals the flavors of fruit and grains, and preserves them for years after. Fermentation preserves food because the yeast reproduces faster than the undesirable microbes that cause spoilage, and then the alcohol or acids that are the result of fermentation reach levels that kill off all of the microbes, good and bad. Fermentation lets you safely—and deliciously—preserve a wide variety of homegrown ingredients, as you’ll see throughout this book.

Fermenting is the first step to making stronger drinks, too. The raw ingredients in spirits such as brandy, apple jack, and bourbon are fermented to turn them into alcohol and then the alcohol and flavors are concentrated through distillation. We’ll get into distilling in Chapter 6, but here we’ll start with the basic information and steps to fermenting your garden-fresh foods.


Home fermenting can become a costly hobby, but it doesn’t have to be expensive when you are starting out. You do, however, need a few basic items to get started. Search online and at local supply stores; you may find well-cared-for used equipment that will serve your needs as you learn more about what works for you.


Moist, sugar-rich ingredients left in any container will begin to ferment, but when you want a predictably palatable result, it helps to have some simple, low-cost gear to help you stay on track. Most crucial, unless you protect the fermented beverages from oxygen, spoilage bacteria will turn your homegrown ingredients into vinegar, not alcohol. The items here are useful whether you’re making wine, cider, or mead. They also work for making beer, but that requires few more essential items that are covered in the chapter on brewing (page 26).

PRIMARY FERMENTER. When blending all of your ingredients and pitching the yeast, you’ll find it easiest to work in a container with a wide open top, like a food-grade plastic bucket. Beware of non-food-grade garbage cans, which may be treated with rat poison. A 6-gallon container is ideal, because it gives you plenty of room to make manageable batches from 1 to 5 gallons. Considering that a gallon of liquid weighs about 8 pounds, anything larger is too heavy to manage. You can buy plastic buckets designed for home fermenters, which have gallon markings indicating the volume levels and an opening drilled and plugged where a spigot can be inserted. If you get any other container—and you can find lots of suitable, food-grade buckets that are discarded by restaurants and other food-service operations—you can mark the levels yourself and drill out a hole for the spigot. Just be wary of any bucket that has many nicks and scratches where bacteria can colonize.

As you will read in greater detail in the section on oxygen (page 26), you can choose to allow your must to be exposed to the air during the active primary fermentation, though it does risk contamination by acetic acid bacteria (the kind that make vinegar) and other undesirable microbes that derail the yeast’s work. As long as the surface shows a head of bubbles, there is typically enough CO2 evolving from the fermentation to blanket the must or wort (the liquid that becomes wine, cider, mead, or beer) and protect it from the oxygen needed by acetic acid bacteria to survive. You want to at least cover it with a cheesecloth to keep bugs and debris out. For a safer, closed fermentation, get a bucket with a tight lid that can be fitted with a fermentation lock.

Primary Fermenter

SECONDARY FERMENTER. Glass carboys—large jugs with a narrow opening—are the choice for secondary fermentation of nearly every experienced home brewer and vintner. The carboy’s design is ideal for fermentation because it minimizes the amount of oxygen that comes in contact with the must. The cone-shaped top traps nitrogen, which forms a natural barrier to oxygen.

Carboys are commonly available in 1-, 3-, 5- and 6-gallon sizes. You can find them at yard sales and flea markets, as well as from online and retail suppliers like those listed in Resources on page 195. If you buy them used, be sure they have no cracks or chips. Get clean new caps for them.

When full, glass carboys can weigh 50 pounds or more. They’re hard to handle and are destroyed (along with your product) if they break. Rubber handles designed for them, available from brewing/winemaking suppliers make them easier to manage. Sitting them in large plastic milk crates works well, too. This protects them from separating at the base, as they may do if stored on a hard surface, such as concrete. If they separate when you pick them up at the base, you may lose a finger.

AIRLOCK. While you want to keep your must or wort from exposure to air during fermentation, you also need to let the carbon dioxide that is produced escape. An airlock, also referred to as a fermentation lock or a bubbler, makes that easiest. It’s a plastic or glass tube with a few twists and turns in it, with a rubber stopper (called a bung) with a hole that the tube fits into it. You keep the tube filled with distilled water or clear alcohol like vodka to prevent any microbes—or fruit flies—from getting down the tube and into your must or wort. Vodka keeps the airlock more sterile than water does, but it evaporates faster so you have to replenish it more often. If you go with water, refresh it every few days to prevent any microbes from getting established. No matter which you use, be sure there is always enough liquid in the airlock to be effective. An airlock also is a good indicator of continuing fermentation because the liquid in it will bubble (hence the term bubbler).

Secondary Fermenter

An airlock isn’t very expensive—you can get a basic plastic one for about $15 or delicate blown-glass models with more handy features for about $100—but if you’re on a tight budget when just starting out you can fashion a crude one by placing one end of a sanitized tube into the rubber stopper and keeping the other end fully submerged in a small cup of water.

FLEXIBLE PLASTIC TUBING. Transferring your fermented drink from one container to another is called racking and in that process you separate the liquid from its sediment—dead yeast and debris from your raw ingredients—so that the liquid becomes clearer. You make the transfer with flexible plastic tubing. A 6-foot length is usually sufficient, but you might want to get several lengths if you plan to ferment often because the tubing needs to be replaced as it ages. You can buy it from a brewing supplier or pick it up at a hardware store or home center. Just be sure it is labeled “food grade.” The standard tubing sizes are ⅜ inch and ½ inch. Clamps for both ends of the tube will help you control the flow of liquid and minimize messy accidents. It takes a little practice to get used to handling the tubing, so keep in mind that the end should never touch the floor.

HYDROMETER. A valuable tool for accurately reading how your fermentation process is progressing, a hydrometer measures the relative density of liquids to water, which is sometimes referred to as specific gravity (SG). (I’ll explain this in more detail on page 23.)

The standard hydrometer design for brewers and vintners is made of glass and has a long, cylindrical stem with a small bulb at the bottom containing a little lead ball. Markings on the side show the SG measurement. Basic models cost about $15, those with more features go for $40 or more.

The hydrometer works on the principle that a floating body displaces a volume of liquid whose weight is equal to its own; the lighter the liquid (that is, the less its SG), the deeper the body sinks because a greater amount of liquid is required to equal the body’s weight. When you use your hydrometer, keep in mind that temperature affects the readings, because water becomes denser as it cools. Be sure you do all of your testing at room temperature or use a thermometer with an adjustment chart. If you become more serious about fermenting, you may want to have two or three hydrometers with different ranges for more precision. Those that measure the 5 percent to –2 percent range are especially useful at the end of fermentation.

BOTTLES, CORKER, OR CAPPER. You can buy bottles from beer or wine supply stores, but you can also clean thoroughly and reuse empties from family and friends, or ask for them at local bars and restaurants. For wine, pass on screw-top bottles because they can’t be corked. Champagne bottles are made of thicker glass, so they hold up well under pressure. However, you need specific corks and wire for them. Beer bottles come in so many shapes these days, but the tops tend to be the same size.

Light is no friend of your homemade beer, wine, mead, or cider. You might like to see how it looks as it ages, but light can spoil its flavor and change its color. Avoid clear glass and stick with green or brown bottles. Wine left exposed to sunlight in a clear glass bottle will smell like rotten garlic.

You don’t have to bother taking the labels off used bottles, but if you want to, get a hair dryer and hold it near the label to soften the glue behind it. After you peel it away, scrape off any glue or paper left behind with an X-Acto knife or razor blade. Pure acetone nail polish remover is useful to dissolve the residual glue.

You can find a little plastic device to help you insert corks into bottles for $10 or you could opt for the $2,300 pneumatic corker, but if you’re making and bottling 5-gallon batches, a $30 floor corker is about right. Wear safety glasses when corking, as some bottles are imperfect and break under the pressure of corking.

Cappers for beer bottles have about the same price range and again for about $30 you can get a sturdy and easy-to-use model. If you are tempted to store wine in beer bottles, be aware that wine is acidic and will corrode the cap, and subsequently will taste rusty.

ADDITIVES. Grapes, cider apples, and malted grains have a balance of flavors that yield great-tasting drinks after fermentation. But many other raw ingredients—including most fruits and vegetables, as well as honey—lack sufficient acidity or the bite of tannins that those more common ingredients have naturally. You need to add those components to your must, or you may end up with a result only you are willing to drink. Keep in mind that microbes that harm humans can’t survive at a pH under 4.0. You can buy premixed acid blends (follow the package directions for amounts) or you can simply use freshly squeezed lemon juice. Use the juice from one-half to a whole medium-size lemon in each gallon of must, depending on how acidic the raw ingredients are. Strawberries and most vegetables are closer to neutral, so they need more lemon juice, while raspberries and tomatoes need less. Remember to always mix acids into your must before you pitch the yeast.

Tannins are an essential flavor component of all but the sweetest wines, and they’re not naturally present in almost any fresh food except grapes and apples. So you need to add them, but because the flavor is noticeably bitter, you want to add only small amounts. You can buy powdered tannin blend, often made from dried grape pomace, or you can add black tea to your must. The blacker and stronger the tea, the better. If you add tannin powder to red wine before it ferments, it will combine with protein in the must and stabilize the naturally occurring tannins, making the color more even and the flavors softer.

Pectins are compounds in many fruits that help them to gel, which is desirable when you’re making jam but not when you’re fermenting. You’ll see in the section on making wine that pectic enzyme is recommended with some fruits—the enzyme breaks up the pectins before they can set and ruin your drink. Pectic enzyme also breaks down cell walls, releasing more of the fruits’ flavor compounds. You can buy it in liquid or powdered form—the latter costs less, does not need to be refrigerated and is sufficiently effective for making small batches of wine. If you add sulfites to your wine (more on that in the next paragraph), wait at least ten hours after before mixing in the pectic enzyme.

CAMPDEN TABLETS. Commercial winemakers and many home fermenters rely on campden tablets (potassium metabisulfite) to kill off wild yeasts and other unwelcome microbes that accompany fruit from the field to the fermentation bucket. The sulfite is also used to stop fermentation before the yeast has consumed all of the sugar, giving the tightest control over the sweetness and alcohol content. It is also added during the secondary fermentation period to protect the drink from oxidation. It’s sold in tablet form, with each containing about one-half gram of the compound. Sulfites reduce your risk of spoilage but some people have allergic reactions to them, others say they can taste the residues in the finished product. For me, the natural way is almost always the best—take care of the ingredients from harvest to fermentation bucket, be diligent about sanitation and airspace while you are fermenting and you can make wine without sulfites. Many winemakers who know the source of their fruit opt not to use sulfites before fermentation, but do use them at bottling if the wine will be aged over six months. Sulfite is the only substance known to protect wine from both oxidation and from bacterial spoilage.

Be aware that sulfites, sulfates, and sulfides are entirely different chemicals. If you can eat a “golden” raisin or a fig Newton without an allergic reaction, you’re not allergic to sulfites.


The gear covered in the preceding section is essential (except for the sulfites). It’s possible to do without some of the items, but not easily. The stuff in this section may not be necessary, but each item can help you to be more successful. You can add them to your kit as your interest and time investment grow. They are listed in the order of how helpful they are.

PH METER. Acidity level is so crucial to the effective functioning of yeast. You’ll get a lot of reassurance that your must or wort is on track if you check the pH before you start fermenting. Knowing the pH will tell you not how much acid you have, but how much is in an active, ionized state. Such minerals as potassium can “buffer” the acids, raising the pH to the point where bacterial spoilage is possible, leaving the drink flat tasting and off-color. Old-fashioned pH test strips work, but a multi-feature electronic meter with thermometer included gives you lots of valuable information you can use throughout the process. A good one can cost $75 or more, but you’ll use it often. If you do use a meter, standardize it often for accurate readings.

pH Meter

RACKING CANE. The aim of racking your drink, or moving it from one container to another, is to separate the liquid from the dead yeast and other sediment in the container. A racking cane attaches to flexible tubing and is curved on the end that goes into the full container—it keeps the tube from resting on the bottom, where the sediment is concentrated. The handiest racking canes have a siphon included so you can generate suction to start liquid flowing.

Racking Cane

FRESH FRUIT PROCESSORS. Large-scale operations have equipment for turning fresh fruit into juice, but you don’t need to set up a manufacturing plant to make processing fruit easier and cleaner for you. You can find fruit presses that fit in a basement or garage for less than $500 and a crusher/destemmer that can sit on a tabletop for around $200. Both allow you to speed up the process significantly. Juicers and pitters also help and may be found at yard sales and flea markets. Pulp bags and strainers make it easier to extract the flavor from a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, and herbs while keeping particles that can mar the flavor or clarity out of your must.

REFRACTOMETER. A handheld device that measures how light refracts through a liquid, a refractometer is often used by wine and cider makers to assess the sugar content of fruit. This is a standardized way of determining ripeness. To use it, a sample of juice is placed between a calibrated prism and a covering plate, then the refractometer is held up to your eye, allowing you to see a line on the scale marked inside. There are many different models—you want to be sure to get one with automatic temperature compensation, because changes in temperature affect the readings.

BOTTLE FILLERS. Funnels and tubes let you fill one bottle at a time, which won’t take too long with a batch of 5 gallons. But if you start to make bigger batches or want to keep the bottling process cleaner and easier, get a three- or five-spout bottle filler. It’s compact enough to fit into a garage or basement.


  • Good Spirit News
    “Looking to create your own beer, wine and spirits at home? Look no further…[T]he directions by Mr. Meyer, make it all seem quite simple. The section on resources is highly recommended.”

    “It's hard not to at least pick up and peruse a book called "Hooch"…Brewers with an organic sense, adventurous palate and love of gardening might be interested.”

    “Whether it's a way to make cider from apples, mead from honey, or gin infused with rose hips, Meyer is still at it, at the still, distilling step-by-step knowledge into inebriating wisdom.”

On Sale
May 28, 2013
Page Count
208 pages
Running Press

Scott Meyer

About the Author

Scott Meyer is a former editor-in-chief of Organic Gardening magazine, and a frequent writer of all varieties of do-it-yourself. He is the author of The City Homesteader and he lives in the Philadelphia suburbs.

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