Fermented Beverages Beyond Beer–Ever Heard of Tonto or Pulque?

Fermented Beverages Beyond Beer–Ever Heard of Tonto or Pulque?

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Indiana On Tap obsesses over Indiana craft beer. Beer is a brewed and fermented craft beverage, but it isn’t the only fermented craft beverage in our state. We also follow the doings of Indiana meaderies and cideries. There’s kombucha too; we have three kombucha companies in Indiana, even if none of them have a tasting room — yet. There’s Circle Kombucha in Indianapolis – they distribute the most widely, Presto Kombucha in Carmel, and Crossroads Kombucha in Fort Wayne.

Most craft beer fans know that mead is fermented honey or mostly honey, if it’s more than 51% grain and less than 49% honey, then it is called a braggot). Hard cider is fermented apple juice, but do you know what kombucha is? If you brew some tea and then ferment it with a SCOBY mother (Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast), then you get kombucha. The alcohol level is very low – low enough that it can be sold people under 21 and is not regulated like alcohol drinks, but some kombuchas can be fermented longer and have the ABV of a light beer. I’ve experienced kombucha most often as a mixer with beer in a shandy.

We’ve named the big four of fermented (but not distilled) beverages for Indiana, but there so many others around the world. Wine is a fermented fruit juice without the step of heating the sugar solution or using enzymatic processes to prepare the sugar for fermentation, so we’ll leave it out of this discussion. A quick search for fermented beverages led to the list below, with every part of the world represented and many mechanisms used for brewing and fermenting. The history of these beverages tells us that every civilization has developed alcoholic drinks early in their development, so it must be an important thing biologically and/or culturally. Perhaps the Indiana craft beverage industry will expand to having a tasting room for one of these drinks……or maybe not, wait until you see what some of these drinks are made from.

Basi is called sugar cane wine, but since it is boiled it really isn’t a wine. image credit: Manila Wine

Basi or rumbullion – This is fermented sugar cane or molasses. If it were distilled, it would be rum. The Basi version in from the Phillipines. The sugarcane juice is boiled and mixed with samac leaves and different barks. The leaves have high levels of wine yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, on them which causes the sugarcane juice to ferment. After the fermentation, basi wines are tusually aged for 6-12 months in clay pots. Some basi are aged up to 10 years where they gain about 1% ABV each year. Basi has a sweet and sour taste with bitterness based on the barks used.

Rumbullion is an old name for molasses-based undistilled rum; however, there is now a commercial spiced rum by that name, so things get clouded when looking it up. The molasses used should be top grade, but it needs to be distilled with water, because the gravity of 100% molasses is too high for the yeast to survive and ferment. It can take up to three months for traditional rumbullion to fully ferment, and it will be very tart of the first six months or so. Therefore, most is drunk after about a year of aging.

Chicha – Chicha is made from fermented corn. We’ve talked about this before in an article about rarely made beer styles (here), but basically this drink uses the enzymes in the saliva of the maker to break down the long chain sugars in the corn (or sometimes other sugar sources). Since the corn isn’t malted, there are no enzymes to produce fermentable sugars. The chichi maker chews the corn to release starch and the enzymes in their spit do the work. Of course, I suppose that you could use commercially produced amylases and a mill to crack the corn open; I might prefer that.

Chuoi hotTonto or Cauim – is fermented bananas, often made in Africa and the Far East. It’s basically a matter of using what grows in a region to produce different foods and drinks. Bananas grow well in Uganda and Rwanda – this is what they have, so this what they use. Go somewhere else, and basically just the name changes, the process is remarkably similar all around the world.

The bananas, still in their peels, are left in a pit for several days to ripen. Only then are they skinned and kneaded down. This juice is filtered out of the mash and is diluted with water. To introduce a yeast, they mix the banana juice with millet or sorghum and make use of the yeasts that are naturally on the grains. Fermentation results in a 7-11% ABV “beer” that is found at practically all traditional celebrations in many countries. It is a bit sweet and a bit sour, and the products can range from clear to fairly thick and yellow-brown.

Tonto is fermented in wooden troughs and stored in fairly open vessels. image credit: Thoughts of Alex Termwa

Kasiri (sometimes also called chicha) – The cassava plant from which kasiri is made has fibrous flesh, so in some parts of the world the flesh is grated before fermentation, while in others (Brazil) the chew and spit technique is used. Surprisingly, this fermented beverage is gaining popularity in the European craft beer market – I bet it isn’t the chew and spit version. The commercial version of kasiri hard to make since cassava starts to rot as soon as it is harvested.

The version breaking into the larger market comes from Mozambique, the most popular brand being Impala, where the barley is replaced with cassava. Unfortunately, the Impala brand is owned by SAB Miller. By 2017, Impala was selling 100 million bottles a year, all at about 6.5% ABV, higher than for most other mega-beer products.

Kefir – a fermented milk drink that comes out like a thin yogurt. It is sold commercially in many countries and users swear it has pro-biotic and other health benefits. It is fermented through the use of kefir grains, a biofilm dried to a grainy mass and consists of bacteria and yeasts in a polysaccharide and protein matrix. Since most beer-producing yeasts don’t ferment lactose (milk sugar), the yeasts of the kefir include Kluyveromyces strains. Traditionally made in a goatskin hung by the door, people would punch the goatskin every time they came in or left to keep the fermenting milk mixed with the kefir grains. Most mammalian milk can be fermented with kefir grains, as can milk substitutes like soy, rice or nut milk.

Traditional kefir is about 2% ABV, but that which is sold in grocery stores is about 1/10th of that, on the order of a weak kombucha. In other parts of the world, this kind of drink might be known as airag in Mongolia, or kumis in Turkey. Both of these call for using mare’s milk. These also tend to have a bit more alcohol, perhaps as much as a session beer.

Kvass – in the traditional sense, this is a fermented beverage made from rye bread, what people in the Slavic and Baltic countries call black bread. If you don’t need to be precise, some kvass beers are made with wheat or barley bread. Nowadays, some breweries will make kvass type beers just using rye as the only grain. Often they are flavored with fruits or berries.

Kefir grain for fermenting milk. image credit: The Edible Commandments

Malt is often used to start the sugar breakdown, and this is combined with the breadcrumbs and water and stirred to a paste. The wort is never boiled, so other organisms will grow, leaving most kvass beers a bit tart from lactobacilli. Traditional examples are relatively low in alcohol, but craft versions tend to use modern production methods to increase the efficiency and resulting ABV.

Perry – this is fermented pear juice, but it’s not the same as pear cider. Pear cider can be made with the juice of any edible pear, but perry is made from specific species of pears that really aren’t edible. They hard very hard, have high levels of tannins, and an acid bite that balances the sweetness.

Perry has been made for the longest time and is most popular in England. Finished perry doesn’t really taste like pear, just like finished wines don’t really taste like grapes. Perry will be paler and more delicate than apple or pear ciders. Bottled conditioned perries will be like champagne. Like some wines that end up buttery (see this article) many perry makers use malolactic acid fermentation with can produce diacetyl, but also very floral or citrus aromas.

Pulque – is a fermented, but not distilled agave. If it were distilled, it would likely be tequila. This drink is also native to Mexico, as that is where most of the agave grow. The finished product is whitish, making it look a lot like toddy (see below) or kefir, and it is rather viscous yet sour.

Pulque is made from the uncooked sap of the maguey agave, while mezcal is made from the cooked flesh of several different agave species. Differently, tequila is almost always distilled from fermented blue agave. In long history, pulque has been a more important drink than either mescal or tequila, having once been held sacred and available only to the highest classes.

Gathering agave juice for pulque. image credit: Carolina Castillo Crimm

The fermentation of maguey agave sap for pulque is carried out by naturally occurring bacteria on the plant, called Zymomonas mobilis, and fermentation takes place over one to two weeks. Trade secrets from each maker are used to prevent complete souring of the beverage. The fermentation is never stopped, so the time from peak fermentation to consumption has to be short, or it will spoil.

Sake – which also goes by many other names – this is a rice wine that can served hot or cold, depending on the particular sake. In truth, sake in Japanese means “alcoholic drink” so when we say sake, we are really referring to what the Japanese call “nihonshu.”

Though it is called a wine, sake is made more like beer, where the starches are broken down by brewing with enzymes and the resulting simple sugars are fermented (wine starts with simple sugars). Unlike beer, rice starch is converted to simple sugars and then fermented all in one step, whereas with beer this is done in two separate steps.  Sake can go off at 18-20% ABV if not diluted, so the single step process certainly doesn’t hurt the efficiency of the yeast.

In fermentation, Aspergillus oryzae mold is used first and then brewers yeast is added. Over a period of days, volume of fermented rice (where the A. oryzae breaks down the starches and the yeast ferment sugars to alcohol), steamed rice, and water are added at various times to create the breakdown and fermentation products. Therefore this is called a multiple parallel fermentation. A Korean version made in this two stage fermentation but with different organisms and flavorings is call makgeolli.

Tepache uses the leftovers from pineapples. image credit: Frontier Co-op

Tepache – This is fermented pineapples from Mexico, and is called pineapple wine in Hawaii. However, it’s not made with the flesh of the pineapple, instead the rind and core are fermented for several days. As such, this is also a very green drink because it uses the parts of the fruit that are usually thrown away.

In Mexico, tepache is sold by street vendors, and bodegas in the US often carry it as well. The natural flavors are enhanced with a bit of brown sugar and cinnamon, and the fermentation isn’t too long, resulting a fairly low ABV beverage. The fermentation comes from naturally occurring yeasts on the fruits, so don’t use pineapples that have been irradiated. The alcohol content can be kicked up a bit by adding some beer to the mix and making a tepache cocktail.

Tiswin – is fermented saguaro cactus. The lack of a reliable source of tiswin is supposedly one of the reasons that Geronimo and his men left their reservation and tried to get back to their homeland. However, some sources say that tiswin is made from malted corn (unlike chicha which is unmalted corn).

Toddy (or many other local names)– is a fermented the sap of different types of palm trees, is made anywhere palms grow, and is sometimes called palm wine. The toddy name is from Malaysia. This is a green kind of drink because the palm trees are used to collect sap, but it doesn’t kill them and they can continue to produce fruits and be tapped for many years.

Toddy looks like it’s made from coconut milk, but it’s actually from the sap of the tree. image credit: Ayurveda Gurukulam

Natural yeasts in the air start the fermentation of the sap almost immediately after it is collected. Fermentation to about 4% ABV takes only a couple of hours, but it can be extended for a day or so to increase ABV (but it also becomes more acid and sour).

There are so many regions where this drink is consumed, and it isn’t limited to humans. Some small mammals will consume the sap that has leaked from a tree and fermented, or the nectar of the flowers that also ferments in air. However, most of the animals metabolize the alcohol efficiently and don’t appear drunk, although officials can’t get them to agree to a breathalyzer test.

Tongba or boza – is beer made with millet. It is produced and drunk mostly in the mountains regions of eastern Nepal. Millet is cooked down a bit and then fermented with a mix of bacteria and yeast for up to six months. Then the drink is aged a bit longer and the bitterness goes away.

To drink it, people put the Jaand liquid in a cup called a Tongba (where the drink gets its most common name) with a bit of boiling water. You drink it hot with a straw that has a porous lower end to keep the millet out of your mouth. Then you can refill the cup with more hot water and steep the fermented millet again, some people say the grain is good for four or five refills before it loses potency.


banner image credit: farmdrop.com

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