Life Skills: How to Make Booze in the Middle of Nowhere

All the ingredients you need to brew your own mead. Kostadin Luchansky

How many times have you found yourself in the same old situation? You’re out in the Angolan wilderness, transecting a river in the hopes of creating a protected area that could secure water safety for countless of Africa’s endangered species, and you run out of booze. Okay, fine — maybe this scenario happens when you’re camping in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe you’re just strapped for cash and can’t spend precious coin on hooch. Fear not, my friend. Satiation may be closer than you think.

I have spent seven of the last 17 months living in a tent on expedition in the wilderness of Botswana and Angola. I can’t tell you whom I’m working for, but I promise you know who they are. Our goal is to establish a nationally protected area that will extend from the Okavango Delta, the most densely elephant-populated area on the planet, all the way north to its head waters in the Angolan Highlands. And while the idea that these months in the bush would be a great time to “cleanse” and “focus on what’s important,” after a long day of portaging 700-pound boats over land and paddling like mad to outrun hippos, I assure you, you can use a drink. So I asked my good friend Mary Izett, author of Speed Brewing, for some tips on how to brew my own booze. What follows is the easiest way to make the devil’s sauce with the barest of ingredients.

The absolute essentials: water, a sugar source, yeast, and a vessel in which to let the magic happen. Add in a balloon and some flavoring, and you’re high-tech like me. I’m traveling on a river flowing with fresh drinking water, but hopefully you aren’t thinking about getting sauced if you don’t have available water. For sugar I bought the most amazing honey from a local village that makes each hive from a single cylindrical length of tree bark. Yeast is all around you all the time, whether you like it or not. You can use common bread yeast, or, in a jam, leave your container open to the elements and let the universe decide what wild yeast will spice up your life. I left for Africa prepared, with a half dozen packets of champagne yeast from a home brew shop in Brooklyn. Different yeasts will bring your concoction to different flavors and alcohol levels, and champagne yeast is an especially sturdy variety that helps yield a high ABV (a good thing, because I’m going for the highest percentage I can get). Here’s the three-step process:

STEP 1  Start by mixing your beverage with sugar, water, and flavoring. For a five-liter jug I used three cups of honey, sliced ginger, an orange that was about to go bad, and filled the container up almost entirely with water.

STEP 2  Dilute some of your sugar with hot water in a mug. Slowly stir in the yeast once the water isn’t burning to the touch. When a light foam appears at the top (after about 5 minutes), the yeast is alive and hungry.

STEP 3  Dump the yeast into your container and secure a balloon over the top of your vessel. The balloon will keep random stuff out and begin filling with air as the yeast starts making your booze. All you have to do is keep the balloon from popping and wait.

After three days, a large chunk of the fermentation process is over. Give your brew a taste, and see if it has the alcoholic kick you want, or if you want to wait a bit longer. As a craft beer nerd who loves sours, I let mine go for two and a half weeks. The result is a puckery mead that comes in at about 7 percent alcohol. Bonus tip: If you add a bit of extra sugar, and secure a lid tightly around your container before drinking your beverage, it will self-carbonate.

So, whether you’re pulling your brew ice cold from your fridge or pulling it in by a line tied to the shore of the riverbed, sobriety doesn’t have to win!