Saturday, June 19, 2010

Whiskey, Bourbon, Beer.. and Sugar

This was not a subject I had planned to post about... but one thing led to another, and here I am. This post will eventually lead to another one on how to make your own sugar.

Several days ago I ended up on a site with a post about making moonshine, although I don't remember how I landed there except I was searching lacto-fermentation. (I don't drink anymore, I have no interest in making moonshine, and making it is illegal anyway!) The article was for a simple fermentation of water, sugar and yeast, and interesting from an educational point of view, but the more than 500 comments added some insights and complexity on various themes including the history and use of sugar in this country. 

We import most of our sugar (In 2007, the United States imported US$826 million worth of cane and beet sugar from the rest of the world), although imports are slightly down due to the rise in our government-subsidized HFCS (high fructose corn syrup, mainly GMO) increasingly used in foods. The world-market sugar price is currently 12 cents a pound (editor's note: its slightly higher at the moment), but Americans pay 23 cents guaranteed to our sugar farmers. Not done yet, we then turn around and sell that same sugar for an 80% loss to ethanol plants. Big Thanks to the Farm Bill.

Brazil is the largest producer of cane sugar (sucrose) and within 8 years they expect a significant portion of their sugarcane will be GMO sugarcane. I didn't find any statistics on how much of our imported sugar in earlier days was used for fermentation rather than household use in desserts, baking or candy-making, but I suspect it may have been substantial.

In 1790, United States government figures showed that annual per-capita alcohol consumption for everybody over the age of fifteen amounted to thirty-four gallons of beer and cider, five gallons of distilled spirits, and one gallon of wine. (That's slightly over one 12 oz. can of beer or equivalent amount of cider per day, less than 2 oz. distilled spirits per day, and half a glass of wine per week.)

I live in the Appalachian Mountains, long known as a haven for illegal moonshine (aka 'shine), so named because it was often done in moonlight to avoid detection. Tales of ATF destroying stills hidden in the mountains abound, along with stories of people blinded or dying by drinking impure shine. Moonshine is virtually a clear, unflavored alcoholic beverage, and 'proof' varies with the distilling process. 

A common quality test for moonshine was to pour a small quantity of it into a metal spoon and set it alight, the theory being that a safe distillate burns with a blue flame, but a tainted distillate burns with a yellow flame. Practitioners of this simple test sometimes held that if a radiator coil had been used as a condenser there would be lead in the alcohol, which would give a reddish flame. This led to the phrase: "Lead burns red and makes you dead." While the flame test shows the presence of lead and fusel oils (German for 'bad liquor'), it does not reveal the presence of deadly methanol, which also burns blue. Shine was easy to make: water, sugar and yeast were the only ingredients required, but two hundred years earlier sugar was very hard to come by. 

Sugar came from mostly from sugarcane grown in the Caribbean, and England had a strong lock on the trade. There was a sub-tropical ribbon cane syrup widely produced later on in the southern states, and as far north as coastal North Carolina. Horse or mule-powered crushers extracted the juice, which was then boiled like maple syrup. It is no longer a commercial crop, although it is still produced as an artisanal product. Google 'ribbon cane' for suppliers.

Rum was king in the colonies before the Revolutionary War (distilleries controlled mainly by the British), made from molasses imported from the tropical sugar plantations. It was often smuggled by small local coastal distilleries, along with what was legally imported (with high taxation).

The beverages of the common man were hard cider and beer, simple to make, with the raw materials (apples, corn, wheat, oats) readily available. Americans thought alcohol was healthful; they thought it aided digestion and increased strength. They took toddy's for the common cold, and women in labor were given a shot to relieve discomfort. Americans also knew water could make you sick; the European polluted waterways had taught their forefathers to substitute alcohol, so it was easy to continue that tradition here.

Whiskey began to gain ground during and after the Revolution. In the late 1700's, inland roads were seldom more than dirt tracks passable only by mules or horses single file. If a man grew corn and wanted to take it to market, it was almost impossible to transport it via a wagon over steep mountain terrains, and we weren't yet navigating the Mississippi. They figured out that by fermenting the corn into grain alcohol, they could reduce a wagon-load of corn to a product that could be strapped to a mule and easily taken to market across the mountains. 50 pounds of corn mash (which is just barely sprouted corn where the starch has converted to sugars) was the equivalent of 10 pounds of sugar for fermenting alcohol.

The Scots-Irish immigrants in Pennsylvania, Maryland, western Virginia and North Carolina became flourishing spots of alcohol production based on corn and rye. Kentucky capitalized on the abundance of corn, limestone-filtered water and hardwood for barrels, in making the famous whiskey coming out of Bourbon County. George Washington was one of the country's largest distillers at one time. His Mount Vernon whiskey distillery went from 600 gallons in 1797 to 11,000 gallons in 1799, the year Washington died.

Distilled spirits became popular and widely available; they kept better than beer or cider and were more potent. Distillation required more equipment but was also more economically feasible, and the raw materials (grapes, plums, blackberries, pears, cherries and apples) were abundant.

Of course, the government wanted a share. After the Revolutionary War, Alexander Hamilton (as Secretary of the Treasury) saw a way to fund the national debt by taxing whiskey in 1791. This was the first "internal" tax levied by the national government. Although Hamilton's principal reason for the tax was raising money to service the national debt, he also justified the tax "more as a measure of social discipline than as a source of revenue." Most importantly, however, Hamilton "wanted the tax imposed to advance and secure the power of the new federal government." That ultimately led to The Whiskey Rebellion which soon became an armed rebellion. This marked the first time under the new United States Constitution that the federal government used military force to exert authority over the nation's citizens. It was also the first of only two times that a sitting President personally commanded the military in the field. (Source: Whiskey Rebellion.)

The hated whiskey tax was repealed in 1803 but alcoholic beverages continue to this day to be heavily regulated and taxed by the government. Home brewing of wine has been allowed since the repeal of Prohibition, and legal home-brewing of beer since Jimmy Carter signed the omission into law in 1979. Federal laws permit something like 100 gallons of beer per adult per year, max 200 per household, but state laws take precedence. All 50 states are free to restrict or even prohibit the brewing of beer, wine, mead, hard cider and other alcoholic beverages. In fact some state laws say you can make wine but cannot take a bottle of it next door to your neighbor.

Alcohol interests me for its disinfecting and antiseptic properties, and also alcohol products to use in marinating and cooking.

Sugar interests me for its use along with salt in curing meats. Salt and sugar draw out moisture, and harmful bacteria do not flourish in that dry atmosphere. Of course, there's a bit more to properly curing meats than just sugar and salt, but those ingredients are basic. 

The price of sugar doubled in 2009 alone, and the financial crisis is greatly affecting sugar production world-wide. We can only expect the price (and GMO sugar) to continue to increase.

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