Update on HB 314 / SB 174

Not great news on HB 314 / SB 174. Last night, March 7, was so-called “crossover day” in the Georgia legislature.

30 days into the session, any bills that haven’t passed one chamber and “crossed over” into the second are technically dead for the year.

I spoke to Rep. Karla Drenner, who says that a lot can change from here. Over the next ten days, bills will be constructed from the charred remnants of the year’s legislative agenda, and the language of HB 314 / SB 174 can still be added to another bill and become law.

Now we cross our fingers and hope. Thanks to Rep. Drenner for supporting of the initiative – she was a co-sponsor of the original bill.

Please reach out to your Georgia House and Senate members and ask them to support keeping this initiative alive. Imagine owning a business where the state mandates that you can’t sell your product to your customers, instead you have to go through state-approved middlemen regardless of your marketing plan or scale.

Get rid of mandated middlemen in Georgia. Support small business and craft brewing.
Find your representative and senator here: http://www.congress.org/congressorg/state/main/

Is Kombucha Safe?

Recently I met a woman who brews kombucha, and I couldn’t help but ask if she had an extra scoby (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) so I could try my hand at fermenting it myself.


A kombucha scoby is a flat, rubbery disc that floats in a sweetened tea medium. There are a number of organisms in the mix, but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll say that there are two classes of critter involved, various yeast species, which ferment the sugars into alcohol, and various vinegar-forming bacteria, which ferment the alcohol into several organic acids, giving the finished drink an apple cider vinegar pucker and a bunch of interesting components that the average American diet likely doesn’t provide.

Some people praise kombucha as a miracle elixir that cures everything from baldness to arthritis to cancer; others insist it is untested and dangerous.

Look, kombucha had me at “fermented by a scoby.” I just can’t pass up what I’m calling a Microbial Village. That said, I want to understand what risks there are so I can minimize them procedurally, or make an informed decision about whether kombucha is safe to drink.

As far as I can tell, the CDC has documented a total of three (3) hospitalizations linked to kombucha – two in Iowa in 1995, where one woman died, and one in 2009. All three were suffering acidosis, in which the body can no longer regulate its pH and the blood becomes acidic.

Those are real data points, and certainly many more people may have had less serious negative reactions that didn’t require medical attention.

That sounds like a pretty tough indictment of kombucha right there, until you consider that caffeine sends thousands of people to the hospital every year, and has been linked in a handful of deaths, especially from products where caffeine is mixed with other stimulants and can create synergistic effects in the body. Admittedly, caffeine is used daily by the vast majority of the population of the US, but still. You’d think that if kombucha were some sort of silent killer, there would be more than three documented cases of serious injury in 18 years.

And then there’s alcohol, which is really the point of this whole blog. It’s a lot of things, but I can say with clear conviction that I don’t drink for my health. How many hospitalizations result from alcohol on an average Saturday night?

So is kombucha safe? Store bought, I’m going to say yes, in that the product will almost certainly be free of contamination. Will your body love a sudden infusion of live culture enzymes and organic acids? That I can’t tell you. Will it impact how your body uses prescription drugs you may take? I can’t tell you that either. I have a friend who hasn’t eaten grapefruit in years because it was preventing proper absorption of certain of his prescription drugs.

What about home brewed kombucha? Is that safe? That’s a more qualified yes – kombucha can’t be airlocked as it ferments because it needs to breathe, and the home brewer is pouring in cooled, heavily sweetened tea that needs some time to develop a pH adequate to ward off pathogens.

So there’s a risk of contamination, and it’s higher than in most contemporary home brewing scenarios. Interestingly, the scoby usually floats at the surface and will grow to the width of its container, so a mature colony acts a little bit like an oxygen barrier, keeping the fermentable liquid submerged (though this is hardly a perfect seal).

And come on, in nature, a sugary solution will usually become alcohol, and an alcohol solution will usually become vinegar. These are not unique processes. These are the normal pathways of sugar decomposition, seen everywhere that fruits ripen or honeycomb becomes damp.

So, I’m having a good time playing with my new kitchen pet and enjoying the tasty drink it produces. I thoroughly wash my hands before interacting with it, and I monitor it carefully for off odors or signs of surface mold. I’m starting additional scobys as a fallback in case mold or other problems develop, and I was inspired to pour some very old live vinegar dregs into a jar with some bad wine to see if I can’t make a vinegar mother, a very similar complex, producing a similar product.

My kitchen may never be the same!

For another take, here’s a good piece from other experienced fermenters who’ve decided to steer clear of kombucha.

We Support Georgia HB 314 / SB 174

There are a lot of changes brewing on the legal front here in the south. Alabama is looking to legalize homebrewing once and for all, while here in Georgia, legislators may roll back one more of the state’s blue laws and allow breweries and brew pubs to sell direct to consumers for off-site consumption.

Yep, you read that right. As the law stands today, if you take a brewery tour at Terrapin, Red Brick, Monday Night, or any of Georgia’s other craft breweries, you can sample beer as part of the tour, but you can’t buy a six pack of your favorite to take home. And if you have a great meal and a great beer at a brewpub like 5 Seasons, Twain’s, or The Wrecking Bar, you can’t buy a growler of their brew to take with you and have with dinner.

It’s a ridiculous prohibition that other states don’t force their businesses to live under, and it needlessly and unfairly penalizes breweries in a way that the vineyards of North Georgia aren’t forced to endure.

This blog proudly joins the Georgia Craft Breweries Guild, John Cochran of Terrapin Beer, Twains, 5 Seasons, and the rest of Georgia’s vibrant and growing craft beer community in supporting passage of HB 314 / SB 174.

If you would like to see one more senseless law rolled back and craft brewers empowered to sell their product more widely, please contact your state House and Senate representatives to let them know you support Georgia’s small business owners and craft beer culture.

Traditional Rice “Beer”

For Christmas, my brother gifted me with Sandor Katz’s excellent The Art Of Fermentation (affiliate link), and as I’ve been greedily tearing through it, I haven’t been able to help myself from trying some of the more exotic fermentation processes in it.

One that immediately captured my imagination is what he calls “rice beer.” Though, to be fair, the first thing you should do when you hear that term is drop any notion you may have of what comprises a beer. For the purposes of this discussion, a beer is a fermented grain beverage, and Katz presents a simple process, most likely in use in Asian households for centuries or longer, for using rice as the grain.

Basically – Cook rice and let it cool, add an Asian “Yeast Ball” (I acquired them at a local Asian grocery), put it in a crock and allow to ferment. But if it were that easy to turn universally available, extremely inexpensive rice into alcohol, wouldn’t everyone be drinking it?

Photos and my own cut-rate science below…

Let’s start with quantities. Katz says that two pounds of rice will yield about 3 liters of brew, so I felt like that was a manageable quantity, about 4.5 cups, which I cooked in 10 cups of water. The dry rice nicely filled a one quart container.


These are the magical Asian yeast balls (the link explains more about them), but unlike the packets of bread yeast or brewer’s yeast that you buy, these aren’t a monocultured strain of one organism. This is a community of yeasts, molds, and bacteria, because rice, unlike brewing grains like barley, lacks the enzymes necessary to convert starch to sugar. So while a home brewer can steep whole barley and wheat in hot water and drain off sugary wort an hour later, steeping rice that way will produce rice and warm starch water.


In my house, these went into a jar I labeled “Rice Yeast.” That should reduce giggling around the whole “yeast ball” thing.

So when you crush up a yeast ball and work it into cooled, cooked rice, you’re inoculating the rice with organisms sufficient to create a two-, or most likely, three-stage fermentation. First, the molds – Aspergillus oryzae and Rhizopus oligonsporus, and likely others – come to life and begin their metabolic processes. Aspergillus in particular produces amylase and glucanase enzymes, which brewers will recognize as primary starch converters.

As the mold life cycles liberate sugars from the starches, the second wave of fermentation ramps up and the yeasts bloom, devouring sugars and producing alcohol and CO2. The final product was quite sour, so there’s a third overlapping fermentation from lactic acid bacteria overlaid throughout this.


Crushing the yeast ball in a mortar and pestle. The powder has a sweet, floral aroma to it.

So the basic procedure is this: Cook rice, let it cool, crush up an Asian yeast ball, work it into your rice, then put it into your preferred fermentation vessel. Here’s mine, a one-gallon glass pickling jar with an airlock. I put it into my bathroom alongside a beer I was finishing at about 80 degrees.


Mmm…. fermenting food in a hot bathroom…

From my notes: “24 Hours – No significant change @ 80 degrees. Took to kitchen and removed lid. Aroma is rich, sweet, earthy, similar to oyster mushroom growing media.”


At the outset, there was a discernible structure to the rice mash. This didn’t last.

From my notes: “48 hours, noticed some yellowing [Aspergillus causes yellowing] and one spot of mold visible [which looked very much like this shot of Rhizopus]. Opened vessel and mixed a second yeast ball in. Stirred thoroughly. Strong airlock activity at this time. Aromatics are sweet, strong, boozy.”


There are two things to do at this point. One is pour this frothing rice thing into the compost. The other is to decide to eat it. Yeah, I’m that person.

From my notes: “72 hours – looks like sourdough starter. The ‘well’ shaped into the center has fully collapsed as liquifaction takes over.”


“85 hours – looks like porridge.”


The shot below is actually of bubbles forming and rushing to the top. By now the mixture has a goopy texture, and the bubbles rarely moved straight up the way they would in a more liquid medium. Instead, they’d form, then shoot away through all the liquid places in the mixture, so you’d see little ghost impressions of bubbles here and there then an eruption at the top.


Okay, so the next Friday, after fermenting for a week, it was time to test this out. Below, my lovely assistant squeezes the rice mash through a grain steeping bag.


We got two quarts of thick, milky liquid. Flavorwise, the closest comparison I can think of is to milk kefir. The flavor after a week at 80 degrees was both alcoholic and strongly soured. My assistant and I took these to a party where a number of people tried the Peasant Rice Brew. I wouldn’t call it a hit, but it was fun to discuss the microbial processes that led to that distinctive soured flavor and share a taste of what one might find traveling in rural Asia.


This isn’t an easy sipping kind of beverage. It’s more of a sour tonic beverage than an alcoholic beer, but it has several advantages – it’s gluten free and it’s dairy free. One food-sensitive friend commented the day after that she could really tell that she’d had some living food and was experiencing less intestinal trouble than she normally would, and I don’t doubt the probiotic nature of this stuff.

The mash left over from the straining was turned into batter the next morning and baked in muffin tins for a really lovely and unique breakfast. Soured rice mash with tart cherry preserves and cocoa nibs – that would have been a hit at the party.

I’m fermenting a five gallon batch of brown rice with a lot more water in it, at ambient temperatures. All in all, this has nearly everything I like – weird food, weird booze, and tons of microbes.

Cold Crashing in the South

For several weeks, I’ve had a carboy of pear wine sitting out on my back porch, theoretically to cold crash.

Cold crashing is when a brew is exposed to temperatures in the ~30s for a few days or weeks. The cold temperatures force solids in suspension to precipitate out, resulting in a clearer drink.

The problem with living in Atlanta and attempting to cold crash is that our daytime temps are consistently sitting around 70 here in December. I have a separate fridge, but at the moment it’s full of beekeeping gear. I guess it’s time to rethink a few things.

Catching Up On Beer Blogging!

Hello world! My November has been full of interesting. My NaNoWriMo effort failed after about 12,000 words when my main character, despite my best efforts, decided that the difficult event that starts the book is eerily similar to my last major breakup. And I found that I wasn’t having fun going through that again on her behalf, so that was that.

But there’s been plenty going on with beer. Scary Monsters II: George Lucas Had No Part In This is conditioning in bottles right now. It turned out extremely light bodied with a nice, full hop flavor. I may even want to fortify the body a bit in future renditions of the recipe. Lactose? A bit more dark or chocolate malts? Something.

Hop’s End is a ridiculously beautiful carboy of beer that throws a nice ruby-amber light into my living room every morning. I don’t even want to bottle that. Can I decorate with beer?

There’s more. I’ll be back to adding content on the regular like. I’m currently experimenting with outdoor cold crashing for my pear wine. More on that in a few.


November WhatNot

November is likely to see less posting than I’ve been going for so far (and even that’s been erratic.)

I’ll be participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) which I had a wonderful time with in 2010 and I’m excited about following it up. But it requires writing more than 1600 words a day to stay on track, and cramming that obligation into a regular life means some things get less attention.

That said, check out this little piece about what NaNo means to me over at Southern Spines. It really is an excellent challenge, but more importantly, the NaNo online community is really fun to be part of during the month.

I have noticed that Spyke’s beer/food recipes have brought a lot of traffic in, so hopefully she’ll drop in with some more of that. But mostly I want to say that if you stumble upon this blog in November and it looks neglected, it’s not permanent. Drop some comments, ask some questions, share your approaches to brewing situations.

And I’ll be back in December with more beer everything.