Bread, beer, and Wine
Most of us love some or all of these! But they would not exist if not for yeast, a microorganism that can metabolize sugars anaerobically through a pathway called alcohol fermentation. Humans have been using yeasts to make these products for thousands of years, but only learned of their existence in the last two hundred years. How exactly do these tiny creatures make these delicious drink items?
Alcohol fermentation, also known as ethanol fermentation, is the anaerobic pathway carried out by yeasts in which simple sugars are converted to ethanol and carbon dioxide. So almost anything with sugar, fruit, sugar cane, milk, dandelions, or starch converted to sugar can be fermented and can create alcohol to various levels. (grandmother used to make dandelion wine - Never became popular but our lawns look nice)
When we started the journey into making sanitizer, we purchased 30,000 lbs of cane sugar as it is the least expensive and most readily available product to quickly ferment. Our brewery consists of a 16-barrel kettle and mash tun (496 gallons each) which we purchased in 2019. Modified to have mixing paddles in both the mash tun and the kettle, the design facilitates the production of whiskey and bourbon mashes and now sugar mashes. Our kettle and our mash tun are both fitted with rakes and paddles for low temperature conversion. This has proven to be extremely helpful in the mixing of 1400 lbs. of cane sugar per batch in each kettle allowing us to mix about 32 barrels (1000 gallons) in a three hour process. Mixed in at 130 degrees, cooled to 95 degrees, pitched with turbo yeast, fermented at 95-96 degrees in 48 to 60 hours to 13-15% ABV.
Once we have alcohol, we then need to separate the alcohol from basically the water in our fermented mixture. A continuous column still is almost magical as our column has 20 perforated plates which distills about 3 gallons of 15% fermented cane sugar per minute into about 1/2 gallon of Distilled spirits at 65% ABV (Alcohol by Volume). The beer to be distilled is pumped in near the top of the column (but not at the very top), and steam is pumped up from the bottom of the column. While the plates are perforated, this lets the steam come up through the still, but the beer does not drip down through these holes. Rather, the beer runs across each plate to the other side, flows down to the next plate and flow across it to the other side.
The steam coming up through the column vaporizes the alcohol from the beer (which then flows to the top of the column), while leaving the water to keep dripping down to the bottom. (As in every still, it is tuned so that the alcohol that has a lower boiling temperature evaporates off, leaving the water with its lower boiling point behind.) It's an incredible piece of equipment and after watching it run for about a year, we still sit there and wonder who invented this miracle.
Remember that sanitizer should be at least 70 to 75% ABV to kill viruses so our 65% alcohol produced above is not of sufficient strength to market as sanitizer. In fact, the guidelines that we are working under make us distill to 94.8 % alcohol for purity and then we dilute it back down to 81% ethanol with the addition of reverse osmosis boiled water.
So the alcohol produced in the continuous column still is put into a 250 gallon pot still (picture above right). The alcohol is once again vaporized in the kettle and then another 18 times in each of the trays that it needs to pass through in order for it to get to the chilling column. The vapor(spirits) is then chilled and returned to its liquid state as 95% ethanol. 250 gallons of 65% alcohol from our continuous column then becomes about 145 gallons of 95% alcohol. In our typical 8 hour period with both stills operating, we start with about 1000 gallons of 15% Fermented Cane Sugar going through our continuous column to make 205 gallons of 65% distilled spirits while at the same time working on the previous day column production in our pot still where the 205 gallons of 65% distilled spirits will become 128 gallons of 95% Spirits.
So now we have 95% ethanol which will kill most anything, About 237 percent stronger than the normal vodka purchased in a store. However, since the goal is to create sanitizer, unsafe for human consumption but safe and effective for killing viruses, we add hydrogen peroxide, glycerol and pure Reverse Osmosis boiled water to our distillate to make a product that has a finished ethanol reading of 81%. The sanitizer is liquid, not gel, so it is going to have a consistency of water but with the glycerol
Immediately following the blending, product is bottled and held for 72 hours prior to being made available to end users.