This article originally appeared on VICE en Español.
For some, recalling the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic brings to mind the dense, rich smells of sourdough bread and kimchi. With time on their hands and nowhere to be but home, the world’s quarantined masses turned to fermentation.
One cook whose interest predates the pandemic is Florencia Juárez Marrades, a 26-year-old Argentinian expert in what’s known as ancestral cooking. She is dedicated to making booze from scratch in the most natural ways possible, using ancient methods and techniques – and that’s properly ancient: archaeological records show the Egyptians started using malt and yeast to make beer and bread in around 4,000 BC.
Juárez's interest in ancient alcoholic ways was awakened on a trip to Scotland and Ireland a few years back. Photo: Florencia Juárez
Juárez and her partner, Nelson Ortega, want to modernise the ancestral. “We’ve brought flavours that were being left behind back to life,” she says. Alcohol plays a starring role in the classes Juárez and Ortega teach, with ancestral beers a speciality. What makes a so-called ancestral beer different from your standard pint of lager is the yeast. “We only use wild yeasts, cultivated from ingredients you have in the house,” Juárez says.
Alcoholic fermentation is a chemical process where yeast, a type of fungi, turns sugars into a new substance, booze. While practically all yeasts are edible, not all are efficient at making drinkable beer. “Some dogs are bloodhounds, others are guard dogs. Yeasts are the similarly varied,” Juárez says. “If we want to ferment alcohol, the type of yeast used has to be one that thrives in very sugary environments.”
Tons of foodstuffs can be fermented and turned into booze, but beer is traditionally made out of fermented cereals. “I can make a beer out of rice, out of wheat and quinoa,” Juárez said. As long as you’ve got a cereal element, a sugar element and a fermentative element, you’ve got beer.
But making ancestral beer requires a deep understanding of how best to use the myriad wild yeasts available to us, which means it’s best to leave it to the professionals. Instead, you can try making your very own mead – a honey-based near-relative of beer – at home. To that end, Juárez provided an easy-to-follow recipe for your very own Viking-approved homebrew.
You’ll need approximately 2,500ml of filtered or mineral water and between 800g and 1kg of pure, raw honey. That’s it.
In a big, wide-necked glass jar, dilute the honey and water. Cover with a cloth or towel, without sealing it hermetically. As the days go by, you will start to see bubbles emerging. Continue turning and oxygenating the drink twice a day, every day.
With this initial fermentation, you want air to get in every day so that the yeasts in the honey – which are what will later create the alcohol – start to multiply. Between day 12 and 15, the honey water will already smell of alcohol. and you should try it to check that it’s getting less sweet.
Brewed for this long it tends to clock in at around 4 percent ABV, meaning it’s about as potent as a standard session ale. Juárez says that if you want a more precise metric for both this and the following stage, it’d be worth investing in a hydrometer, which is a cheap bit of kit that gives brewers an insight into how much of the sugar in their drink has been converted into alcohol.
If you want a drink with a bit more punch, you'll have to wait a while. Bottle it with an airlock and let it ferment without oxygen for between three months and a year. This stage is called the second fermentation, which is where the percentage of alcohol increases. That’s it – in just a few months you’ll have something to show off at the next ancient Greek dinner party you’re invited to.
A jug of Viking-friendly homebrewed mead. Photo: Florencia Juárez
One of the other immediate differences between ancestral brews and the six-pack of pilsners you’d pick up at the off-license is the pasteurisation process. Commercially brewed beer needs to be as clean as possible to be produced at scale and distributed across the world. That’s why brewers tend to run their finished bottled or canned products under hot water sprays, a process that wipes out bacteria and stops the yeast from growing.
Juárez says that when it comes to the beer she and Ortega specialise in, pasteurisation isn’t entirely necessary. She claims the wild yeasts the pair use are “resistant to contamination”, as opposed to commercially used ones, which are susceptible to it.
Researchers, however, are not entirely clear on this, since our scientific knowledge of wild yeast fermentation is currently very limited. According to a 2014 study, wild yeasts encountered in spontaneous fermentation are “generally safe to use”, but some can produce “potentially harmful compounds”, including neurotoxins, substances that can damage the nervous system.
One of Juárez's probiotic ginger beers. Photo: Florencia Juárez
In the meantime, other artisans across the world have jumped in on the trend, trying to bring back ancient recipes that skip the pasteurisation process. They believe that, throughout history, humans have been exposed to all kinds of bacteria and that our recent focus on eliminating all microorganisms from our food could be damaging to our immune system.
Much like pesticide-free, trendier-than-thou natural wine, unpasteurised or raw beer has now taken over trendy bars near you. Raw beer is safe, as long as it’s continuously refrigerated and consumed shortly after it was made. The raw properties of beers like this mean that while they can be packaged, they’ve got a limited shelf life compared to mass-produced beverages.
That’s one of the reasons why, as of yet, no one’s managed to master producing ancestral beers at scale. Talking to Juárez, you get the sense that, for her at least, this is where the beauty of the beer lies. “If you want to sell something on a large scale, you’ve got to have a standard flavour that’s replicable from one bottle to the next,” she says. “Whereas, with a wild beer, no two are ever the same.”