About a year ago I heard that prisoners were getting bombed on a sort of moonshine made from Vegemite. The principal went that Vegemite is made of yeast, which in lieu of actual baker's yeast (which is banned in prison), will ferment sugar to produce alcohol.
But then I spoke to a food chemist who explained the story was junk, as the yeast in Vegemite is dead and therefore can't metabolise sugar. But the story was cool and I wanted it to be real, so I tried making some.
Here's the recipe: Take one teaspoon of vegemite and mix it into about 300 milliliters of Ribena in a kind of beaker thing. Then shelve it in a VICE editing suite, which should be incubator-hot. Then over two weeks watch the liquid change colour from maroon to black, and sprout some mould islands over the top. Then you'll know it's ready when a layer of filth accumulates on the bottom, which you swirl around like in a Coopers.
After two weeks, and with people taking phone-photos, I sampled it. At first it tasted like worcestershire sauce, but then it went into something primal. If you've ever put an insect in a jar and forgot about it, only to find it months later, you'll know the smell. It was like Dutch liquorish with notes of flyblown sheep discharge; thin and reedy, but sort of animal, or sexual, or something. Without drinking any more, I knew this drink had never given anyone a buzz.
Also there was nothing alcoholic about it. There might have been a slight twang of vinegar, but that could have just been the salt. It was flat and sobering: the food chemist was right.
Yesterday this story broke about dry communities in outback Australia brewing Vegemite hooch, and I knew it was bullshit. Yet somehow the story caught fire. Suddenly Prime Minister Tony Abbott was telling the ABC that there wouldn't be a ban on Vegemite, and that "the last thing I want to do is to have a Vegemite watch." Then TIME Magazine ran the headline 'Vegemite is a 'Precursor to Misery' in Australia'. Then when our dear old Munchies reported the story, and I knew it was time to speak up.
So why can't vegemite be turned into wine? Because as science journalist and Member of the Australian Sceptics committee, Signe Cane, wrote yesterday, "the spread has a strong umami flavour thanks to the presence of glutamic acid, which is released when the yeast cells break down in a process called autolysis, or self-digestion. It means that the yeast has died." And as anyone with any basic understanding of life will tell you, dead things don't make moonshine.
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