"Vegemite hooch" or "Vooch" might sound like an Australian-born STI but it's caused more flushed cheeks than an itchy crotch ever could. The country's Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion has been accused of "peddling negative stereotypes" after claiming remote Aboriginal communities use the salty spread to brew moonshine in backyard bathtubs.
"I have seen first-hand the impact of home brewing which included using Vegemite as an ingredient and many community members have told me about the problems it's causing," he told MUNCHIES in a statement last week.
The world's media ran with the original story, adding credence to the idea that it's possible to create alcohol with what is essentially overcooked, "autolysed" yeast. But the reaction among brewers and scientists alike has been fierce, with many rebuffing the theory and some brewers labeling Scullion as "ignorant" and "racist."
I spoke to fermentation expert and University of Queensland biotechnologist Dr Claudia Vickers about the science behind concocting bootleg booze from Australia's version of Marmite.
"It's highly unlikely that you can brew alcohol from Vegemite. Large breweries across Australia send spent yeast—or 'sludge' as I like to call it—from the bottom of their fermentation vessels to the Vegemite factory in Melbourne, where it gets put through the proprietary process. It's basically a waste management approach for the breweries," she explains. "The sludge is heated at 50 degrees Celsius for 24 hours to reduce volume and a heck of a lot of salt is added before it's put into jars. This is probably going to kill the yeast, if isn't already dead."
Head brewer at Sydney's Lovedale Brewery Michael Capaldo also told me it's all but impossible to make alcohol from Vegemite, explaining it is neither a carbohydrate nor a form of sugar, and therefore can't actually do any fermenting, which is what yeast does.
"Scullion obviously thinks the spread is a form of yeast, he sounds like someone who has no idea about the science of fermentation," he says. "It was a misguided comment."
However, Vickers did suggest it might be possible to add Vegemite during fermentation as a type of yeast nutrient to promote growth.
"Broken down yeast cells contain the right goodies to be nutritious to yeast, so adding it to moonshine might enhance the process of live yeast turning sugar into alcohol," she adds. "Anyway, I don't trust the story, I reckon someone is pulling the minister's leg on this one. My suspicion is that any drink involving Vegemite would taste bloody awful."
This got me thinking: What would it taste like? I decided to brew up a batch of "aqua vitae" myself and enlisted the help of Mike Ellenberg, brewery manager from Weird Beard Brew Co. in London. He agreed with Vickers and suggested that if I was to have any chance of success, I should only use Vegemite as a nutrient because the yeast it contains is "dead, non-viable, and can't ferment anything."
Ellenberg recommended a recipe using UHT apple juice, brewer's yeast, and a couple teaspoons of Vegemite dissolved in boiling water.
"The Vegemite might make the fermentation faster or have no effect at all. Add too much and you're getting into seriously salty territory, and might upset the brewer's yeast," he explains. "Some brewers have been known to put dead yeast back into fermenting wort as a yeast nutrient. If you're going to ferment apple juice, or just a sugar solution, the yeast might be short of nutrients compared with fermenting wort from malt, or grape must. A tiny amount of Vegemite would provide extra vitamins and trace elements, but would also impart a distinct flavour."
I dissolved 300 grams of caster sugar in 4 litres of apple juice over a gentle hob for an extra kick before transferring to a demijohn. At this point, I measured the gravity of the brew with a hydrometer to deduce the exact sugar content (1.0627), so I would know the ultimate alcohol strength. After adding two teaspoons of Vegemite (dissolved in boiling water and left to cool), the mixture instantly turned a dark, ominous brown. I then added a 5-gram sachet of "Dessert/High Alcohol" yeast, sealed the demijohn with an airlock, and left in the airing cupboard for a week.
The heady solution started bubbling ferociously only hours later, boosted by the heat of the water boiler.
While the mixture was effervescing wildly, Vegemite manufacturer Mondelez International publicly dismissed the illicit moonshine reports, stating that the "autolysis process and subsequent yeast processing in the manufacture of the spread kills the yeast."
A week later and the bubbles in my Vegemite concoction had ceased. About one centimetre of dark brown sediment was visible at the bottom of the demijohn. It was time to sample the moonshine but first, I measured the gravity to work out the final alcohol content—the hydrometer floated at 1.000, indicating an alcohol percentage of 8.14 percent.
An encouraging result but the proof is in the pudding so after decanting a dram of the musky hooch into a glass, I took a deep sniff: it hummed like an intoxicating Somerset scrumpy (not unpleasant by any means).
Contrary to the moonshine's murky appearance, it boasted meaty, yeasty, and pleasantly savoury notes complimented by a subtle hint of Vegemite, followed by an aftertaste not dissimilar to whisky. It packed a serious punch.
Vooch verdict? Remarkably drinkable.
Additional reporting by Joe Hinchliffe.