Monday, 5 February 2018

Adventures in Distilling (Part 1?)

Germany is pretty well known for its love of rules and regulations, and the area of making alcohol in the home is no exception. Home brewing only became legal in December 1985, but even so, homebrewers are required to register with the tax authorities, but can brew up to 200L per year without needing to pay tax. But there are some areas where long tradition has meant fairly lax rules (from the perspective of an Irishman), particularly when it comes to distilling. Ok, you can’t really do much at home, though as of this year, you can buy a 2L capacity still without the requirement to register it with the tax authorities, but that’s just for playing with.

No, the real meat is the tradition of nearly every village in the south having its own Abfindungsbrennerei, a type of small distillery where farmers could bring their leftover cider, or mashes made of berries, pears, quince – whatever fruit they had to shove in a barrel – and get it legally distilled. Sadly, this kind of distillery is certainly on the wane, and this decline will likely accelerate after changes in state monopoly laws relating to distilling (basically, the state bought alcohol for industrial use from the distillers, but that ended this year) and I know of two in nearby villages that have closed since we moved into the area. But we still have one in our village, now in its third generation. And from what Horst says, he could be the last, as his son has no interest in taking it over.

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of being able to assist in distilling my own schnapps, something I had been looking forward to doing since I had my first apple mash distilled this time last year, but was not able to be there. That time, I delivered 120L of apple mash and received 21L of 43% ABV apple brandy to play with. This year, I broadened the variety, with 60L cider, 60L of cherry plum mash, and 75L of pulped grapes. I was eager to see how these would work out.

Horst’s still has been altered several times over the years. Originally, the copper was encased in brickwork that contained the firing chamber, and was, I guess, a simple alembic still. In 1975, his father-in-law took updated the still so it was free standing, and incorporated a stainless steel water bath that surrounded the copper, so it would not be in direct contact with the flames. But he still had to distill each batch a couple of times, at least, to get a good product out. In 2004, Horst took over and further modified the still to convert it into a column still, so he could do a batch in one go, and also distill continuously. But it remains wood-fired, with the heat controlled by a flue, so it all feels properly artisanal, in the best sense of the word.

Horst’s methods have been handed down, so there’s not a lot of science in it, just practical experience. But those who have been getting their spirits distilled by him over the years always say he does it well, and I certainly had no complaints last year.

We started with the cider. This was the remains from some experiments, all thrown into a barrel to get up to 60L, and was about 7% ABV going in. We retired to the adjoining kitchen for coffee and cake while it heated up, but as he’d done a batch for a neighbour previously, it was really fast in getting up steam. It was enthralling, peering through the little portholes of the so-called analyser, watching the vapour condense and trickle down again, before being taken up and over to the rectifier, where it was finally cooled and condensed, trickling out in a steady stream into a bucket. I knew enough about heads and tails, and had assumed there’d be some complicated tests to know at what point to discard the first runnings, or to stop collecting the hearts, the stuff you really want. But no, we did it by smell, taste, and even sight. The initial liquid smelled like UHU glue, and was milky, later turning crystal clear, with a rich, sweet aroma, before drying out. On the other end, an alcholometer was used to constantly measure the ABV of the spirit coming out, and collection was stopped when the ABV dropped to 45%. After this, the rest was collected till it ran to 10%, and discarded. Rinse and repeat for the others.

I ended up with the following results:

  • From 60L 7% cider, I got 4.5L spirit at 65% ABV. Pretty ok.
  • From 60L cherry plum mash, I got 5L new make at 66% ABV. Better than expected!
  • From 75L grapes, I got 5L at 62%. Actually, this was a disappointment, but I knew the original gravity of the grapes was a bit pants.

Each of these will be diluted down to 40 or 43%, so I guess I’ll have between 7 and 8 litre of each variety. If I want, we can also chill filter, but I am undecided on that as yet. I hadn’t realised he had filtered my apple brandy last year! I may try some wood aging again, but probably less wood than last year, and for the grape spirit, I had planned on making some compound gin. But then, I had expected to get more out of them.

But how much does all this cost? Everyone has a right to have up to 50L of pure alcohol distilled per year, which is a lot! Of course, you pay tax on it, but the Abfindungsbrennerei system is based on an approximation of how much alcohol you would get from 100L of mash. The word Abfindung can mean a settlement payment, of sorts, so in effect, you “settle” with the tax authorities based on typical volumes of alcohol per fruit type. If you get more than expected, then it’s a bonus, If you get less, it’s tough luck. But usually, the rates are well below what you would realistically expect to get. When you register with a distillery, you state the fruit type, and the volume, and this is declared to the tax authorities, who send you a bill, and the date and time when your batch will be distilled.

For example, for apples, the tax tables say a result of 3.6 litres of alcohol per 100L of cider. Clearly this is really low, as with a 7% cider, in theory you could be getting up to 7 litres. Of course, take away heads and tails, but it would still be more than 3.6. But this is what the tax is calculated on, so for my example above, I paid 22 Euro tax on what should end up being about 7 litres of finished spirit. 

Horst is retired, but the distilling was only ever a seasonal thing, besides his normal job. Nevertheless, he has regulars coming to him each year, with maybe 1000L of cider to get distilled. He himself was doing up to 2000L a year, but as the state no longer takes it, it is hardly worth his while. With the costs of getting 2000L of juice pressed (€500!), plus the tax, then the rates he'd get selling his spirits to larger commercial producers, it's no wonder smaller distillers are closing. I've offered to press for him this year, for free. It'd be by hand, but I think with three presses (my two, and he has one I could restore for him) working in parallel, we'd do it easily in a day.

I have to admit, I'm now preoccupied with distilling, and thinking how we could improve the process a bit, but I have to wait till next year. Who knows, maybe when Horst doesn't want to do it any more, maybe I can keep the tradition going, so another village distillery won't be lost.

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