Strawblog: Day 3: Disaster strikes?

Everything was set. The yeast were happy, I had the airlocks on so that any spare CO2 would bubble out, and so that nothing would explode.

When I woke up the next morning, though, I discovered that my explosion-prevention strategy had a slight flaw.

I woke up to this:

Strawberries.  Everywhere.

Strawberries. Everywhere.

Turns out some strawberry pulp had made its way up the necks of the growlers and lodged itself into the airlock, producing a plug of strawberry slop. Eventually, the pressure built up inside and popped the stoppers, sending sweet, sticky strawberry pulp everywhere within about a 5-foot radius of my fermentation area (read: the kitchen counter). It almost hit the ceiling, as did Sarah when we woke up at 7 am to find strawberry slurry everywhere. The cap from one of the airlocks was later found on the other side of my apartment.


It turned out that I didn’t lose too much juice, so I cleaned everything up the best I could (luckily the walls and cabinets are white, so a little bleach worked nicely) and set the airlocks back in to continue fermentation, which, not surprisingly, was proceeding vigorously. Check out the bubblage in the video (you may have to tilt your head 90 degrees left to get the full effect). I sound a bit stoned, but I’m really just in awe of science.

By the way, fermentation comes from the Latin fervere, meaning “to boil”. Looking at a fermentation in progress, it’s not surprising that the Romans would think that’s what was going on. And I guess that technically, CO2 is escaping the surface tension of the liquid, so I guess in a way it is boiling… but I digress.

When Jean-Claude Antoine Chaptal discovered the relationship between sugar and CO2 in a fermentation, he solved a very big problem in Champagne. Knowing the exact amount of sugar to add to a secondary fermentation saved many, many bottles from exploding. So how much CO2 is generated from the sugar in a fermenation? Remember high school chemistry? No? Well buckle up because you’re going back to Mr. Burcik’s class.

OK, remember our master chemical reaction of fermentation?

sugar (C6H12O6) –> 2 CO2 + 2 alcohol (C2H5OH)

That means for every molecule of sugar turned into alcohol, 2 molecules of CO2 form and escape from the liquid in the form of carbon dioxide gas. Let’s say that I had been really dumb and sealed the vessels completely instead of allowing for the CO2 to bubble out. Also, for simplicity, let’s neglect the CO2 dissolving in the wine in the container (that gets complicated), and assume that CO2 is an ideal gas (not a great assumption but we’re not teaching thermodynamics here…yet). Some of these values are what we engineers call “engineering estimates”.

***Warning: Chemistry and Math ahead. If you just want to know if the thing will explode or not, skip to the bottom***

Anyway, our must is at 23 Brix, which means that in one growler, there is about 345 g of sugar (1.5 kg of must).

345 g sugar is 1.9 moles (glucose is 180 g/mol), so we will produce 3.8 moles of CO2 in the growler. Not so bad right?

Remember the ideal gas law? At standard temperature and pressure, 1 mole of gas takes up 22.4 L of space. Well, inside this vessel, the pressure will be anything but standard, and the temperature is 25C, not 0C. A little PV = nRT and we find that this gas wants to take up about 96 L when it is confined to about 2 L of growler. That means the pressure in there will go up to about 48 atmospheres. That’s about 20 times more pressure than in car tires.

If the container were at 48 atm and suddenly failed, the energy contained in the resulting adiabatic explosion would be V*ΔP = 2 L * (48 atm – 1 atm [atmospheric pressure]) = 9.5 kJ, which is the equivalent of 2.2 grams of TNT. That may not sound like much, but after searching some sites that in retrospect are only quasi-legal, I found out what 2 grams of flash powder (more or less equivalent to TNT in explosive energy, Vermeij et al., “Morphology and composition of pyrotechnic residues formed at different levels of confinement”, Forensic Science International, 2009) can do.

(Note: I am not dumb enough to have actually done this. There are lots of explosion videos on YouTube, though, and it’s not really that suprising.)

The bottom line is be careful with fermentations! I’m not saying don’t try this at home, (in fact, I hope I’m encouraging it!) but don’t seal off your fermentation, whatever you do! The growler would probably have broken around 4-5 atm anyway, so I wouldn’t have to worry about an M-80 (~2.5 g TNT equivalent) going off in the kitchen. In either case, though, I’d have a much bigger mess.

Extra credit: Using the above calculations, how much pressure does a fermenting champagne bottle get up to? Hint: secondary fermentations in 750 mL bottles are usually dosed with about 20 g of sugar.

Published in: on 20 August 2009 at 12:19 pm  Comments (4)  
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Strawblog: Day 2 continued: Fermentation prep

So once I had the must chaptalized, it was (finally) time for some fermentation.

Forget Listerine, Devil's Springs is 160 proof, enough to sterilize pretty much anything.  Also, don't take a sip by accident.  Your face might melt right off.

Forget Listerine, Devil's Springs is 160 proof, enough to sterilize pretty much anything. Also, don't take a sip by accident. Your face might melt right off.

Before starting fermentation, I wanted to make sure that my fermentation was clean, and that means sterilizing. Most wineries would sterilize using steam or detergents and sanitizing agents. While these are available for homebrewers (B-Brite and C-Brite are common sanitizers), I chose a different method of sterilization. I usually use Devil’s Springs double strength vodka to make boilo, a family recipe for a hot beverage served around the holidays (I’ll probably post a recipe around that time), but in this case it has another use. It’s 80% alcohol (ethanol), which is slightly above the 70% ethanol we use in lab to sterlilze ad disinfect our benchtops. I put some of this into all the bottles, hoses, growlers, and airlocks I plan to use for fermentation. Usually before I add anything to the must (hydrometer, for example), it gets treatment with regular vodka. Ask any commercial winemaker and they will tell you that about 90% of their job is keeping things clean and sterile.

When I picked the fruit it had been raining for two weeks beforehand, leading to a lot of damaged and mushy fruit (i.e., growth of fungus). I also wanted to curb the growth of any bacteria or other microorganisms which would like to feast on my sugary must. So I added some sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide is an antimicrobial and antioxidant agent. The various forms of SO2 are known as sulfites, and have been used in winemaking for thousands of years. Molecular SO2 is the actual antimicrobial agent and its concentration as free molecular SO2 depends on pH and several other factors. I can’t really measure the pH of my must at the moment so I took a suggestion from the Handbook of Enology (Ribereau-Gayon et al.), a famous winemaking textbook by many of the premier enologists in Bordeaux, and added about 40 ppm SO2 to the must (1/2 tsp of some of the 50 g/L SO2 that I swiped from my winemaking class. Don’t tell Ramón.)

I also added some tannin for color stabilization. Strawberries don’t contain that much tannin, and tannin helps to stabilize color in the long term by binding to color compounds called anthocyanins. In the long-term, co-pigmentation of tannins and anthocyanins stabilizes and contributes to color. Will the 1/2 tsp of {tannin} contribute? Probably not, since this wine probably won’t be around long enough for many co-pigmentation reactions to occur. It’s worth a shot, though, and the tannin may contribute some {astringency}, which I fear untreated wine may lack. The must certainly isn’t too astringent.

Another addition I made was Fermax, a yeast nutrient containing diammonium phosphate, which provides nitrogen to the fermentation. Nitrogen is an essential component to a fermentation because yeast need it to make amino acids, which are the building blocks of the proteins and enzymes the yeast need to manufacture in order to grow.


The last task was to get the yeast ready for their delicious meal. I got out my packet of Lalvin EC-1118 yeast (enough for 5 gallons) and sprinkled out a small portion of the packet. EC 1118 is a yeast isolated from the Champagne region* and for various reasons is the yeast of choice for ciders and fruit wines, as well as for sparklers. The yeast comes dehydrated and needs about 15 minutes in luke-warm water to rehydrate and reanimate. To make it as nice as possible for the yeast, I also warmed up the must by floating the mixing bowl I was storing everything in in warm water while the yeast were rehydrating. After 15 minutes, the yeast went into the strawberry must. I poured the mix into two growlers and attached the airlocks (filled with rum). Let the fermentation begin!


By the way, I obtained most of my supplies for this endeavor (yeast, Fermax, pectinase, sorbate, tannin, hydrometer) from the Ithaca Beer Company, which has many resources for home winemaking and brewing, includiny carboys, malt, recipes, hops, and lots of other accessories.

In most cases, the yeast used to ferment grape juice into wine is Saccharomyces cerevisiae. EC1118 is actually a strain of Saccharomyces bayanus, a very closely related yeast. S. bayanus and its cousin S. pastorianus are often used in brewing. In reality, though, S. cerevisiae, bayanus, and pastorianus are so closely related that their taxonomies have varied. At first, bayanus was believed to be a subspecies of cerevisiae. Nowadays, they are largely considered a species complex, and the difference between them seems largely academic. (Raineri et al., “Saccharomyces sensu stricto: Systematics, Genetic Diversity and Evolution”, Journal of Bioscience and Bioengineering, 2003)

Published in: on 1 August 2009 at 5:27 pm  Comments (1)  
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