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To preface, I have zero experience with homebrewing. I mainly am interested in these recipes specifically because they seem super simple and don't require any specialty equipment.

I enjoy watching youtube channels such as Tasting History or Townsends, where they explore recipes from history. Occasionally they will do an episode on meads or ginger beers or other various alcoholic beverages in history.

Example 1

Example 2

For obvious reasons, these recipes often have a distinct lack of sanitation. Or it will say something to the effect of "use a clean bottle" which I'm assuming just means boiled and not visibly dirty basically. This is in direct contrast with most modern homebrewing guides which are very adamant about making sure literally anything that touches the beer after the boiling process is thoroughly sanitized.

Is there actually any considerable risk with following these recipes because of the lack of sanitation? Or since these old recipes are typically fermented for a short period of time & have low alcohol content is this relatively safe?

And as a followup question, could it become more unsafe to drink over time? Like if I were to make ginger beer and let it sit in my fridge for several weeks or even a couple months, would I be better off just tossing it?

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Ultimately any fermentation is going to involve a sugary liquid sitting stagnant in a container for a number of weeks. most yeasts (especially the cheap ones) aren't going to kill off other microbes. Obviously I will also tell you: sanitize.

As far as how much you can get away with slacking on sanitizing... You're probably not going to die. It's true that for millennia, mankind had no concept of microscopic life, and sanitation was a lot looser. Most of the time it was fine. I don't know if there have been studies, so I'm going to take a wild, unscientific guess here: doing your first gallon of mead in a cleaned-but-not-sanitized jug is probably not as likely to kill you as spending that money on cigarettes.

but again: sanitize.

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  • First I just want to say thanks for the response. However, I just want to clarify on one point - you mention that fermentation is going to take several weeks. Admittedly my point wasn't very clear on this, but the example videos I linked have a very short fermentation time of 5-7 days. My thought was maybe since it's such a short period, the sanitation may not be as big of a concern for these recipes, kind of like how kombucha is relatively safe to make without special sanitation. What are your thoughts? Still sanitize to be safe, or is it possible to be a bit more lax with short ferments?
    – ryan.kom
    Nov 18 '21 at 19:34
  • @ryan.kom shorter fermentations are probably less risky. I did see tastinghistory's mead video, he'll point out that a 1 week fermentation is way, way fast. I'd stick with the above: sanitize, but you probably won't die. Nov 19 '21 at 4:51
  • With Kveik, you can drink fresh, carbonized beer within a week after brewday. Though, while my brews produce beer that is drinkable+carbonated after a week indeed, I don't like the taste very much - either because I am not a fan of yeasty taste, or because I don't have temperature control (optimally, ferment and carbonate in the 30-40 °C - I can only keep that during primary (Kveik yeasts produce a lot of heat themselves)). But even in German climate, I liked my Kveik IPA after 2 weeks. Typically, most part of primary fermentation is through on Tuesday when I brewed Sunday. Nov 23 '21 at 13:18
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The big risk is probably not that you end up with something that is poisonous without realising, but that it simply spoils and your batch is ruined.

Mould or infection due to lack of sanitisation is typically quite obvious - you have a stinking slimy mess which you have to get rid of.

If you end up with something that looks, smells and tastes like cider or beer or mead or wine then it is likely safe to consume.

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First of all, most brews will probably do just fine if you just clean your equipment the best you can. That was how they used to do it and it does work quite okay. I am sure they also found clever ways to optimize the cleaning, like eg scolding their stuff with boiling water.

Spoiled brews are not really a danger since you can almost always see or smell it very easily if something has gone wrong. E.g. if it has turned to vinegar, you'll smell it, and if bacteria infected your brew you'll see mold and other crap in your product.

The real reason why everyone keeps harping on with the sanitize, sanitize, sanitize mantra is because unless you're making a sugar wash then you'll invest time, materials, and energy into making your brew, and it REALLY sucks if it fails. Of cause if you're making a decent amount of e.g. mead you'd also be out the cost of a all that honey, not a cheap failure!

So really, there is nothing different about those old recipes, they also tried their best to keep things clean cause they realized it yielded better results! Sure, we have super convenient sanitizers now, but most of those could be replaced by more work and boiling water, like in the old days :)

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