Sugar, Saccharification, & Homemade Reindeer Lichen-Malt Syrup

alcohol, fermentation, sugar

Question: how is potato vodka made? Like, how is a potato turned into alcohol? You need sugar right? Shred a potato into water, ferment it and what happens? Yuck. So where does all the sugar come from?

Alcohol made from grains uses malt to produce sugar. Malt is a grain that is sprouted for just a few days, then is dried and possibly roasted. A grain kernel contains mostly starches, which is that prized stuff we eat every day in various forms of flours. When the seed begins to make new life, those starches are converted into sugars (denaturing its bread-worthy-ness) through enzymes to assist in the growing of that new plant. What an amazing human moment this must have been to nibble on a just sprouted seed and taste a sweet kernel! (Here is a malt-making tutorial).

Similarly another likely result of curious human nibbling was in the case of moldy rice in Asia. The white fuzz later became referred to as koji and also converted the plentiful starches on grains into fermentable sugars.

While it’s probable you’d get some additional sugars from molding a potato in koji, I wouldn’t necessarily go about sprouting it. There has got to be a better way.

In both cases with the malted grains and with the koji-cultured grains a similar thing is occurring- the process of saccharification. By way of enzymatic activity present starches are being converted into sugars. But not only can they do it for their hosts but they actually hold the capacity of converting additional starches as well. This is known as its diastatic power. Any additional starches that get added, the brewing universe refers to as adjuncts. Therefore malt and koji can be used as the sugar-making “starter” which we add something else- possibly cheap, plentiful, and packed with starches- like the potato!

Or… lichen!

Why lichen? Reindeer lichen specifically, aside from being good landscaping for your model train set, has been found to be also packed with starches- packed as in 94% carbohydrates compared to the potato at 14%. A little inverted compared to the mushroom world, most lichens are edible, with the minority being problematic. The only drawback is that, in the case of reindeer moss, it also contains acids accumulated over time which can erode stone and when in your stomach, while it won’t kill you, doesn’t feel great. Therefore in order to make sugar from it we first we need to leach out the acid, which is easily done with the help of an alkaline water bath using lye, cal, or baking soda.

It’s done like this:

  1. Cover the lichen with water in a pot and add 1 teaspoon of lye, bring to a boil, turn off heat, and let soak for 24 hours.
  2. Drain and rinse.
  3. Take a small piece and dry it. Taste a nibble for any bitterness. If there is any, repeat steps until its gone. It should take 2-3 changes of water to do. When the coast is clear, proceed to drying the whole thing.

Supposedly history tells us that lichen’s hayday came during World War 2 when the supplies for sugar beets and potatoes were low, yet demand for alcohol was unwavering and spirits were made from lichen. However it never really took off as the processing of it was never cost effective. Prepared lichen could be crushed and used in bread, added to thicken soups and sauces, or we can go on to convert it into sugar, thusly:

  1. Combine crushed malt and crushed and dried lichen in a 1:1 ratio. (Note: this ratio was randomly picked to ensure the desired results)
  2. Heat water separately to 155 degrees, add to the grain and lichen mixture to cover liberally and hold at 150 degrees for 1-2 hours. Why you ask? Because the enzymes need to be broken down in order to be accessed and 150 degrees gelatinizes many things including grains. Note also that at 165 degrees all enzymes are destroyed. How shall I heat it may you ask? Perhaps a pot in the oven if your oven goes low enough, a pot in a dehydrator that goes high enough, maybe this handy incubator design, or a thick pot with a keen eye on stove and frequent stirring.
  3. (Optional). You can let the mixture cool overnight to allow more time for the enzymes to further breakdown the starches.
  4. Strain and squeeze excess liquid from the solids.

You can now either boil your sweet liquid into a molasses-like malt syrup or go ahead and brew it, distill it, or what have you.

Reindeer lichen, often referred to as Reindeer Moss, is fairly abundant in our region, especially in our nearby forests. One thing you should know is that reindeer lichen is extremely slow growing, about 3mm per a year. While expansive patches exist in Western Pennsylvania, it’s always worth considering such details to decide whether its worth it to harvest. My little harvest was to explore the rumor I’ve heard about lichen as a sugar and I hope you found it worth it.

How to Malt Homegrown Grain

Homegrown Grains, alcohol, bread, sugar

Malt is a grain that has been sprouted for a short period and halted in order to optimize its enzymic potential to convert starches into fermentable sugars. It can be a useful ingredient to have around for making sweet malt syrup, for baking, and for fermenting into alcohol.

This works on any grain, whether it be corn, millet, einkorn, wheat or other. Each grain differs in respect to its diastatic power, which is a measure of its potential enzymic activity.

Process

Soak grains in enough water to cover for about 10 hours.

Strain and put in a warmish place. We’re shooting for around 70-75 degrees. Rinse by covering with water and straining every 8 or so hours, stopping once some germination begins to show.


For optimal diastatic power we’re letting the sprouts develop until the acrospire is about the same length as the seed kernel. The acrospire is the little shoot that is the new plant as opposed to the rootlets. It grows in the opposite direction of the rootlets. If the kernel is allowed to continue growing it will eventually use the nutrients itself to assist its own growing and our diastatic power will be compromised.

Some “mixing” or turning with your hands may be helpful as the rootlets leg out in order to encourage uniform growth. In big malting operations they will rake them.

When the kernels are ready to halt their growing process dry them for 8-10 hours at 120 degrees. This produces a “green” malt. At this point the rootlets should flake off easily. It’s thought by some that they contribute bitter notes and are separated and removed before proceeding.
If additional flavor is desired move the malts to an oven at 170- 180 degrees and roast until the color and aroma suits you. Raising temperatures above 165 degrees destroys the enzymes however, not allowing the malts to contribute to any adjunct starches. This non-diastatic malt can be used to contribute sweetness, flavor, and possibly color to your bread, beer, or whatever recipes.

Diastatic malt (not dried or roasted above 165 degrees) can be combined with additional starches to make sugar through a mashing process that involves holding the crushed grain and adjunct at 150 degrees for 1-2 hours. Learn more about this and how to make a malt syrup here.

If milling and using for bread baking it is recommended to use nondiastatic malt, or use diastatic malt in small quantities (0.5 – 2% total flour weight) and only for breads with short fermentation times. Diastatic malt is a great energy source for yeasts however it can break down too many starches resulting in a gummy crumb.

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

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