Fermentation and testing equipment
Always use food grade equipment when fermenting anything. The equipment here is all manufactured to quality standards and safe for long term contact with food and drink. Old time Moonshiners used whatever they could get. Now, we can use the proper materials! See bottom of the page for what to look for.
It's also important to have the proper testing equipment to determine quantity of sugar in your wash, as well as amount of alcohol produced, and VERY important, to check temperature while distilling. If your chosen still doesn't include a thermometer, pick one here and install it. Although it is possible to distill without a thermometer, it is definitely NOT recommended. It is not a costly piece of equipment, and will serve to make your life safer and easier.
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What to use for fermentation
As mentioned in the write-up in the stills and distillation equipment section, one of the dangers of using non-food grade containers or equipment is that unstable metals may leech into your mash or wash. It sometimes takes a week or more to ferment your moonshine or other brew. That's too long a time to expose it to materials that you may not want to drink!
The same applies to plastics. Use only food grade plastic. Even if you buy a brand new garbage container and wash it first, there's still a chance that the colour, odour or chemicals from that plastic may get absorbed into what you're making. Most of the time, food grade plastic will be white or clear.
In short, copper, food quality stainless steel and food grade plastic are all OK. Plastic garbage bins, wood or galvanized metal are NOT.
You will need a container large enough to ferment your desired batch (actually a little larger is best). This will mostly be determined by the size of your still. No sense fermenting a 5 gallon batch if you have a 3 gallon still (unless you do 2 runs!).
You need to allow a little space for the head which may form when the mash or wash is most active. This will appear as a layer of foam at the top, and is formed by the yeast consuming the sugar and releasing carbon dioxide. They get pretty busy, those yeasties! So buy a container a bit bigger than you think you need.
Here's a hint; bulk food stores or you-brew stores often have large containers that they receive shipments in or for bulk food storage, that you may be able to buy cheaply...maybe even free!
It's helpful also to have a thermometer, since you need to make sure your wash isn't too warm when adding yeast, if not, let it come to room temperature before adding yeast. Also, a hydrometer will let you test for sugar content. If you are simply making a sugar wash, just follow recipe and you may not need it.
Be sure also to sterilize all components that will be in contact with your mash. Use boiling water, or a food safe sterilizing agent (some are listed in this section) to make sure that you aren't contaminating your mash or wash. This includes stirring spoons or paddles or anything you may put into the liquid.
Whether you're fermenting corn whiskey, grain alcohol, a vinegar concentration or an essential oil, treat it like you're preparing a meal. Cleanliness is important!
Below is a short YouTube video, which gives the basics on how to make a basic sugar wash to produce vodka or plain ethanol. The one thing the video doesn't mention, which is fairly important, is that your wash needs to be 90 degrees Fahrenheit or less before adding your yeast. Too warm and your yeast will die. Between 70 and 90 degrees is ideal.