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How is Alcohol Made? - Types & Production Methods

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  • 0:08 What Is Alcohol?
  • 1:45 Fermented Beverages
  • 2:52 Distilled Beverages
  • 4:17 Hybrid Beverages
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

Alcoholic beverages are produced in different ways. This has an impact on the alcohol content of the beverage. This lesson will explore ethanol and discuss how different alcoholic beverages are produced.

What is Alcohol?

Let's play a game. I'll give you some facts and you will try to guess what I'm talking about.

  • It's a colorless liquid.
  • It's sometimes used as a fuel.
  • It's sometimes used as an industrial solvent.
  • It's sometimes used as a disinfectant.
  • It can be poisonous.
  • It catches on fire easily.
  • Many people drink it.

I'm of course talking about alcohol.

As you may have guessed, there's more than one type of alcohol. Some types of alcohol aren't used for drinking and are very poisonous if ingested. An example is isopropyl alcohol, or rubbing alcohol, that's used as a medical disinfectant. I'd also suggest you avoid drinking any types of alcohol used as industrial solvents or fuel.

The kind of alcohol people drink is called ethyl alcohol or ethanol. Many popular beverages contain ethanol. Two categories of alcoholic beverages based on how they are made are fermented beverages and distilled beverages. There are also hybrid alcoholic beverages.

No matter how an alcoholic beverage is produced, the ethanol in each kind of drink is the same drug. However, different types of beverages have different concentrations of ethanol. It's important to know how much a beverage contains before you drink it, so that you know the dosage of the ethanol that you're ingesting.

Fermented Beverages

Fermented beverages are produced through the process of fermentation. Fermentation in the case of alcoholic beverages refers to a metabolic process by which yeast converts sugar to ethanol. Yeast is a type of fungus used in the fermentation of alcohol. In order for fermentation to take place, you begin with some type of carbohydrate that is needed to feed the yeast. The type of carbohydrate used determines what the final product will be.

Let's look at some examples. Beer is produced by fermenting grain. Wine or hard cider is produced by fermenting fruit. Mead is produced by fermenting honey. Milk and tree or plant sap can be used to produce fermented beverages as well.

There is a limit to the alcoholic content of fermented beverages because yeast cannot survive in alcohol. Once the concentration of ethanol produced by the fermentation process reaches about 15%, the yeast will die and fermentation process will end.

Distilled Beverages

In order to produce beverages above the concentration of ethanol achieved through fermentation, a distillation process is used. Distillation of alcoholic beverages is the process by which water is removed from a mixture of ethanol and water.

During distillation, the difference in the boiling points of water and alcohol is used to separate the two liquids from each other. Ethanol has a lower boiling point, so when heated, it will evaporate more easily. The evaporated steam is then cooled back into a liquid with a higher concentration of ethanol. The distilled beverage is then usually aged for a period of time before drinking. This adds to the flavor of the beverage.

A typical concentration of ethanol in a distilled alcoholic beverage is around 40%, but this can vary greatly. Let's look at some examples of distilled beverages. Brandy is made by distilling wine. Whiskey is made by distilling a specific type of beer. Rum is made by distilling the molasses left over when sugar is extracted from sugarcane. Vodka is made by distilling fermented potato juice or grains like wheat or rye. Tequila is made by distilling fermented agave, a plant similar to asparagus.

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