In order to tell the Apple bomb story properly I feel it’s necessary to start at the beginning and give a little background. It all started during our second Europe trip while we were in Germany. Henrik insisted we try real Austrian Schnapps. Austrian Schnapps isn’t like the Schnapps you find here in America. American Schnapps comes in a whole bunch of flavors all of them syrupy sweet, with very little alcohol content, usually in the 20-40 proof range. Austrian Schnapps on the other hand is hard core. It’s made from fermenting real fruit and then distilling it as hard as you can to try to achieve a really high alcohol content. It’s more like vodka, or brandy, but made from fruit like apples or pears or weird little Austrian berries. The best Austrian Schnapps is made by local farmers who run their stills as a side business and bottle up their liquid fire in whatever bottles they have collected during the previous year. It’s powerful stuff that runs in the 80-90 proof range and has even been rumored to have been used as emergency airplane fuel during WWII. So after a late night of drunken sampling of our haul (which ought to be its own story), I resolved that I when I returned to the US I was going to build my own still and make my own Schnapps (without any guidance or instructions).
So I came back, and started gathering what I thought was all the necessary tools and ingredients. A 5 gallon Carboy (imagine a 5 gallon Alhambra bottle made out of glass) some wine yeast, a juicer from Goodwill, and 45 pounds of Granny Smith apples. I spent the whole day cramming apple chunks into the juicer after peeling and coring a whole bushel of apples (no really, 45 pounds of apples is a bushel). The result was a gallon and a half of freshly squeezed apple juice, and 3 gallons of apple sauce. I had originally intended to use only the apple juice, but the gallon and a half fell significantly short of my goal of making a whole 5 gallons. In a moment of inspiration I decided that there was no reason why I couldn’t ferment the apple sauce just as well as the juice, and added them both together into the carboy. I added the yeast and capped it off with the airlock.
The location I had selected for my fermentation experiment of the next 4 months was the hallway closet in Jeff’s house which I thought was ideal. The house was new, so the closet was nice and clean, it would be out of sight, yet still easily accessible, and I would be able to check it every day or so since I was living with Jeff at the time. At first, everything went well and pretty much as expected. The yeast went to work on the sugars from the apple juice and started converting it to alcohol and burping off little bubbles of CO2. The airlock let the CO2 escape and kept any bacteria from invading to make my apple wine into apple vinegar. Everyone was happy. The yeast were having a party with the apples, the airlock let out a tiny little contented burp every few minutes and Jeff was oblivious to the shenanigans going on in his closet. All was right with the world.
But as the yeast multiplied, the process accelerated. The added volume of CO2 bubbled up faster than before and had to bubble up through the thick layer of apple sauce that layered out on top of the denser apple juice. Some of the bubbles got trapped in the apple sauce, causing it to fluff up and rise kind of like a cake. As the process accelerated, so did the rising, getting to the point that it was getting close to filling the entire carboy. Not really anticipating this problem, I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t want to abort the whole batch, but I didn’t want it to overflow either. So I did the next best thing I could think of, and started a daily ritual of scooping out enough apple sauce from the narrow opening to allow the sauce to continue to rise without overflowing. Each day I found I had to scoop out more than the previous day in order to stay ahead of the rising tide of applesauce as the bubbling intensified. Then one day after work, I came home to find that the previous day’s scooping had not been enough to keep the rising apple sauce tide at bay, and that it had reached the top of the carboy and was clogging the bottom of the airlock. Tiny little chunks of applesauce floated in the airlock water, and as I prepared to do the daily scooping, I failed to notice the absence of the happy little airlock burps. I bent down to open the airlock oblivious to the tremendous pressure that had accumulated behind the clogged airlock.
As soon as I touched the airlock, the bomb went off. It was an applesauce explosion. The airlock shot out the top of the carboy and bounced off the ceiling. About a gallon of applesauce followed right behind like ash from an erupting volcano. Apple bits went everywhere splatting all over and around me. Before I realized what had happened I first noticed that I could no longer see. Luckily I had been wearing my glasses and perfectly centered on each lens was a quarter sized dollop of fermented, funky applesauce. I took off my glasses to survey the damage. The closet and everything in it (all of Jeff, Greg and my camping gear) was speckled with marble sized blobs of apple gunk, everywhere except the Dan shaped silhouette of clear space on the wall and part of the ceiling. The carboy was still erupting, but had converted to a Hawaiian lava flow instead of Mt. Saint Helen. Applesauce flowed out of the mouth of the carboy and down around the sides forming little apple mountains and valleys on the closet floor.
Applesauce is not easy to clean up. Most of an entire roll of paper towels was needed to get the applesauce off of the backpacks and shelves, and I was able to pick off the larger blobs of sauce from the walls, but the smaller bits and stains were too stubborn for just Brawny alone. So I busted out a soapy sponge and tried to spot clean the rest of the closet. Yeah, not such a good idea. Apparently the paint used in the closet does not stand up well to soapy sponges, and it wasn’t until I had made a brownish green (from the green sponge) hole in the texture that was previously on the wall that I realized that I was only making a bad situation worse. Plus in all the panic and paper toweling, the apple sauce was now drying to the walls and ceiling. It was hopeless. I decided my best course of action was to lay low, play off the whole incident and over the weekend, and secretly repaint the inside of the closet and just paint over the new apple sauce texture in the closet.
But I’ll be damned if the exact same thing didn’t happen the next day! This time I was ready. When I saw the applesauce up to the airlock I knew I was facing a “high pressure” situation. I could see that no bubbles were coming out of the airlock meaning that the carboy was primed and ready to blow at any second. I prepared for the blast with about half a dozen paper towels. I carefully wrapped them around the top of the carboy and airlock so that I could contain the blast and apple lava, and hopefully defuse the apple bomb. Using both hands wrapped around the top I carefully started to work the airlock out of the top of the carboy like it was a cork in a champagne bottle. Then BLAT! The explosion was much more powerful than any paper towel bundle could withstand and the spaces in between my fingers tore through with apple splat in all directions. The airlock slipped through my fingers and missed my head by inches as I stood over the carboy. My hands formed a funnel and the focused apple storm hit me in my chin and face, leaving it dripping with foamy, yeasty, apple gunk. Then the lava flow started, up it gushed through my fingers. I was unable to do anything about it, the pressure and flow was high enough that when I would try and stop the flow with my palm, the pressure would build up and it would spray sideways like a hose when you put your thumb over the end, except I was spraying brown crap everywhere. So I gave up and went for another whole roll of paper towels. It was hard to distinguish the second blast from the first on the wall, but there was definitely more on the ceiling from the most recent. It didn’t really matter all that much, because it all got painted over that weekend after allowing sufficient time for the apple texture to dry.
The fate of the apple mash wasn’t sealed though. It actually survived. The next day I split the batch into two separate containers, each with enough room to allow the expansion and gasses to vent safely. The apple juice was fermented in the carboy and bottled as just shy of a case of apple wine which I actually still have a few bottles of. The apple sauce was fermented in a brand new 5 gallon bucket fitted with an airlock. The sauce was distilled in my first homemade still (which was re-invented several times since) and yielded just under a liter of about 85 proof apple “schnapps”. Although quite harsh it was entirely successful despite claims that it tasted a little like drywall. The closet made a full recovery, but Jeff loves to tell people that it still smells like apple pie (if he had smelled the real deal he would probably tell people it smelled like apple excrement). I haven’t yet had the courage to try apples again, but have had other successes with mead, lambic, and have built multiple other stills. As soon as I have the space, and the time, watch out. The 10-o’clock news may feature a story about a man killed in his closet by an exploded apple bomb.