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Students are brewing moonshine, and career opportunities

May 25, 2019
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In this May 7, 2019 photo, Hocking College fermentation science student Ben Saunders stirs the mash that will become moonshine at Hocking's distillery in New Straitsville, Ohio. (Chris Cook/Times Recorder via AP)

NEW STRAITSVILLE, Ohio (AP) — The smoke from a coal seam fire once obscured the smell of stills in the hollows of southern Perry County near New Straitsville, hiding the odors of moonshine creation from the revenuers hoping to shut them down.

One hundred years later, the pungent smell of corn mash lingers in a former general store where Hocking College’s fermentation science program is reviving the tradition born in the Appalachian hills decades ago.

Instructor Eric Hedin recently watched as his student Ben Saunders used a paddle to stir the mash in the former Straitsville Special Distillery on Main Street in New Straitsville. The creamy liquid parted as Saunders stirred the mash, straining as he brought a heap of red ground corn to the surface. Bubbles led the way, bringing with them a bready smell from the yeast added once the boiling mash cools. The red corn was once a staple in the area. Known as Bloody Butcher, this batch was grown on the college’s farm near Logan.

The distillery is part of the larger fermentation science program, which started in September. Hedin and Saunders look forward to installing a three barrel brewery in The Lodge, the college’s culinary arts lab in Nelsonville.

“This is a working distillery” Hedin said. “We teach students how to ferment and distill, about packaging, and all the legal stuff in between.”

Acquiring the distillery was a lucky break for the college, said Dean of Workforce Development and Community Outreach Sean Terrell. While the college was developing the fermentation science program, the distillery became available. “It was one of the few for-profit businesses in town, the impact of its closing on the community would have been tremendous. It seems like a natural fit - a boutique distillery, a historic building, in a town that was impacted by that business.

“Part of Hocking’s mission is workforce development” Terrell continued. The program offers “a huge opportunity for business development. Students will leave this program and be able to go out and create opportunities in rural Ohio.”

For Saunders, it was a chance to live a dream, trading a future legal career for a career in brewing.

“I have been bar tending at Jackie O’s in Athens for three years and fell in love with the craft beer scene. My focus is on craft brewing with a side focus on distilling.” After transferring from Ohio University in Athens, Saunders hopes to eventually open his own brewery in his hometown of Gallipolis.

The first product made by the students in the program was a paw paw moonshine. Students picked the paw paws, mashed them, and distilled a batch of moonshine that will be available during the New Straitsville Moonshine Festival Memorial Day weekend.

A white rum will also be available, distilled from molasses from Dayton and copious amounts of sugar. The moonshine brewed with the school’s Bloody Butcher corn will be ready by then too, as well a coffee liquor with coffee from Glouster’s Dirty Girl Coffee. The school plans to market them under the New Straitsville Black Diamond Moonshine label.

The corn is cracked or crushed to start the process for the Bloody Butcher Moonshine, Hedin said. “Ours was crushed by Shagbark Mill in Athens, although we have our own hammer mill on order to crush our own.” The crushing helps release the sugars in the corn when boiling sugar water is added to the corn.

Stir the boiling wort, then wait for the temperature to drop below 80 degrees to add the yeast, then stir it every day for two weeks. Let it rest, then drain off the liquor and distill it about 180 degrees, anywhere from 8 to 18 hours, and moonshine is born.

Interest in the program has grown, with Hedin expecting 15 to 20 students this fall. Because it is a culinary program, the program is open to all students, even if they are younger than drinking age. Students working on an associate degree will get all the science and business lessons needed to work in or even open their own brewery, winery or distillery. Another track will teach students how to make fermented foodstuffs, like kimchi. The college is also developing a certificate program.

“Straitsville Special was famous from L.A. to New York” during prohibition Hedin said. Visitors to the New Straitsville Moonshine Festival Memorial Day weekend will have a chance to taste history, created by students looking to make their own.

The New Straitsville Moonshine Festival starts on Thursday and continues through Monday in downtown New Straitsville.

More information about Hocking College’s Fermentation Science program can be found at www.hocking.edu.

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