Can Vegemite be used in the process of fermentation? Is Vegemite and sugar enough to get fermentation going, or is something else needed?

The reason why I’m asking is over the weekend, we saw many stories in Australia popup that Vegemite was being used to create alcohol.

As the BBC reported:

Australia’s government says some communities should consider limiting the sale of the popular Vegemite spread because it is being used to make alcohol.

The BBC reported that Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said Vegemite was being bought in bulk to make moonshine, and that because “brewer’s yeast is a key ingredient in the spread”. It therefore followed that simply using Vegemite (in bulk) with sugar would cause a solution to ferment.

The Australian Government doesn’t appear to support the suggestion of Vegemite ban in Indigenous communities. The Prime Minister Tony Abbott told ABC News:

This is a deregulatory Government and the last thing I want to do is to have a Vegemite watch … because Vegemite, quite properly, is for most people a reasonably nutritious spread on your morning toast or on your sandwiches.

Allan Clarke, a BuzzFeed news reporter, filed a story on Monday saying that Indigenous people were questioning the claims of Vegemite being used to create alcoholic drinks on social media.

And there were outright dismissals on the blog A Common Year, with the blog post saying it was “highly unlikely” that Vegemite could be the source of yeast needed to create alcohol.

I want to (try) and put it to the test.

Personally, I agree with the blog post on A Common Year. As I said on Twitter, my hypothesis is that vegemite alone is not enough to cause fermentation, but is instead used (if at all) as a nutrient for the yeast.

A Common Year pointed to some so-called “connoisseur forums” where this matter was discussed back in 2006.

Interestingly, the final post on the forums are the results of a test “Morrie” did.

Morrie reports the findings as:

Both jars were prepared with minimal sterilisation to simulate real conditions.

The jar with sugar and water only is sporting a nice crop of white fungal hyphae, floating in bundles.

The jar with vegemite and sugar is fizzing like crazy and is essentially a beer of some sort, though I have no intention of drinking it.

A quick taste was not unpleasant. If I was in a cell in some prison I think I would risk it.

Which actually appears to go against my hypothesis.

So, the only thing left to do is see if I can replicate those results, or to see if I find something else.

Method:

I took four glass jars, de-labelled and cleaned them thoroughly. Unlike Morrie, I sterilised them with boiling hot water as I wanted the jars to be as close as they could be microbially to reduce contamination and skewed results.

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I then mixed up a sugar water solution in a single jug, to ensure each jar started with the exact same sugar/base solution.

(It is possible that the jug introduced a contamination, and if that did happen, it’ll carry across to all four experiments. I would have liked to have created another sugar solution control separately to remove this, but I ran out of jars.)

In the end, the mix required 170g of white sugar.

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After 170g of white sugar was added, the “gravity” or relative density of the sugar water solution compared to water was 1.053. This was tested via a hydrometer:

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This is a similar “gravity” to beer (or wort) before it is fermented into an alcoholic drink. As the yeasties do their thing, they will convert the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. At the end of the test, we will be able to measure how much sugar has been converted into alcohol and gas, therefore showing which jar has been most “successful” at the task.

The sugar solution was then poured into the clear jars. Each jar got 250ml of solution.

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From there, I added the things I’d like to test. There are four jars with the same solution.

The jars contain:

  • Just the sugar solution (the control)
  • Vegemite (by itself)
  • Brewer’s yeast + vegemite
  • Just yeast

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This (should) allow me to test the hypothesis, and I’ll be able to observe any differences in each jar.

Here are the final jars, which I’ll now watch over the coming few days.

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