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Keith Krul (shown above, second from right) used materials on hand to make his “wine.”
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Chief among the inevitabilities of human culture are the creation of music and art, making love and making booze. And when it comes to these inalienable rights, we shan't be denied by such inconveniences as lack of instruments, shortage of fine paper or abstinence prohibitions. Thus, when Virginian Keith Krul (rhymes with rule) was stationed in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm in 1990, he not only fought for Kuwaiti liberation and international law, he fought for the natural law of libations.
In the TV series M*A*S*H, Capts. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce and B.J. Honnicutt assuage Korea's travails by erecting a gin still in "The Swamp." In real life, any desert is an unforgiving place, but add to the scorching heat a lack of access to wine and spirits and it's easy to see how military morale can waver.
Enter Staff Sgt. Krul, a data analyst for the Air Force. He concocted a "wine" made from government-issue apple juice, sugar and yeast that he procured from the mess hall in exchange for a share of the finished product. He filled empty 1-liter water bottles with the juice, added a ratio of sugar and yeast, and topped the bottles with a condom fastened with dental floss. Krul poked a hole in the condom to allow the carbon dioxide to escape and left the juice alone to ferment. Fifteen days dater, he had "Desert Brew" at a healthy 12.6 percent alcohol. "I perfected it to the tablespoon," he said. "The condom would rise during fermentation and then deflate ... this was the sign that the process was complete."
He still keeps photos, videos and his fermentation journal from the trial and error. "We knew it was 12.6 percent because the guys from Enviromental — the ones who checked our water, air and made sure we weren't getting gassed — measured it for us. Only had to drink a few ounces and you'd feel funny right away."
Unlike the Army, which is constantly on the move, the Air Force sets up shop with air-conditioned tents, so Krul was able to establish an entire operation that supplied his troops and provided a commodity to trade with other units. Since the Army couldn't stay put long enough to complete fermentation, soldiers tried boosting alcohol with aftershave and denatured alcohol, but since the latter is toxic, the military ended up handing down orders that these liquids not be used for this purpose. So soldiers would come looking for the brew and Krul would have to tell them, "It ain't ready yet."
Krul's job included crunching data during flights and keeping track of systems post-flight. Where'd he learn winemaking? The night Krul turned 18, he took a job cooking in Florida. He lacked formal training, but had picked up skills preparing meals for his parents. "Guess I just remembered some things I learned about fermentation. And I'm an analyst by trade, so I'm no stranger to the process of doing it over and over and over."
Krul, 47, is a Hampton resident and tax specialist for H&R Block who keeps in touch with his buddies. Aug. 2 marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Gulf War, and to celebrate, Krul is gathering his crew in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (where they were stationed before shipping out), for a reunion. Word on the street is that he's even planning on making a commemorative batch of Desert Brew. With so much technology at soldiers' fingertips now, I can only imagine what state-of-the-art hooch they're drinking in Iraq and Afghanistan. That they haven't lured Krul out of retirement to consult, however, is a sign that the Pentagon could use a shot of Desert Brew.