Posts Tagged ‘home winemaking’

Leaf Ales for All Seasons

By any standards, we have been through a very strange year, and it isn’t over yet. The tragedy of the pandemic looms over everything, changing every professional, social, and financial situation. As a healthcare worker I’ve seen the distress caused as the impact of deaths ripples outward through families and communities. Anything that we can do to help and protect each other needs to be done.
More than ever, I feel that provident householders who have taken some steps toward being able to meet their own needs are relatively fortunate even when times are tough. The 2020 growing season was a strange one here, starting with an early long balmy spring that encouraged everything to start leafing out and blooming, then days of hard freeze that destroyed all the blossoms and infant fruit. Apples, peaches, apricots, cherries, plums, all gone. I didn’t harvest a single piece of fruit. Not even grapes, because the hungry squirrels ate them. Thinking that I would not be able to do any winemaking, I wandered around disconsolate, until it occurred to me that what I had was leaves. Lots and lots of leaves. Leaves can be made into teas and liquid infusions, and therefore they can be fermented into wine.

Throughout this discussion I’ll give brief directions suited to people with some fermentation equipment and experience. If you have neither, I’d recommend the book Making Wild Wines and Meads by Rich Gulling. The book gives more complete directions but preserves the spirit of experimentation that makes fermentation so interesting. Just be aware that his directions about the amount of sweetening to add produce very high alcohol wine, suitable for the storage times that he talks about. Mine are different.

Step 1 is to prepare the yeast. Any yeast intended for white wine will work. I use champagne yeast because it’s sturdy and unstoppable and I’ve never had a problem with it. Put half a cup of warm water in a large glass, stir in 2 teaspoons of sugar until dissolved, then add a teaspoon of dry winemaking yeast. Let the yeast granules moisten for a few minutes, stir them in, and cover the glass with plastic wrap. If you forget to give the yeast a head start you can pitch it directly into the sweetened brew later, but with the prestart it is rarin’ to go when added to the brew.
Next, catch your leaves. For the most part I used tree leaves, because it was in accord with my semi-permaculture principles and because I had a lot of them. In western society we don’t make a lot of use of tree leaves, so it’s very important to find out which ones you can safely use. In my area there are a lot of mulberry trees, and I have fig trees on my property, and I knew that these leaves are used for teas in other countries and are safe and non-toxic. Some people do have allergic skin reactions to handling fig leaves, so determine your own limits. I’ll have more to say about leaf foraging further along. To make a 1.5 gallon batch of wine, I started by going out in the yard with a 2 gallon stockpot and picking it full of leaves,  packed slightly but not tightly. Then I washed the leaves carefully, and chopped them up a bit just by sticking my big kitchen shears in the pot and cutting through handfuls of leaves. The exception was the fig leaves. I rolled them up in bundles of about 10 leaves and cut them in crosswise strips. I was fairly sure that they were too thick and tough for my stick blender to chop up. Then water was added to almost fill the pot, and the heat was started. I let the water come to a boil, stirred the leaves frequently, and after about 15 minutes when the leaves started to shrink and look cooked, I started chopping with my stick blender.  Ultimately you want an almost-puréed witch’s brew looking like this.

Yech, right? But your finished wine will look quite different and will resemble the pale green-gold wine in the second photo above. At this stage start to think about how to flavor it. The leaves have little flavor, so if you add nothing else it may not taste like much. My personal favorite is about 10 stars of star anise thrown in at this point and simmered with the brew for another 15 minutes, but there are lots of other possibilities. I think that lemon verbena would be a particularly nice flavor, and next summer I plan to try that. You can also add flavoring agents to the finished wine later. After you have simmered in your flavor ingredients of choice, turn off the burner and let the brew cool to room temperature.

Next, run the brew through a mesh straining bag, which you can get through any brewing supply store. Wring and squeeze the bag to get as much fluid out as possible. You should get about 1.5 gallons back. Now you add the sweetening that the yeast will live on. The amount added determines the alcohol level of the finished wine. I use 1pound per gallon of ordinary table sugar or raw sugar, or 1lb 8oz for this quantity, which makes a very light wine of about 4% alcohol content. You can use more if you want more alcohol. You also need to add some acid at this point or your finished wine will be very bland. I make 5 gallon batches and lemon juice would be too expensive, so I use malic acid powder from the brewing store. The amount is a very individual thing. For this quantity I use about two tablespoons. Have a small clean cup handy and taste the brew, bearing in mind that the sweetness will be gone after fermentation and you are tasting only for acid content. Be cautious, because you can always add more later.

By now your glass of yeast should look foamy and bubbly. Add the yeast mixture to the cooled brew, stir in thoroughly, put the brew in a 2 gallon fermentation bucket, fit with a fermentation lock, and put it in a place that isn’t too chilly. Bubbles should start to come through the fermentation lock within 12 hours, and reach peak in 2-4 days. Let the whole rig sit undisturbed for 2 weeks, then siphon into a clean bucket, put the fermentation lock on again, and leave it for another two weeks. Be sure to watch the fermentation lock and keep it full of liquid to the fill line. It has now completed secondary fermentation, and you can siphon it into glass jugs.

A wine this low in alcohol has very little ability to keep, so you will want to use it in the near future or store it in the refrigerator. Now let’s consider how to drink it. Chill it, taste it, and think about it. The sweetening is now completely gone, and it may taste too acid. Add a little sugar, or a drop or two of artificial sweetener if you use that, and see if you like that effect better. If it seems bland, a small squeeze of lemon juice added in the glass might be just what it needs to perk it up. If the acid balance seems right to you but you don’t taste enough other flavors, it might be delicious with a little bit of one of the many herbal liqueurs added. I make my own mixed herbal liqueur and my own anisette, and often add a few drops of each to a glass. I like the leaf wines best when carbonated, and for my large batches this is done in a kegerator, but you can carbonate small amounts using the Drinkmate. Add fruit juice or whatever else takes your fancy. Play with it. It’s yours, and the rules that might apply to fine wines have no application here.

If you don’t have any tree leaves available but you do have a garden, you still have the materials to make a very personal leaf wine from your own property. I often use Swiss chard leaves from my garden in these brews, and have discovered to my great pleasure that I can use kale and outer leaves of cabbage, and although the cabbagey scent can be quite obnoxious in the original brew, it is gone after fermentation. One of my favorites was made entirely from scarlet kale, and is beautiful in the glass.

This:

Turns into this:

If you decide to try it, be aware that in the pot the brew will be a dreadful purple-brown shade and you will curse me. Fear not, when you add the acid the magic of polyphenol redox chemistry will take place and the brew will turn a lovely bright magenta.

Other things that I have added to leaf wine brews include prickly pear juice, blood orange juice, and elderberries.


Rose hips are also good material, and the pretty tawny-rose wine at the top of this post was made with rose hips. A double handful of blackberries added a pretty tinge to another batch.

We enjoy the leaf wines so much that I make 5 gallon batches in my giant 8 gallon stockpot, but don’t do this until you’ve tried some small batches to see if you like the concept. Also, just to emphasize this point again, leaf wines made according to my directions have a very low alcohol content and won’t keep well unless refrigerated. I am able to store them under refrigeration, but if you aren’t, stick to smaller amounts.

Also be aware that when I started making large batches, my home stick blender dropped dead and I had to get a commercial one from a restaurant supply house. Tree leaves are tough.

As always when foraging, use common sense and tend to your own safety. I don’t have any problem consuming mulberry leaves, fig leaves, or Siberian elm leaves, but you might. Never assume that the leaves can be used because the fruit can be used; elderberries are just one example of a plant that has edible fruit but poisonous leaves. Never trust your safety to a stranger on the Internet. Do your own research.

If you are interested in thriving on what’s around you, leaf wines can add a bit of sparkle and joy to your life.

 

 

 

 

Nettle Ale, and notes on the Drinkmate

One of the nicest things about having an active permaculture garden is that you have strange plants around you in all phases of growth and you’re led to read and to experiment. A couple of months ago I found myself eyeing my healthy nettle patch, where the nettles were almost three feet tall and well past the greens phase, and wondering what could be done with them. I got on the Internet and came across British recipes for nettle beer. I was curious about it because the cooking water from nettles has a strong and distinctive taste that I don’t find exactly pleasant, yet people reported liking the ferment. Well, no harm in trying. I started with three gallons of water in my huge stockpot, and picked (with sturdy leather gloves) about 75 nettle tops. I also added 10 large hops leaves and 10 large Concord grape leaves on grounds that, if the brew was revolting, at least it would contain some resveratrol and chalcones. I boiled all this at a full rolling boil for fifteen minutes, and then let it cool. I fished all the plant material out with a strainer scoop, pressed all the residual juice out and returned it to the pot, and gave the pressed mass of leaves to the chickens. No sense in wasting those nutrients.
I brew by instinct and not by recipe, and I think the next step is the most important: TASTE THE COOLED JUICE AND THINK ABOUT THE FLAVOR before sweetening the liquid. The sweetness will be fermented out, so it’s important not to think of it as part of the finished flavor.  Don’t think in terms of a recipe that you’ve read. Think about what it needs to improve the flavor, and try to supply that.  This juice was not promising, with a strong nettle taste and little other flavor. It lacked any acidity so I added the juice of four oranges and one lemon, giving it a light but pleasant acidity. I decided to go with the strong herbal flavor and added a large angelica leaf and stem, which would remain in the fermenter during primary fermentation.  I also added back the squeezed rind of one of the oranges. Use organic if you do this. Next, I needed to give the yeasty beasties something to eat. I sweetened with one pound of organic sugar per gallon of water, for an eventual alcohol level of 4-5%, just above near-beer, and pitched a yeast intended for hard cider. This all went into the primary fermenter, where it bubbled merrily for a couple of weeks. When the bubbling slowed, I racked it into a clean fermentation bucket, leaving the angelica leaf and rinds behind with the sediment. I tasted  the brew at this point,  and to my surprise the distinctive nettle taste was completely gone.  I could taste the aromatics from the oranges, a slight and becoming touch of bitterness from the angelica and hops leaves,  and an overall mild herbal flavor, and while the brew  still tasted raw and unfinished, it was pleasant.  After another two weeks, it was racked into a keg and put under carbonation.   Chilled and  carbonated, it has become one of our favorite choices for a quick glass of something-or-other in the evening.  It is blessedly  low in alcohol and good with light meals like salads. It tastes best sweetened slightly with a drop or two of liquid stevia or similar added to a glassful. We like it so much that I promptly started another batch dubbed Stinger Brew II,  but this time I left out the oranges and just added the juice of one lemon to a 4 gallon batch.  When primary fermentation is finished and I rack it off for secondary fermentation, I will taste and see if it needs any more acidity, and I plan to dry hop it at this stage because my hops should be in full bloom at that point. Where Stinger I is more like a light herbal wine, Stinger II will be more like a light true ale.  If you really want it to taste like a beer rather than a wine, you could use malt syrup  or malt extract  to sweeten the juice, but I like the more winey  quality that comes from using sugar.

So, as I am always saying, embrace the experimental nature of cooking, brewing, gardening, and life.  If I did this commercially, I would have to keep very exact measurements for consistency between batches and would have to try to maintain each batch exactly like the one before, since that is what customers expect.  But my ingredients are variable, my process is variable, I am variable, and I do not want two batches that taste the same.  This is very freeing.  Liberating yourself from the tyranny  of the recipe is one of the nicest things that can happen to a cook and brewer.

Beer, wine, and mead can be carbonated by charging with some sugar, bottling in swing-cap bottles, and waiting. But there are easier and surer ways. If I want a large quantity carbonated, my husband oversees a kegerator made for refrigerating and carbonating 5 gallon kegs, and then the bubbly stuff is dispensed via a tap. It’s very handy, but needless to say, you don’t necessarily want 5 gallons of any one thing. In those cases, I use the Drinkmate. It’s a sleek carbonation device that uses smaller CO2 canisters and special bottles to carbonate a liter or less at a time in just a couple of minutes. There are a number of carbonation devices on the market, and they all work just fine for carbonating water. The Drinkmate is different because it will carbonate any liquid. Carbonated juice could be delicious if you drink juice, and it occurs to me that sparkling mint tea would be delicious in the summer.You can read more about the device here. If you want to buy one, you can get it here. Replacement CO2 cylinders are available at Bed Bath and Beyond, and empties can be traded in there for half-price new cylinders. Order a few extra bottles when you order your Drinkmate. I’ve noticed that when plain carbonated water is available in the fridge, I drink more water in total, and sparkling water is better with meals than plain water. Carbonation also brings out the flavor of water kefir, which I make in large quantities. With or without a drop of sweetener, it’s delicious.

Fermentation IV: The Wine at Your Table.

For the previous decades of my adulthood I had little or no interest in winemaking because I’m fond of good red wines and suspected that it would cost plenty to make wine at home and not produce a great result because I don’t have the right facilities for aging. But over the last year I’ve started fermenting lower-alcohol wines, meads, and cyzers meant to be consumed within their first year. They are not made to be fussed over but to be quaffed casually and with immediate pleasure. They are made as casually as they are consumed, without all the tedious sterilization, measuring, and worrying that so often saps the fun out of home brewing.

My bible for fermenting for fun is the delightful Make Mead Like a Viking, by Jerome Zimmerman. It’s a fun read and offers a few explicit recipes and lots of general information and assurance that your distant ancestors did this without making a big deal about it and so can you. Don’t invest in a lot of sterilization equipment because soap-and-water clean is fine. Don’t worry about exact recipes because it’s part of the fun to try something different every time.  I will not be giving any explicit instructions here, just a general idea of what I do, because if you are an experienced fermenter you will be familiar with these principles and if you aren’t you need the book.

The equipment to get started is Mr. Zimmerman’s book, a couple of 2-gallon plastic brewing buckets and fermentation locks, a 6-foot or so length of food-grade plastic tubing for siphoning, some clean gallon bottles for the finished wine, and ingredients. Sugar, honey, or fruit juice provide the food for the yeast. A packet of commercial wine yeast gets you off to a good start, although wild yeast isn’t that hard to use. Personally I don’t go in for the equipment that allows you to calculate your finished alcohol level precisely. I rely on the following general proportions: a pound of honey or about 1.5 pounds of sugar per gallon of water ferments out to 4.5 or 5% alcohol. Double the sweetener per  per gallon and it ends up at about 10%. Once you’re up to triple sweetener per gallon, your yeast is likely to be killed off at some point and leave you with residual sugar, unless you used champagne yeast, which tolerates a lot of alcohol. But then your drink is “hotter” and higher alcohol than I’m looking for. Quadruple sweetener will in my opinion leave you with syrup, although some people love the effect. Apple juice will ferment out to about 4% alcohol, more if you add sweetener or sweeter juices. For the most part, I plan to finish at about 7.5% alcohol, 10% at absolute maximum.

Flavoring depends on what you’re in the mood for. Don’t be afraid to experiment. One of my favorite late-summer wines was made by juicing three cantaloupes and adding the juice to a gallon of apple juice, along with half a pound of sugar dissolved in 3 cups of water. Another remarkable wine was made with a dozen juiced prickly pears, the juice of two blood oranges, and a gallon of water sweetened with honey and sugar in equal parts, with one of the squeezed blood orange halves thrown in to ferment in the liquid for the first two weeks.  Prickly pears have little flavor but exquisite color, and this wine, which can be seen above and in the picture at the top of this post, is one of my favorites.  So far I’ve used juice from my own grapevine, blackcurrant juice, juiced aronia berries, juiced blackberries, and juiced dark cherries. I always prefer honey as the sweetener, but some people don’t care for its earthy undertone, so sugar is easier on some palates.

Apple-strawberry cyzer, shown above, is another surprise favorite with a subtle note of strawberry that makes for delicate, delicious sipping.

Blackcurrant mead is musky-sweet on the palate.

Although  I may make 5 gallon batches of things that came out well if I can get the materials, I always start with between a gallon and gallon and a half, which fits neatly into a 2 gallon fermentation bucket. Make up the mixture of your choice, put it in a clean bucket, snap the lid on, and fit a fermentation lock. Make sure you have put fluid in the lock to the right level.  I use vodka instead of water in the fermentation lock, to make sure that no intrepid fruit flies get through and turn the wine to vinegar.  Then, wait at least three weeks. Sometimes you will hear the must making surprising noises, and when it starts to ferment actively the fermentation lock will make an attractive gurgling sound.  After 3 to 4 weeks, open the bucket making sure not to shake it around and disturb the sediment, and siphon the fluid off the yeast and other sediment into a second clean bucket.  Cover it, put a fermentation lock on, and let it sit for another 3 to 4 weeks. Again siphon the wine or mead or cyzer off the sediment,  this time putting it in a gallon bottle and put any of that won’t fit into clean wine bottles or canning jars. Of course you could put it all in bottles, but I prefer to avoid the fuss of cleaning and storing all those bottles.   At this point, taste it. Generally it will be fermented out dry, and many fruit mixtures taste better when a little sweetness is added back.  If I feel that it needs some sweetness, I sweeten very cautiously with pure liquid sucralose, stirring  and tasting  after each drop so that I don’t overdo it.  If you prefer you can use sugar, but remember that it must be stored in the refrigerator after that, and even so, the yeast will slowly ferment away your added sugar and produce pressure inside the bottle that can lead to a minor but messy explosion.

You can filter repeatedly if you want a sparkling clear product, but I do think you lose flavor in the process and I generally don’t.

Store in the refrigerator. Often these ferments taste better cold, and if you do want to drink them at room temperature just get them out of the refrigerator an hour before wanted.  They do not have a high alcohol content to preserve them, and so cold storage serves this function. Plan to drink them within a few months. I have made higher alcohol meads that I kept for much longer times, and they certainly improved with keeping, but if the alcohol content is low they aren’t likely to hold in good condition.

If you really start enjoying yourself and want to get wilder, you will want to own Pascal Bauder’s The Wildcrafting Brewer, in which wildcrafted ingredients and wild yeasts are used to produce drinks that are the essence of a particular bit of earth at a particular time.