Posts Tagged ‘home winemaking’

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.