Whether you are interested in the homemade winemaking process or more intrigued by homemade mead or cider, you will need most of the same basic ingredients for fermentation.
This jug of peach mead is still fermenting, as indicated by the foaming action of the yeast. At the bottom, a layer of sediment comprised of dead yeast cells, called the lees, has formed.
Photo by Johnny Autry
Whether you’re harvesting straight from the garden or buying fresh produce, there’s nothing like preserving summer’s bounty to enjoy throughout the year. In Drink the Harvest (Storey Publishing, 2014), authors Nan K. Chase and DeNeice C. Guest, share techniques and recipes for turning fruits, vegetables and herbs into delicious beverages to drink fresh or preserve for later. The following from chapter 5,"Creating Wines, Meads & Specialty Drinks," jumps into the process of fermentation.
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Having enjoyed making garden wines ourselves, we think it’s a magical experience that becomes more fulfilling with each passing year as we gain experience and confidence. Once you learn the principles of fermentation and learn about the basic equipment and skills, you can let your imagination take over.
There is no one exact right way to make fermented beverages. Much of the information handed down from generation to generation is downright contradictory. There’s some elementary science at work, true, but over time winemaking becomes an art, a manner of personal expression that encompasses a vast and complex range of variables. Those variables can range from the duration of rainfall during the growing season, to the time of day you pick produce, to the amount of fertilizer in your soil.
Winemaking and its related activities are much like baking bread, and no more difficult. And just as temperature is crucial in canning juices, with all parts of the process required to take place at uniformly high readings, temperature is also crucial in winemaking. In winemaking, though, nothing must get too hot or too cold. There’s a sweet spot in the middle that fosters the development of alcohol, and winemaking’s key ingredient — yeast — must be activated in a lukewarm medium, just as it must for making leavened bread. Successful winemaking, like successful canning, does require strict sanitation, and we’ll get into the details later in this chapter.
The recipes included in Drink the Harvest are ones we devised and tested in our own kitchens. Keep in mind that they are just a starting point for all your future endeavors. We have standardized these recipes for one-gallon batches so that home brewers can cut-and-paste to create their own specialties. You can match your harvest with any of these recipes to create your own unique personal brew.
The basic equation for making wine, mead, or cider is:
Yeast + Sugar (or Honey) = Carbon Dioxide + Alcohol
This means that when properly activated, the yeast, which consists of living single-cell organisms, will consume the sugar in a juice mixture while creating a gas and an intoxicating compound — carbon dioxide (CO2) and alcohol.
To release the CO2 without introducing wild yeasts and bacteria from the air, you must stopper the fermentation vessel with a simple device called an airlock (or you can fake it with a small plastic bag and a not-too-tight rubber band). In essence, an airlock is a one-way vent. Thanks to a little bit of sanitized water held level in a plastic chamber above the fermentation vessel, the airlock lets carbon dioxide escape without any additional oxygen being able to reach the contents of the vessel.
After the most vigorous early fermentation has taken place (usually in a few days to a week), further oxygen can interrupt the fermentation process and spoil the wine. Once the alcohol content of the juice reaches a particular level, which varies from a low of 6 percent with hard cider to about 14 percent with some wines and up to 18 percent with some meads, the yeast can no longer live and fermentation stops. That’s when you bottle the finished product.
Keep in mind that when the fermentation stops, any leftover sugar in the liquid will produce a sweet wine or a not-so-sweet wine, depending on the type of yeast used and how much remains undigested.
The air around us is naturally full of yeast cells. Each one has the capacity, when moistened, warmed, and brought into contact with food (sugar or honey), to multiply wildly. Some types of yeast help create delicious fermented drinks; others make the juice undrinkable. So in fermentation for homegrown wines, the idea is to give the beneficial yeasts a boost so that they can overwhelm the undesirable ones right off the bat and prevent spoilage.
We’ll talk about those yeast starters in more detail shortly, but let’s just say that in a pinch you can use a packet of bread yeast to start any homegrown wine and the results might taste just fine. We have made wine and mead with both bread yeast and wine yeast, and we found the taste is better with the wine yeast.
The simple formula of Yeast + Sugar (or honey) = Carbon dioxide + Alcohol never varies. What does vary considerably are the ways you can put together the wine and mead recipes to capitalize on your fresh produce at hand.
In the case of herb or flower wines, the flavor component in a gallon of herb essence, or tea, is strong, but there’s no naturally occurring beneficial yeast or sugar. Once those are added, fermentation can begin and the result will be wine. In contrast, lots of fruits and berries and even tree sap, including such exotics as prickly pear cactus juice and birch water, have plenty of flavor and sugar already. They just need the dissolved yeast and a nutrient such as raisins or fresh grape skins to sustain the process.
Finally, because pure juice from pears, apples, and grapes already contains a full complement of sugar, flavor, and yeast, these juices can actually be fermented without adding anything. As we will show, however, that practice of wild fermentation is risky because without some help at the start, rogue yeasts or bacteria can overwhelm the good yeast, which is not a pleasant thing.
Excerpted from Drink the Harvest © by Nan K. Chase and DeNeice C. Guest, photography © by Johnny Autry, used with permission from Storey Publishing. Purchase this book from our store: Drink the Harvest.