95) Must!

"Must" is the stuff wine is made of, before the yeast gets added.  Crushed or juiced fruit, sugar, maybe water, and a heady cocktail of other additives, like yeast nutrient, acid blends, pectic enzyme and so on.  It's sweet, syrupy, and the delight of small children – as long as they don't mind 'bits' in their 'drink'.

I've made 36 bottles of wine this year, and half of those have been country-style (non-grape) wines made from 'free' ingredients – crabapples, elderberries, dandelion flowers.  The rest have been from grape extract kits, and, whilst definitely drinkable, do not give me anything like the same sense of satisfaction as the 'wild' wines.

So imagine my delight when a colleague asked, with great eagerness, if I could use 'some grapes' that he had available.  The man has a vine in a greenhouse, and has been unable to get his usual brewer(!) to come in and sort them out this year.  Short of letting them all drop off the vine and ferment around his ankles, I think he was at his wit's end as to what to do with the things.

I said yes.  (Duh!)

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He showed up on Monday with a five gallon bucket pretty much full of grapes.  (That's a six gallon bucket for readers in the US.  Why US gallons are different to UK ones I don't know, but it makes googling for brewing recipes a risky business.)  Apparently, there's still probably an equal amount of grapes on the floor of his greenhouse, but I think I'll leave him to deal with those.

Anyway.  Forty pounds of grapes.  Enough to make a confident 3 gallons of wine (UK measures), or another 18 bottles, give or take.

No wine press.

To make wine from grapes, you need to crush the grapes, and press the juice out.  In the case of red wine, which is what I plan to make from these intensely dark and sweet grapes, some fermentation happens between the crushing and pressing; for white wine, it's pretty much all done as a single step, before the fermentation happens.  Pressing takes a fair amount of muscle if you don't want to waste loads of juice, and I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do about that.

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Crushing, though, I can do.  Turns out that a food processor with the plastic 'pastry' blade fitted has enough clout to pulverise the grapes without splitting the pips open.  Pips are bitter; we don't want to extract the flavour from them.

It'll still take you a couple of hours to work through 40 or so pounds, though.

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So, that's my must.  I tried to take a hydrometer reading1 to find out how sweet these grapes are.  I ate a couple (they're sweet! – unusual for a wine variety, but these have been picked late), but the hydrometer is more accurate.  Or should be.

First, I tried grabbing a scoopful of the must and straining it through a mesh bag.  That gave me a hydrometer reading of 1.118, which is –errm- on the high side even for sweet grapes with no sugar added.  I think the 'bits' that made it though the strainer were buoying up the hydrometer, giving me an artificially high reading.

Then, I tried to use the wine thief2 to get 'just juice' out of the bucket.  I got juice and pips.  The pips stuck between the wall of the measuring cylinder and the body of the hydrometer, and stopped it moving.  I could get any reading from over 1.200 to under 0.990 with this system.

I poured the juice-plus-pips through the nylon bag, and finally got a reading of 1.080, which seems more reasonable.  I'm aiming for a reading of between 1.113 and 1.123, according to this recipe, so I plumped for a mid-point of 1.118 and used the rule of thumb that 12-15g of sugar per litre will raise the S.G by 0.005 to figure out I probably need 2kg of sugar to get me up to that point.

It's easier to add more sugar than remove it, so I bunged 1.5kg sugar into the bucket (nowhere near the 6kg that the Concord recipe suggests – that's how sweet these grapes are!), added Campden tablets, nutrient and pectolase and went to bed.  I'll try and get a more accurate reading this evening, before I add the yeast.

I didn't have enough pectolase left (this stuff breaks down cell walls and makes for more efficient juice extraction), so I just added all I had.  I did have enough nutrient – just! – but I now need to order more of both.  Because clearly, I never know when I simply must make wine.


1 A hydrometer measures the density of a liquid, relative to water (S.G 1.000).  Sugar makes the liquid denser, and gives a higher reading.  Alcohol does the opposite.  If you know the starting and finishing gravities of a brew, you can estimate the alcohol content, by assuming that the only change that has occurred is that sugar has turned into alcohol.

2 A wine thief is a tube with a narrow hole at each end.  The theory is that you plunge it into whatever you want a sample of, then stop the top hole with your thumb.  When you take it out, the liquid you have just trapped inside it comes with you, and you can put it in your hydrometer, your tasting glass, whatever.

84) B is for…

better?  J is home from hospital, complete with his appendix and no plans to have it removed.  Whilst I'm not familiar with this concept of appendicitis 'getting better', Mum has reminded me that doctors used to talk about people having a 'grumbling appendix', so maybe we'll call it that.  Everybody repeat after me, in your best 'Dr. Nick' voice: "Feengers crossed, everrybodee!"

B is also for beer!  J and I started brewing our first batch of beer that isn't made from a kit, a few weeks ago.  It's a Belgian Wit (wheat) beer, flavoured with orange and coriander seed, and uses real, actual hops and torrified wheat, as well as the more familiar malt extract.  It's a step towards doing full mash, or all grain, brewing, which feels so much more 'real' to me than using tinned extracts.  It also means that, once you know what you are doing, you get far more control over the final flavours in your brew.

It also means you have to boil the ingredients for about an hour, depending on the recipe.  We have a special mash tun and boiling vessel, which is a plastic tub with a very serious heating element in the base, and a thermostat.  You can use this to do the vigorous boil, or the gentler, more refined heating that is required to get the sugars out of the malted barley (or the wheat, in this case). When you add the hops, they float on top of everything else:

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But by the time the boil is done, they're significantly less buoyant.

This is really a spring/summer drink, so here's hoping it keeps well!  It's almost finished fermenting now; we should be bottling in a week or so…

71) The joy of crab apples

Today, the crab apple tree in our garden was severely pruned.

This tree has, forever, looked like a leggy sapling.  It's only when you get close to it that you realise that 90% of the fruit it bears is waaaayyy out of reach.

This tree crops fairly heavily every year, but because the fruit is unpickable, it drops onto the flower beds and the lawn, bruises, rots and gets eaten by dogs, who end up with a bad stomach.  So, we've decided to cut it down to a third of its original height – at precisely the time it is full of fruit.  Which we can now pick off the cut branches – yayy!!!

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This is six pounds of crab apples, washed and draining.  They're now in the freezer, where they are waiting their opportunity to turn into wine just as soon as the elderberries are out of the primary fermentation bucket.

Another three pounds have been stewed to mush, which will be strained and turned into jelly some time in the next week or so.  I think a third of them will become plain crabapple jelly, a third will become elderberry-crabapple, and the rest will become chili-crabapple.  Hopefully.

I love having a garden.

70) Planning the weekend

11am on a Friday morning, and thoughts turn to the weekend ahead…

I have been in nearly-permanent catchup mode since starting my new job (which is going GREAT, btw), and now I'm in serious danger of planning far too much to fit into a mere two days.

Saturday is spinning day; the whole day (well, from 10 till 4, anyway) spent spinning in great company, in Rampton village.  I received the most **glorious** fibre in the post last Saturday, and despite my resolution to get my lace flyer attached to the Ashford for my next bout of spinning, I think I need to tackle this stuff first.  I treated myself to three months' membership of the SweetGeorgia fibre club, and this is the first installment:

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It's 50% merino/25% silk/25% bamboo, in fantastically autumnal colours, and I couldn't be more delighted with it.  I think I'm going to spin it fractally, and aim for a bouncy, squishy 2-ply to make fingerless gloves or mitts with.  For me.

I need to attend to the brewing, too; I currently have ale for Christmas 2010 (yes, really!) in two demijohns which needs racking off and/or bottling; wine for my Dad's Christmas present in a primary fermenter, which needs racking off; dandelion wine which probably needs bottling but is currently sitting in a plastic bottle (eww!) in the garage; a kit which was started two weeks ago sitting in a primary fermenter, and which needs checking on if nothing else; and last Monday I picked and washed three pounds of elderberries (from the volunteer tree in our garden!) and mashed them and a pound of sultanas and two pounds of sugar in boiling water.  The yeast for that little lot arrived yesterday, and needs adding.

Then, there's one Pilsner-style kit and the ingredients for my first non-kit beer brew sitting in the kitchen.  Along with a new primary fermenter and my very shiny new mash/boiler tun which arrived yesterday.  Oh – and the crabapples are ripe.  I would love to make wine, and jelly if there's enough fruit, from those, but experience suggests that they bruise easily, and go soft even faster than pears, not to mention being a perfect breeding ground for fruit flies if you give them even the slightest excuse.

I have handspun wool singles sitting in Kilner jars, slowly turning yellow under the influence of elder leaves, and a loom which needs renovating so I can weave the yellow yarn on it.  I have a whole business plan, drawn up in June, which has been roundly ignored ever since I interviewed for this job.

So.  This evening, I plan to check the veg garden for stuff that needs picking, start the elderberry wine, make a cake for tomorrow, possibly blend some fibre, pack for tomorrow's spinning day, cook and eat dinner, and (if I have my sensible head on), catch up with the ironing.

Katarina is still unfinished, and likely to remain so for the weekend; two evenings of concerted knitting effort have resulted in a garter-stitch band that is roughly two inches deep.  I need it to be over twice that, and then I need to finish seaming the sleeves, and, ideally, re-block before she's really finished.  Even if I stay up all night, I'm unlikely to have a wearable garment by tomorrow, and much as I would love to wear it to Rampton tomorrow, it's really not that important.

46) Dandelion wine

Ray Bradbury famously described dandelion wine as "bottled sunshine".

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But then, the starting product is pretty darn sunshiney, too.

I've always wanted to make dandelion wine, and when I realised that we had a *fine* crop in the garden, which not along the sides of any busy roads and free of weedkillers and pesticides, it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.

I found that there are about as many recipes for dandelion wine as I had dandelions in my garden.  I found that an alternative name for it is "George's Day Wine" because it's traditional to pick the flowers on St. George's day (so I'm not far off there, then).  I read that many folks believe you should pick them at midday, when the sun is on the petals and the flowers are fully open.

This is possibly because you're about to spend the *rest* of the day picking all the petals off the flowers, because you want no stalk at all in the brew, and as little of the calyx (the short, green outer 'petals' and the bit they join to) as possible.  This takes much, much longer than picking the flowers in the first place.  The petals:

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The leftovers:

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Good job I had some sunshine to sit in, really.

27) Sw-sw-sw-sweeeeeet!

J and I just cracked open the first wine brew I bottled (well, bagged!) and the title of this post pretty much sums up my tasting notes.

I was pretty surprised as the colour of the wine was what I could only describe as thin, and it smelt somewhat thin, too, and somewhat acidic.

The taste, though, is light, fruity and very, very sweet.  J described it as being 'like a desert wine', and though I wouldn't go quite that far, he's also not all that far wrong.

However, there are no 'off' notes or strange flavours in there, so who knows?  It may all come out in the wash.

13) Diversifying

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I crumbled.  This apparently is what passes for a 'demijohn' these days; personally, I think it looks vile, as if it is brewing up something unmentionable somewhere in the back of a less salubrious trailer park somewhere.  I need to find some of those lovely old glass vessels; apparently, Mum has given all my old ones away!

Anyway, the second 40-pint beer brew has now been bottled.  And –ahem– I've only bought one more beer kit and two wine kits in the meantime.  The above is a 'three week' kit; I am giving it the benefit of the doubt.  It may well be better at that point than some of the boxed wines I've drunk in the past, anyway.

The *total* amount I've spent on beer brewing to date, divided by the number of pints bottled to date, gives me a cost per pint of £2.77 – already below pub prices, and I have the capacity to brew another -errrm- 88 pints or so, if my quick calculations are correct, bringing my cost down to £1.33 per pint – below supermarket prices, which are about £1.50 for a 'pint' bottle of real ale, or £1.45 for a bottled pint of premium lager.  It'll take a while to catch up, but it is part of the point of doing this (quite apart from the fact that I enjoy it).  The wine figures aren't yet quite so impressive, but they'll get there.

Another point to note is that this brewing seems to be both addictive and catching.  Both Tempewytch and Geodyne seem to be succumbing to the brew side…

6) What’s brewing?

We all know I need a new hobby like I need, well, a hole in the head, but I seem to have acquired one anyway.

Back in November sometime, I bought a beginner's brewing kit from the friendly and helpful people at Art of Brewing.  Along with two kits for beer – a traditional Old Ale, and a Belgian Trappist style beer, which will hopefully be something like Leffe Brune.  For those that haven't had the pleasure, this is to bitter what port is to red wine. Strong, sweet, heavy.  Yum!

So I started with the old ale.  My plan, at the time, was to get the thing fermenting (5-7 days), bottle it, let it rest at room temperature for a week or two, then condition it in the garage for another fortnight and have it ready to drink for our first Christmas at home.

For a start, this caused raised eyebrows amongst those I know who already brew.  Apparently, anything that says "Ready to drink in four weeks" or the like is to be taken with a generous pinch of salt.  And probably a shot of tequila and a slice of lime, too.  The longer it's left to condition, the better, is the general opinion.  Well, OK.  We could always crack a bottle open at Christmas anyway, and leave the rest to get juuust right for later.

Secondly, what project ever goes to plan round here?  Testing of the brew after seven days showed it had hardly fermented at all.  Uh-oh.  Well, we aren't famous for leaving our heating on loads around here, and the kitchen (where fermentation was supposed to be taking place) seemed to have gotten a bit nippy, and the whole damn lot went to sleep.

Another order to AoB got me a submersible heating element with a thermostat in it and a couple of spare lids for the fermenting tub, because now I was going to have to cut a hole in the lid I already had, which could so easily go horribly wrong…  It didn't, thanks to J and the Dremel, and after much finicking around, we got the fermentation to start up again, albeit slowly.

We bottled the stuff 5 weeks to the day after I started it fermenting.  It tasted OK, as far as we could tell, and it's been in a box in my studio ever since.  It's supposed to be 'room temperature' there; probably the less said the better, though.  It goes to the garage this weekend, and in a fortnight or two we can taste it.  If I'm very, very restrained, I'll wait till my birthday.

What I failed to mention in all this, of course, is that I panicked and bought another two beer kits in the meantime.  If this brew failed, I wasn't going to risk my lovely Trappist style, premium kit until I'd gotten one to work!!  And, of course, it was actually cheaper to buy two spare kits instead of one; that pushed me over into the 'free postage' category, you see.

Knitters: is this sounding at all familiar?

I have had to promise J, in front of witnesses, that I will *not*, under any circumstances, be starting a brewing stash!

But I am tempted to diversify into wine.