…or how to make wine with wild yeast
In Wales, recorded in 1802, poor people would “make a drink called Diodgriafel by infusing [rowan] berries in water”. In 1798, John Evans writes that this was drunk with oatmeal-cake, barley-bread or potatoes. For a change they’d occasionally have hung goat, dried fish, goat or sheep cheese and acidified buttermilk.
Basically, diodgriafel was a rowan berry wine or ale recipe. Back in the days before the predominance of grapes and hops, the difference between a beer and a wine was often negligible. Nettle beer for example is really a country wine. I separate them in my head by using beer for a drink made by cooking grains, wine for a cold fermented drink with high sugar content and ale for a cold fermented drink flavoured with strong herbs (eg ale-hoof (ground ivy), yarrow, mugwort, etc.).
Going back a few centuries, to make a wine you would gather some fruits, mash them up a bit, cover them in water and left the lot to ferment until it turned into something vaguely alcoholic.
Old instructions will always caution you to pick your berries after the first frost. This is because when the berries are frozen it breaks down their cell membranes. This allows the natural wild yeasts, from the air all around us, to enter the cells and start fermenting them, feeding off the natural sugars. The berries start to soften, go mushy, decay and end up rotten. By picking them after the frosts have started, you are giving the wild yeasts a good headstart.
Don’t then go and spoil this by killing off the yeasts with boiling water! If you do that, you will then have to depend on your wine-to-be (the must) picking up wild yeast from the air in your house/garage. In my house there is certainly a lot about but that is an acquired state! If you want to make an entirely natural wine with the wild yeasts already on the berries try this:
Pick your berries after the frosts (rowan, hips, haws), or with soft fruit when they are completely ripe (elderberries, currants, bramble) or the flowers completely open (elder, rose, gorse, meadowsweet).
Don’t pick your berries when it’s just rained as much of the wild yeast will have washed off
Pick out any rotten berries, leaves, twigs, etc.
Don’t wash or rinse the fruit. Try to pick ‘clean’ in the first place.
Weigh your berries. Prepare some sugar water by dissolving 250g of water in 2 litres of room temperature, de-chlorinated water. You will need 2 litres of this sugar water for every 1 kilo of berries. It isn’t absolutely essential to sugar the water but it does give the wild yeasts a headstart.
Put the berries into a sterilised bucket (Milton, bleach or a commercial sanitiser will do, if not scour with boiling water) that has plenty of room and a lid. This prevents other microbes that are living in your house from interfering with your brew
Add 2 litres of the sugar water for every 1 kilo of berries. Leave a hands-width headspace at the top of each bucket.
Cover your bucket. I use muslin or put a hole in the bucket lid and either insert a commercial bubbler, or cover the hole with an upturned shot glass. This allows your yeasts to breathe but stops unwanted dust, flies or microbes from getting in.
After 2 or 3 days, give it a stir. You should notice that fermentation has started. Keep an eye on it. If the ferment seems weak you may want to add a little more syrup or some crushed apples as a nutrient.
Once it had bubbled happily for a while (times vary hugely but generally a week or two), fermentation will naturally cease as the alcohol content rises and kills off the yeasts. Wild yeasts rarely make alcohol stronger than 6% so don’t leave it to sit after fermentation has stopped or it will start to spoil.
When you think it is done, strain the must into a new sterilised bucket and allow it to settle for a day.
Once the sediment has settled to the bottom, carefully siphon the wine off into sterilised bottles. Plastic fizzy water or soda bottles can be used to avoid explosions if you had a particularly lively yeast and think you have champagne! Cap tightly.
Leave to mature for a few months before the sampling process begins! But give them time – at least 6 months, ideally a year… or two. I often find that the best wines I’ve made were those that I thought were disasters, that got lost on a back shelf somewhere to be rediscovered years later when I’m finally having a clear out.
As you’ll have gathered, not knowing the wild yeasts you have means there is a lot of guesswork going on here. There will be some disasters along the way but they are usually salvageable as vinegar. The more you do, the more you’ll develop an intuition for the process and know how to respond to your ferment.
To speed the development you can even pick some of the berries a week or two earlier than your main crop, get the yeast going, feed it with sugar water added to the must, and then add it to your main mix. This helps the yeasts to colonise more quickly and exclude any unwanted outsiders!
However, removing the guesswork to get reliable, consistent results is why modern wine yeasts were developed! So if you’d like more control over your rowan berry wine see my recipe here.