Or more correctly: Sparkling Elderflower Wine.
No self-respecting microholder (or general human) would miss the opportunity at this time of year to make some of this delicious booze. Why? Firstly, because it really is delicious. And secondly, because it’s booze. Free booze. Well, free-ish.
At this time of year, late May to mid-June, the Elder trees are sagging under the weight of clouds of creamy-white florets. They’re everywhere! In fact, around my home town of Alton in Hampshire, there were so many that I reckon every family in town could make their own elderflower champagne, yet still leave enough blossoms to whip up a batch of elderberry wine each in July!
The ingredients are cheap (though not all free) and the process is simple (though not entirely foolproof), and there are as many examples of both as there are people who practise them. Mine goes something like this:
- Grab a 5 gallon brewing bin and fill it with a sufficiently strong solution of bleach to ensure it is sterilised. Make sure you shove the lid in the solution too.
- While they’re soaking, grab a plastic carrier bag and a pair of scissors and scurry off to find some elderflowers. They grow right across the road from my house (that’s them in the photo above), but I prefer to go into the village of Chawton where there’s less traffic, so hopefully less pollution. Snip off around 25 ‘heads’, choosing only the cleanest and whitest you can find… and not too low down, just in case a dog has taken a fancy to them. It’s best to harvest them on a sunny morning, as it ensures they are at their best (and don’t smell of cat wee).
- On the way back, nip into a shop and grab 5 lemons (or a bottle of lemon juice – cheaper & easier) and a 5kg bag of sugar, though 3.5kg is sufficient. If they have a bakery, you could grab some live yeast too – I’ve had great success with using baker’s yeast for elderflower champagne (30 gallons in one go!) Failing that, have some brewers yeast (or even champagne yeast, though we’re only going to 8% ABV) to hand.
- Back at home, empty out the bleach and rinse the bin/lid thoroughly.
- Boil up a large pan of water and dissolve 3.5kg of the sugar in it.
- Meanwhile, put about a gallon of cold water into the brewing bin use a fork to remove the smaller florets from the elderflowers heads, adding them into the bin (and discarding the stalks into the other bin – the one for rubbish, yeah?) By the time you’ve finished that, the sugar should have dissolved. When it has, which you can tell by the solution becoming clear, pour it into the bin and give it all a good swish around. This’ll kill off any nastiness on the flowers (bugs, wild yeast, general dodginess etc.), and get things infusing nicely.
- Pour in the lemon juice (and add yeast nutrient if you’re using it – I usually keep some around in case of sticky fermentations, but it can help give yeast a good start too).
- Top up the bin to 5 gallons with a mixture of cold and hot water (pouring it in from a height so there’s plenty of oxygen dissolved in the water). You’re aiming to finish with a wort at somewhere in the low 20s Celsius – no idea what that is in Fahrenheit (Google it). If you want to check the specific gravity at this point, drop in a sterile hydrometer – you should have a reading around 1080, which will give an ABV of 8% or so.
- Finally, pitch the yeast, give the whole lot a good stir and whack the lid on, though don’t seal it completely as it’s going to get mighty gassy in there!
This is the point where I just try to forget about it for a few days. It’ll get on with its business happily enough, as long as you put it somewhere with a fairly steady temperature (18 – 25 degree C). My oldest son’s bedroom fits the bill!
GOLDEN RULE: Don’t poke it or keep opening it up to have a look! That’s the best way to get it infected. Think of it as an open wound – not an appetising picture, but a helpful one, I find. If you had a gash in your leg, you wouldn’t start pulling off the bandages and jabbing dirty sticks in it, would you?
So, while we’re waiting for the primary fermentation to hurry along, here’s that list of ingredients/equipment:
Ingredients and Equipment
- 5 gallon brewing bin with lid
- Plastic carrier bag
- 25 Elderflower heads – roughly, depending how strong you want it to taste)
- 5 lemons or a bottle of lemon juice
- Yeast – baker’s, brewer’s, champagne, Athlete’s foot… whatever you prefer.
- Optional: yeast nutrient
- Large pan (and stove)
- Plastic stirrer
- 5 gallon wine fermenter with airlock
- PlasticTube for transfer between containers – I use 1/2″ for transferring from bin to fermenter and 1/4″ for bottling
In addition to these items, you’ll need to buy a load of fizzy stuff in 2 litre plastic bottles while you wait (cheap sparkling water’ll do and most supermarkets sell it for less than 20p a bottle), coz you’re going to need them! We’re brewing 23 litres, so 12 bottles will do.
After 24 hours or so in the brewing bin, break the golden rule a little and have a peek inside to check the yeast has taken. You should hear fizzing and the surface will look something like this:
Have a little sniff – it’s glorious!
As long as everything looks and sounds okay, leave the fermenting bin alone for a total of one week. By this time a lot of the sugar will have been fermented. You can check with a hydrometer – a reading around 1010 is the final goal, though it’s unlikely to be there yet. Not matter – we can still get the champagne (sparkling wine) off the lees (dead stuff) and get rid of the plant matter (other dead stuff) from the surface.
Sterilise your 5 gallon wine fermenter (as pictured right) and the 1/2″ tubing, then transfer the liquid from the bin to the fermenter, leaving as much non-liquid behind as possible. Add a couple of tablespoons’ of sugar, just in case the yeast needs something to get its strength up, screw on the lid and pop in the airlock (which should have a small amount of bleach solution in it to keep out nasties).
Now leave it to bubble away. Leave it.
It’s not a joke. Leave it alone!
It should bubble at a fair old rate for the first week or so, but after a couple more it’ll be bubbling around once every thirty seconds (using the type of airlock in the image above). Once it’s down at this sort of rate, the chances of blowing up bottles will be greatly reduced. In fact, I’ve never had a bottle explode after going through this process. Ever.
The final (pre-drinking) task is to transfer the elderflower champagne to bottles. I always use 2L plastic bottles that previously housed sparkling water (20p each as I recall). Make sure they’re sterile (bit of bleached water as usual) and well rinsed, add a teaspoon of sugar for pressure, then use a length of 1/4″ tubing to siphon the liquid into the bottles. May take two of you as always end up spilling it or stirring up the dead yeast on the bottom when I do it on my own.
You should end up with 11 or so 2L bottles full of ready-to-chill-and-then-drink elderflower champagne. Job done!
Timeline In Brief
Day 1: Gather your materials and equipment for the primary fermentation. Get it made and leave to ferment
Day 8: Sterilise fermenter & 1/2″ tube. Syphon for secondary fermentation and leave to bubble
Day 30: Sterilise bottles & 1/4″ tube. Syphon to bottles and chill for drinking.
Day 30+: Drink it, but don’t have 2 pints at once. It’s a mistake I shan’t be making again!
It’s now four months since I started making the elderflower champagne and I still have a couple of bottles left, so I thought it would be worth posting how it has matured.
The first thing that struck me, as I began the process (yes, process!) of pouring myself a drink of this, is that these plastic bottle take a LOT of pressure. I had to open the top to let out the CO2 in short bursts, about thirty in all, before it was safe to open it completely.
A layer of yeast had built up on the bottom, which was obviously busy doing its work turning the rest of the sugar into alcohol / CO2, but as the CO2 came out of the suspension, this was all mixed up into the champagne. Yeast is quite good for you, though, I think, so that wasn’t a major issue – it just clouded it up a bit. For those who are interested in the chemistry here, the conversion is as follows:
Pouring it into a glass was a challenge, much as with real champagne, producing more bubble that liquid. But it soon settled and I got to have a sip (closely followed by a gulp… which is a weird word). It’s much drier than it was a couple of months ago, thanks to the yeast’s work, but the elderflower scent is still very strong and there is still plenty of sweetness in there. And it’s not as fizzy as I thought it’d be.
Oh, and it’s POTENT! One pint and I’m probably now going to have a little sleep, dreaming about the summer days when Marie and I went around picking the elderflower heads in the glorious sunshine. Might save that last bottle for Christmas!