How to Make Elderberry Wine
In the Kitchen: Fermenting
By Kevin Greer
What a surprise to learn that the berry bushes and trees scattered around my ranch, growing wild, are elderberries. They’re everywhere, grow vigorously, and in good years produce gallons of fruit. I had picked them in previous years to make jams and jellies but didn’t know their name. So when it was pointed out to me that I had elderberries, I immediately thought of the Elton John song from my youth.
Last year the bushes produced a huge crop, so I combined my good fortune with nostalgic feelings and set out to produce my own elderberry wine.
First I did a general search and found information on elderberries:
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Resources Conservation Service’s Plant Guide: The common is Sambucus Nigra or Sambucus Mexicana (western variety). They are sometimes called “the tree of music.” The purple/blue berry varieties have edible fruit and flowers (red berry varieties are poisonous). Local Indian tribes consumed the edible berries fresh and dried. They used the leaves for basket dyeing, and the branches for arrow shafts, flutes, whistles, and clapper sticks. The Sambucus range is from east to west coasts.
Hydrocyanic acid and sambucine are found in the plant’s leaves, which can cause nausea, making the plant itself poisonous. The berries are also rich in vitamin C and anthocyanins (super antioxidants).
When I thought about making this wine I assumed it would be sweet, you know, like a plum wine. Elderberries are actually very similar to grapes in their tannin and acid levels. What I made tastes very similar to Italian Chianti!
What You Will Need
Fortunately there is a local winemaking store called Curds and Wine here in San Diego, California. I stopped by and spoke with Rebecca, the store manager. She was extremely helpful in explaining each part of the wine making process and organizing all the equipment I would need to make two gallons of wine. I purchased:
• 1 hydrometer
• Potassium Metabisulphite
• 2 glass, 1–gallon jugs
• 2 breathable tops
• 2 stopper tops
• “Super Clear” Yeast — ec1118 Lalvin
All this equipment costs less than $35 (most of that cost was for the glass gallon jugs). This year I’ll spend less than $3 per gallon! Not including the cost of the sugar.
Additionally you will need:
• About five gallons of berry clusters (I filled a five-gallon bucket 3/4 full);
• Approximately four pounds of cane sugar; and
• A pot big enough to hold more than two gallons.
Picking and Preparing
On my ranch, the berries ripen sometime in August, when you see large clusters of purple and blue berries covering the plant. I pick by cutting the clusters from the plant and dropping them in a five-gallon bucket. Once I have the bucket more or less full, I separate the berries from their stems in a large bowl. Use gloves, as the berries will stain. Some people find it easier to freeze the berry clusters and then separate them, but I don’t have that kind of space in the freezer and I prefer to keep them fresh.
It took me approximately two hours to separate the berries from their clusters, with slow steady work while I watched a movie.
Return the cleaned berries to a clean bucket and mash with a potato masher (or use a food processor). I mashed, as the food processor tends to cause more damage to the seeds, which are bitter.
Add water to cover the “mash,” approximately two-plus gallons. Now add the potassium metabisulphite, 1/4 teaspoon can treat up to six gallons. This is used to kill any naturally occurring yeast so the fermentation process doesn’t start early. Mix in by stirring.
Start a cold soak period of one to five days. The longer the soak, the darker and more acidic your juice becomes. I soaked mine for two days. Make sure the liquid is full to the top of the container or place plastic wrap on the liquid so no air touches the juice. Keep your juice at approximately 60 degrees.
Once the cold soak is complete, place the juice in a large pot and bring to a slow boil. Let it simmer for 15-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and let cool (some people use a longer cold soak period and don’t boil the juice).
Now it’s time to remove the mash by filtering. I used an old, clean T-shirt, poured the juice through, catching all solids and then squeezing the mash until most all liquid is removed.
Take a reading with the hydrometer; the juice should be 60 degrees for an accurate reading. The specific gravity or brix (sugar) level that you want, prior to fermentation, is somewhere between 20 and 28 brix (red grape juice used for making wine comes in at about 24 or 25). There are natural sugars (very little) in the berries that give a brix level of 7 to 8 percent, so it’s almost certain that you will need to add sugar to achieve the desired brix level.
Say your liquid is at eight percent brix. Use this formula to add the appropriate amount of sugar using 24 as the desired brix level:
16 x 0.125 x 2 (gallons)= 4
or, 4 pounds of sugar
Add the sugar, a 1/4 of total amount at a time (in this example, one cup at a time). Mix the one cup sugar with a small amount of water and stir to dissolve completely before adding to juice mixture. After each cup of liquid sugar, wait a good five to 10 minutes before taking the brix reading. Keep adding liquid sugar and measuring with the hydrometer until you achieve the desired 24 brix level or come close to it (better a little under than a little over). This brix level should give your wine an alcohol content of 12 to 14 percent.
Now that you have the desired brix level, it’s time to add the yeast. You will want the juice to be approximately 70 degrees for best results. As mentioned earlier, I purchased a packet from Curds and Wine (ec1118 Lalvin), which is enough to treat up to six gallons. Stir the yeast into the juice and pour the mixture into a large breathable container. (I used a five-gallon plastic container I had available, with a small hole in the cap.)
With your juice and yeast in a large container, open the top to let the yeast breathe and cover with a towel to keep any bugs out. The fermentation process now begins; stir the liquid twice a day. You will notice that it will bubble and the temperature will rise. This is the yeast actively converting the sugars into alcohol. Once you notice the bubbling activity stops and the temperature goes down (five days for my wine), the sugars have been converted to alcohol and the fermentation process is complete. Take another reading with your hydrometer. You should be at “0” brix, all sugars converted.
Now it’s time to pour your wine into the glass gallon jugs; fill them completely to the top. Any extra wine is available for immediate taste testing!
Use the breathable tops to allow gasses to vent and keep any flying bugs out. Leave these tops on for a month. For best results, wine should be at approximately 50 degrees (I kept the wine in my root cellar). After a month replace the breathable caps with standard caps and store (age) the wine for a year. I checked the wine at least once a month and noticed that it remained cloudy. So I went back to Curds and Wine, and spoke with Rebecca. She suggested a product called “Super Clear.” It’s two liquids (kieselsol and chitosan): one is negatively charged, the other positive, so allow one day between adding the liquids to your wine. They bind with all solids and pull them to the bottom, giving the wine a clear, glistening appearance.
The only thing left is the taste test! Salud!
The author, Kevin Greer, has a small ranch in Baja, California, where he grows organic fruit and vegetables.