Friday, March 04, 2016

fruit of the vine

Nothing beats a nice glass of vino at the end of the day. Tonight's glass comes courtesy not of the liquor store, but of my own work.

I got the idea a few years ago from Spike Your Juice, a company that sells a wine-making kit that allows you to turn a bottle of juice into alcohol, relying on a scaled-down version of the process that vinters have used for centuries. Their kit costs about $10; I made my own for about $2 using parts from a local homebrewers supply store.

Here's how it works.

Buy a bottle of actual juice. I like to use Northland or Welch's, because their sugar count is reliably high; but the truth is you just need a minimum 20 grams of sugar per serving. The higher the sugar content, the more alcohol you'll get. I selected Welch's black cherry concord grape juice, which has 36 grams of sugar per serving.

Next, buy a rubber stopper and an airlock. You can get these at a homebrewers supply store, like I did; or you can buy them online. (Note: If you buy them through that link I get a small referral payment, which keeps me in business as a blogger.)

The most important ingredient, of course, is yeast. You can spend $2 a packet on vinters yeast, which is all thing considered the best course of action. I say this because vinters yeast has been cultivated for decades expressly for the purpose of making wine, and it has been cultivated from the strains of yeast that naturally are found on grapes in the first place, It therefore may be said that vinters yeast both has evolved for the purpose of fermenting grape juice, and has been fine-tuned by vinters concerned with getting rid of the bad strains that are more likely to ruin your wine.

That being said, all sorts of yeasts make alcohol if you turn them loose in a liquid medium with sugars mixed in. It's what they do. You can use brewers yeast if that's what you have, and you also can use bakers yeast if that's what is available. The wine snobs will howl, but who cares about the wine snobs? We're trying to make alcohol on the cheap, not to win a wine-sniffing contest. Full disclosure: I used a small amount of yeast from my sourdough culture, which is sure to make the wine snobs howl, scream and gnash their teeth.

Open the bottle, pour in the yeast, close the bottle up with the stopper, and jam the airlock into the stopper. You will need to pour a small amount of water into the airlock first, so that its U-bend is completely filled with water and no air can pass through.

If you do use a packet of vinters yeast, keep in mind that you will not need the entire packet for one two-quart bottle of juice. You can use a much smaller amount, and thus use the packet for several bottles simultaneously or spread out over a period of time.

Over the next couple days, it won't look like much is happening, but don't fool yourself. The finest alchemy in the history of the world is about to begin. Whatever kind of yeast you used, it is busy consuming both the sugar and the oxygen in the juice. And as soon as the oxygen is gone, magic beguns.

Yeast is anaerobic facultative, a nicely biologic way of saying that while it thrives best in an oxygen-rich habitat, it also survives in media with no oxygen at all. While there is stll oxygen dissolved in the juice, the yeast will break down the sugar in such a way that it releases carbon dioxide as a waste. If you drink the juice during this period, it will taste more or less like a fizzy grape juice. Not bad, but not what we're after. As the oxygen dissolved in the juice runs out, the yeast will need to get it from a new source. This new source is the sugar, and as the yeast mines the sugar for oxygen, it will shift the way it metabolizes it, and it will begin to produce alcohol.

You'll notice a few things happening over the first two weeks of fermentation. If you have children, this process actually can be a fascinating lesson in applied science. In addition to the biology of yeast reproduction, they can learn the chemistry of how yeast breaks down sugar, and they also can see the physics of air pressure as the yeast produces more and more carbon dioxide that races to the airlock and forces its way out. There also are other chemical changes at work, as the juice will change color.

After about two weeks, the bubbling process will slow and appear to stop. You might have the urge to get a drink, but fight it off. Give the yeast more time to do its job. This is perhaps the sixth time I've made wine this way, and I've found that the alcoholic content is much stronger from waiting four weeks

Last night, my wife and I opened the bottle and I poured us each a glass. It had that heady aroma that wine has, and after only two glasses, I was starting to feel it. A friend of mine asked me to bring some to our next Bible study, and I had to laugh at his little joke. I wouldn't drink it all in one sitting, but there's no way it's going to last until next week.

But I'll be happy to start a few new bottles, and maybe bring one of them.

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