Foragers' Wines

by frankbeswick

While it is possible to make wines from fruits grown in your garden,foragers can find the ingredients for wine in wild plants.

Nature provides a bountiful harvest for those who are prepared to seek it out, and some of this harvest can be fermented into wine. Many edible berries can be fermented, the only problem with some being the time that it takes to harvest sufficient of them for a gallon, though some berries such as cloudberry may be too rare in a country for quantities sufficient for wine to be found. But the principle of brewing is very much the same for all wines, and the equipment is also identical for all.

Photograph courtesy of alekss

Birch Wine

Fermented birch sap makes a delicious wine, light and dry that goes well with a meal. I first had it in a restaurant in Northern Scotland, where it was made from sap tapped from the abundant birch trees that were springing up in the nearby moorland.There is no reason to be concerned for the well being of the trees that are tapped, for birch is a prolific self seeder that proliferates in open ground and is among the first trees to colonise open land. In Britain birch is often harvested by sellers of firewood, so a tree that is tapped is likely to be felled anyway.When my son was working on an estate in Norway years ago an important part of  his job was felling and processing the self-seeded birch that was springing up on his employer's land. The birch was never in short supply and provided them with firewood for the Norwegian winter

Birch is a wine of early Spring, collected when the sap is rising as life revives after the winter cold. The technique is quite simple. Enter the birch wood [owner's permisssion required] with a sterilized demijon [a vessel for brewing wine] a plastic tube,a wooden plug and a drill. Choose a birch tree and drill into it. You will not need to go deep until the sap begins to flow out. At this point insert the tube and pass it down into the demijon. The process is slow, so there is no point in waiting, so go for a walk. Then when you return you will hopefully have a gallon of the sap.

At this point you need to protect the tree, which does not heal itself. You insert the wooden plug tightly into the hole and press it in. You can then leave the tree and take the container home. Some people purchase special stoppers known as spiles to bung up the hole, but a home-made stopper will suffice.

To make the wine you need a gallon of birch sap and two pounds of sugar, which should be blended together and stirred on the cooker, though not allowed to boil. Then the mixture is poured into a bucket with white wine yeast and a spoonful of yeast nutrient and covered with a cloth for a few days, but afterwards it is poured into the demijon and well corked with an airlock. Allow to ferment until the fermentation is finished then rack it into bottles and cork firmly. How long you want to mature it is up to you, but a few months maturation is advised. Committed winemakers take a year, so the wine should be ready to drink in the following Spring.  

This technique can be used with other trees, such as maple, a great favourite in North America, though in Britain maple is in much shorter supply than birch is, and so I have never heard of this wine being made, though I believe that an enthusiast somewhere will have made it.

Birch Wine

Birch Sap Collecting
Birch Sap Collecting

Wild Berries

One of the best wines that I ever made was a blackberry and elderberry mixture. It was in Fall, when I went a-foraging in the hedgerows and in the scrubby woodland near to the Bridgewater  Canal, which runs near to my house. The children and I had found an old elder tree in what they called our secret place, and we foraged its berries, some being used in desserts, but others for wine making. I have made elderberry wine on its own, but in later years I focused mainly on mixing it with other fruits. In fact elderberry is quite tarty and so is more suitably mixed with sweeter fruits and needs to be sweetened. [Some people that the tannin in it has a mildly irritating effect on the stomach when it is taken in any quantity, but this seems matter of individual genetics.]

Blackberries mix well with any fruit, and so I have made a lovely wine out of blackberry and apple juice, some having come from my late lamented old Bramley Apple , which used to provide a rich crop until it had to be felled because of canker, but I have also used crab apples foraged in scrubby neglected woodland patches. Pear juice also will go well with any other fruit, but you have to leave the newly picked pears some time to soften after picking. The great advantage of blackberry is that Britain is rife with it, and so unless a zealous local council decides to tidy up the hedges there are plenty of blackberries in late August and early September, depending upon the area.I pick a few lovely, succulent ones when I am going out of the allotment, for the fence has plenty of them lining it. Do not, though, pick the shiny ones, for they are yet not fully ripe. A blackberry is ripe when its shine has faded into a dull blackish purple. 

The recipe is similar to the one given above for birch, but you need to pulp the blackberries, a juicer will suffice, but they can be boiled to get them to break down. Strain the juice into a demijon and add two pounds of sugar,yeast and yeast nutrient. I use a red wine yeast,though a general purpose yeast will suffice. 

There are other wines, all of which are made in the same way as blackberry is. You  can also make elderflower wine, a brew of Spring, which involves collecting a gallon of elderflowers and soaking them for a few days to extract their flavour, then brewing the wine as  elderberry is brewed, though a white wine yeast is preferable. Some berries, such as hawthorn, are not suitable for brewing as they have very little flesh and juice. Bilberry, Britain's close relative of the blueberry  is made in the same way as elderberry and blackberry are, but this small ground covering shrub requires much effort to pick sufficient for a brew.

Nettle Beer

John Wright,one of Britain's foraging experts, makes much of nettles, which he knows to be very nutrient-rich. The reason for this is that nettles are deep rooted and thus mine the subsoil for mineral salts. They are so nutritious that they have had to develop a sting to protect themselves against hungry creatures keen to gobble them up.The young leaves from the top of the nettle are the ones picked, for the older leaves develop a supply of oxalic acid that make them unpalatable.

The technique is quite simple. Take a kilogram of young nettle leaves, four hundred and fifty grams of sugar, a gallon of water and boil them together for fifteen minutes, stirring in the sugar.The sting is due to an acid wichis destroyed by boiling. Then strain them into a bucket, add some carragheen moss  and cover. Carragheen is for eliminating cloudiness, but you can use finings. However,don't be overconcerned if there is some cloudiness, for this is homebrew after all! Leave for three days. Then strain into new vessels. 

After three days there are options. John recommends bottling them in strong corked [not screwtop] bottles, for the fermentation still continues while in the bottle. If you do this ensure that you loosen the corks every now and againto release surplus gas, for a cork is a saftey valve in the way that a screw top cannot be.   One error is to cork too tightly while the ferment is still running fast ,maybe because you have strained it into bottles too early. This mistake was made once by a distant relative of mine, whose home made beer bottles blew their tops in the kitchen during the night, filling the room with beer froth and a beery aroma, according to my mother, who reported that the man's wife was not well pleased! Personally, I prefer to strain beer into a barrel with a safety valve, which can be bought from a brewing retailer. If you use John's way you get a frothy beer, the alternative is a beer that it is less frothy. My personal taste does not extend to frothy drinks,  but that's just me.

The remnants left after straining can go as compost, though there was an  incident when an organic smallholder thought that beer lees, as they were called, would be great food for his pigs. So he got a local brewer to give him some and thought that the pigs would love them. They did and they gobbled up the lot,  but lurched drunkenly around the sty for a while and next day had what seemed to be a hangover. This was one experiment that he did not repeat. 


Updated: 11/21/2017, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick 15 days ago

I have no experience of lanternflies, as my home is in the North West, but in general growers have pests to deal with.

DerdriuMarriner 15 days ago

The Environmental Protection Agency's Integrated Pest Management Program (EPA IPM) conducts an arborist-related webinar series on such topics as spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) invasions and management.

Their webinar yesterday indicated that spotted lanternflies (SLF) offend California vineyardists specifically and wine-making berry- and grape-growers generally. The United States thus far relies on bifenthrin, dinotefuran and imidicloprid treatments since natural, organic treatments render near-nothing results. Research shows fungal biopesticides not ruining any winemaking-friendly fungi but also not ruining any SLF populations, be they nymph or adult stages, either.

Business and home winemakers stress over ultimate impacts on berry, grape and wine quality.

Online sources talk about spotted lanternflies in east and southeast England, whose warm-summer climate ushers in SLF to their favorite Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) hosts.

Would there be similar concerns on your, eastern side of the (Atlantic) pond over controls, environmental residue and product quality?

frankbeswick on 03/05/2020

Acer negundo produces a light syrup that tastes like butterscotch..Wineberries belong to the brambles, all of which make a good wine either alone or with other fruit. Black cherries produce a strong flavour on their own.I have no experience of maple syrup in wine making..

DerdriuMarriner on 03/05/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for the photo, practicalities and products.
The three foraging books I have but the Wine Folly I'll need to get.
It's simple foraging for me to retrieve black walnuts and Chinese chestnuts from the south lawn. But I now leave them where they are because the chipmunks and squirrels so love them and, having grown up where a swatch of American chestnuts survived, know that the Chinese chestnuts give a different taste than what I grew up loving in my family's Czech chestnut cake with chocolate frosting.
Wild blackberries, raspberries, strawberries and wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius) proliferate, along with dandelions and wild onion, just about everywhere, back, front, north, south lawns. I retrieve them as fresh fruit for desserts and salads or on their own.
Would you know whether box elder (Acer negundo) produces agreeable syrup and wine and if a black cherry tree and wineberries produce agreeable wines?

frankbeswick on 11/23/2017

Where you live foraging for wine ingredients is not easy, as there are no birch woods. Blackberry is found, and you are not far from moorlands, where you might pick bilberry. Certainly you are nearer to moorland than I am. As you have said, dandelion wine is a nice foragers' wine, which I overlooked. I have made it in the past, but it is not among my favourites.

Veronica on 11/23/2017

I do remember picking dandelions as a teenager around Manchester Airport with our former sister in law for dad to make dandelion wine.
I am an avid forager but don' make wine.

frankbeswick on 11/23/2017

Blackberry belongs to the Rosaceae family, all of which tend to be thorny, except for cultivars specifically bred for thornlessness.

Like you, I have never hunted,there being little need for an urban dweller in England to do so. I have some experience sea fishing and coarse fishing. I have foraged for some mushrooms, and as I have studied them I have successfully selected safe and edible ones.

blackspanielgallery on 11/22/2017

We have wild blackberries in this area. But the wild ones have thorns on the branches, and are difficult to go after without coming out with scratches. Another possibility is wild mushrooms, but one must be very careful to only pick certain varieties. Here, survival skills are more on hunting and fishing. We have swamps, and both fresh and salt water bodies. I have never hunted, and am inept at fishing.

frankbeswick on 11/22/2017

Serious survival skills is part of what foraging is about. Of course, in parts of North America survival skills are vital, such as the forests and the mountains. There are areas of Britain like that, but they are smaller than you have in North America. But foraging can also be about making use of nature's abundance.

frankbeswick on 11/22/2017

Thanks. I reckoned that US and Canadian readers would think of maple. The field maple does not grow in my area, as it needs alkaline soils, which we don't have where I live.

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