As many of my readers may have guessed, I’m not averse to a little tipple every now and again. However there is more to alcoholic beverages than simply helping me relax at the end of a long week or partying with friends at the weekend. There are some brews I hold most sacred and these brews I use only in sacred settings. For that reason it seems only fitting that I should brew them myself.
Brewing Grape and Grain in Kent has a long and colourful past. Kent is one of the most prolific Hop growing regions in England and I remember my Mother and her Mother telling me stories of their long working summer holidays in Kent Hop picking. Train loads of Londoners would arrive in their droves to earn pocket money in the Hop fields around Paddock Wood and whilst living conditions were basic; straw beds with limited and shared amenities, paraffin lamps and no electricity, it always sounded to me like the most blissfully fun and sociable summer. Many of our Hop fields are gone with the majority of what’s left now being harvested by machinery. In Hadlow churchyard, between my home town of Maidstone and Tonbridge a memorial still stands to a group of Hop pickers of Kent who drowned tragically…a testament to those who worked so hard to help supply this country with its beloved Beer. I even remember an old school trip to the Shepherd Neame brewery in Faversham just 30 minutes down the motorway from my home town I love the smell of dried Hops to this day.
Hops were introduced to English brewing around the 1600’s from mainland Europe, prior to that English Ale was mostly fermented from Barley malt flavoured with herbs like Yarrow, Lovage and Burdock. (Apparently its only called ‘Beer’ if it’s flavoured with Hops…anything else is technically ‘Ale’.)
Owing to Kent’s superb climate we have also built a good reputation for Wine, with some of our Vineyards producing good and reputable wines in Biddenden, Tenterden and so on. The wine I personally produce isn’t made from Grapes simply because there is an abundance of perfectly good flavourings out there in the garden, woods and hedgerows. To date I have made elderflower, elderberry, parsnip, pear, blackberry and sloe wines amongst others (all pretty much for free).
In spring I tend to focus on Mead and floral wines moving on to fruitier and earthier wines as the seasons shift between autumn and winter. This spring I am making a batch of Gorse Flower Wine (which better taste amazing after the punishment the gorse thorns gave my fingers…I was digging out splinters for days!) and English Blossom Honey Mead.
Mead was introduced by our Germanic forbearers and the river Medway (the main river here in Kent) is said to have derived its name from the Saxon root ‘Medu’ meaning Mead owing to its sweet golden waters (but more on that later in the year!). Mead is a highly magical drink produced from fermented honey, honey which is made by Bee’s between Earth and Sky in a hive dominated by a Queen…need I go on?
So here’s the science part…
The most important thing to do before anything else is make sure your fermentation vessels, funnels etc. are spotlessly clean and sterile. The only thing living in ones brew should be yeast. I use baby sterilising fluid for this because A) Its cheap B) I can get it anywhere and C) because if it’s safe for bubbas, it’s gotta be OK! You can use speciality Campden Tablets but sterilising fluid works just fine for me. Everything is scrubbed clean in hot soapy water, rinsed and then sterilised according to bottle instructions. I tend to leave my demi-johns sterilising overnight but I think a couple of hours is more than enough.
For wine I gather all my fruit / flowers (or whatever!) and add these to my fermentation bucket. I tend to go for around 4 litres of fruit or flowers to 4 litres of water as a general rule. The water should be brought to a rapid boil and then a 2kg bag of sugar added and dissolved. I boil for about 15 minutes to sterilise and then pour over the fruit / flowers. I give it a good stir and leave to cool to room temp or thereabouts. At that point I add my brewer’s yeast. Sometimes, in the case of tougher fruits I will boil them with the water but never with flowers…they are just too delicate.
When buying yeast I choose champagne yeast for my white wines and meads and dessert wine yeast for my berry wines (Elderberry, Blackberry etc). It was an idea given to me by intuition and it does make a real difference but I couldn’t tell you why, so if you happen to know what the difference is exactly (beside taste) get in touch!
I add a good heaped teaspoon of yeast nutrient and same again of citric acid (easily sourced on eBay). Give it all a stir, cover and let the magic happen (and it is magic, this is alchemy at work…so treat with reverence! Brewing in England was once the only way to sanitise water…Ale and Wine was a life line…even Kids drank the stuff!)
After about 4 days the wine can be strained into a sterile 1 gallon glass demi john fitted with an air lock (again all available on eBay!). I top up with boiled and cooled water if necessary. This is left in a warm spot out of direct light until the fermentation stops bubbling or excessive sediment begins to collect at the bottom (I would say an inch or more is enough to warrant the first racking (‘Racking’ is the term used for transferring brews from one demi john to another in order to decant away from sediment thereby improving clarity and taste).
Once the fermentation has completely stopped and the yeast has all died off you can rack off again and around this point you might like to have a little taste and add more sweetener (honey or sugar). If the Yeast hasn’t died you run the risk of restarting the fermentation and any additional sugar will just be metabolised and you will lose the extra sweet taste! You can buy stabilisers which contain sodium metabisulphate which kills yeast but I have never had need of these providing extra additions are timed just right!
Some wines (like this year’s Gorse wine for example) can appear quite cloudy. Usually this settles out once fermentation has completely ceased and the liquid is at rest. However if not wines can be clarified with additions of either beaten egg white, gelatine or betonite clay (look around online to see which might be best for your wine but make sure the fermentation has completely stopped). Once the proteins have been dragged down to the bottom you can syphon off and bottle up!
Mead is a very similar process although I actually find it easier and less ‘variable’. The only thing I struggle with is getting the taste right for me (I like my Mead to taste like honey!) but that comes with experience and I’m still learning with every batch I make!!
With mead you don’t obviously have raw cane sugar, instead honey is boiled in the water to sterilise then cooled and added direct to a demi john with yeast and nutrients etc. I buy only locally produced English Honey (from Here) in bulk catering size buckets.
I start my yeast off in a small vessel, in other words a small scale fermentation of boiled and cooled water with a few tablespoons of honey. The ‘pint sized’ fermentation is sealed with a bung and airlock and left to bubble and grow on for about 12-24 hours before pouring into a sterile demi john filled with your full scale honey and water mix. I find this gradual scaling helps get things started and reduces the fermentation time a little. Plus honey is not cheap (especially with the Honey Bee crisis) and if you end up with bad yeast which refuses to grow you don’t end up wasting kilos of valuable, magical honey. If you are creating 2 batches of mead you can split the starter between 2 demi johns and you’ve used must less yeast to start with (a little cost saving tip from yours truly!)
From then on its much the same as wine…rack off once a lot of sediment builds, then again when fermentation has completely stopped at which point sweetening with more honey if necessary then bottle into sterile bottles. I like using the old Grolsch style bottles for my brews but any glass bottle will do providing it’s spotless and sterile!
Some Wines / Meads (in fact most) do well from maturing a few months. I am only just starting to drink stuff I brewed this time last year. Once you get a good stash you can easily rotate your bottles. I tend to give everything about 9 months ‘gestation’ to mellow and improve flavours.
With a little imagination and intuition any of these practical steps can be turned into acts of ritual even if its just a prayer or blessing the demijohn etc. In my opinion incorporating home brewed wines has enriched my rituals and sacraments a hundred fold!
Have fun and remember…the first glassful goes back to whence it came…a small and humble offering for such a bounty!