Category Archives: Beverages, Infusions, and Decoctions

Plum Hibiscus Wine

We’ve been brewing properly for almost a year now, but I’ve been avoiding making  wine. People kept telling me I had to use the Campden tablets and all of that chemical additive nonsense to do it.  Why would I want to do that, when I can brew perfectly good beer and mead without added chemicals?

We may be going overboard with the new hobby.

It especially bugs me to see recipes full of chemical additives on herbal websites and sites dedicated to historical recreation.  I mean what is that even about?

Then, I had a really, really tasty wine at a re-enactment event vinted with no chemicals that sent me digging around in my medieval cookbooks and other SCA resources.

Turns out, it is entirely possible to avoid modern chemicals and still make good wine,  if you know a little bit about plant chemistry and a bit about food history, but first you will need some equipment.


Stainless Steel or Enamel Pot for making the simple syrup. You don’t need a huge one. You can always make a couple of batches.
Brewing Bucket – Food Grade plastic bucket that is at least twice the size of the batch of wine you are making. When you start out you can just get yourself a five gallon bottling bucket and use it for the primary ferment, too.
Racking Cane – This is how you transfer your wine from container to container without oxidizing it. It should come with rubber tubing.
2 1-gallon demijohns with lids. You can buy rubber stopper bungs, but our brewing store sells screw top lids with holes for the airlock, which I prefer.
2 -Airlocks
Bottles –  I use flip top bottles that we buy for the sparkling lemonade. You can save wine bottles and buy a corker if that interests you.  Some people just save screwtop wine bottles and re-use them.  My  point here is that one of the reasons we brew is to reduce our waste.
Hydrometer – I suppose you can get by without one, but why don’t you want to learn how to do this right?


I see things online that make me cringe.  It’s not because I think someone is going to make themselves sick –not much likes to live in alcohol.  No, I cringe because I see all the shortcuts that I know are going to lead to some nasty, skunky homemade beverages.   And while its true that your grandmother didn’t do all of these things, medieval ale and wine were sometimes not amazing.  I am aiming for amazing.

The first step of good vinting or brewing is using sterile equipment.  Kitchen clean is not good enough. I have a sanitizing program on my dishwasher and I wash my equipment  and cleaning brushes on that cycle.  Then, I soak everything that touches my wine in sanitizing solution.  B-Brite is an oxygen based product that doesn’t leave a film like bleach does.

We also keep our bigger brewing/vinting equipment in my classroom and away from the kitchen.  When its time to use it we carefully wash the glass jars or buckets and then fill them with sanitizing solution.

It’s not even about  safety, although that’s important. It’s about  keeping organisms that might produce off-flavors out of your final product.  If you want to brew grossness, skip these steps.

Natural Additives in This Recipe

Hibiscus flower infusions contain somewhere between 15-30% organic acids including malic acid, citric acid, and tartaric acid.  Those will sound familiar to a winemaker, because they are common wine acidifiers. I added them to this wine because plums are a rather low acid fruit.

Oak bark or oak chips. Tannins leached from oak barrels improve the quality of wines and whiskey, however making oak barrels is not a very sustainable practice these days. Eco-conscious Europeans have countered this problem by adding oak bark chips or other tannins to wine and I am happy to follow suit.

One thing I do suggest is to invest in a good wine yeast. I know that it is hipster to catch the wild yeasts, and most people consider that more natural. I can’t quite bring myself to take that crapshoot with my expensive ingredients. Besides, I know enough about yeast strains to know how to manipulate the flavors and alcohol content of my final product with my little beastie friends.

Besides, the process of freezing and then sterilizing the fruit with the boiling syrup that I mention below is going to kill anything that might be hanging about on the fruit.

Finally The Recipe!

8 lbs. frozen plums
1/3 cup hibiscus flowers
1 tsp. white oak bark
2 gallons filtered water (chlorine may kill your yeast beasties)
4 lbs. organic, fair-trade sugar
1 package Lalvin 71B-1122 wine yeast

Wash your fruit. Pit it if necessary and freeze it solid. I like to let it hang out in the freezer for at least 48 hours. Bring your water and sugar to a boil and simmer  it until the sugar dissolves. After this, put your frozen fruit, hibiscus leaves and oak bark in a food grade brewing bucket that’s at least 4 gallons.

Pour the boiling syrup over top the fruit. I pour just enough over the fruit cover it and mash it with a potato masher. Then I add the rest of the syrup, cover the container, and let it sit overnight.

The next morning you add your wine yeast. For fruit wines, I use Norbonne yeast[i] (Lalvin 71B-11-22, Saccharomyces cerevisiae) which is a strain able to metabolize malic acid which will mellow any acidity. It’s not as aggressive as the yeasts we use for mead.  It will only tolerate up to 14% alcohol which is enough for a table wine.

Our little yeast beastie friends.

This particular yeast needs to be rehydrated. Directions for that are on the package.  It’s generally used for white wines or rosés, which means I end up with a semi-dry product with a nice fruit flavor because it is known for enhancing them.

If I were only using juice to make this wine, this is the point at which I would use my hydrometer to measure the specific gravity so I would know when to switch from primary to secondary fermentation (usually when it drops just below 1.030) and I do admit that I checked this just to stay in the habit.

Once you learn a little more about specific gravity, you will figure out that you can use the hydrometer to fiddle with the final alcohol content of your wine, a bit.  But  this is Winemaking 101.  (Yes, I could make this more difficult).

Primary Ferment

Within the first 24 hours or so, the wine will start to bubble and the fruit will form sort of seal on the top.  You want to carefully push fruit down into the must once daily.  Don’t stir or agitate too much, I use a potato masher to lightly push the fruit just below the surface and then let it float back up on its own.

Because you are using fruit, you really don’t want the must sitting in fruit for much more than about five – seven days. The fruit will eventually start to decay and you risk getting some nasty flavors. I could just tell by a change in smell that it was time to move this wine today, even though it was only six days in the primary.

You will want to carefully skim the fruit from your must and squeeze the excess liquid back in to the bucket. I do this by slowly ladling the fruit into cheesecloth and squeezing it tightly into the bucket.  Then you rack your wine into your glass demijohns and put an airlock on them. The purpose of using the racking cane is that it reduces your chances of oxidizing your wine.  If you have some leftover, I hear its good for cooking, but I usually just drink it.

Clarifying During the Secondary Ferment

The wine is now in its secondary ferment. It is not going to be as clear and beautiful as some pictures on the internet show.  As the yeast left in the must complete their life cycle, it will settle to the bottom along with any sediment. If its really gunky, you can wait a week and rack it into sanitized demijohns.

You can get the whole set up: bottle lid and airlock for $7.15 at the Hobby Corner in Sycamore Mall.

In my history books I found all sorts of tricks for improving the quality of wine before there were chemical additives.For example, winemakers would add egg whites to their wine because the albumen would bind with free proteins suspended in the wine and precipitate out of solution, and strained out during the final racking.  This can cut back on bitterness or astringency and is most often done with reds made with grapes that make you pucker just a bit too much.

The usual treatment is 1.0 mL of egg white per gallon of wine. To work this treatment, you want to measure the right amount of egg white into small bowl, add a tiny pinch of salt to inhibit bacterial growth and whisk in just enough water to make it liquid. Then add it to your secondary ferment for the last week before racking.

Winemakers would also historically added a copper penny to freshly fermented wine to remove free sulfur.  Sulfur can cause funky odors and flavors and is the source of naturally occurring sulfites in wine. Modern winemakers have simplified this process by adding copper sulfate.  I am not going to do that. While I don’t propose using a dirty old penny, I do have a strip of copper that I bought from a science supply lab that I put in the bottling bucket which I am able to clean well and sterilize in between uses.


Your wine is ready to bottle when it stops fermenting.  You will know this because the specific gravity of your wine will stop dropping.  If you take a hydrometer reading on the first day of the second week and the 1st day of the third week and they are the same, you can bottle it.

Some beginner recipes don’t talk about hydrometers, will tell you just to wait a month, and then bottle. We’ve gone through the scare of having a bottle blow up.  Thanks be to all that is green, no one was in that room. I no longer trust that method and I am quite happy to take the hydrometer readings.

Another way to make sure the wine is clear is to rack your wine back into your brewing/bottling bucket and bottle it using a bottle filler attachment.  Again doing this reduces your chances of oxidizing your wine, but at the same time I think it helps with degassing the wine before you bottle it also.

How long you let it sit in the bottle is up to you.  We aren’t patient people, so we tend to cheat.

[i] (You can also use Vintner’s Harvest VR21 or for low-acid fruits or making cider, you can use Lalvin KIV-1116 which is a competitive yeast that fights off wild yeast colonies that can some funky flavors to your wine.)

Homemade Sour Mix









Today was time to plan the menu and the big bi-weekly shopping trip.  The challenge this week is that when it is just the boys and I we don’t go through food quite as quickly, so I have some ingredients leftover from the last big shopping trip which I need to use up.

So, I found myself staring at the baskets of limes and lemons I keep on the shelf in my kitchen, thinking about what to do with them before they went bad?

I thought about  making lemon and lime curd, but since the girls moved out that goes bad before I eat it up.

The other night during a class I was leading, someone mentioned a whiskey sour and I’ve kind of been craving one. The problem is that I hate the sour mix that is used in bars with a passion.  That nasty artificially flavored high fructose corn syrup is something that I wrote off years go.

I decided to experiment.  I tweaked a recipe I found online by making a citrus simple syrup and adding freshly-squeezed juice.

Sour Mix
1 cup of water
1 cup of raw cane sugar
grated zest of lime and lemon
1/2 cup lime juice
1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

To begin with place the water and the citrus zest in a sauce pan. Add the sugar and stir until it is dissolved. Bring this mixture to a boil and allow it to simmer for about five minutes. Remove the sauce pan from the heat, cover it and let it sit until completely cool.

In the meantime you can be squeezing the limes and lemons. Strain the citrus juice into a jar and when the above mixture is cooled completely, strain it in to the juice. It is really that easy.

This can be used in margaritas and whiskey sours, but you can also just add a tablespoon to a glass of sparkling water to make a quick glass of lemonade.  I will warn you though that this recipe is more on the sour side than sweet.  I like a good tangy glass of lemonade-not sugar water.

I also took the leftover citrus rinds and put them in the half gallon jar and covered them with apple cider vinegar. I will let this steep for a couple of weeks in the herb closet and then will strain this and use it to make summery vinaigrette.

Items You Might Find Useful:

Cold Brewed Iced Coffee

Cold Brew and Vanilla Simple Syrup

Cold Brew and Vanilla Simple Syrup

I will have to apologize in advance to those of you who have given up coffee, as a vice.  Coffee has been rather unfortunately vilified, for various reasons, however it seems to be making a comeback in a similar way to saturated fat.  Turns out it really isn’t all bad.

Coffee has an antioxidant known as chlorogenic acid (CGA).  There are many of these types of acids but this specific ester,   formed between caffeic acid and L-quinic acid,  is being  studied for its health-promoting properties.

One of the amazing things CGA does is to help slow down how fast your body releases glucose into your bloodstream after you eat. It seems that  those fifties housewives who offered up an after dinner coffee, had the right idea.

CGA is a constituent found in many anti-inflammatory foods. I will grant you that there are more healthful sources. Strawberries, blueberries and pineapple are all good sources.

I maintain a good deal of what makes coffee bad for you has to do with what you put in it.  That is not to say that I don’t treat myself to a latte every now-and-then.   But for the most part, I drink it hot and black and I rather love it.

This time of year, even a cold vata like me knows enough to avoid hot drinks, so sometimes we like a creamy iced coffee.  I always make my own because the commercial stuff has scary words on the label is just far too sweet.

I used to just make a really hot, strong batch of coffee and pour it over a little sugar to dissolve it, but then I had a cold brewed coffee at a friends house and was converted.  There are some people who say that cold-brewed coffee has health benefits, but this has yet to be studied properly.  It definitely tastes better.

There  are all sorts of tutorials out there on how to cold brew coffee, but I’ve found it easiest to just make it in my french press and pour it through a coffee filter.

To make a cold brew concentrate, I coarsely grind 1 cup of coffee and add 4 cups of cold water to that.  You should let this brew, in the fridge, for at least 12 hours.  I highly recommend 24.

After this has steeped and cooled, strain it into a pitcher and add  your “milk” of choice. You know best what works for your body. You could use almond milk, coconut milk or any other dairy substitute you enjoy.  Do take a moment to read the ingredient label though.  If you can’t say it, you probably don’t want to drink it.

My husband and I have our gene pool to thank for lactase persistence,  so we use half-and-half. Nice stuff that we get from the Kalona SuperNatural  folks,  whose farm is about 2o miles from my home.

How creamy you make it is a matter of taste. I use almost 2 cups so I am diluting the coffee concentrate at a 2:1 ratio.

Cold Brewed Iced Coffee


Next,  I sweeten this to taste with vanilla simple syrup or barley malt syrup.   Actually I let my husband decide when it is sweet enough because I would never put enough in. Sometimes,  I just skip the sweetener altogether and sprinkle some nutmeg on top.