By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz -
(Excerpted in part from A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country)
Blackberry season is now in full swing and as usual Dean has been out gathering bucketfuls of the sweet-tart fruit. I don’t usually go out picking with him, mostly because I don’t like the idea of being surprised by a big snake in the grass or heavy brush. But because the blackberries are so plentiful this year, and because Dean has already stomped down the thickest vegetation around the patch, I finally decided to go with him. After coffee we pull on heavy long pants and socks, tuck everything in and head out to the berry patch with our buckets. Even though it is barely 8 am, it is already hot and sticky and the gnats are out in full force, flying up our noses and into our eyes and ears. A gust of wind comes to relieve us.
I quickly find out why the Japanese beetles don’t eat anything in our garden – they are all out here in the blackberries, slurping on their rich, sugary juices. From time to time we get a handful of Japanese beetle with our blackberry and as startling as that may be, it is also interesting. Normally when Japanese beetles are disturbed, they will fall straight down or fly away, but these are either so engrossed in feeding or are so drunk with the sugary brew of fermenting berries that they don’t try to escape. Either way, I got more than my share of startling beetle-berries today. I also got something that I hadn’t expected.
Dean has always said that he doesn’t mind picking blackberries; in fact, he enjoys it quite a bit. The berries are the real prize, of course, especially in winter when all the scratches and chigger bites have been forgotten, but he likes it because being out in the berry patch is a kind of relaxing meditation. And now that I have begun picking with him, I finally understand what he means. For although the heat and humidity are horrible and the pesky gnats are buzzing my head, I quickly find a rhythm to the repetitive picking that puts my mind in a peaceful place and I forget about the annoyances.
The concentration needed to avoid thorns, eye-poking brambles, poison ivy and large, red wasps sharpens my sense of the surroundings and allowing me to see things that I am not actually looking at the berry in front of me and the black-eyed Susans behind me; the wasp on the leaf by my hand and the yellow breasted chat in the branch above. Berry picking is the master of all meditations wherein thoughts sift quietly past the consciousness of now and slip easily into the void. I lose all sense of time and when Dean tells me that his bucket is full we have been picking for over two hours and have almost four gallons of blackberries.
After picking blackberries every other day for two weeks now, we have eaten fresh blackberries until we’re blue. Even if we tried, we couldn’t possibly fit even one more berry in the already jam-packed freezer. Although we are tired of picking and covered with chigger and tick bites, we decide to honor the blackberries by returning for just one more salutatory run. This final picking will be used to brew up a little homemade blackberry wine, which will warm our bellies and grace our table during the long, cold winter.
Making wine is a straightforward affair that can be as easy or as difficult as desired and with so many other chores to do, we like to keep things simple. To make blackberry wine, we use 10-15 quarts of crushed blackberries for every 5 gallon container. Sterilized, food-grade five-gallon buckets or water jugs work great for this first step.
To the crushed berries we add one packet of regular bread yeast (“professional” winemaker’s: gasp here), 4-8 lbs of dissolved white sugar and enough water to fill the container almost to the top. The mouth of the container is covered with the original bucket lid or plastic wrap held down by a rubber band or bungee cord. The key here is to allow the container to breath. It’s not a good idea to try to seal this fermentation vessel air-tight because as the fruit ferments gasses form. A completely sealed vessel will eventually explode.
After the first day or two in the fermentation vessel, the contents are very gently stirred once a day. And after roughly two weeks the liquid is racked, or siphoned, off of the fruit into a clean container called a carboy, in which a second fermentation will take place. We like to use the same type of containers used in the first fermentation process but carboys can be any type of vessel you like, including recycled and sterilized wine bottles. These should be covered the same way as the first fermentation vessels were. And although the fermentation processes are toned down in this second phase, the yeast is still consuming sugar and producing gasses and tightly sealed vessels could still explode. Therefore, if bottles are used, cap them with new cork stoppers, small balloons, or plastic wrap. Never use screw on caps.
Regardless of the vessel you use, once the fruit has been racked into carboys, the liquid in the new containers should be topped off with just enough water to reach the top of the container. And if the wine isn’t sweet enough, a little bit of sugar can be added.
Unlike the first fermentation, the second fermentation is often much less riotous than the first, and at times the wine appears to be doing nothing at all. Yet, after several days you will probably be able to smell the alcohol content rising. This second fermentation phase can take one to several months in a cool dark place to finish the final fermentation.
When the wine begins to taste good, it should be racked into glass bottles and allowed to age for several more months. Aging allows wine to mature and develop deeper, more complex flavors. We have been known to drink the first bottle raw, enjoying its breathy, tart flavor.
That’s it: homemade blackberry wine! There couldn’t be anything easier, or more rewarding than that.
© 2010 Jill Henderson
A Journey of Seasons
A Year in the Ozarks High Country
Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one. Henderson’s 20-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness shines in this cyclopedic work filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor. This is one journey you don’t want to miss.
Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.