The Spoils of… MUST?!

I had to run down a bottle of one step sanitizer for my pilsner I had fermented at 90F. Rather than let it go to waste, when I took the lid off the fermenter there were really neat apple, fruit, apricot notes. I decided that while it wasn’t nearly on style, it would be interesting to drink. Then I realized I was out of sanitizer so off to the homebrew store. I decided to go to the crappy one. It’s closer, but the guy is much more into winemaking than he is into beermaking. However, with the overlap of simple supplies like tools, buckets, and sterilizer, it made it a reasonable choice.

But then my wife wanted to come.

Actually this isn’t a bad thing – spending time with the wife, and she might get into brewing I thought to myself. She liked some of the brews I put together before I worked the IPA thing out (grossly underhopped) and she drinks the cheap brown I made out of whatever was left in the fridge. Actually, she drank enough of it to throw off the brewing schedule so that the pilsner won’t be ready in time to finish the case assuming I have a beer a night. A few times having friends over and whatnot and suddenly the beer larder is looking bare.

We got to the store and I found he had reclaimed almost all the beer shelf space for winemaking and installed a humidor. His prices on the remaining beer items were high, especially considering that I’m not a huge fan of Munton’s malt extract. It just doesn’t grab me flavor-wise and I find myself having to use a ton of specialty grains to get decent flavor profiles. Which is fine for esoteric, holiday beers that require dead chickens and fairy dust as an adjunct but for table-beer, this isn’t a good situation to be in. Coopers and John Bull both made stuff I liked, until John went under. Of course, only the Muntons hadn’t been bought up, and what was left of the dusty cans was pretty specialized malt.

We get in there and get talking, and my wife notices that he’s got a huge winemaking section complete with oak barrels of various toast, a spice rack filled with the standard beer spices (coriander, poppy, coffee, etc), books upon books on winemaking, and a huge selection of grape extracts, grape kits (freeze dried grapes?) and wine kits. Instead of hop vines, he’s selling vine cuttings. My wife couldn’t resist. I came in for two $5 packages of cleaner, and I could see I was going to be leaving with probably a few more buckets.

The wine equipment kits have a strong overlap with the beer kits. They have a siphon, hydrometer, two buckets, a corker, an airlock, pretty much what you would expect. Oh, and a small instruction book that basically says, “It as easy as pouring from A to B and adding yeast!” Well that’s what Mr Beer said to me also a few years ago and we saw how well that scratched the itch. Talking with the guy I asked him what it would take to go from a beer kit to a wine kit. He said I would need a new bucket and a new carboy. I asked if having a 6.5g carboy would cut it. He said I would be better off in the bucket for the headspace (the bucket is actually close to 8 US gallons, so I don’t mind buying it for an all grain setup). He also said the carboys for wine are supposed to be filled up to the top by the airlock, and valid configurations were 6 gallons – to the brim. The reason for this, he said, is because the wine oxidizes much quicker than beer. And unlike beer, he says, where the carbonation and yeast activity let you get away with some oxidation, this will spoil your wine very quickly. If you’re looking to make the jump, you need a new bucket, and a new carboy.

I told him “thanks for your information” and was going to excuse myself, but it was too late – my wife had found a kit.

There’s two types of kits: Crushed grape kits where they haven’t removed the water (literally 1 lug which is about 12 lbs of grapes – crushed), and grape extract kits which are exactly like beer malt extract kits. It’s enough grape-smash condensed that you need to add the water to six gallons and you’re good. Both of these include or should include the skins since there’s flavors there which pruno isn’t going to give you fermenting store grapejuice. Hold the bag up to the light and make sure there’s some particulate floating in there, and he showed me. It looked like jelly. My wife interrupted and asked about watermellon merlot verus the honeysuckle one.

“Oh but let me show you!” he says, and runs into the back.

There was some rummaging around and some quiet. I looked at my wife expecting that he had just hung himself and we were about to be party to murder but when I poked my head into the stock room he was in the back trying to read labels. I pulled out my PDA and lit the room dimly to reveal what could have been a scene from National Treasure 3: Dungeon of Alcoholics Anonymous. Rows upon rows of bottles stored in the back of the shop with the boxtops pasted to the shelves and serving as labels.

“Here’s the one…” he said “…your wife will like it. It’s similar to what you’ve got but it’s their kiwi strawberry white”.

He pulled out a 750ml bottle off a shelf, blew the dust off, and brought it out. “This kit makes 30 of these”. There’s exactly .2 gallons of dregs, called “lees” in the fermenter when we’re done. “Now, the kit says ‘delicious taste in four weeks’, which does not mean ‘ready to drink’. You need to bottle it in four weeks and then it sits in your fridge for four months while it fines. This bottle is six months old, give it a try!” Before we could say no he popped out the cork and had poured us two shares into plastic wine goblets. I should probably ask where he got those… The smell was good. I don’t normally like whites, but it wasn’t tart and definitely tasted fruity as advertised without the Sam Adams Lambic flavor (fruit syrup like Cherry Coke). In fact, it was really, really drinkable. Which was bad because it was also about 17% ABV if the box is to be believed.

My wife was sold.

We got home, sterilized the kit (I bought another airlock just because those things are handy) and I showed her how the hydrometer worked. She cleaned the bucket, the airlock, and the hydrometer kit while I read the instructions. Sure enough, it takes four weeks in the fermented, transferred once to secondary to get it off the lees (dregs), and then needs four months in the bottle in a “location free of light and under 60F” to lager. Whoever wrote “tastes great after four weeks” probably was fresh out of prison.

Alright, so what’s actually involved? Cool water, open the bag, fill fermenter with about a gallon, wash the rest of the bag out with warm water into the fermenter and top it off. These are cool space bags which are double-layered and vacuum sealed, making them impossible to open. Don’t bother trying to rip off their airlock, just cut open the top and don’t drop the inner bag into the outer bag and cover everything in grapes. Your OG should be 1.06 or close. Here’s where it differs from beer – you add bentonite (a fining agent) to the primary and try to keep as much air out as possible. The bag is simply labeled with a big number 1 on it so you know “use bag #1 – bentonite” means #1.

After two weeks, and the kit is written well to tip you off you’re going to need to lift the whole mess at some point, they tell you to siphon off the wine while reserving a small portion in another container. Why? You need to fill the carboy to the very very top with wine, which leaves you no room to stir. With other additives needed to actually make wine, you need to be able to stir. Once it’s racked, package 2a is sulphite (what gives some people, including myself, “wine hangovers”) and 2b is potassium sorbate. The potassium sorbate kills off the yeast, and everything else. The wine needs to be degassed, which if you’ve ever added spices to beer, you know the effect. The beer or wine has suspended carbonation and since carbonated wine would be weird, we need to get that out. This is accomplished by stirring. Package D1 is kieselsol and package D2 is chitosan. There’s a stern warning to add D1 first, and stir for no less than a minute, then add D2 and do the same. Reversing them carries dire, but unspecified consequences. Just what is the stuff? Ask Mr Wizard. Slowly add the reserve until we’re within “two inches” of the airlock. That’s how important oxidation is to wine. The instructions advise adding any flavorings now.

Two weeks later, the wine should be “delicious” according to the box. From here’s it’s pretty standard beer fare. Siphon the wine into the bottles while leaving an inch from the bottom of the cork, insert the cork, let the wine stand upright for a day (this is another de-gassing to avoid carbonation) and then store the bottles on their sides in the fridge “two to three months” prior to consuming. There’s no word on what happens if you store them warmer for two to three months. Considering I don’t like fruity wines, I shudder to consider it.

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