Experiments in the Explosive: Blackberry Wine

September 23, 2013 in Outlandish Recipes of the 18th century, Uncategorized by M C

I should preface this by saying I do not care for wine.  In fact, my palate is so undeveloped, and my aversion to wine so strong, that the one occasion when I took a sip of what was supposed to be a nice vintage red and said “oh, this is very good..” the host looked surprised, took a sip, looked horrified.. and sent the wine back.  Apparently.. not good.  With that in mind..

Blackberries are an invasive cane fruit.  Anywhere you don’t mow, or let the sheep go, comes up blackberries in two years.  Leave it for another year and the canes will spread into a mass of thorns and impossible.  The only thing that will kill blackberries, since they spread by underground runners, is an earth scorching bonfire.  And even then birds will drop blackberry seeds into the sterilized soil and the whole cycle begins anew in another year or so.

No, the only true way to get rid of blackberries is to wait.  Under the shelter of vicious spiked canes tree seedlings take root.  In time, not as much time as you might imagine, a mere decade at most, the trees will grow out of the blackberries, shading them into fading away.  The forest marches forward to claim another yard of pasture.. and the blackberries march before them to clear their way.


There aren’t many places I’m happy to see the blackberries take hold, but the property line is one place they can take root and welcome.  A thicket of six foot high spiked whips is sufficient to repel even the most determined sightseer and does a better job of keeping roaming pets away from my sheep than an electric fence.

I could ignore the consequent blackberries which erupt, glossy, black, and profuse, just before autumn takes hold. The dogs will eat the blackberries, if I don’t, squinching their eyes closed and nipping them daintily off the canes until their noses and tongues go purple with it.  But I can no more ignore the fruit at the end of the pasture than I can ignore the forgotten apple trees growing wild on the hill.  As Robert Frost wrote “a crop is a crop / and who is to say when the harvest shall stop?”  (Gathering Leaves)

Unfortunately I don’t like fresh blackberries.  I don’t like blackberry jam.  And I’m capable of gathering a healthy bucket of these things in less than an hour.  Happily, this year I discovered two uses for blackberries, thanks to my Outlander inspired unfortunate obsession with the 18th century: Blackberry Cordials, which are still delicious (I thought the joy would fade.. it isn’t), and Blackberry Wine.

Who doesn’t remember the scene in Anne of Green Gables where Anne gets her friend drunk on current wine, thinking it is raspberry shrub? Blackberry (or currant) wine is made with sugar.. lots and lots of sugar.. water and berries.  Even if you wait the full six to eight weeks for the yeasts to fully consume the sugar you’re likely to have a very sweet wine, which would explain the young lady’s enthusiasm for guzzling tumblers of it.

I don’t lack for a crock, in which to make wine, but I lack a space to put the crock.. except in the bathtub.  And I’d rather not have wine working in the bathtub for the next 8 weeks.  Its awkward and makes the bathroom smell like you’re making wine in the bathtub.  There’s a reason the brewhouse was separate from the main dwelling.

So I’m using quart jars.  I should be using half gallon jars but I don’t have half gallon jars and they’re sold in boxes of a half dozen.  A half dozen half gallon jars is three gallons of potentially undrinkable alcoholic brew, but more importantly… almost ten pounds of sugar.  I’d rather not buy the jars, or risk wasting the sugar.  Besides, you probably don’t have half gallon jars in your pantry either.

18th Century Blackberry Wine, recipe adjusted for a Quart Ball Canning Jar

blackberry_wine3Cut a square of cheesecloth large enough to fit over the mouth(s) of the jar(s).  I’ve discovered, after several batches of this, that it’s preferable to do multiple jars using the first jar that shows signs of fermentation to seed the rest by transferring a teaspoon of liquid from the fermenting jar into the remaining jars to start them along.

Put 3/4 C of sugar in the jar (the 18th century recipe calls for “loaf sugar.” Since my sugar was solid from sitting in the bag for too long I cracked it apart with a hammer and felt very authentic) and..
Fill the jar half way with hot to boiling water.
Swirl the jar until the sugar has completely dissolved.
Let the jar set until it is warm, but cool enough to handle comfortably.
Stuff blackberries into the jar.  LIkely they won’t sink to the bottom, so you’re filling the jar “half way” with blackberries, to within two inches of the top.

Question from beta reader: did you wash the blackberries?  No.  For one thing, I don’t see any reason to, and for another, if they have wild yeast on them, I need that yeast intact and happy.

Add additional warm water to 1/2″ below the rim.

Set your jars on the counter for 48 hours so they can flirt shamelessly with passing yeasts.

Cover your jar with the cheesecloth and secure it in place with the metal ring of the canning jar.

Place the jar on a towel in a dark cool place and check it daily.  The fruit will sink to the bottom of the jar.  When it starts floating it is a sign of fermentation, the carbon dioxide bubbles are pushing the fruit up in the jar.  If one jar isn’t showing signs of fermentation transfer a teaspoon of liquid from a fermenting jar to the laggard so he can get on with it.

blackberry_wine4if you have a very active and excited yeast it will push the berries up into the cheesecloth, which will wick “wine” out of your jar and, since you were clever about this, onto your towel instead of all over your cupboard.  If your yeast is not the excitable type the carbon dioxide generated by the fermentation will rise in tiny bubbles through your fruit and exit through the cheesecloth.  If you’ve got an excitable yeast remove the cheesecloth and put the metal lid on the jar.  Very loosely.. very loosely.. put the metal ring back on… so the carbon dioxide can escape around the edges.

Swirl your jars once a week, gently, to keep things moving along.  At about week four of my first batch my patience ran out, and I wanted to taste this stuff.  You are supposed to wait 8 weeks, and I have another batch going which I will hold for the full 8 week run.  But the first batch I decanted at about four weeks.

Two quarts yielded a quart and a half (so a quart jar for yourself and a pint jar for a gift.. or guzzling) and a pint of rather tasty carbonated blackberries.  Quite nice on ice cream.  I could adjust my thinking on blackberries.  The beverage itself was too sweet for my husband’s taste (I think he was expecting a pinot…) but tastes like blackberry soda, complete with fizz, to me.  If it is alcoholic you wouldn’t know it.  I capped it and put it back in the cupboard.

Big mistake.  Fortunately, not a catastrophic mistake, because i realized what I’d done two days later and thought to check the jars.  I couldn’t depress the lids of the canning jars, which means the jars were under pressure.  I also couldn’t open the jars.. not just pressure.. a lot of pressure. Those old stories about granddad’s homebrewed wine blowing up in the basement?  They’re true.  I wrenched the lids off with a loud “pop” as the pressure gave.  Then I set them back in the cupboard with their lids on, but not screwed down.

Three weeks later they’re still fermenting carbon dioxide.  I confess to having taste tested my way though the pint jar, but the quart jar remains untouched.  I’ve now started sealing the lid down and unscrewing it every 24 hours, it’s fun to watch the hail of bubbles.  By the end of taste testing the pint jar I thought the beverage was a bit less sweet, but even if we allow for slightly less sweet, it still tastes like blackberry soda.

Which I find rather refreshing, and an excellent use for blackberries.  But probably not something a wine connoisseur is going to want to serve with dinner.  Still, I’m going to set aside a pint jar for my friend with the refined palate.  Some things are just too much fun not to share.

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