I’d been thinking about getting into home brewing for awhile and for wine specifically. This is not because I thought I could create something better than what you’d buy from a wine shop. This is because I like projects — given my will to embrace hobbies. That is to say I am hardly an expert home brewer. I just started, but I am also really enjoy it, so sharing what I can here.
I turned 40 in September 2011 and my wife suggested to my sister that she get me a starter kit for home brewing. The best part about this kit was all the moving parts. The worst part of this kit was the serious lack of instructions; yes, it came with a couple of books (one for instructions, the second filled with recipes, but there was a skew in the equipment they showed in the first book versus what I actually had in the kit). After I unpacked the kit and made sure that nothing was broken, I hit the internet for information about creating a “shiraz-zinfandel” from the 4.5-gallon juice pack that was included with the kit — hopefully without having a total disaster.
Lessons Learned: At work I write many, many things down. At home I could definitely stand to take better notes; home brew is a prime example of this, in particular if you follow a recipe that sucks or if you fabricate your own recipe that doesn’t. Either way you’ll want to write these details down. As a result of what I’ve learned (in this short time) about what goes into the wine making process, I’d like to write about my experiences here every now and again.
I ended up finding someone doing a near-identical thing on YouTube (making wine from a prefab juice pack), took some notes, read some more about wine creation in general, then got everything going in late October or early November. We just bottled the wine on Saturday that had been created from the shiraz-zinfandel kit. Results of this shortly.
This entry is partly about the process of making wine from a juice kit, how the wine tasted 6 weeks in, and what I’m doing with home brewing going forward.
The Home Brew Kit
As I learned more about the kit I realized that it contained everything I would need to fabricate a shiraz-zinfandel, including 36 bottles, corks, and a stand-up corking machine. Or did it? Of all the items that shipped with the kit I didn’t see any yeast or whatever else would be part of the wine making process. I didn’t want to open the juice pack until I was ready to go but at the same time had an internal dialog about whether or not I should go to a brew shop and piece the rest of the chemicals together. Result? Rookie fail!
When you buy a juice kit, it contains all the yeast and so forth you’ll need to create your wine; all you need to do is to open the package. You just have to know what to do with the ingredients, how to test what was what, what to look for during the fermentation process, how long to wait, and so forth. Ultimately, my only real concern was not fucking up 5 gallons of wine on my first try. A passable wine would be OK, but waiting so long for the process to complete only to pour everything down the drain seemed like a major waste to me.
Ready, Set, Ferment!
This is kind of true, you know, that you can chuck a bunch of stuff in a bucket and call it a day, but the first thing that most (if not all) home brewers have stressed is sanitizing everything. This is done because fermentation is a critical process in any alcohol creation and you don’t want any outside sources (i.e. bacteria) causing the scripted process of fermentation to go off message in any way.
The kit came with a cleanser that I mixed into spray bottles at the ratio specified. This cleanser has been fabricated to be taste and odor free, non toxic, and non-detrimental to your wine.
I took everything downstairs and opened the box that contained the juice pack. I separated out the packets that would be used for primary fermentation (bentonite, a clay used for clarifying the wine and bringing out juice particles for fermentation, and a specialized wine yeast, a packet of oak chips that owe nothing to the fermentation process but are used to impart that oak-y taste into the wine) and set them aside. I put the rest of the stuff in a plastic bag and moved it away from my work area.
We have a utility sink in the basement with a sprayer so I started to clean the primary fermentation device (i.e. the “big white bucket”) in there. First I used the cleanser in the sink and rinsed that down. Then I did the same with the outside and inside of the big white bucket, my stirring spoon, the lid of the big white bucket, and all parts of the airlock that would be used to release gases during the fermentation process. Now we could proceed with starting our primary fermentation.
Lessons Learned: I happened to have gotten a “real” big white bucket that has been designed for fermentation with my kit. It is the correct size for making 5 gallons of wine (6.5 gals total, from base to rim) but more importantly it’s been designed to be able to deal with the acidity and (obviously) the fermentation factor of the wine making process. You can buy a 5-gallon bucket from Lowe’s or Home Depot and ferment your wine in there (as has been described to me by other people I know who home brew) but if your fermentation is not done in food-grade containers, you never know if you’ll end up fermenting your bucket into your wine if the bucket starts to disintegrate during the process of fermentation. Granted, I am tempted to do all of my fermentation using stuff I’ve found at Lowe’s or Home Depot because it’s way cheaper and I can do more at once, but I am also very much a novice when it comes to home brewing so I’d like to have a better history of results before I throw something completely uncontrolled into the mix.
I added a gallon of tap water (room temperature — as will be the case for all additions of water in this posting) to the big white bucket and set it in motion with my stirring spoon. When you add the bentonite, it was described to me to “keep the water in motion when you add it; else you will end up with bentonite chunks”. Definitely true and it did take a little bit of effort (gradual pouring of bentonite powder from the pouch) to get it mixed in properly with the water. Had stirring failed, I would have sterilized my stick blender and use that to rev up the bentonite in the water.
- Use spring water. Always. In Portland, Maine we have pretty good (public) water, but you never know when even the slightest variance in water quality could totally shaft your fermentation process in some way. I’m going to buy spring water by the gallon in the future and use that always. That’s strictly my opinion. You should do what you will.
- The metal spoon that was shipped with the kit was lousy for consistent stirring like this. I ended up buying an oak dowel, .75″ diameter, 3′ long, from Home Depot to use instead of the metal spoon. I sterilize this oak dowel — top to bottom and on both ends — every time I use it and it’s much preferred over using a spoon.
Once you’ve gotten the bentonite mixed together, open the juice pack and add it to the big white bucket immediately. To get all the juice out of the box you might want to rinse the plastic bag out with 1/4-1/2 cup of water then adding these contents to your big white bucket. Note: There is no harm in doing this. You’ll end up adding more water to your big white bucket in a moment.
Open the packet of oak chips and pour them into the big white bucket.
Now add enough water to take you to the 6-gallon marker on your big white bucket. Give everything a nice stir for a couple of minutes. No need to make the juice and oak chips go 400 miles per hour. Just do enough stirring where you don’t see separation anywhere. You may see some froth on the top of the liquid but that’s OK. Just leave it be.
Finally, add the yeast. Open the packet and sprinkle it over the top of the liquid. That’s the way I did it initially, at least.
Lessons learned: Read the directions on the yeast packet. This statement should be self evident, but clearly it wasn’t for me. Yes, my yeast activated, and yes everything seems to have worked out, but some yeasts might prefer to be activated with warm water or so forth. In addition, some yeasts might be mixed with water and added separately or stored in with your fruit mixture completely
Once the yeast was added to the top of the liquid, I gave the lid another spray of disinfectant and attempted to seat the airlock in the “bunghole” in the lid. Fail! Grommet that is attached to bunghole promptly fell into the big white bucket. I chose not to reach my arm in to the big white bucket to retrieve the grommet.
Lessons learned: Attach airlock to lid before snapping lid down to big white bucket. Keep an assortment of grommets on hand. I ended up buying a bunch from Lowe’s for a couple of bucks, but still, a degree of care up front would’ve avoided this need entirely. I ended up lifting the lid and inserting the grommet, then adding the airlock and sterilizing the lid, grommet, airlock, and opening of big white bucket again before reseating lid.
At this point I began to get concerned about opening the lid after I’d seated it, compromising the bacterial environment, whether I had handled the yeasts in the right way, and ruining the wine in general, but time would tell.
Lessons learned: Neither on my first nor my second seating of the lid did I use my hydrometer to check specific gravity (i.e. “are we boozy?”, “how boozy are we?”, or alcohol/liquid density you might call it). My guess is that it would be at 1.000 or a little bit above 1.000, maybe 1.010 or something like that. Going forward, it would be good to know what one’s starting state is in comparison to what you see once you have told your beverage to stop fermenting.
Once the big white bucket had been sealed, I pushed it under the staircase in the basement and waited 12 hours to check it again. I was hoping to see some action (bubbles) in the airlock to let me know that gases were escaping the big white bucket. Bubbles would let me know my fermentation was starting to take and that the wine wasn’t totally screwed. I saw some bubbles, maybe once every couple of minutes and there was clearly a lot of gas built up under the lid of the big white bucket since it had developed a significant curve since the previous day. By the end of the first day of fermentation, bubbles were exiting the airlock closer to once every minute.
Within about a week, I was seeing bubbles happening less than every minute. Awesome! Maybe things weren’t as bad as I’d thought initially? It was getting close to when I’d have to transfer (“rack”) the wine from the big white bucket to the carboy so I’d find out soon enough.