Pascal Baudar's book The Wildcrafting Brewer: Creating Unique Drinks and Boozy Concoctions from Natures Ingredients (Chelsea Green, 2018) reveals both the underlying philosophy and the practical techniques for making your own delicious concoctions, from simple wild sodas, to non-grape-based “country wines,” to primitive herbal beers, meads, and traditional ethnic ferments like tiswin and kvass. The origins of brewing involve a whole galaxy of wild and cultivated plants, fruits, berries, and other natural materials, which were once used to make a whole spectrum of creative, fermented drinks. Now fermentation fans and home brewers can rediscover these “primitive” drinks and their unique flavors in The Wildcrafting Brewer. This recipe for elderberry wine is based off of an old French recipe.
California is home to Mexican elder trees (Sambucus mexicana), which provide either white or black berries (they look similar to white or black grapes in terms of color). These berries are also more sugary than other elderberries, so if you live in a different state or country and are working with the usual black-berried elder (S. nigra), you may want to add a bit more sugar than this recipe calls for. Or you can also just follow the amounts given here, then sample the brew when fermentation is complete and sweeten to match your taste.
Note that you need to pick the berries when they are fully ripe for this recipe. Unripe berries may contain cyanidin glycoside, which isn’t good for you; drinking raw elderberry juice is also not advised. Fermentation with raw juice is documented in the books Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning by the Gardeners and Farmers of Centre Terre Vivante and Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz; it’s the only method I’ve used for the last three years. The Nordic Food Lab has also done some interesting work related to the effect of fermentation on cyanogenic glycosides in elderberries, which is worth reading on their website (nordicfoodlab.com).
I’ve used this (raw) recipe with Sambucus mexicana and S. nigra (commonly found in Europe and North America). But note that the recipe may not be appropriate for other types of elder trees and berries. If you’re unsure about ripeness or other issues (cyanogenic glycosides, types of elderberries, or the like), simply use the same basic recipe but boil the juice and add commercial wine yeast or wild yeast starter once the solution has cooled down.
- 4 pounds (2 kg) elderberries (Sambucus nigra or S. mexicana)
- 2 pounds (1 kg) granulated white sugar
- 1 gallon (3.78 L) springwater or distilled water
- 1 teaspoon (5 g) citric acid, or juice of 3 lemons
- Elderberry wild yeast (already on the berries)
1. With clean hands, remove the berries from the stems, crush them, and strain the juice through a cheesecloth or sieve.
2. In a clean pot, combine your juice with the sugar, water, and citric acid. There’s no need to add yeast; it’s already inside the juice.
3. Place the mixture in a large (clean) bottle fitted with an airlock and let it ferment for 6 months, then bottle. Wait another 6 months before drinking if you have the patience (which I don’t).
This wine should end up a tad sweet. Wild yeast from elderberries can be quite interesting and variable. I’ve made batches that had a higher percentage of alcohol and were drier. Just taste the brew when it’s ready and add sugar if necessary.
Because it uses raw juice and wild yeast, this wine is probably more prone to spoiling (it turns to a yummy, useful vinegar) than wines made with the boiling method. But so far at least, this has never happened to me. Just make sure to clean thoroughly all the equipment you use in the process.
Boiled Wine Variation
Follow the same procedure and on step 2 bring the liquid to a boil then simmer for 10 minutes. Cool the solution by placing your pot in cold water (change the water a couple of times if necessary), then add the yeast (wine yeast or yeast starter). When I’m using a wild yeast starter, I usually use a bit more than 1/2 cup (120 ml) of liquid.
More from The Wildcrafting Brewer:
This excerpt is from Pascal Baudar's book The Wildcrafting Brewer: Creating Unique Drinks and Boozy Concoctions from Natures Ingredients (Chelsea Green, 2018) and is printed with permission from the publisher.