Our Rhubarb Wine Daily Log

This log was created is the spring of 2015, as we tested the recipes for the wines featured here, in 2016. It's interesting to look back and see what we were thinking as the process began, and to have the finished product sitting on our shelves now. to compare it to!

Day 1. We harvested what rhubarb we could from the young patch out front of the store, and gathered the rest from Karla's garden and the local market. For a few years, the only rhubarb we could find (in plant form) was a green-stemmed variety, named Victoria. All the labels claim that it's delicious and hardy...but really, the ruby color of rhubarb stalks is such a large part of the experience, that we were happy to find a few deep crimson varieties to stock in the nursery, as well. So that's what you're seeing here, as I chop and dice and crush; the green stems mingled with the red are not unripe, but come from the green-stemmed plant that grows beneath our mailbox, next to the raspberry patch.

The first recipe comes from a book we just recently got in, called Artisan Drinks. The recipes and pictures in that book were what finally spurred me to do this project; there's a gorgeous 2-page spread that shows this wine being made, and believe me, it's drool inducing. That color! Oh, it's hard to describe, being somewhere between magenta and sunset ruby and raspberries with cream. Yes, something like that. The photo I'm swooning over (page 91, for the curious) shows the wine fermenting in a glass carboy, with a lovely linen cloth folded "like a fan" over it. I'm all for wild fermentation, but this recipe has plenty of wild yeasts in it already; I think I'll skip that step and slap an airlock on there, when it's time. That's my inner beer brewer, coming out. Sanitation, gasp!

I chose this recipe not only for it's lovely photo spread, but also because I liked the technique described to kick off the fermentation. I've long been a fan of Sandor Katz's amazing ginger bug recipe, and the technique used here, while not identical, seems to rely on a similar process to initiate fermentation. I'm new to fruit wines; most of my experience comes from cider and beer, the aforementioned ginger bug, as well as kombucha and water kefir. I can see already that this recipe is almost like a bridge, or a halfway-point between these disparate styles of fermentation. While beer and cider rely almost fanatically on meticulous sanitation to keep the fermentation on track, many of the non-alcoholic, probiotic ferments are much more open, both to the air (and all the wild yeasts it contains!) and the possibility, even the inevitability, that no 2 ferments may be exactly alike. In this way, they also resemble a sourdough starter, which is a very individual reflection of a kitchen's micro-biome; even the act of transporting a starter from one house to another will alter the microbial composition of a starter, even if the taste is not noticeably affected.

In a typical ginger bug, ginger and sugar are mixed in a bowl and left out on the counter until fermentation commences, usually only a few days. Every day, new sugar and ginger is added, to literally 'feed the bug', as the process of fermentation is the bacteria and yeasts digesting the sugars. The bug is not fed daily in this recipe. Because there is no sugar added at this stage of the recipe, all of the food for the yeasts must be relying on the natural sugars present in the rhubarb. This recipe, which calls for the ginger to be added to the chopped rhubarb, then calls for boiling water to be poured over the top; the reason for this is murky to me. Perhaps it softens the rhubarb? I would have guessed that boiling water would kill off some of the wild yeasts that we want to be working for us; however, maybe the recipe, which will be in continuous contact with air for almost 3 weeks, is relying more on yeasts from the air than from ginger. Or perhaps the small amount of boiling water is not enough to damage the ginger yeasts significantly. 10 days seems like a long time to be so exposed to the air, even covered with cheesecloth, it's a little bit worrisome. In any case, here goes! Stir daily, to ensure that no mold forms on the surface, for sure.

Ginger, showing the bubbles which indicate fermentation is taking place. Look how pale in color the red rhubarb has become! And this is the wine whose pink hue so captivated me in photos! I hope it comes back, somehow. It smells great, though!

Now for the second recipe (I can already tell I'm going to want to name them, just to help us keep them straight. Let's call the first one Ginger, and the second one Champagne. For reasons that should be apparent...)
The second recipe, aka Champagne, has been adapted from a recipe in The Home Winemaker's Companion. The original has instructions for a 5 gallon batch, but I've reduced the portions down to suit a 1 gallon batch. This is a first run, after all! We may be wishing we'd made more, in 6 months to a year, but at least this way we'll find out which recipe we prefer, without causing a widespread rhubarb shortage. The recipe calls for a particular brand of mead-specific yeast, however, I have chosen to use a champagne yeast, as it is more readily available, and is also a good choice for meads and various fruit wines due to it's ability to completely ferment sugars down to complete dryness. Another small change that l have made is to use black tea rather than tannin powder. I have no particular grudge against tannin powder, it's just that I prefer brewing tea to opening a plastic pouch of powder. If you're not a tea-drinker, or wish to avoid the caffeine, by all means, use the powder. A 1/4 tsp should so the trick for a 1 gallon batch.

Perhaps I should have called these recipes Wild and Tame. Ah well, let's not confuse the issue. In any case, the names do serve to illustrate some of the major differences between them. The Champagne recipe calls for several additions; yeast nutrient, pectic enzyme, tannins (in one form or another), metabisulfite powder, and of course, champagne yeast. So while Ginger is relying on the vigor of wild yeasts to ferment the juice, Champagne is relying on the addition of several specific ingredients that will guide and shape the ferment as it progresses. Already, I am seeing that these will make 2 very different wines. The Champagne recipe calls for the rhubarb to be blended with sugar and let to ferment for a full day. The original recipe (in the book) called for the yeast to be added the next day, along with the potassium metabisulfite. While I'm trying to be as true as possible to the original recipe, all my cider-making hackles rose at this instruction. It's known that the Campden tabs (aka potassium metabisulfite) take at least 24 hours to do their work; with cider, you add them to fresh-pressed juice and let the cider sit overnight, before ever adding the yeast. The function of the potassium metabisulfite is to kill off wild yeasts and sanitize the solution before fermentation begins. So why add them all together? Now, it's entirely possible that these folks know something I don't know. Heck, it happens all the time! But I'm going to trust my instincts on this one, and give the Campden tabs time to work before adding the yeast. It shouldn't affect the taste of the final fermentation in any substantial way.

Rhubarb Wine #2, aka Champagne, at day 4 of fermentation, showing the bubbles which indicate yeast activity.

Phew! Well, that was a lot of discussion, and I hope you're all still with me. As the ferments progress over the next days and weeks, I'll keep you all posted. I have a secret hope that some of you will join me, in making one or both of these recipes. Not so secret any more, I guess! But what a great way to learn about something new, to jump in and try it, with a bunch of friends, or all by yourself. I'll be right here with you. Let us know what's bubbling in your kitchen!

Day 2-4. Rhubarb isn't one of those plants that you think of as having a strong smell, but it is a distinctive one. Having 2 such quantities of fermenting rhubarb, side by side in the kitchen, is filling me with the inexplicable urge to make...rhubarb pie! Rhubarb, like asparagus, is only in season for a short time; it only makes sense to get your fill of it.

Ginger, aka Rhubarb Wine #1, looks unchanged by the first day, but by day 3 has definite bubbles of foam floating on the surface. In addition, the color of the rhubarb has paled, becoming an all over celery-green color. It smells amazing, though, very much like something you'd want to drink, or eat. Did I mention my craving for rhubarb pie? When I taste a drop left over on the spoon, however, it tastes about like you'd expect unsweetened rhubarb to taste. Sour, tart, puckery.

Champagne, aka Rhubarb Wine #2, is a different beast entirely. On Day 2 I added the tea, raisins, honey, and potassium metabisulfite. I was tempted to use a flavored black tea, like Blackberry Sage, or Ginger Peach, however, I decided to try and keep the flavor profile clean for a first batch, so a classic Ceylon Black tea was the tea de jour.

The next day, I added yeast, yeast nutrient, and pectic enzyme. Yeast needs comlpete nutrition, like every other form of life. Some fruits contain more of what yeast need to thrive, while others have deficiencies in B vitamins, or other vitamins and minerals, that might cause a yeast to be sluggish, or slow to multiply. Frankly, I'm not sure where rhubarb fits into this range. A ferment that does not have yeast nutrient might get off to a slower start than one with nutrient added, but since these 2 wine friends have such different processes, it will be difficult to compare them directly. The nutrient itself is made up of Thiamin, Vitamin B Compex, Biotin, and Pasturized Yeast Cells. As for the pectic enzyme, this is an ingredient that is often used in cider, or in any ferment where the fruit being used is high in pectin. Pectin creates a haze in the finished liquid, that can only partially be removed by careful racking. Many recipes create a cloudy beverage if a pectic enzyme, also known as pectase, is not added. In antiquity, eggshells were added to a ferment, for a similar clarifying effect. Bentonite clay can also be used, or tiny plastic beads known as Polyclar. All of these additives do essentially the same thing, in that they bind the pectin to them, and then settle out of the wine, falling down to the bottom among the lees, or spent yeast solids, where they can then be filtered out. I will be curious to see if this wine is clearer than Ginger, which has no added pectic enzyme or other clarifying additives, but which will also be racked to clarify the final beverage. Cloudiness in a beverage is mostly a cosmetic issue, and shouldn't affect taste too greatly, however, a large amount of pectin could alter the types of alcohol found in a beverage and make for a harsher taste. Since pectin is released mainly through cooking, this is not such an issue for these 2 recipes, neither of which involves cooking.
At Day 4, Champagne has retained more of it's pink hue, and a tiny taste test reveals it to be delicious, a fact which is somewhat surprising, given that it smells less delicious than the other ferment. While Ginger smells great but tastes sour, Champagne smells faintly of fermenting vegetable, but tastes amazing, like liquid pie; sweet and thick and still pink. By the end of Day 4, both ferments have foam on the top, indicating that there are yeasts at work in the liquid.

Day 5. Today I strained the solids from Champagne. I poured the whole mass of it through a cheesecloth lined strainer into a clean stainless steel pot. After the juice had dripped for several minutes, I grabbed the cheesecloth in my hands and began to manually wring juice out of it. The juice was guava-pink, pale and thick (no surprise, given the amount of sugar dissolved into it!) The recipe calls for the juice to be left in a fermentor for 3 or 4 more days, then racked into a carboy. I went ahead and put it into a carboy; the wide opening covered in cheesecloth just seems like a less clean way to ferment. Plus, this way I can easily see the amount of yeast at work, by watching the lees accumulate at the bottom of the glass carboy. Often, a ferment is left in a bucket, or crock, or other fermentor, during the first few days of fermentation, because it can ferment so vigorously that it would overflow a full carboy. To err on the safe side, I put the carboy, fitted with an airlock, in a rimmed cookie sheet to catch any potential overflow. A quick check several hours after this step revealed that it is bubbling along steadily, but not wildly enough to be cause for concern.

Ginger is still steadily foaming along, there's nothing to do there for 4 or 5 more days until it's time to strain the liquid and add sugar!

Day 6. Champagne is bubbling along slowly, much slower than a beer at this stage of a ferment. I'm glad I put it into the carboy. (I keep it in a cool dark place, but took it out to take a picture for you.)

Ginger is also fermenting along in the stainless steel bucket I first put it into. I think next time, I'd like to leave it out for a few days, to inoculate with yeasts, and then put it into a fermentation kit or some such thing. So much contact with the air seems unnecessary. Despite stirring it every day, a small spot of white/blue mold has appeared on the surface. The book says just to stir it in, and the acidity of the ferment will take care of it. A tiny piece, the size of a peppercorn; I just pulled it out. The liquid still smells wonderful, and it is beginning to develop a noticeable effervescence to it, that I can feel tingling on my tongue after I taste the drops left on the stirring spoon. I'm not worried about that little mold speck; I'd eat cheese that had a similar issue! There's so much mystery surrounding fermentation, and I think sometimes folks err too much on the side of caution out of fear of the unknown. Myself included! Obviously, everyone must do what feels right to them. I'm using my best judgment here; the advice from the book, and my sense of taste and smell that tells me everything is working as it should.
You know what I'm thinking about doing, though, is making an actual ginger bug, and using that to inoculate a batch of sweetened rhubarb, to make anooother rhubarb wine. Because I may be becoming a little obsessed.
I did make that pie. It was darn good.

Day 10. Well, I today was Ginger's day. I added the sugar...which suddenly seemed like an incredible amount! I got almost a gallon of juice from the primary ferment--the recipe calls for a cup and a half of sugar for every pint obtained. That's almost as much sugar as rhubarb juice. It added an entire half gallon to the total, so I have now a 1gallon carboy and a half gallon with a Perfect Pickler airlock, already beginning to bubble away.
Aside from that once instance of mold on the surface, I have not had any trouble with this ferment. It smelled and tasted already pretty delicious; if not wine-like, than certainly a zingy, sour, soda-like beverage. One thing that has disappointed me so far though is the color; both wines are less red than amber. This batch especially seems highly unlikely to become any other color. I'm left wondering what the difference is between mine and the book recipe? I used less than 25% of the green rhubarb, but the overall color is an amber/celery kind of color. Not unpleasant, but not vibrant pink. I'm mystified.

A wine with this much sugar, I imagine, will become almost more like a brandy. I'm tempted to try again and use half the sugar. Or less! After a certain point, with this much sugar, the alcohol content will rise high enough to inhibit the yeast from working further, so there may well be some residual sugar left over in the wine, making it sweet rather than dry. In contrast, a lemon ferment that I made once used a pound of sugar per gallon, about 2 cups per gallon, rather than the 12 (!) cups this recipe calls for, and ended up with an alcohol content similar to beer, with a very dry finish. It's all very interesting. How I wish I didn't have to wait a year to see what happens! Of course, I will rack these wines a few times, to make them clearer, and surely I'll taste them along the way. Still. A year is a long time to wait!

 Stay tuned for more...


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