Turning Weeds into Wine
Photo by Christopher Shockey
In the small Midwestern town where I grew up, there was a clear distinction between weeds and worthwhile plants: Anything that was meant to be eaten was in the garden. What was left was the yard, which was meant to be a sea of untarnished grass. Dandelions were my dad’s No. 1 nemesis, and they made no attempt at camouflage. With their broad, serrated leaves and bright-yellow, silver-dollar-sized blossoms, they seemed to beg for my father’s wrath. Still, I secretly sided with them in the family battle. When a flower made it to maturity, I’d pluck it and carefully pace the yard, blowing the seeds free to land like paratroopers in my father’s tended lawn.
Whether you count the common dandelion as a weed or an edible, you have to give it credit: It’s a plant that’s good at surviving. Taraxacum officinale is the most common variety of dandelion, and it calls most of the planet’s soil home; we’ve all seen a stray golden flower thriving despite being wedged into an impossibly narrow crack in a sidewalk.
The dandelion has a long history of medicinal use by indigenous peoples in North America, Europe, and Asia, and is still beloved by herbalists today. The root is often used in support of digestion and liver function. The leaves are bitter, and also serve to stimulate digestion, as well as the production of urine. They’re also full of fiber — a good source of prebiotics — as well as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, thiamine, and vitamins A and C. The flowers contain high concentrations of flavonoids and coumaric acid, which are powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents in our bodies.
The flowers can also produce something else for our bodies: a lovely wine that retains many of those beneficial plant chemicals without degradation during the fermentation process. With just a little knowledge of the wine fermentation process, you can turn dandelions into anything from a light pinot gris to a rich sherry that will delight friends and family and have you eyeing these golden blooms in your neighbors’ unmanaged yards come springtime.
Dandelion Brewing Basics
At the most basic level, wine is some form of sugar that’s been converted by microbes into ethanol and carbon dioxide. Whether we call the final product beer, hard cider, or wine, it’s basically the same game. The yeasts require a form of sugar, and an environment that allows them to eat that sugar and produce the alcohol we want. In the case of dandelion wine, the petals don’t have any notable sugar, so what we’ll create is more of an infusion than a wild ferment. We’ll feed the yeasts by adding sugar, and the dandelion petals will add flavor and health benefits. And, since we’re already adding sugar, we can play with the amounts we add and the strains of yeasts we use to get different alcohol levels in the bottle. (If it’s left to the yeasts, they’ll consume all the sugars in your dandelion wine, leaving you with a dry but very tasty libation.) In the “Dandelion Wine” recipe below, the sugar and yeast combination will produce an alcohol level similar to a medium-alcohol, dry, white wine.
The yeast strain you choose will be important to the final flavor of your dandelion wine. While it’s technically possible to make something alcoholic with bread yeast, I don’t recommend it; those strains have been bred for fermenting the carbohydrates in dough, not for converting sugar to ethanol while preserving the esters of fruit — or, in this case, flowers’ essences. Flowers that haven’t been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides come preloaded with their own resident microbes, including yeasts that will kick-start the fermentation process and create a wild fermentation. However, these yeasts typically have low alcohol tolerances, resulting in a sweeter and less alcoholic wine. Champagne-style yeasts are active enough to out-compete any wild yeasts from the dandelion flowers. Yeasts such as Red Star Premier Blanc or Lalvin EC-1118 are good choices for your first dandelion batches. Once you have your recipe down, you might think about exploring either traditional beer-brewing strains that’ll give your wine a more earthy quality, or other wine strains that’ll better bring out the delicate flavors of the dandelions.
For the best results, pick and process your dandelion flowers in the same morning. Picking the petals can become tedious, but it’s a kid-friendly process if you can enlist young ones to join the task. When our kids were younger, we paid a bounty of a penny per flower. That year, we made a lot of dandelion wine that they weren’t allowed to drink, so the next year, they decided they’d rather pick the blossoms for chained necklaces or blow the seeds into the wind. I guess dandelions and kids have always been natural allies.
Dandelion Wine Recipe
Fermentation Type: Alcohol
Primary Fermentation: 3 weeks
Aging: 4 months
Total Time: About 5 months
Shelf life: 3 to 12 months
There’s something quintessentially country about dandelion wine, but the plant is just as happy in the city, so your only limitation is that you’ll need flowers that haven’t been sprayed with any chemicals. Because dandelions flower early, you can make this recipe in spring and enjoy a bottle in fall after a busy day in the garden or orchard. Who knows? You may love it so much that you’ll leave a special patch of yard just for dandelion production.
Yield: 3 liters.
- Large bowl
- Fine-mesh strainer
- 1-gallon container
- Brewer’s airlock mechanism
- 4 clean 750-milliliter wine bottles and corks, or equivalent beer bottles with caps
- 14 cups loose dandelion petals, (about 1-1/2 gallons of blossoms)
- 3 quarts nonchlorinated water
- 5 cups organic sugar
- Zest and juice of 3 blood oranges
- Zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 1 cup organic raisins
- 1 packet Champagne-style yeast
- In the morning, when they’re fully open, pick your dandelion blossoms; picking a handful too many or too few will be fine. By reaching your fingers around the head of each blossom, you can easily snap them off, leaving the rest of the plant.
- Pluck the yellow petals from the rest of the blossom. Simplify the process by using a pair of scissors to shear the petals off. To do this, first take the blossom in your nondominant hand, with the petals facing your other hand. Squeeze the blossom so the yellow petals are compressed, like it’s closing at the end of the day, and then make a cut at the base, leaving the green leaves and the blossom middle.
- In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Turn off the heat, and then add the sugar, stirring as you do to dissolve it completely. Pull the saucepan off the burner to let the mixture cool.
- Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the dandelion petals, citrus juice and zest, and raisins. Stir to combine.
- When the sugar mixture cools to about 104 degrees Fahrenheit, sprinkle the yeast into the saucepan and allow it to float, undisturbed, for 10 minutes.
- Stir the yeast into the sugar water, wait 10 minutes, and then add the contents of the saucepan to the bowl with the petal mixture. Stir to incorporate. Cover the bowl with a lid or plastic wrap, and leave to steep out of direct sunlight for 3 days.
- Pour the steeped mixture through a funnel and strainer into a clean 1-gallon jug or jar. Add additional water if necessary to fill it within 2 inches of the top of the container. Compost or discard the strained petal mixture.
- Attach the airlock to the jug, and put the container out of direct sunlight for 3 weeks. You’ll notice a steady stream of air bubbles after a day or two, but eventually these will decrease until you don’t see bubbles releasing in the airlock.
- Bottle it by siphoning the clear liquid above the sediment layer (called the “lees”) at the very bottom of the container. If you don’t mind a cloudy wine and want some of the health benefits of the spent yeast, add the lees to your bottles. If you want to do this, first stir the wine so the lees is suspended, then siphon it into bottles. Cap or cork your bottles.
- Age your dandelion wine in a cool environment (50 to 65 degrees) for at least 4 months before enjoying. If you decided to add the lees to the bottles, you can either carefully pour the finished product into wine glasses for a clearer drink, or give the bottle a swirl before pouring to include the lees in the glass, much like a hefeweizen beer.
Alter Your Alcohol
More body: By upping the sweetness, tannins, and alcohol in your brew while decreasing acidity and carbonation, you can make your dandelion wine feel like it has more body. Adding a few chopped leaves to the steeping mixture in Step 4 of the recipe above will provide bitterness. Retain sweetness by choosing a beer or wine yeast with a lower tolerance for alcohol, and make sure there’s a little more sugar to begin with than the yeast can handle. You can also lower the acidity by decreasing the quantity of citrus.
Lighter body: In summer, you might want a drink that’s light and refreshing, and with all the healthy components of dandelion, this wine is a great option. To make it lighter on the palate, lower the alcohol and raise the acidity. Cutting the sugar by half will result in a wine with an alcohol level closer to a hard cider or beer, while adding more citrus will raise the acidity and convince your taste buds that you’re drinking a lighter libation.
Aperitif: If you raise the alcohol level in your wine and add some leaves to the steep, you’ll have some of the common components of a nice aperitif. The last components are the tannins that come from barrel aging, which you can replicate without the barrel. At many brewing supply stores, you’ll find oak chips in various degrees of charring. When added to the container during the fermentation phase beginning in Step 7 of the recipe above, these chips will bring a lovely oaky flavor to the final wine. There’s a lot of variation in the type of oak chips and how long they’re left in contact with your dandelion wine, so start by adding 1/2 cup of light chips within the last 2 weeks of your fermentation for a hint of oak. In future brews, add more chips for a longer period of time until you have a level of oaky taste you love.
Christopher Shockey and his wife, Kirsten, are the co-authors of three bestselling fermentation books, including their newest release Miso, Tempeh, Natto & Other Tasty Ferments: A Step-by-Step Guide to Fermenting Grains and Beans for Umami and Health. They teach worldwide and host workshops on their homestead in southern Oregon.
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