Moving toward resilience and a lower carbon footprint through appropriate technology



It's re-imagining our lives to be more resilient, more abundant and more luxurious, while also being gentler on the Earth. Sound impossible? It's not! My little family of four utilizes appropriate technology to lower our homestead's carbon footprint, and it makes us happier, healthier and better connected to our community. Check out what we're doing to learn how.

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  • Kara Stiff

Homemade Wine

On one of my first dates with my soulmate the Data Fiend, he suggested we get some wine. When I replied, “Can it be beer instead?” we knew at once we were a perfect match (there may have been a few other clues). I just don’t like wine. It upsets my stomach.

But then I planted all these grapes, with no real concept of how many grapes they would make. The first planting were two very carefully selected varieties from a reputable nursery, which I promptly killed. In true homesteader style, I replaced them with deeply discounted Tractor Supply cast-offs about which I knew nothing. One of these did supremely well, but it turns out to be both seeded and rather thick-skinned, at least under current growing conditions. Two more are hanging in there, and may produce in the coming year.

Seriously! So many grapes!

I erroneously figured my offspring could eat as many grapes as I could grow. Now I’m forced to admit I was ignorant of the reason wine was invented in the first place: so many grapes. We ate and ate them, but even though we generally like seeds, we did not even close to finish them before people started to complain about all the chewing. Thanks to a good blueberry year, I was already tired of making jam.

Enter my best friend the Goat Goddess. She gifted me a beautiful fermentation vessel for my birthday, which is conveniently scheduled right at wine-making time.

“I’m going to make us some wine!” I said to DF.

“You mean you’re going to make me some wine,” he clarified.

“That’s what I said,” I said.

I got out my copy of Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz, which I highly recommend for those new to the concept. (That is an affiliate link, with proceeds supporting this site first and then the Cool Effect). I read the basic recipe and variants for T'ej, or Ethiopian honey wine. Then I did something different.

This is why I like Wild Fermentation: after using it for almost a decade, I have a much better feel for what may work and what definitely will not in the realm of the microbes. We’ve settled into a long tradition of home ferments including sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and kefir, with newer additions like sourdough as the kids have gotten older. The incidence of microbial misfires (such as kefired strawberries and grapefruit kimchi) have fallen off precipitously, much faster than if I were freely experimenting with only Dr. Google to guide me.

DF took this picture for me. Look at that beautiful fermenter!

I lightly rinsed a quart of grapes, de-spidered and de-stemmed, sending any flawed fruit to the chickens. Then I mashed them with a potato masher and put them in the fermenter. I covered them with water and added about a cup of white sugar, then let the wild yeast do its thing. I stirred and tasted it almost every day to map its progress from sweet to dry. The lid of the fermenter began letting out a glassy little ring on day three, as bubbles of gas produced by the yeast escaped the airlock. For a while there it went bing about every three seconds, day and night.

I know, I know, fermenting alcoholic beverages is usually a lot more complicated than this. If you're distilling after the fermentation you have to discard the blindness-causing methanol, there’s no doubt about that. But I think most of the complication is for the sake of reproducibility, and the demands of refined palates. It’s not impossible I’ll have a refined palate for this stuff someday, but at this point I doubt it. If it’s not too sweet and contains alcohol, I generally like it.

Grapes fermenting into wine.
First they sink, then they float. It's all part of the process.

After a couple of weeks, the bings slowed down and I judged it was finished. I filtered, then bottled in well-cleaned olive oil and scotch bottles. DF pronounced it drinkable. GG was willing to taste it, though she feels about the same as I do about wine. She winced and said, “Yep, it tastes like wine.” Even my dad did not spit it out, and he has Opinions about wine. (Not very expensive opinions, mind, you, but emphatic ones).

I’ve been completely off alcohol for medical reasons for a year, but I just had to try it. It’s light and dry and a little bit green tasting, but definitely within the realm of flavors I’m willing to consume, which I cannot say about all wine. It’s probably not very alcoholic, but it certainly does contain some alcohol, so I’m limited to smaller amounts than I would prefer. In those amounts, it does not upset my stomach. I find I like it a lot better than store-bought wines. Some of that is probably the made-it-myself effect (I love free stuff!).

I did a second iteration that was very similar, except that I used more grapes because they had to be picked at that point, and held back the sugar until the fermentation was already going. It's also fine, but nobody likes that version quite as much. Maybe because it was cooler in the house. Maybe because the grapes were a little overripe. Maybe because of the changes to the protocol. Reproducible science is difficult on the homestead, where conditions never exactly repeat.

The fermenter is bigger than it looks. Two batches yielded about seven regular-sized bottles of wine (some of my bottles were odd sizes). As I was bottling, I was concerned. That’s more wine than DF and I have consumed in the near-decade of our marriage, by about six bottles. Would I be pouring it in the compost in the spring?

Nope. Just a couple of months later, we’re down to the last bottles. I’ll have to do more batches next year to keep us in alcohol until following summer. It’s likely there will be plenty of grapes. I’m excited to make some proper T'ej, and some elderberry beverage when the elderberries I planted mature, and all manner of other things that I will be frustrated to have to gingerly sip. The abundance is heady.

Tell me about your favorite ferments, not limited to grapes.

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