"He that would treat exactly of Cider must lay his Foundation so deep as to begin with the Soil."
So wrote preacher, traveler, scientist, amateur book designer and brewer John Beale. To Beale and his 17th-century drinking buddies, beer had been corrupted by hops; wine by the hand of the winemaker. In his treatise on cider, Beale's buddy John Evelyn wrote that hops, “rather a Medical, than Alimental Vegetable,” temper their gift of keeping beer fresh (hops are a natural preservative) by inflicting its drinker “with tormenting Diseases, and a shorter life.” All-natural fruit drinks, he hoped, would “quite vanquish Hopps, and banish all other Drogues of that nature.”
Beer was bad; wine was not much better — either a foreign import or, worse, laced with adjuncts and additives:
"I wish our Admirers of Wines beheld but the Cheat themselves," Evelyn went on. "The Sophistications, Transformations, Transmutations, Adulterations, Bastardizings, Trickings, not to say even Artificial Compassings of the God they adore, and that they had as true as Inspection into those Arcana Lucifera which the Priests of his Temples (our Vintners in their Taverns) do practice."
But we needn’t fear, ”so long as our Native Soil does supply us with such excellent Necessities” as Evelyn’s beloved Redstreak cider apple or Thomas Jefferson's favorite Catawba grape. Fruits like these, fermented naturally and simply without any "artificial compassings" would produce humble, homegrown hooch. Not fancy or foreign, wrote Longfellow, but still, wine to be proud of.
"Very good in its way
Is the Verzenay
Or the Sillery soft and creamy;
But Catawba wine,
Has a taste more divine,
More dulcet, delicious, and dreamy."
”To sum up all,” Evelyn said, “Give me good Cider.”
Good cider and other fruit wines can be hard to find these days. For years, cider was the gluten-free option — one bartender pitched it to my girlfriend as "like beer, for girls." Dizzyingly sweet, teeth-numbingly chilled and about as nuanced as club soda, most mass-made ciders, perries (pear ciders) and fruit wines are "artificial compassings" that would send Evelyn reeling.
True, there's a new crop of craft ciders out there and a few brewers and mead makers use all-natural local fruit in their wares. Moonlight Meadery's Fling, made with orange blossom honey and rhubarb purée, tastes like fresh strawberries and syrupy diner-pie filling. Or Crafted's Spiced Apple Cyser, made with Ohio wildflower honey and Ohio apples. Clear Creek Distillery turns homegrown pears into brandy that bests the French — 30 pounds of Bartletts in each bottle. Odell's Tree Shaker IPA ripples with saucy notes of local Colorado stone fruit; Almanac's Cerise Sour blonde ale snaps with tart Central Valley cherries. Blends of beer, mead and wine like these harken back to our earliest drinking days when our thirsty ancestors concocted their elixirs from whatever grew nearby — no imports, no adjuncts, no "Arcana Lucifera." In Virgil’s Georgics, he wrote the Scythians “copy vine drinks with wheat and sour rowanberries." At the Neolithic Danish burial site Juellinge, archaeologists unearthed residue of a gruel of honey, grain, lingonberries, and meadowsweet.
The beauty of fruit-based booze is how easy it is to make yourself, especially if, like our shamanic brewing forefathers, you cast aside stylistic guidelines and brew with whatever you can find. It's so easy, in fact, it happens on its own. Monkeys and other curious critters have been seen happily gorging on the rough jungle hooch of sweet juicy fruit left to ooze and bubble in the sun. At home, making fruit-based booze can be as simple as leaving a jug of apple cider in a warm corner for a week or two, or it can be a complex process of multi-stage fermentations, filterings and chemical adjustments.
HOW TO MAKE FRUIT WINE
First, make a must. Fill a bucket with your fruit, add sugar — usually equal parts sugar and fruit, by weight — and cover with boiling water to sanitize your wild fruit of any wayward sour bacteria. Let your must cool to about 70°F before you add, or "pitch" your yeast. Mix it around with a sanitized spoon and cap your bucket loosely. You should see signs of fermentation within a day or two — bubbles and foam. Once a day, use a sanitized spoon to mix up your must. Bubbling will slow in about a week. Then filter your wine through a sanitized strainer into a second jug or bucket that you can fit with an airlock. This "secondary fermentation" is long and slow, and you want to seal your fermenter tight but still allow any carbon dioxide your yeast produces to bubble out. It's nice to use a glass jug — cider jugs work perfectly — so you can watch your wine clear. Taste as it ferments, and when it's clear and tastes right, it's time to bottle and enjoy.
Last week, I climbed a plum tree on my street and filled a shopping bag. Plum trees grow all over San Francisco, but not all of them bear fruit. I’d been eying this one for a few weeks — in the sun, the plums glint pink against the brown leaves. When plucked, they’re dark as black cherries — juicy, tart, a Sour-Warhead burst. Neighbors passed by below, oblivious. Some didn’t notice. Some had known the tree for years and never dared taste its fruit. “Wash it first,” a dad advised his daughter. We're used to fruit that comes with stickers, not a stem.
The only one who knew the plums was the postman. He’s worked this block for 20 years and snacks as he walks. Were the plums great? No, but they were free. And the wine they made was delicious. As Beale wrote in 1658, fruit wine can put even bad apples to use. If we only made more cider, "then the sowrest fruit wil be acknowledged to have a spreading virtue." So as summer's bounty bends the boughs, pick freely and ferment a revolution.
William Bostwick is the author of The Brewer's Tale: A History of the World According to Beer.
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