Brewing the old-fashioned way

Elderflowers by Liz Jones from Flickr Creative Commons.

We’ve been meaning to make something with elderflowers for ages, given it’s a flavour we notice and usually enjoy in beer (and wine, for that matter).

Last weekend, in a rare four hour rain-free spell, we finally got out onto the country lanes and picked four carrier bags full of elderflowers.  We produced several litres of cordial (including some frozen in icecube bags, for possible later additions to beer) and some elderflower infused vodka, which is developing quite nicely.  But it was elderflower champagne we were really after — not that we’ve ever actually tried it before, but there are enough enticing pictures and descriptions on the internet to tempt us.

What was interesting to us was just how unscientific most of the recipes were.  Most recipes measured elderflowers in heads or volume (a ‘pint’ of flowers!) — what’s wrong with grams?  No recipes mentioned anything about sanitisation; only one mentioned a hydrometer; and most were relying on wild yeasts and luck to get things going.  Most of the fermentation advice boiled down to “leave it for a few days then bottle”. We’re not surprised elderflower champagne has a reputation for being tricky and either undercarbonated or exploding.  We’re complete amateurs when it comes to beer, but the idea of launching into a brew without even measuring the original and final gravity seemed bonkers to us.

The amateur approach to elderflower champagne did make us ponder on the difference between this and home-brewing.  Both have long histories of being made at home, for domestic consumption, but unlike beer, elderflower champagne has never been industrialised. Too seasonal and too labour intensive?

Needless to say, we had to apply some of our beer-brewing principles (proper measurements, some sanitisation) when we finally settled on a recipe. We’ll let you know how it turned out and post the recipe (and semi-scientific instructions) if it’s half decent.

When we were just starting out we blogged on how over-prescriptive homebrew books can be, and how this can be quite intimidating to just getting on with it.  Of course, the more scientific you are, the more consistent your results, as we’ve come to realise.

Elderflower picture by Liz Jones via Flickr Creative Commons.

9 thoughts on “Brewing the old-fashioned way”

  1. Homebrewing recipes could be pretty vague in the past too. I came across one printed in a newspaper in the 1970s that included raw barley, black malt and a huge amount of sugar. No enzymes to convert the starch in the unmalted barley, though.

  2. Lovely aroma, fresh elderflowers, but never leave your carrier bags full of them sitting around in an enclosed room too long before you use them, or you’ll discover why “cat’s piss” is a descriptor sometimes used for the aroma of their olfactory relative the Sauvignon Blanc grape.

  3. My uncle makes very tasty Elderflower Champagne. However, consistent it is not. He does sterilise the fermentation container but I think his recipe is basically “boil up elderflowers in as much sugar as you feel like then add champagne yeast”

    He measures OG and FG more for interest than control, and tasty batches have ranged from 5.5% to ~13%.

    I think the recipe is much more forgiving than beers, and thus is much less proscribed than beer recipes.

  4. I am going to give elderflower champagne a try tonight. Quite excited as its my first ever foray into home brew. I have starsan to sterilise and champagne yeast because it’s been raining so I dont expect much wild yeast. I read in one recipe to use yeast nutrient. Is this necessary and what does it do?

    1. Pintsizedticker — we’ve only recently used yeast nutrient for the first time, for the starter for our Belgian-style tripel-type thing. A lot of people do use it, but we’ve yet to get our heads round the ins-and-outs of it. Short answer, though: helps the yeast power through the sugars.

      Thomas — interesting. We’ve spent so long having sanitising/planning/measuring hammered into us on the beermaking front that it seems totally alien to us to leave so much to chance. (And ours might turn out to be crap anyway.)

      Simon — yes, that was one of the pages we had in mind! Terrifying, all those glass bottles exploding everywhere. Ferment *then* bottle, right? Basic principle.

      Martyn — we got the cat’s piss thing, but it passed within about 24 hours. Horrid while it lasted.

      Barm — you’re going to like our next post, I suspect — extracts from a 1970s homebrewing manual, including some ‘innovative’ uses for gravy browning…

      1. Thanks. We decided to go for it. My other half has attempted elderflower champagne (I’ve stayed out of it!) for three years on the trot and has yet to be successful. Maybe beginners luck will preside is year!

  5. I think thats the beauty of elderflower champagne, there is no correct recipe, everyone does it slightly different, hence all the recipes. However I do agree if you wish to avoid bottles exploding typical SG and FG values would be helpful!

    I ventured out into my local park yesterday morning to pick some elderflowers myself, It seemed the good ones had a barrier of nettles and thorns blocking my access and I only had shorts on :-/. Got myself ~42 heads and used them with 6 lemons, 6 tablespoons of cider vinger in 20L of water + I used 2.5kg of brewing sugar.

    Measured my SG @ 1.048, but the trouble now comes as to where do the natural yeast ferment out to? For beer 1.010 is fine for bottling. But I’ve seen people talking about fermenting out to 1.005 or 1.000 and it going even lower which I’m not used to at all. I agree, there’s no wonder so many people have horror stories with elderflower champs.

    I will probably just monitor the airlock and check gravity when it seems to be inactive, then leave it a couple of days and check gravity again to see if there is any change before bottling.

    Whatever the case I should be looking @ 5% ABV if all goes well. Can’t wait 🙂

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