Last of the Harvest – elderflower ‘champagne’

Elderflower champagne is one of the tastes of summer for me.  It’s quite unlike anything else, and doesn’t keep well, so it’s there, and then it’s gone.  This a really feisty brew which breaks all the rules of home-brewing.  Please, whatever you do, don’t try and generalise from this brew to any other country wines you might like to make!

For a batch of elderflower champagne, you’ll need the following ingredients and equipment –

  • 30-40 good quality elderflowers (depending on the size of the blooms)
  • 2.5kg of unrefined ‘golden’ granulated or caster sugar
  • 5 lemons (unwaxed if possible, otherwise carefully washed in detergent and rinsed before use)
  • 1 lime (as above)
  • 2 tbsp of white wine or cider vinegar
  • 3 – 4 litres of boiling water, plus extra cold
  • Wine yeast & nutrient (optional)
  • Brewing bucket, at least 12l in volume (and a second is very useful – this can double with your spare vessel for the cordial, though!) with lid, or a clean muslin to cover
  • Enough screw-top plastic fizzy drink bottles to contain your brew (10 – 12 litres in total).  Don’t even think about using glass bottles for this brew.

The first rule that gets broken here is sterilisation.  I don’t sterilise my buckets for elderflower brews – I figure I’m about to throw half a hedgerow into it, so sterility is a bit moot!  But do wash and rinse it very very carefully, and if you have any doubt about contamination from a previous dodgy brew then definitely break out the steriliser!

Put all the sugar in the bucket and add enough boiling water from the kettle to dissolve it fully.  Then top the bucket up to about 8l with cold water.  The result should be a blood-warm sugar solution.

Zested citrus & elderflowers

Peel the zest from the lemons and lime with a potato peeler, as thinly as possible (leaving the bitter white pith behind).  Then juice them, and add the zest and juice to the bucket.  Add the two tablespoons of vinegar.

What's left behindNow to the elderflowers.  You’ve selected them carefully, so they’re all lovely and full of nectar and pollen.  You want to add the flowers – but, unlike the elderflower cordial, you don’t just get to shake the bugs off and throw them in, I’m afraid!  This time, you want to add as little of the green stems as you can.  There are several ways of doing this.  I favour just plucking the flowers off pretty roughly with my fingertips.  You could use a fork to ‘comb’ through the little sprigs and pull the flowers off, but you will tend to take quite a lot of fine stem with you.  Or you could snip the flowers off with scissors.

The reason for this bit of faff is to do with a nasty bitter flavour that the stems can impart to your brew, which is what will make it undrinkable, eventually, with storage.  If you’re planning to drink all your elderflower champagne within a couple of weeks of bottling, you probably needn’t bother, but if you’re hoping to get a month or so of drinking out of them, some of the compounds extracted during brewing from the green stems will eventually be converted (by the yeast?  By oxidation? I don’t really know I’m afraid!) into an overpowering bitter note that will make your champagne entirely undrinkable.  If you minimise the stem, you should minimise the taint.

Ready to ferment - elderflower champagne in the bucket

Add all your flowers, then, and you should have an amazing smelling bucket full of flowers & citrus peel.  Top it up to about 11l.  Now add a teaspoon each of yeast and nutrient (if you have some).  Traditionally elderflower champagne is allowed to go on it’s own with the wild yeasts that are expected to be present on the flowers.  I find this unreliable, and want a good predictable outcome.  Loosely cover it with its lid or a double layer of muslin. This is home-brew faux-pas 2 – sorry, no airlock for me!

Signs of fermentation should be evident within a day or so, in the form of bubbles visibly rising to the surface (you may also get a froth, depending on how vigorous your fermentation is).  Watch for a bit, you’ll keep missing them and catching just a little movement in your peripheral vision.  You may also notice the slightly sharp smell of the carbon dioxide.

Leave your champagne to ferment for about five to seven days.  As if we haven’t broken enough rules already, this is where the whole process goes horribly ‘wrong’.  We’re going to make no effort to wait until our brew has ‘fermented out’ (see this cider-making post for discussion if you’re interested), so the brew is still actively fermenting, with the yeasts consuming sugars and producing alcohol and carbon dioxide, when it goes into the bottles.  This ‘quick and dirty’ short cut allows us to go from flowers-into-bucket to drinkable-brew in about a fortnight, which is quite remarkable.  It does however carry a pretty serious risk of producing ‘bottle bombs’ – a quick google for ‘elderflower champagne exploding bottles’ will illustrate how widespread a problem this is.

For this reason, I only use screw-top plastic fizzy drink bottles for my elderflower champagne.  Make sure they’re fizzy drink bottles – the 1 litre and half litre bottles seem most ‘stable’ though you can use the 2l cola or lemonade bottles if you like.  Don’t use bottles from non-sparkling water or fruit juices.  Do sterilise these with home-brew steriliser or milton solution, and rinse carefully before use.

After your brew’s been frothing for a week, filter it through a jelly bag or muslin-lined sieve into the second bucket to remove the solids, and syphon into your bottles (or use a jug and funnel, though this is another breach of ‘protocol’!) and screw the lids down tightly.  I was reminded when doing this this year that the filtration process is can be slow and frustrating – the yeast and pollens clog the jelly bag to a remarkable degree – and in future I suspect I’m going to use a much more open filter – I may even experiment with a nylon sieve (the sort you’d use to sift flour for baking) or something similar.  Using the jelly bag to filter my ~10kg batch took well over two hours, which frankly I could have done without!

Bottled elderflower champagneOnce your champagne is *finally* in your bottles, put them at room temperature somewhere secure where you can keep an eye on them (I tend to store the filled bottles in the washed and dried brewing buckets).

Every day or so, give the bottles a squeeze.  As the brew continues to ferment, the bottles will become harder and harder, and may even start to bulge alarmingly.  If you notice this starting to happen, release the pressure by very gently opening the lid a crack to let the carbon dioxide escape.  You may need to do this about once a day for the first week or so!

Under Pressure!You can see from the photo on the right the extent to which pressure can build up in these bottles – for comparison, the ‘donor’ bottle in it’s original state – the elderflower champagne bottles were filled to just below the neck, and the gas produced has inflated the bottles like balloons, producing a really large volume of extra head-room in the process.  Really, folks, don’t risk glass bottles with this brew!

As soon as you have pressure in the bottles, you can start drinking it – though I suggest waiting a week from bottling before taking your first sip.  As time goes by, the champagne will become ‘drier’ in flavour, and higher in alcohol as the sugars are consumed.  Don’t try to store this brew long-term – once you like the flavour of it, drink it and enjoy it!  I find that even with care, after four or five weeks the flavour is starting to deteriorate.

Ready to drink!

Pour, and enjoy this beautiful ephemeral effervescent flavour of summer!

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5 thoughts on “Last of the Harvest – elderflower ‘champagne’

  1. Pingback: Last of the Harvest – finally foraged the elderflowers! | Country Skills for Modern Life

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  3. Pingback: Elderflorescence – it’s not too late for elderflower cordial, champagne, and how about vinegar? | Country Skills for Modern Life

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  5. Pingback: Elderflower Vinegar, From the Forager’s Kitchen by Fiona Bird – Cooking the Books, Week 22 | Country Skills for Modern Life

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