…and now for something useful.
The polls results from the previous post are in. As of this time of writing, I have received the expected 3 votes and will therefore do a blog post on whatever I want.
What I want to blog about right now is nothing to do with the discourse or my clumsy attempts at kitchen sink gender studies on obscure anime and manga. Instead, please enjoy this:
PANDEMIC LOCKDOWN TRAILER PARK WINE MAKING POST,
…complete with considered tips, shortcuts and pointers on where to find equipment online and in back alleys.
I won’t even try to monetise the equipment links (much). This project is a lazy n cheap challenge. Since it has worked(!) blogging about it will be a good change of pace, even if it has none of the Japan-resonance of the “farm sake” post from a few years back.
The process of producing 5 US gallons/ 19L of cheap, potable red-ish wine should take about 1 month from start to drinking too much and realising how little joy you derive from shitposting on Twitter. There are scores of Youtube videos that more or less follow/ inform this recipe/ process, I only strive to confirm their suggestions, add pointers and warnings and cut to the bucket scenes.
The most important part of the project is securing rudimentary equipment and supplies, well in advance and as inexpensively as possible – for free and/or from what dollar stores and grocery stores are still open, during these times of lockdown restrictions and retail closures.
The other reason for this post is that I tried my hand at lockdown sourdough bread-making and ended up with a fence-post.
In the past, I have had scant luck with homebrewing; a good batch of beer now and again, a batch of farm sake (I’m out of koji), etc., interspaced with unpleasant, sometimes unhealthy failures. Yes, 19L of Chinese rice wine is half the cost in materials of the cheapest red wine hack, but if it messes up, you will end up with 5 (US) gallons of weapons-grade vomitoxin. The sediment is like cement — don’t try to flush it down the toilet.
Meanwhile the red wine recipe keeps turning out well!
Bucket Kaidashi Kikō
Here’s the supply list. The ‘why’ and alternatives/ upgrades will follow as I wend through the process.
Buckets! You need a few 5 or 6 (US) gallon plastic food grade buckets. For ONE 19L/ 5 (US) gallon batch, you will need 3, preferably 4 clean buckets. A lid that fits at least one is handy but not mandatory. I look for food-grade pails behind restaurants and delis. Read the label, avoid buckets that contained cleaners, etc. You can also buy these new for $5-10 at home centers or even your fave wine/ beer-making supply store — if it is not closed for the lockdown. Free is better, neh?
One of the buckets may be replaced by a 5 gallon/ 19L etc., plastic water cooler jug, or 2 disposable 4 gallon/ 15L PET plastic bottled water jugs.
Later, if you get hardcore, you can hunt down glass carboys (big clumsy bottles) but for now, these will do fine. Resist the urge to pick up any “large wine making bottles” on craigslist/ Kijiji. A 14 gallon “demijohn” weighs over 100 lbs when full.
Similarly, if you are going to go through the hassle of making wine, invest a month or more of waiting, making batches smaller than 4 or 5 (US) gallons feels like… I donno; baking two cupcakes.
Cleaning & sanitizing: Liquid bleach and a small tub of dollar-store oxyclean(er) powder.
Later you can hunt down metabisulfite powder/ tablets and even the legendary and costly Star-san… Later.
First Disclaimer: beer/ wine brewing hobbyists who have chanced upon this have already gone into rage mode. I’ve seen videos where homebrewers measure things out in lab beakers and sanitize everything with over-proof grain alcohol.
Yo! If I had over-proof grain alcohol… Yes, plastic buckets and jugs/ carboys can absorb stuff, Bleach can get into plastic pores, Star-san is best, better to boil everything, wear PPE, buy glass containers, stainless steel fittings and turn that corner of your basement or kitchen into a clean room.
This is why am I geeked on cheap red plonk. It seems to be a lot more forgiving than other fermentables. It could be the acidity of the grape stock, it could just have been dumb luck on my part but so far so good. Don’t let me stop you from watching scores of Youtube videos and obsessively over-cleaning/ sanitizing everything; all I am happy to report is that the process has been far more forgiving, for me, so far. It has also worked for a friend who has followed my process, so I have seen replicable results. Hooray!
A long handled bottle brush – dollar store
A plastic sink tub – dollar store
A siphon hose: I’ve had good luck with a $2 fuel pump/ siphon. Try dollar and discount auto-parts stores. Its cousin, the aquarium drain hose-siphon-pump looks promising. Something with a 3/8″/ 9.5mm hose diameter is about right. As long as you can more or less see through it when you use it and clean it.
Make a stirring/ degassing wand: buy a package of long stainless steel BBQ skewer(s) from the dollar store and affix 4 nylon zip ties to the loop end of one of them, to use with an electric drill. Also required, one electric drill.
Cling wrap/ film/ “Saran” wrap: One roll, dollar store brand sufficient.
A turkey baster. – dollar store.
Twine, heavy rubber bands, tape, marker, rags, sponge, misc kitchen utensils.
A fermentation “airlock”. You can try to scare up a few proper fermentation airlocks, as well as the corks that go with them and fit the wide mouth of your “carboy”/ water cooler bottle. You fill these with just enough water so that carbon dioxide produced during fermentation can bubble out but air cannot be sucked back in. The airlocks themselves are usually cheap. The big silicone stoppers — yikes!
Or you can cut a few inches off a pool noodle and/or monkey something up with long party balloons. More on this below. The old old-school substitute airlock; a condom has been depreciated.
Wine yeast. You absolutely must get your hands on proper, if inexpensive alcohol-tolerant wine yeast. It should not cost you more than $1-2 a pack. You only need one pack per batch (yeast multiplies). Check for any active online presence of local wine/ beer making shops and if they are all closed, with none offering web/phone orders and curbside pickup, consider ordering a 10 pack from Amazon.
For your first few batches, the default North American choice should either be the Lalvin EC-1118 or the slightly more interesting K1-V1116. The latter will also give you a bit more complexity. Both have enough alcohol, sugar and temperature tolerance to survive less than perfect conditions and even rescue/ restart a botched/ stuck fermentation. If you use bread yeast, you wine will smell like bread and will stall, still full of sugar at %6-7 ABV (alcohol by volume). The two yeasts mentioned above can theoretically tolerate up to %18 ABV, though we will be aiming for wine in the %11- %13 range.
Yeast nutrient: If making an Amazon, etc. order or if you found a supply store that is still doing business during the lockdown you could spring for some yeast nutrient powder. You need a spoonful per batch, so it goes a long way. There are cheap alternatives, so this is optional.
Bentonite: A form of food-grade clay powder. Helps clump the yeast at the bottom of the container. Not absolutely necessary but helpful. Supply store or mail order. Optional.
Shellfish gel clearing agent. Not really needed, $3-4 for a pouch at a supply store or on Amazon, your call, optional, details below.
Metabisulphite powder/ Campden tablets. You will need a spoonful/ crushed couple of tablets per batch, near the end. Supply store or mail order. Optional.
Glass wine bottles, corker, washer and corks. Do you really want to do this? I would suggest bottling your first batch in whatever plastic pop, sports drink, water and /or juice bottles you have lying around. Corked wine bottles and corking machines can wait.
Raw, picked grapes. NO. You do not want to do this. NO.
Budget “makes 25 bottles” red wine kit. These are reassuring, if you can get one at a good price. $40 is good, over $60 is beginning to defeat the purpose of the exercise. Go buy your wine retail or sign up at a still-operating we-brew operation for their “wedding special”, let them do all the work and get 25 bottles of merlot for appx $120 — which is still cheaper than the local retail alternative (due to the taxes) around here. Your mileage will vary. Also a good time to Google the local regulations on homebrewing in your neck of the woods.
Home brewing is illegal in Japan. Also no-name wine is insanely cheap. Don’t bother with any of this if you are in Japan.
The advantage of the kits, even the economy ones is that they come with tiny packs of yeast, nutrient, bentonite, metabisulphite, and clearing agent, as well as a big bladder of grape juice concentrate. Also an instruction sheet checklist. The advantage of the we-brew service is that they do all the grunt work and filter the heck out of your wine before they bottle it, so that it is pretty.
If buying a kit on Amazon read the fine print, enlarge the box pictures and read the comments. There are 1 gallon kits being misrepresented in the descriptions as 5 gallon kits. “Ooops we somehow left the old description in. Please send it back…”
Or… Try a better way:
8-10 x 1.87L / 64oz/ 1/2 US gal jugs of grocery store “%100” Grape Juice. I shit you not. Get whatever store brand is cheapest; under $3/ per. You will need to add one 2.2kg (In the US, a 4lb) bag of white sugar but that’s another $1-$2. You can be daring and do one and a half bags (6+lbs) So figure, with careful shopping appx CA$26 -$28 for the juice, sugar and yeast. You can also sub out the last few gallons of the mix with a cheaper apple-grape blend, just stick to “%100” juice. If you can find “white” grape juice on sale for less than regular, use it. I have not found frozen concentrate to be anywhere near as inexpensive as the big plastic bottles of store brand grape juice.
Will it work? In a side-by side comparison, a batch made with grocery grape was stronger and had more complexity that the wine from an economy Merlot kit. The kit option at $60, including initial equipment and supplies yields wine at appx $2.50 per 750ml bottle. The grocery store juice version is a further one-third to one-half cheaper with further economies available from serial batch production.
While at the grocery store, also buy a box of raisins.
You are now ready to commit winery.
1) The FIRST time you drink your plonk, your digestive system might have to acclimate itself to whatever yeast residue is left in the bottle, unless you really, really went to town with the pre-bottling metabisulphite treatment. You may experience a mild laxative effect (to put it diplomatically) This only happens once, thenceforth you are acclimatised and immune.
2) If this works out and especially if you follow my tips on serial batch production, you will in a few months end up with 10, 15, 20 gallons of serviceable plonk nouveau. You will have more than enough wine to go with dinner but also, an unreasonably large supply of wine to sip after a long day of going out kayaking, doing chores around the house and baking your head (and body) under the hot sun.
At this point I STRONGLY ADVISE laying in multiple cases of budget sports drinks. Do not use your plonk reserves to quench your summer thirst — even if you dilute it with fizzy stuff to make “coolers”. Alcohol is highly addictive and even in low doses can cause emotional displays, mood swings, melancholy, heartburn and social fail – especially when one is starved for human engagement during these long months of lockdown.
The lockdown, what one friend calls social distortion (he probably meant to say social distancing but the sobriquet stuck) might be a perfect opportunity to take up the wine-making hobby but it is also a terrifyingly powerful force multiplier for all manner of emotional and behavioral afflictions.
TLDR: Careful with that cask, Mr. Amontillado. The eventuality of moderation is a best drinking experience. Please wish compete a short survey when our representatives have done to you?
You think I am overdoing this warning? Another friend who has been following my pandemic wine-making project just inherited a complete assortment of equipment and supplies from someone who gave it all up after getting out of rehab. The combo of readily available booze and pandemic lockdown anxiety and isolation are an entirely new and dangerous mix. This is not “can’t hold yar liquor” These are dangerous times. Maybe I should stop this post here, lest I grease someone’s rails to hell…
Neh… One can always make the next batch weaker. It’s summer, cash is tight…
Let’s do this!
Clean your best and biggest bucket; the one with the lid, plus one other. Scrub it down well in the laundry tub or bathtub or shower stall with very dilute dish detergent, rinse, rinse again, then again. Fill to 1/4 full, add a tablespoon or two of oxy-clean powder and a dash of bleach. Sponge the entire inside and outside of the bucket repeatedly with this mix, then rinse and rinse again. Pour off the cleaner mix into bucket #2, clean it next. This also is a good time to fill the buckets to 19 L or 20L or 5 gallons or whatever from a measured pitcher and make level marks on the outside of your fave buckets.
“Oxy-clean” powder is a “percarbonate”. Way kewl and incidentally one of the few safe at-home ways to get mildew spots out of antique fabrics, like kimonos. Dab, blot, repeat. It releases free oxygen from a peroxide when mixed with water and the sodium carbonate is an old-school laundry soap/ soap booster. Their ready availability and low cost have made things a lot easier for home-brewers:
“Percarbonates are a relatively new group of cleaning chemicals. Percarbonates are a combination of sodium carbonate and hydrogen peroxide, (and other secret ingredients, which is basically what separates them from each other) and they effectively remove dirt and deposits from all types of beer and wine making equipment. Percarbonates work with active oxygen and a mild alkali to help lift the grime. The hydrogen peroxide does provide some degree of sanitization, but it is better to rely on them only as cleaners. One of the best properties of the percarbonate family is that they are environmentally and septic system friendly.”
— Simplifying Cleaning and Sanitizing for Home Winemakers
Welcome to the Tao of homebrewing; %90 of it is “doing dishes” on a bulky and inconvenient scale. Fortunately, for simple plonk you do not have to go to extremes. Wash your “dishes” then wipe repeatedly with the Oxy-bleach mix. Rinse well. Later, consider dropping $25- $35 for a bottle of Star-san; it sterilizes everything and food-safely self-degrades so you don’t even have to rinse. A few millimeters makes gallons of working solution. Everyone loves Star-san. Maybe one day I’ll splurge for some.
Into a glass of warm, not hot water, empty the yeast pack. let it sit while you are prepping. You can give it a stir in 10 minutes. Not hot; hot will kill the yeast.
Water considerations: I use tap water. Around here the tap water is fairly benign; heavily filtered and treated water from the Great Lakes, lightly chlorinated and ozonated to 11 at the filtration plant. If your municipal water is hard, weird, full of iron or otherwise troublesome you need to either get out the Brita filter pitcher or spend a few bucks more for 2 gallons of bottled water. If the last case, get one of those big single-use 15L/ 4 US gallon jugs — it will come in handy later. Also, if you spot any of these out during recycling day, grab ’em. Don’t mess with the tops for now, we’ll deal with those soon enough.
Grape Juice time! Into the big clean bucket goes your eight, nine (tight for a 5 gallon batch) or ten (for a 6 gallon batch) big bottles of grape juice. As previously mentioned, you can bulk out the last 2-3 gallons with discount apple-grape mix, if you cleaned out the grocery store shelves and only scored 5 or 6 big juice bottles.It is not hard to find 1L of “%100” apple-grape juice mix for under a dollar.
If you managed to get any, add 1-2 tablespoons of bentonite. Stir while adding and pouring; a kitchen spatula works for me.
Add 1 tablespoon of yeast nutrient powder. If you could not find any, you can use the old-school substitute; boiled mashed raisins. Boil 1/4 cup of dried raisins in a cup of water. Mush them up well or puree with a stick blender then toss the mix into the pail.
If you bought a budget wine-making kit, the process is similar, but you have dumped in a huge bladder-bag of concentrated grape juice along with the packets of bentonite and nutrient. Depending on the wine “type” they may have also provided a small bag of toasted wood chips, for an “oak” taste. I have yet to try this, but winemaking supply stores sell small bags of oak-ish chips for a few bucks. One of these days I will either try a bag or swipe a handful of Starbucks stir-sticks and lightly oven-toast them, before I chuck them into my bucket. Or not.
Continue adding the grape juice. Collect the empty bottles. Fill each with a few ounces of hot tap-water, shake well to get the residue, drain into the second bucket. Now eyeball how much room is left in the first bucket, from the juice level to your fill line.
Add less than your guesstimate of this amount of HOT water (I have used either boiled or hot tap water) to the second bucket. Pour in the entire 2.2kg/ 4 lb bag (or more if ambitious) of white sugar. Stir well with the spatula — avoid scalding yourself if you used boiling water. The sugar will dissolve very easily. Tip the sugar mix into the juice bucket.
Pour in the glass of water with the dissolved yeast.
Add more water to bring the mix to your fill line. We were going for 19L/ 5 US gallons but you can try for a few litres more if you have a 6 gallon bucket. Just don’t fill your bucket right to the rim. Leave an inch of headspace for foam.
Cover the bucket with plastic cling wrap, overlapping it and securing the edges over the rim with thick rubber bands strung together or some combination of twine and rubber bands. Loosely put on the bucket lid if you have it.
Depending on the yeast and the temperature of where you are going to hide your bucket for the next few weeks, the mix should start to ferment and bubble vigorously within a day or less. Cool basements/ garages in winter and spring take longer.
Here’s where the choice of yeast is important:
Note the recommendations and limits for the Lalvin k1-v1116 and ec-1118 strains. Nice wide temperature range, high tolerance for weirdness. Lalvin yeasts are very common in North America. The Red Star varieties are second most common and have corresponding analogues:
Per Wine Yeast Selection Charts at
Here are the official write-ups on both strains:
If you cannot find any locally, Amazon is your best bet. eBay might be an option but you should pretty much rule out any very long-distance orders unless you are way off the beaten track. Too long a delivery wait, too high a cost.
Within a few days the bucket should be bubbling away vigorously. Fermentation gives off carbon dioxide, which is heavier than air and therefore forms a protective gas blanket over the surface of the brew. Purists would insist on a tight-fitting lid, silicone cork and brewer’s airlock but this is a bucket of sugary grape juice, not a pressurised light water nuclear reactor. You merely need to keep most of the CO2 in, letting the excess safely bleed out while keeping molds, vinegar yeasts and tiny, hungry insects out.
After 4 to 7 days, get out the long, stainless steel BBQ skewer and tighten 4 nylon zip ties to the loop end. Lookie at the long ends of the ties hanging free. You just saved a bundle on a “wine whip”. Bend the loop end as needed to prevent them slipping off. Rinse clean. The primary use will be the later “degassing” but since the batch could use a good stir, we can take the opportunity to put it together and test it out. Tighten it into the electric drill chuck, loosen the rubber bands on the bucket rim, peel back the cling wrap and give the brew a good mixing. Or you can give it a stir by hand with your favorite spatula, broomstick or tire iron.
Seal everything back up.
A week more or when the bubbling appears to have calmed down, clean and sanitise (per previous) a second bucket or the water cooler jug(s)”. Today’s task will be to siphon off the brew into a second container without disturbing too much of whatever yeast gunk has sunk to the bottom of the bucket. Carefully hoist the bucket up on a chair, crate or counter, position the new bucket or jug below it and siphon away. Having someone to help is a plus or you can try some nifty aquarium tools, clamps, coathangers or whatever else you can gimmick up to keep the siphon hose from flying loose and squirting wine all over the floor. Siphon hoses are known to be possessed by minor demons — you have been warned.
Start the siphon, holding the supply end a few inches below the surface of the mix. This will take a while, don’t cramp out. Siphon down to 1″/ 12mm from the bottom of the pail. Leave the rest.
We now pause for monetisation:
The only way I can get ANY kickback from steering you towards online commerce is if you are a new sign-up on Aliexpress. We both get some cash-value coupons. Aliexpress item affiliate links expire too soon and any items that would offer me the chance to shill for them are overpriced compared to other sellers selling the same goods. I will post pictures and typical descriptions. It is recommended you run deep searches to find price and shipping cost options that work for you on each item.
Aliexpress newbies, please sign up using my referral codes: https://a.aliexpress.com/_d7FtAkU or INSNGUZM from the app in the “redeem invite code” section.
If you make your purchase via their smartphone app, even if you use the browser version to search, the cost will be a a percentage point or two cheaper. The app also features annoying promotions, seller discounts, games, daily time wasters and more coupons. There are two types of Aliexpress coupon: the “select” version is all but useless. There are also Aliexpress app “coins” that are useless, except for when the site is running one of their periodic site-wide events — then there might be a chance to exchange “coins” for general coupons. All this may sound ridiculous but one can knock %20- %30 off the cost of an order by going overboard on discounts and coupons.
You can inexpensively build up a good stock of equipment if willing to plan ahead and deal with shipping delays that can stretch out for a month or two. If you start to run serial batches, getting extra equipment cheap really helps the budget. Price estimates are listed in Canadian dollars and include shipping.
Aliexpress can still be a tiny bit shadier than other ecommerce sites. Watch out for listings that suggest multiples/ lots but the buried text description states: “Included: one thing”.
Sellers will occasionally attempt to wiggle out of sales, ask for extra shipping fees and they will want YOU to do the cancelling because if they do so, they earn strikes against their stores. You reply, you lose. Most of the time when you ignore their messages, they ship per your purchase.
Saving an item to your watch list must alert a seller because the number of times a saved item has jumped from “free shipping” to an extra shipping charge has become tedious. Use the “wish list” function instead.
The dispute process is far less customer-weighted than eBay’s and photo/ video proof is indispensable when the product arrives broken or completely different from the description. Shady sellers will try side-settlements and beg for you to cancel disputes and let them re-ship a lost or damaged item. Once you are out of the protection plan you are SOL. Fortunately, we are buying simple items, not clothing (size and material hell), so things are slightly more straightforward. It is extremely rare that the dispute process demand that you ship an item back — never try: it will vanish into the ether and you will never receive your refund. Aliexpress handles the payments and any refunds — they have never messed up my credit card.
Even Amazon has been known to harbor shady sellers. Once I ordered a laptop battery and was sent a woman’s blouse. Much time had to be spent on support chat but in the end I got my refund, without having to ship a baggy polyester Hawaii style print back to China. Guess what a relative got on their next birthday.
Here are some bits of equipment you can find on Aliexpress:
Fuel pump siphon. If you cannot find one locally, they run around CA$2.00
Aquarium drain hose: These run a buck more but look far better for winemaking. Still waiting for mine to show up.
Aquarium hose clamp: OMG! Something to keep that siphon hose in place! Plenty available for around $1.00 each.
Bottle washer nozzle: These are fun if you have a basement laundry tub or a kitchen sink that you can unscrew the aerator from — and whose internals will not leak all over the place when under back-pressure. You push on the bottle, which opens a valve to spray the insides of the bottle. CA$6- $10
Fermentation airlocks: You local wine/ beer -making supply store probably has a bin of these for under $2 ea but since you are up too late ordering gear, you can pick up a few more for appx CA$1 ea.
Water cooler bottle stoppers: Note how these have the pop-in centers. These can be drilled out to fit the shaft of a fermentation airlock. Easy to clean too, you should be able to order in a lot of 10 for under $5.00, while a proper silicone stopper, with a hole to fit your airlock shaft can run $8-$10 each at your local supply store.
Hydrometer: Fun but optional and somewhat difficult to order. The kits that come with 2 or 3 units and a thermometer come in a case and have a slightly higher chance of surviving shipment. They are calibrated to give estimates of alcohol strength and are useless when you are trying to follow a precise recipe on a hobby winemaking site.
Here’s the deal. Water by itself has a “specific gravity” of 1.00. Under this you have alcohol and very little sugar left in the mix. Over, your mix is still full of unfermented sugar. Unfortunately, most of the sellers who sell the “specific gravity” or “3-scale version” for under $5, can’t pack their goods to save their lives. They think the flimsy plastic case that it comes with, plus bubble-wrap and scrap cardboard will be sufficient.
Nope. So this one is an optional purchase. I’m waiting on one of the kits, which might survive the great passage.
Bottling cane/ filler wand: These things are REALLY handy. Note the spring-loaded valve tip. You jam the open end into your 3/8″ ID siphon hose. Once you get your siphon primed, insert the wand into an empty bottle, press down and the valve opens to fill. Release and move to the next bottle. Under CA$4. or try this homemade version: https://www.instructables.com/id/Bottle-Filler-Wand/
Siphon rod: The most elegant pro-hobbyist siphon trick. Note the piston inside the tube which you slide up and down to pump-start the siphon. $12-$20
Hand-type corker: This will probably be the first corker you purchase. Under $20. A real pain to use but can do the job — after you have destroyed many corks and a few bottles to learn its quirks. I hate these things with a passion.
Bulk corks: The local supply store sells clean, new corks for appx 20 cents ea. You can sometimes find cheaper on Aliexpress but usually the shipping cost kills the deal. Good hunting.
Aquarium heater. This is for cold-weather wine-making, cold basements and garages. The official solution is a wrap-around heating pad but if these things can sit submerged with the fishies for years, they can handle some grape juice. Built-in adjustable thermostat, 25W or 50W units can be found for under $10.
The second raid:
You have transferred your wine and left behind an inch or more of sediment/ wine sludge in the first bucket. If using a second bucket, seal it as before. If using a carboy (or two) things will get interesting. Theoretically, this is where a well-fitting 50mm silicone stopper with a hole in the center for the brewer’s fermentation lock is supposed to come into play. The airlocks themselves are $1-$2 at brew supply stores or online. The big stoppers cost considerably more and are harder to find.
The cheapest substitute is a long party balloon. Stretch over the carboy mouth and make a small hole in the other end. The balloon should remain mostly flat but allow gas to escape while preventing air and bugs from getting in.
Cut off a 2-3″ section of foam pool noodle and jam it into the carboy mouth. Bulk up the shaft of the brewer’s airlock with cling wrap to fit the compressed hole in the middle.
On water jug caps:
The caps on big and small “water-cooler” jugs are meant to be single-use. You tip the bottle over into the water cooler cradle, a sharp pipe-end pierces the center cut-out and water is supplied without fuss or mess. When you find a disposable 15L PET water cooler bottle it will usually still have its cap. This cap is gold, or at least worth a buck or more at someplace that has a purified water refill station.
If you look closely though, you can see that these caps (often) have peel-away sides. Once removed, the cap can still make a sufficient press-seal on the water bottle spout. Trim away some of the center cut-out and start playing with a drill and a wine-cork to make an insert stopper that will fit your airlock.
Now you have a reusable, easy to clean stopper and airlock solution. You can also order in 10 packs of better designed reusable caps form Aliexpress for under $5. These have their own center-plugs that can be modified to fit the airlock shaft.
For secondary or second-round fermentation, most hardcore wine hobbyists seem set on jugs/ carboys. Unlike the first round, minimizing air surface contact at the top of the mix is given as the reason, but what of the CO2 layer? Huh? Wine in big jugs looks like wine-making.
If you had a hygrometer – a floaty calibrated glass thingy that costs too much and is guaranteed to get smashed in the mail if ordered from afar, you could gage the amount of sugar left in the brew and devine some notion of the alcohol strength, now that you are some 2 weeks into the project.
Or you could pull some wine with the turkey baster and taste it. Too sweet? It needs more time. Remember, this is very nouveau wine, so it will be yeasty and will have weird taste notes. These will resolve in the next few weeks. For now your only concerns are: how sweet, how strong?
Too sweet, no more bubbling at all the next few days? Your fermentation is “stuck”. Add 1/2 a pack more of yeast (dissolved per instructions) and cross your fingers. This has never happened for me but that is the recommended fix. Of course you use one of the above tolerant yeasts for this.
Meanwhile… you have an inch or two of wine and sludge sitting in the bottom of bucket #1. While you were busy, I hope you re-covered it to keep the fruit flies out.
Rinse well and flush down the toilet. Clean the bucket.
Start a second batch by pouring in another round of ingredients, minus the yeast — you have plenty , yeast multiplies. Stir well, contemplate your EMPIRE OF WINE. Go wild and do half grape, half apple (apple is the cheaper juice) For now, avoid trying to do a %100 apple juice cider; ale yeasts are better for cider and I have found that second-batching for cider can lead to odd aftertastes. Half-n-half makes a nice light summer wine. You can also ease off on the sugar for a summer wine. With all that dormant yeast on the bottom of the pail, fermentation should take off fast. Wow, lookie at it froth!
If you are doing this in winter or in a cold climate, schedule half as much again for the times. Double if your fermentation pails/ jugs are in a chilly winter basement/ garage. Consider a blanket heater or even a submersible stainless steel aquarium heater to keep the mix at 20- 24C. Fermentation will probably stop dead under 50F/ 10C, so finding some heating solution in a cold situation is mandatory.
A week or two more passes:
Bubbling has almost stopped, though you can bang the sides of the container and see carbonation released. The turkey baster taste-test gives a dry-ish taste and a noticeable alcoholic warmth. Time once again to “rack” your mix, transferring it to a new bucket to leave behind another inch or so of sediment. This time you will siphon to a pail because you will also be…
De-gassing your wine
Degassing is one of those odd little tricks that newbie wine-makers often skip or skimp on. You do not want to do it in a jug/ carboy — it will foam over big time. You have been warned. I laugh at you when you remember my warning as you mop up your mess.
To degass in a bucket, you could sit for 20 minutes, stirring with a long wooden spoon, but the electric drill BBQ skewer “wine whip” is far more effective. Get the drill and zip-tied skewer ready, give the mix a good motorised stir, let the foam settle and repeat a few more times every 3 minutes. You want to release as much CO2 as you can, this will significantly improve the finished taste. When you are satisfied that you have a flat brew, you can leave it in the bucket to settle or transfer it again into a newly cleaned jug/ carboy.
What of the sludge from racking #2? Why not pitch it into the second batch? Live dangerously, start yet another batch? Or flush it; your choice.
You are into the home stretch. Let it settle a day before bottling. You can also choose to kill the fermentation by adding a spoonful of metabisulphite/ a couple of crushed Campden tablets. Note that some folks are sensitive to/ avoid on principle sulphite additives in their diets. The sulphite step is optional. I have used it and skipped it. A kit will also give you a small pack of sorbate preservative to use at this time. I never saw the point of this but if you are doing the kit, you might as well use it.
ALSO; a few hours after adding the metabisulphite you can, if you splurged for the shellfish goo clearing agent, gently pour it in. The goo forms a film that slowly sinks through the wine, clumping residue along with it, until it hits bottom and stays there. Extra rackings at 24 hour intervals are a passable substitute for clearing agents but the wine risks exposure to stray yeasts/ molds if you kill the ferment, though this is less likely if you can taste a strong alcohol ‘warmth’ in your brew.
It might be good idea to also put the jug/pail up on a chair, ready for bottling before leaving the wine to settle for the last 24-48 hours. Less chance of disturbing the container after it has settled.
One nice thing about red wine is that, unless your brewing area is miserably hot, you can drag the process out somewhat, if you have other things to do. It took three weeks of secondary ferment to get around to racking and degassing? No biggie. Settling for a week because you didn’t want to bottle today either? Fine… Acidity and growing alcohol content gives you leeway to fit the process to your whims. The only thing that can screw you up is a long stretch of miserable hot summer weather and even then, during the first 2-3 weeks it helps. Just guard against insects. Keep the exteriors of the fermentation pails/ jugs clean, airlocks, stoppers and lids tight, resist the urge to sample too often.
Get out your last 2 buckets. Fill one halfway with water, add a splash of bleach. Ready your bottles; 64oz/ 1.87L juice bottles, plastic sports drink and pop bottles, even wine bottles (if you have a corker).
Lightly rinse each bottle from a tap, submerge and fill the bottle in the bleach water pail, cap and shake, drain back into the pail, rinse from the tap with warm water, place empty, inverted, caps removed, in second pail. Repeat until you have 19L/ 5 gallons of bottle capacity. Large bottles are handy in the fridge. PET plastic pop bottles can take pressure, which is helpful if you skipped the metabisulphite, some residual sugar remains in the wine and a tiny bit of fermentation continues after bottling.
Siphon the wine into the bottles. Use the dollar store sink tub to catch spills. A filling wand is handy here but you can always pinch the hose and/ or raise the receiving bottle to limit the flow while you change out bottles. It is essential to keep the supply end of the siphon away from the bottom where the sediment has collected. As the bottom of the bucket/ jug contains the shellfish goo and yeast sludge, you will sacrifice the last inch of it. The bottle right before the lee-end is yours to refrigerate, and then “baptise” your digestive system with. The effect should be noticeable but brief. As well, the yeast is rich in B complex vitamins. Some folks pay money for pills that unclog their pipes, imagine that! Enjoy some extra cheesy pizza with a glass of your new plonk. Warn friends about the sediment if you gift them with a bottle.
Congratulations! You have committed winemaking.
If you skipped killing your ferment with metabisulphite, cooling your wine in the fridge before drinking, especially in the case of lee-end bottles will “cold-crash” it, helping to settle out the remaining sediment and further clearing the wine. Pour gently, consider transferring to a second bottle after a day in the fridge, once again sacrificing the lees on the bottom of the first bottle. As with many work-a-day red wines, letting the wine “breathe” before drinking helps gas off residual esters that taste/ smell a bit weird. Even a month of aging removes these and improves the taste of considerably.
Store the other bottles in a cool dark place. A week later, release pressure on any screw top bottles just in case. You may wish to store them all, stacked in one of the 5 gallon pails if you fear continued fermentation and the dreaded “bottle bomb”. Sports drink bottles will bulge at the bottom, pop bottles can handle a fair bit of pressure.
If this has worked for you, you may aspire to glass wine bottles sealed with a corker for future batches. Finding a used corker is a good bet – lots of folks fall out of winemaking – however, once word gets around to the few friends your are still in contact with, you might find that someone knows someone, whose grandpa used to… and equipment can be borrowed. The big floor standing “portuguese” corkers are wonderful — I found one very cheap at a thrift store and it sat in my basement for years before this lockdown project finally vindicated the purchase, but there are still active local online sales sites, craigslist, kijiji, etc during lockdown, even if thrift stores are closed. The smaller two-handled corkers work, but are a real bear. Re-used corks get boiled first. A wetted cork goes in easier.
Salvaged wine bottles need to be thoroughly cleaned, scrubbed out and cleaned again. Betcha missed a ciggie butt in one of them. A pressure valve bottle washer that screws to a laundry tub tap is fun, but I wouldn’t pay more that $10 for one.
It is far easier to consider aging your wine if it is properly corked in a glass bottle, but bottling in glass with corks doubles the work. Store newly corked bottles on their side for at least the first two weeks.
Finally, you might aspire to filter your wine before bottling it. Unfortunately, using a gravity setup will take forever and expose your wine to contamination. Filter systems for wine invariably are pump-based and cost a few hundred dollars. There are interesting kludges about in blogs and forums but are beyond the scope of a noob project.
A year from now, when a Covid-19 vaccine is finally widely available, you might look back on your brief foray into winemaking fondly as you pick up a couple of interesting vintages at your local wine store. Or you might up your game, slowly upgrade your equipment, technique and recipes and shake your head remembering the noob red you started with. This has worked for me. Many roads, many journeys. I only hope that any I have counselled are pleasant, moderately enjoyed and have provided a few hours of fun diversion during trying times.
Also; don’t drink and shitpost on Twitter.
I raise my glass to you.
Mudakun, June 2020