29 April 2020

Always read the label

The juices we are most interested in are grape (for wine) and apple (for cider). These are available in most countries. Unfortunately, the presentation (packaging, labelling) varies considerably, to conform to shoppers' expectation and also to comply with local consumer-protection regulations. We need to decipher the label to extract two vital pieces of information: Does the juice contain preservatives? How much sugar is present?

Preservatives first: Some manufacturers make a virtue of stating 'no preservatives' or words to that effect. This is helpful, but there is no legal obligation to make that statement. After all, you wouldn't expect to see a claim of 'no cyanide' just because none had been added. Also, 'preservatives' might be listed as 'stabiliser' or 'anti-oxidant', or it might say 'contains sulphites'. All are to be avoided as they will inhibit fermentation. Sometimes you will see 'with added vitamin C'. This does no harm though it is unnecessary. Ideally, you are looking for pure fruit juice with nothing added. Most juices are diluted concentrates and will have been pasteurised to stabilise them. We can live with that.

Sugar content: This information should be available but sometimes has to be decoded from the label. In Europe and the Middle East it is usually presented as grams per 100 ml (so multiply by 10 to convert to the standard g/l). In America, they often quote grams per serving, where a serving is 8 fluid ounces = 240 ml (so multiply by 4.2 for g/l). To further complicate matters, sometimes the label only quotes 'total carbohydrates' in grams /100 ml. In which case, it is safe to assume that 90 to 95% of the total carbs are sugar.

Also on the label: Some naturally unsweet juices like cranberry or grapefruit might contain artificial sweeteners. Though these will not prevent fermentation of the real sugars (including any you might  add), they do not themselves ferment and would still be present in the finished wine or cider where you might find them rather intrusive.

23 April 2020

Paraglider's simple wine

This is the easiest and most reliable way to make a perfectly acceptable 'vin ordinaire'. It won't win any prizes but it will taste, smell and look like the 'real' article. We're making fresh, dry table wine, red or white, around 12.5% ABV. It contains no additives or preservatives and requires no special equipment. It takes about 4 weeks to make. Yes, I know there are websites shouting "Wine in one week!" They are rubbish, believe me!

Here we go. You will need:
  1. One 5-litre plastic drinking water container (not five separate bottles)
  2. One 2-litre plastic coke bottle, empty
  3. One plastic pouring funnel
  4. Four 1-litre cartons of red or white grape juice with no preservatives
  5. 500 grams granulated white sugar
  6. One sachet of general-purpose wine yeast
Your grape juice should be kept at room temperature, not in the fridge. If you have placed your grape juice in the fridge, take it out and let it warm to room temperature before proceeding.

Drink the 5 litres of water (!)  Most people prefer to do this over a few days. When the bottle is empty, there is no reason to rinse it out. It was full of drinking water, remember?

Day 1: 
  1. Pour about half of your first carton of grape juice into the empty 5-litre bottle.
  2. Add half a teaspoonful of wine yeast, put the screw-cap on the bottle and shake it to mix in the yeast and aerate the juice.
  3. Leave the 5-litre bottle in a warmish place, but not in direct sunlight. 
Day 2:
  1. The 5-litre bottle will have started bubbling. Add the rest of the first carton of juice and one more full carton. The 5-litre bottle is still under half full. Tighten the bottle cap then back it off half a turn. This is very important. Fermentation produces a lot of carbon dioxide gas which must be allowed to escape.
  2. Pour 500 grams granulated sugar into the empty 2-litre coke bottle. A plastic funnel makes this a lot easier. Pour cool boiled tap water or drinking water onto the sugar until the bottle is about half full (1 litre). Shake it until all the sugar is dissolved. Don't add it to the wine yet.
Day 4 or 5:
  1. Add one more carton of grape juice and all of the sugar syrup to the 5-litre bottle. The level should still be below the shoulder of the bottle. Swirl the bottle to mix in the sugar syrup.
  2. Tighten the bottle cap then back it off half a turn, as before. 
Day 10 approx:
  1. The liveliest fermentation should have eased off, so it's safe to add the last carton of juice, filling the 5-litre bottle to the bottom of the neck. 
  2. Tighten the bottle cap then back it off half a turn.
Check progress every day. As fermentation nears completion, the bubbling slows down and finally stops. Depending on temperature, this typically takes two more weeks.

When the bubbling has stopped (or at least slowed to the occasional bubble), place the bottle in the fridge (not the freezer!) and leave it for about three days. The cold will halt the fermentation and help the yeast settle to the bottom of the bottle.

After three days refrigeration, line up enough empty bottles to hold the wine. I use 1-litre plastic lemonade bottles. Very, very carefully, so as not to disturb the sediment, pour the wine into the empty bottles using the funnel. It helps to have someone else hold the bottles and move the funnel from bottle to bottle. Fill all the bottles in a single pass, without untipping the fermenting bottle. This way, you won't disturb the sediment. Cap the bottles and store in a cool dark place.

The wine can be drunk straight away, but it will improve in the bottle for several months. It's best not to consider 'laying it down' or any such nonsense. It's not that sort of wine.

20 April 2020

Paraglider's simple beer

In ex-pat land, making beer can be more problematic than either wine or cider. In fact, beer is always more difficult than the juice-based drinks because of the nature of the ingredients and the processes involved, but ex-pat conditions can exacerbate even these difficulties. In countries where beer kits are legally sold it's easy. Just buy one and follow the instructions. But where there are no kits, there is almost certainly no source of malted barley or dried hops. Additionally, even if you could source the ingredients, in alcohol-intolerant countries the unavoidable smell of boiling beer wort might easily attract unwanted attention from the authorities, if a neighbour complains.

One solution is to re-ferment commercial nonalcoholic beer which is generally available even in dry countries. Of course, this is not worth considering if real beer is available as it won't save you any money or shopping time and there is just as much to carry. But it is an option and the results can be quite good.

Nonalcoholic beer is conventionally brewed beer with the alcohol removed. In recent years, as the demand for the product has increased, the methods for removing the alcohol have become more sophisticated and do far less damage to the flavour than was previously the case. Probably the best products are German as these are subject to strict laws and must be made from only 4 ingredients: malted barley, hops, yeast and water. They are preservative-free which is essential for our purpose. So, how to proceed? ...

Method, for five litres, target ABV = 5%

(For a larger brew, simply scale up all the quantities but don't change the timescale)

  • Day 1 - Pour 1 small (330 ml) can or bottle of your 0% beer into a glass bowl. Stir in 2 tablespoons granulated sugar. The beer will froth up, which is fine. We want rid of the dissolved CO₂. Add half a teaspoon of dried yeast. Cover and leave in a warmish place.
  • Day 2 - Pour 3.3 litres (10 x 330 ml bottles, or equivalent) of 0% beer into a large bowl or bucket. Stir in 450 grams granulated sugar. When the sugar is all dissolved and frothing has subsided, add the fermenting starter from day 1. Cover and leave in a warmish place.
  • Day 3 - Pour the fermenting beer through a large funnel into a 5 litre drinking water bottle. Fit the screw-cap but loosely, so that the CO₂ can escape.
  • Days 4, 5 - As the head subsides, top up the bottle with more 0% beer to the 5 litre mark (just below the neck). Don't add more sugar. The day 2 addition is all it needs.
  • Day 6 or 7 - When bubbling has stopped or slowed to the occasional bubble, tighten the screw-cap and place the bottle in the fridge. This helps the beer to fall clear.
  • Day 8 or 9 - Carefully pour the beer into five 1-litre plastic lemonade bottles. Drop one sugar cube into each bottle and cap tightly. Place the bottles in a warmish place for three days then store in a cool, dark place until required. Chill before serving.
Note: The beer will fall clear but the final bottle fermentation means that there is bound to be a sediment in the bottle. This is completely harmless but pour carefully if you don't want it in your glass.

16 April 2020

How to cultivate natural wine yeast

In countries where dried wine yeast is unavailable the easy option is to use baker's yeast, but better results can be obtained using fresh natural yeast harvested from ripe grapes. The 'bloom' on the skin of a grape is in fact a fine film of natural grape yeast. Muscat grapes are a good source but other varieties will work too.

The procedure is simple but to minimise the risk of spoilage you should work quickly in scrupulously clean conditions, using the minimum of equipment. You will need a carton of grape juice with no preservatives, a soup bowl, a kitchen knife, a teaspoon and and a small plastic bottle of drinking water at room temperature, 200 or 250 ml is ideal.
  1. Put about ten good ripe grapes in the soup bowl. Lightly rinse them with the drinking water. Pour away the water (or drink it if you like) leaving the grapes in the bowl. 
  2. Chop the grapes fairly small then lightly crush them with the teaspoon. They should still look like chopped crushed grapes, not grape purée. 
  3. Spoon the crushed grapes into the empty water bottle. Add enough supermarket grape juice to more than cover the pulp. The bottle should be no more than half full.
  4. Replace the bottle cap and tighten it. Shake well, then loosen the cap just enough to let gases escape. Leave the bottle in a warmish place for fermentation to start.
The initial quantity of yeast on the grape skins was very small, so you should let the culture grow for at least 24 hours before using it to inoculate a new fermentation. When the time comes, where your recipe (which should be one of mine, for best results!) says "add the dried yeast", simply add instead all the fermenting juice from your culture, leaving the skins behind. Then follow the rest of the procedures normally.

Finally, having made a successful natural yeast culture once, you never need to do it again. Instead, you can simply salvage a little of the sediment from your finished wine and use that to start your next batch.

10 April 2020

Sugar to alcohol conversion chart

This chart gives you control over your ex-pat plonk production. It is the only chart of its kind you'll ever need and is so useful that I've decided to make it the footer of every page on the blog, so you'll never have to hunt for it when you need it. The footer version is the full page width and is easier to read.
Paraglider's sugar to alcohol conversion chart

  • The top pink bar shows the target ABV % of the finished product, up to a maximum of 15% which is a realistic upper limit for direct fermentation.  
  • The bottom green bar shows the corresponding sugar content in grams per litre. For example, to produce an ABV of 12%, the required sugar content is 210 g/l.
  • The middle yellow bar shows the required original gravity (OG) of the unfermented juice, assuming all the sugar was added at the start. Again, to produce an ABV of 12% the required OG is 82.

Don't worry if the concept of original gravity feels a bit confusing. I'll give it a page of its own to explain what it is and how to measure it. This page was simply to introduce the conversion chart.

Now, scroll down and admire the full size chart at the foot of this (and every) page. Don't say I'm not good to you!

08 April 2020

The supermarket is your friend

Ex-pat plonk shouldn't be a lot of work. Almost by definition, if you're in the ex-pat community, you've got a day job that probably isn't wine-making. You're likely to be living in a city apartment without a garden. You're unlikely to have a long enough contract even to contemplate cordoning off a little bit of desert for the cultivation of grapes or even dates. So, be grateful that other people have done so much of the grunt work for you.

Suppose someone presented you with several kilos of fresh apples to make cider, what would you have to do? You'd have to cut out any rotten parts, chop them into smallish chunks, crush them in a press (which you don't have), strain the juice through a muslin bag (which you don't have and an old shirt won't do), measure its gravity with a hydrometer (which you seem to have lost), add sugar if necessary, according to a look-up table (which seems to be in imperial units, unlike your kitchen scales)...  And you have to do all this very quickly to prevent oxidation, using sterilised equipment and containers to prevent contamination.

Alternatively, you can pop down to the supermarket and buy five litres of pure apple juice, safe in the knowledge that:
- The apples have been crushed in sterile conditions.
- The juice has been separated from the pulp by centrifugal filtration and is perfectly clear.
- The juice has been pasteurised to sterilise it and prevent spoilage.
- The sugar content can be read directly from the label.

Face it- you can't and shouldn't compete with the professionals. Supermarket apple juice will not make the world's best cider. The apples used to make it are not cider apples so the flavour will be different from, say, Bulmer's or Weston's. But it will be better than hashing and bashing with job lots of dubious fruit and makeshift equipment. And much easier.

07 April 2020

Paraglider's simple cider

Paraglider's simple cider is the easiest and quickest ex-pat plonk you can make. It takes only 30 seconds of 'work' by you and 4 to 7 days work by the yeast (in which you play no active part!) to produce a very palatable dry sparkling cider. Here's what you have to do:

Buy a large clear plastic flagon of apple juice, typically 1.5 to 2 litres. Make sure the label states "no preservatives". Let it sit unopened for a day to come to room temperature. (This does not constitute work!) You will also need a drinking straw.
  1. Open the flagon and completely remove the inner foil seal (if any).
  2. With the drinking straw, enjoy the top two inches (5 cm) of apple juice. Waste not, want not! (The reason for this is to make some headroom in the container.)
  3. Carefully tip half a level teaspoon of dried yeast onto the surface of the juice, but do not shake or stir.
  4. Replace the cap. Tighten it, then back it off a quarter turn to allow gas to escape.
And that is it. The yeast will quickly re-hydrate and spread over the surface of the juice. Some will sink to the bottom. Within an hour you will see the first signs of bubbles rising. The fermentation rate will increase steadily and there will be a head of froth. Carbon dioxide gas, CO₂, escapes via the loose screw-cap. This stream of CO₂ also prevents any airborne spoilage organisms from entering the vessel.

After 4 to 7 days (this depends mainly on temperature) when the fermentation has died down to the occasional bubble, tighten the cap and place the flagon in the fridge. The cold halts the fermentation and also helps the yeast to sink and settle on the bottom as a sediment.

The cider can be drunk after a day in the fridge, though it will still be a little hazy. It will clear better if you pour it carefully into a new vessel leaving the sediment behind. It is best stored in the fridge tightly capped, until required.

05 April 2020

Alcohol by volume, ABV

Alcohol by volume, ABV, is the standard way of stating the alcohol content of a drink. Older systems such as degrees proof have largely fallen into disuse and can safely be ignored. ABV is expressed as a percentage:

(volume of pure ethanol in drink) ÷ (total volume of drink) x 100%

By this formula, water has an ABV of 0%, pure ethanol has an ABV of 100% and all alcoholic drinks lie somewhere in between.

This table shows the typical ABV range of normal commercial drinks. I've not included any 'alcopops'. These are synthesised drinks designed to hook teenagers. They should never have been invented and are not worth discussing further!

ABV of commercial drinks
ABV %Products
3.0 to 4.5normal beers
4.0 to 5.5normal ciders
5.0 to 9.0premium & specialist beers
6.0 to 9.0scrumpy style ciders
9.0 to 11light table wines
12 to 14most table wines
15 to 20fortified wines (ports, sherries)
35 to 45most spirits and liqueurs
Under the table - not a good place to be!

The successful ex-pat plonk maker takes account of these norms and does not produce insipid under-strength wines or lethal over-strength beers. The idea, believe it or not, is to turn out a product that people enjoy drinking. There's a radical notion!

04 April 2020

Yeast is your friend.

Yeast is your friend. It will more than repay the care you extend towards it. Provide it with a comfortable environment and suitable nutrition and it will work its tail off for you, reproducing itself and releasing enzymes to convert all your sugars to alcohol. It will not rest until the job is done. Trust it- it's a true professional. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. What kind of yeast do we use and where do we get it?

1. Dried wine yeast. Available in sachets or small drums from any wine-making supplier or mail order, even from Amazon. There are many varieties but a basic 'All Purpose' wine yeast will answer well enough. Don't worry about it being dried. In its dried state it is dormant but it takes only minutes to re-hydrate and get to work when added to the juice.

2. Dried brewer's yeast. Brewer's yeast is a far more sensitive organism than wine yeast and has to be treated with considerable care. You can make palatable if slightly strange beer with wine yeast but the reverse is not the case. In the ex-pat plonk world brewer's yeast is probably too specialised and finicky for most amateurs.

3. Dried baking yeast. In some countries, especially in the Islamic world, wine and beer yeasts are not available but bread yeast can always be found. It will work up to a point but the results are often disappointing. It's alcohol tolerance is low and it has a sharp flavour of its own that is not ideal. Also it doesn't clear well and tends to yield cloudy drinks. It's better than nothing, but best avoided if possible.

4. Natural yeast. All yeast is natural, but here we're talking about cultivating the yeast that forms the 'bloom' on fresh grapes. This is less convenient than dried yeast and care must be taken to avoid spoilage, but the results can be very good.

5. Recovered yeast. This refers to the process of 'harvesting' yeast from the sediment of a finished brew to start a new batch. It works well and even saves a few pennies as you never have to buy more new yeast.

This post only covered the five main sources of yeast used for ex-pat plonk. I'll deal with the techniques in future posts. You see? It's worth coming back for more!

03 April 2020

What is ex-pat plonk?

Ex-pat plonk is any alcoholic beverage made by a member of the ex-pat community while living and working abroad. Some of it is pleasant enough but most of it is more or less foul. Some is even toxic. There are reasons enough for this sad situation but no valid excuses, because it is easy to make wholesome, palatable drinks that no-one need be ashamed to serve, using readily available supermarket ingredients.

I lived in the Middle East from 2002 to 2018 during which time I evolved many methods and recipes suited to the conditions and restrictions of the region. Now, back in UK and effectively grounded by the corona-virus pandemic, I've decided to devote a blog to the topic as a 'one stop shop' for the ex-pat plonk community and anyone else who fancies giving it a go.

In fact, I already have several web articles 'out there', most notably on HubPages, where over the years I have fielded thousands of questions from aspiring wine and cider makers, most of whom, it must be said, have got into difficulties only through not following my simple directions. Fortunately, I am extremely patient. . .

Thanks for reading. I hope you will enjoy the blog as it unfolds before your very eyes. Gradually.

Most viewed: