Making Dandelion Mead (Honey Wine)
It is really feeling “springy” around here with trees budding and blooming, perennial herbs peeking up in the garden, and lots of wild edible plants getting green and lush and ready to eat. Although many of them are considered weeds, I love seeing how vibrant these plants are and I enjoy snacking on them as I work in the garden.
Dandelion is sometimes the bane of people who want “perfect” grassy lawns, but for a forager it can be an easy to identify and readily available food and medicine. In the spring the leaves, good raw or cooked, are a nice addition in salads, stir fries, and quiches. As the plant matures the leaves become more bitter but cooking the leaves mellows the bitterness. Medicinally, although bitter is not a common flavor in average diets, it is a healthy addition to meals. The bitter flavor stimulates the digestive process and is especially good right at the beginning of a rich meal. The root can be dried, roasted, and used as a coffee-like drink. The flowers can be battered and fried or made into dandelion wine, my favorite! Dandelion plants are high in vitamins C, K, and A, and iron and calcium.
One of the spring chores I look forward to is making Dandelion Wine. In March the early bloomers remind me that by April there will be hundreds of cheery flowers popping up in yards and gardens and fields. Some people aren’t so excited about this “yard invasion,” but I say yay for the common dandelion! I first heard of this tasty beverage from Ray Bradbury’s book, Dandelion Wine, which I read as I traveled to summer camp to be a counselor in 2002. I got all excited to try making some of my own…of course, I soon realized that the camp would not like the idea of me starting an alcohol-brewing operation in my cabin. It was a few years later that I was finally able to make my first batch of dandelion wine. It was delicious, and opening a bottle in the middle of winter is like opening a bottle of sunshine and summer warmth!
As with many traditions, there are many, many ways to make dandelion wine. Here is how I do it. Technically it is a mead–made with honey instead of grapes. The measurements are approximate and you can adjust to taste or based on the ingredients you have on hand.
~1 gal food safe crock or bucket with a lid or a cheesecloth for covering it
~A big pot
~1 gal glass jug (apple cider often comes in these jugs)
~1 airlock with a cork that fits your jug
~Mesh strainer or colander with cheesecloth
~Bottles for your finished wine (wine bottle, bale-top beer bottles, regular beer bottles, any of these can be used, just make sure you have the materials and tools to be able to seal the bottles).
~2+ quarts of Dandelion flowers, picked fresh and in the sunshine
~2-3 cups of honey (2 cups makes a dry wine, 3 cups a slightly less-dry wine; lighter—in color—honey will usually add a less distinct honey flavor and darker honeys more flavor—your choice).
~2 peeled oranges quartered or smashed
~a handful of raisins (golden or other types)
~Champagne yeast (I use about half a packet in a 1-2 gallon batch)
1) Pick the cheerful flowers, watching out for all the other creatures who are also enjoying the flowers—especially bees. Choose healthy, fresh flowers that you feel sure are clean (not your dog’s favorite pee-spot) and are not sprayed with any herbicides etc.
2) I take the flowers back to a shady spot and use a pair of scissors to cut some of the green “base” of the flower off (technically called the “receptacle”). I don’t cut off all the green—I go for a balance of getting as much of the yellow and just a little green (the more green the more bitter, but some people use all of the green so it isn’t that bad). If you started off with two quarts you will have about half as much flower material once you do this step.
3) In a big pot bring a gallon of water to boil. Turn off the heat and add the flowers, oranges , raisins, and honey. Stir well, cover, and let cool. You do NOT want to add the yeast while the mixture is hot because that can kill the little beasties.
4) Only after the mixture is cooled to room temperature can you move on to this step: I like to do this stage in a food-safe bucket or crock but I don’t like to add hot water to plastic. So once it is cool, transfer the mix to your fermenting container (it will stay in here for about a week). Add the yeast, stir well, and cover. It is important that the mixture doesn’t fill the container—a few inches of room for the expanding bubbles is enough.
5) If your cover fits tight (a bucket lid with a gasket, for example) leave it cracked to vent the build up of carbon dioxide from the fermenting process. I take the gasket out of my bucket lid, or you can tie some cheesecloth on as a lid. The important part is to keep the flies out and let the mixture vent (you want to avoid a pressure build-up that leads to an explosion or leak).
6) Stir a couple times a day and smell it and taste it too. It will change flavors throughout the process. After a couple days you should have a very bubbly mix—this is good! You’ll especially notice it when you stir the mixture. Cooler weather can slow this down—try setting the container on top of your fridge or near a heat vent if it is cold out.
7) After several days (three or four days of good strong bubbling) I strain the mixture using a mesh strainer or a colander with cheesecloth. Give the solids to your chickens or compost or trashcan and pour (a funnel helps) the liquid into your glass jug, leaving three inches of airspace at the top. Label the jug!
8) Put the airlock in the jug (make sure you have added water to the airlock) and put the whole thing somewhere with consistent-ish temperatures and where it can sit without getting disturbed—you want everything to settle and not get mixed up again.
9) After a few weeks (6-8 wks) or months (I tend to get busy and let mine sit for 3-4 months) you’ll notice your wine is very clear! Yay! The layer of particles at the bottom of the jug are the yeasts and their by-products. Give the jug a tap and watch for bubbles rising. If you see ANY Bubbles let it keep fermenting for another week or two and test again. You can hold a candle flame near one side of the jug and look through from the other side to help see if there are still small bubbles rising. You don’t want any carbon dioxide released inside your wine or beer bottles—this can lead to exploding bottles and is very dangerous.
10) If you don’t get any bubbles when you tap it, and the wine is very clear, you are ready to bottle it. I use a 1/4 clear plastic tubing from the hardware store to siphon the wine, filling the smaller bottles. Be gentle as you get to the bottom of the jug so you don’t disturb the yeast sediment (it won’t hurt but it will make your wine cloudy and maybe a little “yeasty”). My last bottle always gets a little more cloudy than the others.
11) Cap or cork your bottles and then label them with the date. I like to let the wine age for a few months so the flavors mellow and blend, but you can drink it any time. Enjoy!