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Is It Safe to Drink Homemade Wine?

A scientist turned engineer, Dave started making wine in 1970. His approach combines simplicity with sound scientific principles.

Yes, Homemade Wine Is Safe to Drink!

Homemade wine (and beer, mead and cider) should be every bit as wholesome as their commercially produced counterparts. Nobody ever asks if homemade cakes are safe to eat, yet the question keeps coming up in regard to homemade wine. Why should that be?

The main reason homemade wine gets such a bad press is that much of it is dreadful. The Internet is full of recipes and methods that are wholly unscientific and betray a total lack of understanding of the basic principles of winemaking. This is not to say that you have to be a scientist to be a winemaker. There are many good, sound recipes and methods out there, fighting their corners against the mumbo-jumbo. But it can be difficult for the beginner to distinguish between reliable, repeatable methods and the all too common hit-or-miss approach. In this short article, I'm going to list some of the give-away signs that the writer doesn't know what s/he's talking about and is best avoided in the interests of health, safety, and general well-being.


'No Yeast' Recipes

Wine contains ethyl alcohol (ethanol). This is produced by an enzyme reaction which metabolises the sugars in the juice to form ethanol and carbon dioxide. The enzymes are created and released by the live yeast.

Therefore, no yeast = no enzymes = no ethanol = no wine. The so-called 'no yeast' recipes rely on a lucky infection by natural yeasts that may be airborne or present on the fruit skins. This is a very high-risk approach. Something will certainly colonise the juice, but it may well be something very undesirable. Always introduce your choice of yeast in a controlled manner and avoid 'no yeast' recipes like the plague.

'No Acid' Recipes

The enzyme reaction described above can go horribly wrong if the juice does not contain enough fruit acid. In particular, acetaldehyde can become dominant in the end product, adversely affecting the smell and greatly increasing the risk of hangovers.

The main fruit acids are tartaric, malic and citric. Different fruit juices contain different amounts and ratios of these acids, and this is a major quality factor, but most fruit juices can produce an acceptable wine, properly handled, sometimes with the addition of a little lemon juice.

But, beware of vegetable or grain 'wines' that don't include additional fruit acids. These are almost guaranteed to turn out foul and slightly toxic. The old folk tales of Grandpa's parsnip wine that was as strong as whisky are not true. The truth is the stuff was poisonous, not strong, and gave you a raging headache the next day.


The Balloonists

When you reach the part that says 'stretch a balloon over the neck of the fermenting jar' the best thing to do is find another website. The idea is that the fermentation gases partially inflate the balloon and escape through a couple of judicious pinpricks. The trouble is that fermentation gas is not just dry CO2. It is CO2, water vapour, trace gases that are better out than in, like SO2 and H2S, and general spray from bursting bubbles. This acidic cocktail condenses on the inside surface of the balloon and drips back into the wine, often leaching rubber, colour and ghastly off flavours along the way. Not clever. (But if you absolutely must use the balloon method, substitute a condom instead. It won't help the wine, but it will inflate to an enormous talking point!)

How to Stay Safe in the Jungle

With these few examples, I've tried to show that ignoring basic science can lead to unwholesome or even dangerous results. But with a little knowledge and a good methodical approach, it is easy to produce good honest red and white table wine that, drunk in moderation, will do you nothing but good. As good a place as any to get started is my own beginners' method.

Distilling Spirits From Wine, Beer or Worse...

Don't even think about it. This is illegal for many good reasons, among them: risk of explosion and/or fire, risk of death from inhaling toxic vapours, risk of organ failure or blindness from ingesting methanol. Please don't tell me that distilling is a physical process that does not produce new compounds that were not already present in the source liquor. I know that (and I also know it is not strictly true). The fact remains that unless professionally monitored and controlled, distilling can concentrate methanol and other toxins to harmful proportions. It's not worth the risk.

Thank you for reading!

Questions & Answers

Question: is it in any way harmful to make wine in a gallon jug with grape juice, canned fruit cocktail, yeast and a condom balloon on top that is kept in brightly lit areas like the kitchen?

Answer: Check that the canned fruit cocktail is free of preservatives, sterilize the jug and avoid direct sunlight. You should be ok then.

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Question: I am fermenting my grape juice for seven days. I have managed the process carefully and scientifically. I have not tasted the wine before, but I have tasted beer. Today I tasted my wine and the smell is slightly like beer, a little sweet and strong to the taste like vodka. How can I know if my red wine is OK?

Answer: Red wine has more flavour than either beer or vodka. It is typically three times stronger (in alcohol) than beer, and one third as strong as vodka. If you have followed the process carefully it is most likely OK.

Question: It is safe to mix fruit sugar and ethanol to make some sort of liquor?

Answer: Many of the fashionable gins that have recently flooded the market are synthesized drinks made by blending distilled alcohol, water, and flavorings. But the manufacturers have access to 'safe' distilled alcohol with almost no methanol component. And they have laboratory testing facilities to ensure the quality of their product. Do you? If not, don't even think about it, if you value your sight.

Question: What toxic substances in traditional home-made wine could affect health, even leading to organ failure?

Answer: Let's be clear about this. Even the finest Chateau-bottled French wine, if drunk to excess, can lead to liver disease, kidney failure, and heart attack. But if drunk in moderation it can be a lifelong enjoyment, the perfect accompaniment to your evening meal and every social occasion. The same is true of home-made wine. But, let your nose and taste be your guide. If you are offered a wine that smells unwholesome (e.g. bad eggs, vinegar, pear drops, match smoke, rotten cabbage, burnt rubber) just say no. It may be a sign that the maker has ignored basic hygiene/sterility precautions and the wine has become infected.

Question: The juice of how many lemons should I use if I am making wine with 500 grams jaggery, with 3 liters of water?

Answer: I would suggest using the juice of two large lemons or three small ones.

Question: Is it safe to brew rice wine?

Answer: Yes, but you need a source of acidity, as there is none in the rice. This means you should use two lemons per 5 liters. There is very little fermentable sugar in rice. Add sugar at the ratio of 200 grams/ liter.

Question: If the proportions for the homemade wine's alcohol are wrong will this have any negative effects? I miscalculated and used the amount of yeast and sugar required for around 2-2.5 liters but only used a 1.5-litre bottle

Answer: If you have added enough sugar for 2.5 litres into only 1.5 litres liquid, the fermentation will stop early leaving you an over-sweet wine. Before that happens, divide it between two bottles and top both up with water to the correct dilution.

Question: How long will unopened homemade wine last?

Answer: If correctly made, carefully bottled, and properly stored, it can last for years unopened. It will improve in the bottle for about six months after which it will stay at its best for another 6 months to a year. Then it will slowly lose quality. It remains perfectly safe to drink but simply loses its freshness. I suggest drinking it when 6 to 12 months old for maximum enjoyment. If you want to mature wine for a long time it should be differently designed from the start.

Question: Is it safe to make wine from apples?

Answer: Yes. Apples are the natural ingredient for cider but can also be used to make wine. An apple/grape blend also works well. Safety comes from using a sound method and applying care and cleanliness to the process.

Question: Is it OK to drink a homemade wine made from Welch 100% juice when it’s cloudy?

Answer: Cloudiness is usually suspended yeast cells. It should clear in time but it will do you no harm if you drink it early. Of course, only drink it if it smells good.

Question: Is it okay to consume the fermented product directly after filtering?

Answer: Yes, from a safety angle, but it will taste better if you rest it for a few weeks after filtering.

Question: Is dandelion wine a real thing, and is it poisonous?

Answer: Dandelion wine is classed as a "country wine". People have made it for centuries for home consumption, but it is not usually made on a commercial scale. It is not poisonous, but to be at all wine-like, the dandelions should be used only as a flavouring to an otherwise balanced fruit juice wine. I wouldn't bother!

Question: Can I make wine from jaggery?

Answer: I have not tried, but in theory, yes you can. The taste would most likely resemble dark rum or oloroso sherry. You would need a source of fruit acid which could be grape, apple, orange or lemon juice.

Question: Is it possible to make money making homemade wine?

Answer: This depends on the laws of the land which are not everywhere the same. In UK, you are allowed to make as much wine as you like but you are not allowed to sell it without a licence, which will not be granted without evidence of strict quality control and food hygiene procedures. In other words, you would have to become a proper business. You can, of course, save money by making your own wine, as it is much cheaper than even the lowest end commercial wines. If your wine is good, you can further save money by using it as a local 'currency', to swap for goods and services, with no money changing hands. Or, you can write about it on the Internet, like me, and sit back and watch the royalties flow in... (joke!)

Question: Would home brews made in the 1970s from blackberries and gooseberries, that smell and taste fine be harmful to drink?

Answer: Your nose is your best guide, then your eyes. If it smells wholesome with no hint of spoilage, and if it is clear, with neither haze nor oiliness, then it is probably safe to sample. If the wine was full strength, 13 to 15% ABV, then it could last this length of time, if it was well bottled. However, there is no guarantee. Sample carefully, in small quantities, until satisfied it is genuinely OK.

Question: Can we use jaggery to make wine instead of refined sugar?

Answer: You can. You will need 10 to 15 % more by weight, for the same ABV. I have never tried it myself, but I suspect it might impart a caramel/rum flavor that you might or might not like in wine.

Question: I really got into making alcohol with apple, grapes, and potato skins. I found out about mead and made 35 liters and my first batch is almost going on one month. Unfortunately, I just found out I followed a Balloonist. Should I just leave my homemade wine with a balloon? Would closing the bottle with a lid not also trap acidic cocktail?

Answer: The bottle cap should be made of food-grade plastic. Also, it has a much smaller surface area than a semi-inflated balloon, so it is a lot safer. Having said that, you'll probably be fine. Not all balloons would taint the drink. You'd have to be unlucky. But next time - no balloons, ok?

Question: If a person wants to use grains to make wine, can it be done?

Answer: Yes, you can use grain as an ingredient but not on its own. You will need a source of acid, e.g. from fruit juice, and additional sugar. You will also need to break down the starch into fermentable sugar. There are ways of doing this but it's not simple. I would suggest sticking to fruit juices.

© 2011 Dave McClure

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