Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dandelion Wine, Part V (Yeasts)

A former bandmate of ours, electric-bass player Mark Marti, reports that he is engaged in dandelion-farming -- an admirable place to begin to exercise one's agricultural predilections. This has made him curious about appropriate yeast for relevant happiness-inducing activity, and about recipes. More about recipes later.

Last year I made the transition away from my early experiments, and adopted more contemporary practices in winemaking. The main transition seems to have fallen, by accident, between the two dandelion wine batches of last year, which were Wine 21 and Wine 22. The former, No. 21, was my last "Victorian" wine. I had spent the previous year exploring the question: How did the 19th century farmers and householders make wine? Plainly they did make wine; and likely they did so with plain methods, using materials easily at hand. Early recipes call for "yeast" (except for those recipes that rely on airborne or fruitborne yeasts, and that therefor mention no such thing) -- and plain-old yeast was available at the grocery or general store as prepared by Red Star or other commercial outfits. (One old hardware organizer, or index, that I have in the tool room is made of a wooden box, with drawers inserted that were fashioned from Red Star yeast tins.)

Farmer and household winemakers likely used store-bought yeast cakes. Me ... I took what was at hand, as they did -- which meant I used dry yeast.

The flaw in this quasi-historical reconstruction is that brewing yeasts were likely available in the latter 1800s. My thought, however, was that it was not as readily available -- a situation that remains the case today; and so my question continued to be the same. Was making such a wine doable? And if doable, was it palatable? In all cases the first answer is Yes. In some cases, the second answer is Yes. Store yeast produces an acceptable wine without an undesirable yeasty flavor in the spring wines -- the flower wines, the rhubarb wines. Once you move later into the season, and into fruit winemaking, the situation gets shakier. I am inclined to think it is because the spring wines rely heavily upon added sugar, honey, whathaveyou, to feed the yeast -- whereas the summer wines contain some or all natural fruit sugars. Store yeast may be insufficiently robust to deal with fruit, making it less able to compete against and overwhelm the efforts of natural plantborne and airborne yeasts.

What also seems the case is that grocery-store yeast has less tolerance for an alcoholic environment -- so that it gives up the job before the job is done. In the fruit wines, this results in slightly too-sweet wines -- which fall outside the class of palatable drinking, to our tastes.

The vigor of contemporary wine yeasts is unquestionable. Two or three days after the start of this year's first two dandelion wines, I gave them their morning stirrings with a wooden spoon, causing the batches to release zillions of tiny carbon-dioxide bubbles. They set off a loud fizzing. Even after I had put the covers back on the crocks and walked across the room I distinctly heard the bubbles.

In Wine 21, in any case, I used store yeast. In Wine 22 I used Montrachet yeast -- I believe we had just received our first order of "real" winemaking supplies. Montrachet seems to be a dependable, somewhat all-purpose wine yeast, quite suitable for flower wines. Our friend Terry Garey, a Minneapolis poet and winemaker, in her recipes often calls for Montrachet, as I recall.

I have been planning to try a batch or two with a different yeast. It may yet happen this spring. So far, however, all our dandelion wines have put Montrachet yeast to work at producing the daemon alcohol.

Cheers ...

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