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How to make elderberry wine

Forager, wildcrafting brewer and author Pascal Baudar shares his recipe for making elderberry wine, adapted from an old French recipe.

This is an old French recipe I discovered. It uses a bit of an unusual method, but it’s also much simpler, and honestly I like the flavor better. The standard winemaking technique involves boiling and simmering juice, which unfortunately also kills the wild yeast; thus winemakers typically add commercial yeast (wine or champagne). This recipe, however, forgoes the yeast.

This wine should end up a tad sweet. Wild yeast from elderberries can be quite interesting and variable. I’ve made batches that had a higher percentage of alcohol and were drier. Just taste the brew when it’s ready and add sugar if necessary.

Straining a bag containing elderberries

Because it uses raw juice and wild yeast, this wine is probably more prone to spoiling (it turns to a yummy, useful vinegar) than wines made with the boiling method. But so far at least, this has never happened to me. Just make sure to clean thoroughly all the equipment you use in the process.

Using elderberries

For this recipe, I’ve often used the berries from Mexican elder trees (Sambucus mexicana, sometimes considered a subspecies of European elder, S. nigra), which provide either white or black berries (they look similar to white or black grapes in terms of color). These berries are also more sugary than other elderberries, so if you live in a different state or country and are working with the European elder (S. nigra), you may want to add a bit more sugar than this recipe calls for. Or you can also just follow the amounts given here, then sample the brew when fermentation is complete and sweeten to match your taste. But note that the recipe may not be appropriate for other types of elder trees and berries.

Elderberry bush (Sambucus mexicana), native to the Central Valley in California. Photographed in early spring, with small leaves and flowers in bud. © Getty
Elderberry bush (Sambucus mexicana), native to the Central Valley in California. Photographed in early spring, with small leaves and flowers in bud. © Getty

Note that you need to pick the berries when they are fully ripe for this recipe. Unripe berries may contain cyanidin glycoside, which isn’t good for you; drinking raw elderberry juice is also not advised. Fermentation with raw juice is documented in the books Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning by the Gardeners and Farmers of Centre Terre Vivante and Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz; it’s the only method I’ve used for the last three years. The Nordic Food Lab has also done some interesting work related to the effect of fermentation on cyanogenic glycosides in elderberries.

If you’re unsure about ripeness or other issues (cyanogenic glycosides, types of elderberries, or the like), simply use the same basic recipe but boil the juice and add commercial wine yeast or wild yeast starter once the solution has cooled down. Crush all the berries and place them into a barrel with the other ingredients. Let everything rest for a month, then strain the wine into bottles.

Two hands squeezing elderberries

The ingredients listed below are my modern interpretation of the old French recipe ingredients:

  • 25kg elderberries
  • 2.5kg honey
  • 2.5kg white sugar
  • 25g salt

How to identify European elder

Ripe elderberries on a branch. © Kacege Photography/Getty
Ripe elderberries on a branch. © Kacege Photography/Getty

Both elderflowers and elderberries can be used in a variety of recipes, though a little care must be taken with the latter. The Food Standards Agency recommends cooking elderberries to destroy toxins present in the raw berries that may cause you to feel unwell.

The ripe fruits of elder trees are amongst the easiest of wild fruits to identify. Once pollinated, the flowers develop into small green berries. These gradually turn red and then purple-black when ripe. Like the flower, they are in clusters, and as they ripen, the whole cluster begins to droop as it becomes weighed down by the berries. Depending on your location in the UK, elderberries start to ripen from mid-August.

Elderberries can be used in a variety of recipes, such as spiced liqueur and hedgerow ketchup, and added to jams and crumbles.

Learn more about identifying wild fruits and how to forage sustainably.

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Ingredients

  • Elderberries 2kg
  • Granulated sugar 1kg
  • Springwater or distilled water 3.78l
  • Citric acid 5g / 1tsp, or juice of 3 lemons
  • Elderberry wild yeast already on the berries

Method

  • Step 1

    With clean hands, remove the berries from the stems, crush them, and strain the juice through a cheesecloth or sieve.

  • Step 2

    In a clean pot, combine your juice with the sugar, water, and citric acid. There’s no need to add yeast; it’s already inside the juice.

  • Step 3

    Place the mixture in a large (clean) bottle fitted with an airlock and let it ferment for 6 months, then bottle. Wait another 6 months before drinking if you have the patience (which I don’t).


Pascal Baudar is an author, wild food researcher, traditional food preservation instructor, and wild brewer living in Los Angeles. Pascal offers wildcrafting and food preservation classes through his website.

Pascal Baudar © Mia Wasilevich

This is a recipe from The Wildcrafting Brewer by Pascal Baudar, reprinted by arrangement with Chelsea Green Publishing.

The Wildcrafting Brewer

Main image: © Getty

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