Home made wine - is it safe to drink?
The short answer is Yes...
Home made wine, (and beer, mead and cider) should be every bit as wholesome as their commercially produced counterparts. Nobody ever asks if home made cakes are safe to eat, yet the question keeps coming up in regard to home made wine. Why should that be?
The main reason home made 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 wine making. This is not to say that you have to be a scientist to be a wine maker. 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 hub, 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 head the next day.
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 pin pricks. 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!
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