Happiness in a jar. Jamie Kinsley Photo.
Sunshine in a jar: Home-brewing my own dandelion wine
Much like the times of Prohibition, the beginning of the 2020 quarantine made it hard for me to get my hands on good wine. Opening a bottle of blackberry merlot with a simple charcuterie brought bliss to those dark times. But the mandatory shelter-in-place made procuring that bottle difficult.
As an agricultural historian, I knew I could turn to the land. Looking across my backyard, I couldn’t help but notice the protruding yellow heads of dandelions. Thousands of them, in fact. I remembered speaking about how dandelions conquered the world for the 2019 York History Storytellers event, and then it dawned on me: There grew perfectly good wine-brewing saviors!
I may be an academic researcher, but I almost always lean on my family members for important things like this. They are high school educated, and know more about local customs than any book.
Turns out my Dad, Dale Tyson, made dandelion wine before with his dad, Rodney Tyson (I called him Papa, pronounced paw-paw). Dad brewed it only once, when he was eight years old and only “because I bothered the hell out of him,” Dad says referencing Papa. After three hours in the basement of their Felton home, the two had smashed dandelion pedals into a pulp, adding sugar and boiling water to a crock. After it cooled, they added yeast to kickstart the fermentation process.
Two months passed, and Dad could wait no longer. Papa poured his underage son a drink — possibly the first drink of his life. Alas, Dad’s undeveloped taste buds matched the young wine. Two sips and he had “had enough.”
With all these fun family stories, I’m ready to start concocting my first batch of bootlegged wine as I was following stay-at-home orders.
At Bailee’s Homebrew and Wine Supplies in East York,I had the privilege of meeting Bob Elmiger. Do you know the connection you feel when you’re the presence of a genuinely kind human being? That’s Elmiger. He took the time to explain every step, inflating my confidence to the point that I thought, “I just might ferment me some pedals today!”
I left with a three-gallon glass jug, a hose, and a wine kit that included the chemical ingredients and yeast. If you visit Elmiger, next door is Stony Run Brew House – a good place to learn about history alongside your happy hour beer.
Once home, I foraged for the main ingredient: dandelions. The initial harvest didn’t take long, plucking the flower heads from their stems by placing two fingers under the head. I think back to my childhood when we would chant, “Momma had a baby, and its head popped off.” Now that I read those lyrics, what a morbid rhyme!
This process made me think of my forefathers and foremothers who also made their own alcohol during times of scarcity.
Brief history of Prohibition
The Temperance Movement blamed alcohol for society’s ills. Liquor, they believed, caused domestic violence, child neglect, crime, and poverty.
The 18th Amendment banned the manufacturer, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors. Notice how it didn’t ban drinking alcohol? Some believe that the loophole permitted politicians to drink legally if guests risked their own skin to bring booze to a party.
In 1920, the Volstead Act shut down bars, and liquor manufacturers went out of business. Or so they thought. If York Countians couldn’t find alcohol legally, they were going to make their own. Speakeasies, such as the legal one recreated below Tutoni’s, offered inebriating watering holes for those with enough connections to open the secret doors.
For those wanting to supply themselves, bootlegged alcohol derived from berries, raisins, prunes and other dried fruits, vinegar and cider, cereals and cornmeal, and vanilla extract. Some, who enjoyed living life on the edge, took to perfume, cough syrup, rubbing alcohol, and hair tonic – often tragically so because these improvised spirits caused blindness and death.
I often tell my students (I teach American history to 9th graders), that we learn both what to do and what not to do from our forefathers and foremothers.
As for my own wine, I’ll stick to natural ingredients.
Prepping the wine
My maternal grandfather, Irvin Aydelotte, passed away before I was born. Luckily for me, my family hoards things. That is how I came upon his dandelion wine recipe.
In three gallons of water, I boiled the petals along with lemon and orange zest, orange juice, and sugar. There weren’t many dandelion wine recipes out there, but many recommended letting the tea steep for 24 hours. I wanted a strong, herbal taste, so I opted to wait a day to strain the ingredients from the dandelion tea.
The final ingredient, yeast, came last. final…last redundant I watched as the little creatures came alive, consuming the sugar and replacing it with alcohol, their waste product. The liquid transformed from a passive fluid into a living thing.
I let it ferment for four weeks in the three-gallon glass jug with an air lock to keep out impurities. This was one of my favorite parts: Watching the bubbles of carbon dioxide expelled from the jug, witnessing the natural alchemy of tea to wine.
My first pour
To brew my own proved satisfying. When I cracked open the lid for the first time in the fall, it tasted like summer. Imagine weathering a snow storm, and being able to taste the sweet rays of sunshine. That is what dandelion wine is like. I opened a jar, and the aroma drifted out reminded me of walking through a field, hip high with wild flowers drifted out.
A friend of mine said her grandmother also made dandelion wine. They joke that drinking dandelion wine “doesn’t count as drinking” because the healing properties cure any maladies caused from the intoxicating liquor.
I’ll employ any excuse if it means I can sip the flowery taste of dandelion wine.
The event of wine making connected my family — father and son, grandfather and granddaughter — even beyond the grave. The wine also bound me to nature while granting refuge amid a pandemic.
One of my favorite books is Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. He focuses on the power of memories, and how to balance living with remembering. For instance, he compares memories to sitting in the sun. The experience can warm you almost from the inside, but stare at the sun too long, and you’ll lose your vision. Recall your past, but don’t allow deep memories to them to envelop you to the point of damaging the present. Slowly sipping my homemade hooch does this very thing for me.
Turns out the pandemic isn’t all bad because it ushered in a new hobby of mine, even if that hobby was born out of the pressure of a wine-less charcuterie Friday night. When I continue to drink my wine this year, I’ll think back to the fun I had home brewing for the first time.
The recipe for three gallons
This is the recipe that I concocted based off my family’s and research. I didn’t like any single recipe, so this is my own creation.
1. Mix together, boil, and let sit for 24 hours:
- 6 quarts dandelion petals (no greens)
- 1.2 pints white grape concentrate
- 3 gallons of water
- 5 oranges and 2 lemons – zest and juice
- 6 pounds of sugar (13.6 cups)
- 1/8 tsp potassium metabisulphite (kills wild yeast)
- 3/4 tsp tannin (balances out the flavor)
- 3 tbs acid blend
2. Add one yeast packet (I used Lalvin EC-1118) and 1.5 tsp of energizer. Mix together and let sit for another 24 hours.
3. Strain through cheese cloth into three gallon jug. Air lock it and let sit for three to four weeks until the bubbles stop!