Now is a good time to make homebrewed wine and beer for those warm summer evenings. At less than 50p a bottle, it’s well worth the effort. And it’s an interesting hobby too.
Europe has had a terrible time for grapes and the grape harvest has been as much as 50% down. A wine kit can taste as good as the real thing, and it will keep your wine supply going. Or you can make your wine from natural ingredients.
English apples have also had a disastrous time, so the cider trade is suffering.
It fascinates me how I can make, for instance, four gallons of potato wine, and every demijohn will be a slightly different colour. I love to see them all blooping away, gradually clearing.
There’s a huge variety of herbs, flowers, plants, fruit and vegetables around that are perfect for transforming into wines that taste as good, if not better, than the expensive commercial wines.
You can make wine out of practically anything (except a rock!) including strawberries, apples, bananas, broad beans, carrots, potatoes, pea pods, beetroot, nettles, dandelions, roses – I’ve even seen recipes for Marijuana Wine, Deer Penis Wine, and Christmas Tree wine! I have an 18th century recipe for Viper Wine with Rosemary and Lavender if anyone wants it!
Country wines, as they’re called, seem to be a British tradition, although it’s popular in parts of the USA. I had a bottle of palatable cherry wine in a Malta restaurant, and I saw bottles of country wine in Bulgaria recently.
home-winemakingThe rest of the world throws up their arms in horror at the idea of making wine with anything except grapes. After all, the word ‘wine’ comes from ‘vine.’
You can make a decent table wine from the vine leaves, which are all thrown away. What a waste! It’s called Folly Wine.
Vines seem to have been brought to England by the Romans. They were probably weak and straggly, and they didn’t grow in the North.
In the Middle Ages, the Southerners drank wine and the Northerners drank beer and ale. With the lack of hygiene, it must all have tasted of vinegar. But not many people drank water as it was often polluted.
Everyone, including the children, must have been slightly drunk all day. They were probably never completely sober.
In the 1880s the Phylloxera louse devastated Europe’s vineyards. Only the healthiest vines survived. Most vineyards were torn up and the land was turned over to sheep and cows.
Perhaps this was when the British started to use other things instead of grapes to make their wine. It’s all made by the same basic method. You just have to ferment it to change it into alcohol.
In 1880 the Inland Revenue Act came in, charging 5 shillings for a Homebrew Licence. This was repealed by Reggie Maudling in 1960. (in my opinion one of the best things that our MPs have ever done!)
That same year, Cyril JJ Berry wrote the famous bestseller First Steps in Winemaking. It’s still in print and sold in bookshops even now, and available online of course.
It quickly sold over 3,000,000 copies worldwide, so some other nations must be making country wines.
First Steps in Winemaking was followed by other bestsellers, including Home Brewed Beers and Stouts. (Fifty Shades of Grain?)
Berry formed the first Amateur Winemakers’ Circle, in Andover. There were over 100 groups by 1961 with more than 30,000 members. He also started the Amateur Winemaker magazine.
There are still large groups that have been meeting for many years. They’re all very enthusiastic about home-made wine, as well as quality commercial wine.
CJJ Berry died in November 2002, drinking wine in the Spanish sunshine.
What a perfect way to go!
Everyone seemed to be dabbling in Homebrew from the 1960s until the 80s. My relatives were always swapping recipes.
Like a lot of people around that time, my parents started making it when they returned to the UK after a posting to Malta for several years.
They’d become used to the Colonial way of life, with an active social calendar and cheap prices. Suddenly they were hit by the cost of alcohol and lack of choice in Britain, and they didn’t go out very often in the cold climate.
My Mum read an article about home-made wine in the paper, written by another Old Colonial, and it all started from there.
Dad always had a full bucket and half a dozen demijohns of beer bubbling away, and they started making wine as well.
I remember when my Auntie made Saki and threw the rice and raisins out onto the garden. It’s the only time that I’ve seen drunk birds!
Everyone had a ginger beer plant in the pantry, which they fed daily with sugar and ginger, and the popping of bottle tops was a common sound. Very soon they all ran out of someone to pass it on to when they split it in half at the end of the week.
One amateur wine enthusiast was introduced to home-made wine as a child when he fell in his Grandad’s vat of dandelion wine!
I’ve heard old stories of country wine fermenting in the garden, complete with slugs and snails in it.
But the modern way is to keep it covered so that no air gets in.
The Number One Rule of making homebrew is cleanliness. As soon as you start, any time of the year, tiny wine flies appear from nowhere, as though from another dimension! If they get in the liquid, they can turn the lot into vinegar.
Once you have the basic equipment, it’s simple and the costs are low. A lot of the ingredients can have a double use; for instance, if you make potato wine, you boil the potatoes and use the liquid to make wine. The potatoes can be frozen and used in recipes. Anything else can be used for compost.
There are loads of berries and plants free for the picking in the countryside. You can also speak to your local farmshops. Most of them are glad to find a good home for their gluts and unsaleable goods.
I had an agreement with a roadside cherry and strawberry seller in the Summer. He called me sometimes at the end of the day and he gave me pounds of leftover or second-rate fruit. As he said, he’d only have to take it all home and throw it away.
For 1 gallon you will need a bucket with a lid, a demijohn with an airlock, a length of plastic tube, and 8 empty bottles. And that’s it!
You should try to keep a spare empty demijohn so that you can transfer the wine after the sediment collects at the bottom, or racking as it’s called.
Apart from that, you need the fruit or vegetables for the wine, plus sugar, yeast, yeast nutrient, and possibly tannin.
I keep my wines chemical-free, so I use raisins for yeast nutrient, lemon juice for citric acid, and tea for tannin.
You’ll find all the recipes you need online, with loads of variations; For instance, do you want a dry, medium or sweet wine? You can vary the taste with the amount of fruit, veg or sugar you use. You’ll also learn to vary the ingredients.
I have a mixture of cherries, blackberries and strawberries bubbling away in a demijohn.
homebrewing-kitIt’s now legal to distil your own liqueurs and spirits. Customs and Excise have relaxed the rules, as long as your Still is under a certain size. So you can buy a Still in your local Homebrew shop, or online. Poteen isn’t illegal Irish moonshine any more!
There used to be Homebrew shops everywhere. Now only a few remain. But I’ve noticed that the equipment and ingredients are slowly beginning to reappear, often in the corner of a shop, and some stores, especially Wilkinson’s, have a Homebrew section which seems to be increasing in size.
For Real Ale lovers there’s a huge selection of 40 pint beer kits, including one for alcoholic Ginger Beer. Or you can make your own the traditional way, using hops and malt.
Home-made wine has often not been taken seriously, like in The Good Life, and some people turn their noses up at it, including my neighbour, a bit of a wine snob, until I gave him a glass of my 2011 strawberry wine, which I’d siphoned into a commercial rose bottle to test him. He didn’t know the difference!

Ingredients for a gallon of wine.
3-4 lb. berries or fruit or 3-4 pints blossoms or leaves
Or liquid from 4-5 lbs potatoes or carrots, boiled.
2 ½-3 lb. sugar
½ oz dried baker’s yeast
Juice and rind of 1 lemon
1 cupful cold tea
1 gallon water
½ teaspoon yeast nutrient and pectic enzyme
Mix the yeast with a teaspoonful of sugar and a drop of warm water in a cup or small bowl.
It should froth up and fill the cup.
When you add it to the bucket after the other ingredients, make sure the water is luke-warm or cold. Extreme heat will kill the yeast.
I have a list of 234 edible flowers that can be made into wine.
This isn’t a recipe to be carefully followed. It’s a sample of how easy it is to make your own wine.
I’d love to see homemade wine make a comeback. It’s all made with natural ingredients, and it’s good for you – in moderation!
I use a lot of wine and beer in my cooking, eg coq au vin, or a nice beery steak or venison pie. So if you have a glut of vegetables after Christmas, why not make a gallon of wine with them? It’s far more fun than a stew!