Sugarcane wine

Experiments with sugarcane wine

Long story and experimentation, that’s what this post is all about. I’ve always made wines from fruit or rice, never from fruit juice…. and then I saw this post from a survival blog which said, “What do you do with all your stashed away emergency supplies as they near their expiry dates? Use them up of course. And how would you use up the gallons of so called “natural” tetra packed grape juice? You add sugar and turn it into wine! “Believe me this took me totally by surprise. I’d never have thought that such a shortcut could be taken, although I’m sure it would lack in certain flavors and nutrition. I’m a big fan of the natural way of things. However complicated wine makers might make wine making, I prefer it the way it was once made although it is a bit of a hit & miss….

  • Organic grapes ripened on the wine

Yes, that’s all, just one ingredient. They trod them in the wine press, splitting open the grapes and bringing the yeast on the skin of the grapes in contact with the sugars and nutrients in the grapes.

But if you Google wine making on the net, you’ll almost give up, Campden tablets, yeast nutrient, fancy equipment and fancy yeast. The over-schooled always complicate everything while uneducated tribals dance around their fires with their excellent and healthy home brew stuff. With all those infernal enzymes and tame yeasts you could turn almost anything into wine. I’m not discounting all the hard work those guys put in, It’s just that I personally don’t prefer to go through all that trouble and choose the primitive way. People in the Philippines do make something called Basi which is a sugarcane wine, but the process used to make it is quite different. As another first, I did not want to boil the juice but wanted to see whether I could start with a small quantity of juice and a large quantity of yeast which could overwhelm other unwanted yeasts.

However this whole business of using so called natural bottled grape juice to make wine intrigued me. It opened my mind to a whole new world of possibilities… Delhi is a place where almost everyone from the sweeper to the executive drink fruit juice on a daily basis. Personally, I’d prefer to eat the whole fruit, I just won’t do juices, unless I have to, like when I was once in hospital. But for wines…. hmmm… it would cut down on the smell and all the fermented pulp I’d have  to throw out without alarming the neighbors.

Bel juice being sold by a street vendor. Bael is commonly called wood apple (Aegle marmelos) Bengal quince etc.
Bel juice being sold by a street vendor. Bel is commonly called wood apple here (Aegle marmelos) Bengal quince etc.

Sweet lime, pomegranate, orange, pineapple… wow! and in this season, the cheapest of them all… sugarcane juice! I knew sugarcane juice was fermented and distilled to make rum (more or less)… but a quick search on Google turns up almost nothing except one article from the Smithsonian [Read it Here] appropriately called ‘When cane juice meets yeast : Brewing in the Ecuador’. I feel that the main reason many people have not tried it out was the tedious task of extracting the juice from sugarcane for which you need a machine. Some people have also tried out cutting the cane into small pieces and then pounding it, but it yields such a pitiful amount of juice for all the hard work.

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The roadside unique motorized sugarcane juice extractor running on a single cylinder diesel thumper. The engine is the same one used for pumping water in the fields.

For me the biggest advantage was the price. Sugarcane juice sells for a paltry Rs 10/- per glass. Since I insisted that he not use ice or the lemon and mint they add while crushing the cane, he charged me Rs. 15/- for all the extra things he didn’t have to do which still worked out to Rs. 55 per liter and a paltry Rs. 550 for my 10 liter brewing bucket. Add to this the advantage of not having to add any sugar or water. 🙂 The wine is definitely not organic -but then neither is the one sold in stores, so for 9.5 liters of wine at Rs. 550, it is a steal whichever way you choose look at it!

Sourcing the juice was the easiest part. On the road there are many such weird contraptions -a slow running single cylinder diesel engine connected to the rollers of the crusher via a reduction gear to increase torque. At the end of the day, the V belt is slipped off the crusher and slipped onto the wheels effectively motorizing the cart so that he can precariously drive the tottering contraption home! It even has mud guards and a handle with a headlight although I suspect that the light is battery powered. The regular shops have crushers driven by electric motors. However both of them do have one thing in common, as they double up the crushed sugarcane repeatedly to squeeze out the last drops out of it they keep lowering the top roller and sometimes have to assist the motor or engine by cranking the fly wheel by hand. This is more true of diesel engine driven crushers as the engine would otherwise stall and cranking the beast by hand in the absence of a starter motor would be an unwanted  chore.

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Day 1

Out of necessity, I had to take another crazy gamble… ferment the wine on the go as I had no container large enough to carry 10 liters of juice. Additionally, he can’t keep other customers waiting while he churns out 10 liters for me. Since this was the first time making sugarcane wine, I didn’t dare experiment with wild yeasts as if I got it wrong, it would difficult to come to a conclusion on whether sugarcane could be successfully fermented to a good tasting wine. I had several packets of Lalvin champagne yeast lying around so I poured in a sachet into my fermenting bucket. For the first lot of sugarcane juice, I had only my Klean Kanteen 500ml flask with me, so I started out with that quantity, since sugarcane juice foams a lot after pouring. I realized when I reached home that I didn’t even have the full 500ml probably close to 420 or 450ml.

I observed a vigorous reaction the next day, the yeast just loved what was on the menu. Unfortunately it was 39 deg C inside my house and I was afraid the  wine would be ruined. The next day I added close to 2 liters of cane juice. Unfortunately after that I wasn’t able to add more juice until 10 days later. By this time it had a very strong and satisfying aroma. I also noticed a growth of a scoby on top of the liquid, which meant my wine was more or less ruined. (I thought) I discarded the scoby and let the process continue.

Today is day 11 will be adding another 2 liters of juice each for the 11th, 12th and 13th and will then let it ferment till the fermentation stops. Keep watching this post as I update my progress here.

I’m continuing this post after more than a year as last year was a mess, mum expired too and a whole lot of property transfer and other things needed to be done. There was a lot of unnecessary guilt troubling me too as I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking that I could have done better to take care of her in her last days even though I stayed with her for 2 months. The frequency of all these thoughts has finally reduced and life goes on.

 I don’t remember when I tasted the wine but the appearance of the scoby on the surface as in the preparation of Kargosak tea pointed to the fact that my “wine” had turned to vinegar. Then there was also the problem of the Delhi summer and the temperature was more or less a 38 – 39 deg C inside my house, thanks to the weird insufficiently ventilated oven that my rented house is heating up on 2 sides which are exposed to 7 hours of strong sunlight. Thanks to my landlord who opted to save money during construction.

When I finally got to taste it, a lot of things had already gone wrong. I was sent by my office on a long assignment and my air lock dried out and probably that was how the other bad stuff got in. As I poured the wine into a glass and took a sip, it was so sour that all my teeth started throbbing. I poured a little into a copper glass and the next day the copper was shining as the acid had eaten away a thin layer of the copper. I discarded a large kombucha like scoby from the top of my brew which I later regretted looking at the price of kombucha scobies on Amazon. I might use some of the wine to restart the scoby as I have developed an interest in kombucha.

In disgust, I bottled it and left it to use as vinegar. However when I tasted it in the winter, most of the sourness had disappeared and I was able to drink a decent quantity of it. It also had a good quantity of alcohol, but also had an acidic taste. I’m still using it  occasionally, but the goal now is to try this again with a small quantity… -2 batches of 2 liters of sugarcane juice.

1  : I’ll boil the juice and then cool it to room temperature and add the yeast

2 : The second lot will be left to ferment on its own, much like making sour dough

Both will be dealt with in separate posts. I’ll be adding some more pictures to this post in a few days.

After another 6 months, as I emptied my bucket as I was planning to make Mead this year, I got about 750ml of my sugarcane wine. It is very slightly sour but tastes great.

My mistake was this:

Starting the wine in the summer when indoor temperatures were in excess of 38 deg C so there was violent releases of co2 gas. Sometimes my glass airlock would be empty due to evaporation and being spewed out by the force of the gas just in the space of 8 hours. I had no other option as sugarcane juice sells only in summer. I had some mid September on the roadside and it was as brownish grey as sewage and totally tasteless and came from skinny leftover sugarcane.

As time passed by I realized some of the other things which could have contributed to  my wine turning out sour. It was the peak of summer, and the water from the airlock would evaporate quite readily. After I came back from one of my longer outstation trips, I noticed that the airlock was dry. It is quite possible that the fruit gnats that got into the wine contaminated the wine with acetobacter.

Later, I tried out a batch of grape wine which was spot on! You can find the post here! 🙂

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