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Elderberries


American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) shrubs, often called simply American elders, produce an abundant amount of fruit each summer. The blue-black berries, each barely more than 1/8 inch in diameter, grow in large clusters and are a favorite of wildlife. Usually available in midsummer, the juicy clusters can be gathered by the bucketful and make excellent juice, jelly and wine. The plant grows in rich, moist soil of woodlands, stream and river banks, gullies, fencerows, and along margins of fields, right-of-ways and pastures. They grow from eastern Texas up to the southeastern corner of South Dakota, then eastward to the Atlantic and northeastward through New England and southern Canada.

Blue Elderberry

Blue Elderberry fruit and flowers

Related cousins are the blue elder (Sambucus cerulea), Mexican elder (Sambucus mexicana), black berried elder (Sambucus melanocarpa)--all of which are edible. Also, the toxic red fruited elder (Sambucus pubens) and very bitter (but not poisonous) Pacific elder (Sambucus callicarpa). All produce white or yellowish-white flowers in late spring or early summer. These develop into light green berries which change color just before ripening. The blue elder grows in the western United States from the Rockies to the Pacific, although it is also seen in extreme West Texas and New Mexico.

The cooked ripe berries of the edible elders are harmless, but raw elderberries can cause nausea if eaten in excessive quantity. Unripe berries and all parts of the elder plant itself are mildly toxic. The ripe berries are rather distasteful eaten raw, although I've heard you can develop a taste for them. Wine made from the uncooked berries is neither toxic nor distasteful. Indeed, it is delicious. Still, some people prefer to cook the berries before making wine. This renders the juice quite delicious as is, but it cerainly improves when made into wine. I do not believe there is any difference in taste between the wines made from uncooked and cooked berries, but the cooked berry wine seems more colorfast than the uncooked berry wine.

There are many recipes for fresh elderberry wine. Indeed, I have over 120 such recipes. I live in a part of Texas where elderberries are native but not as common as elsewhere, and so I usually use dried elderberries or have to travel a ways to collect them in the wild. I am now growing a few plants and should have my own crop soon.

With all the recipes I have for fresh elderberry wine, I've only included two of the better recipes below. The first recipe only uses 3 pounds of berries while the second uses 10 pounds. This is a huge difference and the wines reflect it, but both wines are very good. If at all possible, preserve the wonderful color of elderberry wine by placing the secondary fermentation vessel in a closet or other dark place. Similarly, either bottle the wine in dark bottles or store the bottles in a dark place. When you pour a glass, you'll be glad you did.


ELDERBERRY WINE (1)

Bring water to boil and stir in sugar until dissolved. Meanwhile, wash, inspect and destem the elderberries. Put them in nylon straining bag, tie closed, and put in primary. Wearing sterilized rubber gloves, mash the elderberries and cover with the boiling sugar-water. Cover and set aside to cool. When lukewarm, add acid blend, yeast nutrient and crushed Campden tablet. Cover primary and wait 12 hours, then stir in pectic enzyme. Recover primary and wait another 12 hours, then add yeast. Cover and stir daily, gently squeezing the bag to extract flavor from the berries (don't forget the gloves or you'll be sorry). Ferment 14 days, then drip drain the elderberries (don't squeeze). Combine drippings with juice and set aside overnight. Rack into secondary and fit airlock. Put in dark place to protect the color from light. Ferment two months and rack, top up and refit airlock. Repeat two months later and again two months after that. Stabilize and wait 10 days. Rack, sweeten to taste and bottle. Store bottles in dark place for one year. Then enjoy. [Adapted from Terry Garey's The Joy of Home Winemaking]


ELDERBERRY WINE (2)

Wash, destem and inspect the berries for ripeness and soundness. Put berries in a stainless steel or enameled pot with 3/4 pound of sugar and half the water. Slowly bring to boil while stirring occasionally and turn off heat. Cover and set aside to cool to room temperature. Strain berries over primary through a nylon straining bag and hang bag over primary to drip drain for two hours. Very gently press pulp to extract a little more juice, but do not overdo this. Stir in remaining sugar and dry ingredients (except yeast) and stir well to dissolve. Add enough water to bring to one gallon and add yeast. Cover primary and wait for active fermentation. Ferment 2 weeks and siphon off sediments into secondary. Top up and fit airlock. Ferment two months, rack, top up, and refit airlock. Repeat after additional two months. Stabilize, wait 10 days, rack, sweeten to taste, and bottle. Age one year before tasting. [Adapted from Julius H. Fessler's Guidelines to Practical Winemaking]


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This page was updated August 28th, 2002.