Making your own wine and cider at home is a really fun hobby. It’s easy and can save you a massive amount of money in the end. Wine making is one of the first things that I tried in the Homesteading world.
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There are a lot of simple starter kits you can buy from local wine making stores that help ease you into the process and are basically fool proof. This is helpful with you are diving in blindly, just wanting a glass of wine. Another thing I love about this hobby is that you can do it even if you live in a small apartment. You don’t need huge fields of crops, or to maintain livestock. It’s a perfect gateway activity to put you down the homesteading path.
Getting started comes down to equipment and tools. The basic knowledge will come to you over time. And if you start with kits, then all the science is laid out for you, making it easier to learn. So in this post I’ll be outlining the essential tools and equipment you’ll need to get started on your wine making adventures.
It might seem like an odd place to start this list. But when you’re doing any wine making, sanitizer will be a very good friend. The last thing you want is to get through the whole process and have spoiled wine because of not sanitizing. All of the brewing sanitizers on the market are not expensive. You want to sanitize literally everything that I’m about to list off here. Every time you use it. I use Sodium Metabisulphite, which comes as a powder and gets mixed up with water. I buy a new container of the powder, less then once a year and make plenty of wine. You don’t need much and it doesn’t leave behind a taste or smell.
The first step in the wine making process is called Primary Fermentation. This involves getting your juices all together in a container and letting the yeast go to town. Though the yeast will continue to work its magic through the whole process, at this stage it’s still young and active. This means it needs more space and a more flexible container. Primary fermentation buckets are also easier to work with at this stage since they have a nice big opening at the top. Unlike carboys which require a funnel. Carboys are useful later on, but having a good bucket to do your primary fermenting is key.
Most kits, and recipes, that you’ll find will either be for small 5L batches or for the larger 23L batches. We keep two primary fermenters handy, both 23L. This means we can do anything up to that size. You may also hear people say 5 gallons, that is Imperial gallons, which comes in to just under 23L. The Imperial/Metric numbers can be confusing, so its good practice to read through recipes fully before starting and making sure you’re using the right amounts of everything.
The next stage in the brewing process involves transferring the liquid to a secondary fermentation container which is normally a carboy. Carboys are large glass bottles. The standard that you’ll find second hand or in stores is perfect for those 23L batches. During its time in the carboy (anywhere from a few weeks with kits to many months with more complex recipes) the wine will clear, and develop its final flavour. There will still be a slow continuous fermentation, but much less active than the primary fermentation.
It’s helpful to keep two carboys on hand, even if you only ever have one batch going. A step in many wine making processes called Racking involves transferring the wine from one carboy to another. Wines will develop a sediment at the bottom of the carboys while they clear. It can help define flavours and prevent spoilage to move the cleared wine off of the sediment every couple weeks. So having the second empty carboy on hand allows you to do that.
Bungs and Airlocks
Something you will want to monitor in the wine making process is how the fermentation is progressing. But you don’t really want to be opening the container to check, because you don’t want to introduce bacteria. So instead you would use a bung and airlock.
Bung is a weird word that really just means a cork or stopper for a bottle or container. An Airlock is a water filled mechanism that allows gases to escape, without letting any bacteria or bugs in. The airlocks fit snuggly into the bungs and the two work as a team to keep bad things out. (And release some pressure.)
They do come in a few different sizes to fit onto different containers. So make sure you’ve got the right size for what you’re using. We keep two different sizes, one for our carboys and one for our primary fermenting buckets. (which have a larger hole in the tops.)
Tubing, Auto-Siphons, Thieves, & Wands
Transferring wine from one vessel to another sounds easy off the cuff but when you think about it, moving 23L of liquid cleanly and carefully can get messy. So tubes! (I’m going to say tube a lot, bear with me.)
An auto-siphon and tubing is the easiest way to transfer your wine. Auto-siphons are very simple but very clever devices. Basically, it’s a hard plastic tube inside a slightly larger plastic tube, attached to a long flexible tube. When you pump the smaller hard tube up and down inside the large one it causes suction and flow. The suction draws the wine up through the tubing and out into your next vessel. The flow will keep going without you needing to keep pumping. Meaning once you get the flow going, all you need to do is stand by while the wine jumps over to the next vessel.
When you are bottling the wine, you attach a Bottling Wand to the end of the auto-siphon. This neat little thing allows you to stop and start the auto-siphon without needing to go through the pumping again. Kind of like if you suck water into a straw and put a thumb over one end, the water stays in the straw. The Wand doesn’t break the siphon, it just pauses it and holds the wine in the tube, letting you to move the tube from bottle to bottle without spilling.
Less Magical, but still a wand.
A Wine Thief, is a cool tool all on its own. It doesn’t attach to the end of anything, but is still tube shaped, so it gets to be part of this category. Throughout the wine making process you will need to check the taste of the wine and also something called the Specific Gravity (the amount of sugar in the liquid). The thief makes this easier. You don’t want to go upsetting the wine too much by trying to lift and pour it, or by starting up the auto-siphon again. You want to just dip something in a snatch up a small amount. So, wine thief.
These look very similar to the bottling wands, only much larger. It’s a long, hard, plastic tube with a pressure sensitive trigger at the end. When you insert the thief into your liquid, the water pressure activates the trigger and the tube fills up with liquid. When you lift it out, the trigger locks, trapping the liquid inside the tube. Now you can either test the Gravity inside the tube (with a tool that we’ll talk about below) or dispense the wine into a glass to taste test.
Thermometers & Hydrometers
Thermometers are self explanatory, and are used in wine making a lot. It’s important to have your liquid at the right temperature before adding the yeast. If the liquid is too warm you can kill the yeast and if it’s too cold, the yeast won’t activate. You will also have better results if the wine is kept at specific temperatures throughout the process. This will vary based on the wines, and some are much more forgiving than others.
I’ve actually moved houses with two full carboys that had to spend a day in the summer heat and turned out just fine. You can get special floating thermometers at brewing stores, or you can use the stick on aquarium thermometers, and have them stuck right the outside of your carboys. We have both.
Hydrometers are funky looking tools used to measure the density of a liquid. In the wine making world this tells you how much sugar is left in the wine. At the beginning of the process the number will be higher because the yeast hasn’t eaten the sugar yet. At the end the number will be lower. Specific Gravity gets measured by filling the wine thief and dropping in the hydrometer. It will sink more, or less depending on how much sugar is left. You should keep a record of these numbers, because they are also how you calculate the alcohol % in your wine. I’ve only ever seen hydrometers at brewing stores and on amazon, but they aren’t expensive, and are very important.
Bottles, Corks & Caps
Collecting wine bottles is probably the easiest way to get your bottles. They won’t match if that’s important to you, and it might not be the cheapest way if you yourself are drinking through the wine in order to empty the bottles. But friends and family are usually happy to help out with this. Even in Ontario where we get a refund for returning empty booze bottles I have plenty of people willing to give up that 30 cents for the promise of a bottle of wine down the line.
I started out using only corked bottles, and they are still my preference, but you can reuse screw cap bottles at least once as long as the cap is in good condition. I find they will leak if stored on their side or are on their 2nd or 3rd use, so if I do use them, they get consumed first.
Corked bottles can be reused forever until they break or chip. You need to buy new corks every time and they require a corker to “install” the corks, but corks are cheap and the bottles last longer. Corkers can be expensive if you go for the larger Floor Corker variety, but we have used a small hand held corker for years with no problems. They are much less expensive and more space efficient.
If you want your bottles to all match, most brewing supply stores will sell bottles of all shapes and sizes. Initially, it’s a moderate investment. But since they last a long time, it is definitely money well spent. I purchased one lot of 30 bottles. If my other bottles were still in use or friends hadn’t returned theirs to me yet, it’s helpful to have them.
Wine Making is worth it, I promise!
This may all seem like a lot, but trust me, it’s not actually that much stuff. For the first three years that I was wine making I did the entire process and stored all my equipment in our basement bathroom. Which was about 6’x6’!
Making your own wine and cider is super rewarding and fun. There are all kinds of recipes out there that are easy and delicious. Good luck!
Want to try you hand at making some Hard Apple Cider? Check out our recipe here!