Thursday, January 5, 2012

Locust beer and scuppernong petards

An article about locust beer on the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute's website Ruth Ann Grissom's Locust trees (and locust beer) from Nov. 10 brought this intriguing reminiscence from reader Richard Lasater of Raleigh, recalling other Tar Heel wine-making from years gone by. Lasater's emailed note:

I’m from Durham and most of my grandfather’s generation had been raised in the country and went to Durham to keep from being farmers. He was a great fan of making locust beer
and other folk beverages. According to my father, locust beer was only slightly alcoholic, but was fizzy from fermentation. Usually, men were the beer- and wine-makers. 

North Carolina voted for Prohibition by county before WWI. When temperatures dropped into the teens, people would set out locust beer (and scuppernong wine) in shallow pans on the porch overnight to freeze. The frozen slush was then put into cheesecloth and suspended over a pan. All of the alcohol would drip out first, producing a very potent brandy. This is called freeze separation.

Pod from honey locust, used for beer
Back then, nobody had home freezers. My father said that every house in the neighborhood would be freezing locust beer or wine on a very cold night. I have read that this is also done by French Canadians using red wine or fermented maple sap. Supposedly, freeze separation doesn’t separate out the unwanted “fusel oils” that can be removed during distillation (save only the middle part of the distillate) which will cause hangovers.

My other grandmother ran a boarding house and bought chickens, butter and eggs from a farm family behind what’s now Northern Hill School on Roxboro Road. Pearl and Sam Moore had the biggest scuppernong arbor that I’ve ever seen. When I was very small, I couldn’t reach around the main vine. My grandfather would make a batch of scuppernong wine every fall using a stoneware churn. He would put a weighted plate on top of the fermenting grapes to keep out air until fermentation had stopped.

Pearl made “roasting ear wine” by taking a lot of fresh corn cobs and packing them in a stoneware churn. She would cut off the corn kernels, but not scrape the cobs. She would then fill the churn with boiling water and cover it with cheesecloth until fermentation started. Then she would put a weighted plate on the top until it quit working. The end result was clear as water, but strong! The wine was then bottled. 

One year, our family had to go to Baltimore suddenly because of a family emergency. My grandfather’s wine was in mid-ferment  Someone told him that if he could cover the churn and keep out air after it quit fermenting, the wine wouldn’t turn to vinegar. He cut a piece out of an automobile inner tube that had an air valve in it and secured it over the churn’s mouth with string and wax. After pulling out the valve stem, he connected a piece of air hose and put the other end of the hose in a bucket of water. This let the carbon dioxide from the fermenting grapes bubble out but kept out air.

When they got back a week later, they entered a dark, very quiet house. They didn’t hear the gas bubbling up from the hose. When they cut on the kitchen light, they saw that a grape hull had floated and stuck in the hose, and the piece of inner tube had swollen like a balloon. You could see through it. My grandmother told my grandfather that she wasn’t going into the kitchen to cook until he defused his bomb. When he touched it, it burst, throwing grape hulls and wine everywhere. There were grapes stuck to the ceiling.  All wine-making was thereafter banished to the coal shed.

Photo from Ruth Ann Grissom


Jumper said...

Good stories. "Freeze distillation" is the standard old method of turning hard cider (already fermented and alcoholic, a sort of apple wine) into its stronger cousin "applejack."

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