It’s a hectic time of year for an urban forager like me. Everything I want to use is growing like weeds—which I guess they are. Uncultivated plants bolt quickly through the season and they go by their own schedules, not on ones we get to control by planting, pruning, or propagation. Timing is everything and it keeps me on my toes.
Thankfully elderberry bushes cut me some slack. The window for gathering elderflowers is wide and the bushes in my midst will be flowering for several weeks. As a prolific weed, elderberries grow in all sorts of places. Where they grow affects their timeline. In shady places, they bloom late and slowly. In open sunny spots they can grow so large that their blooms take awhile to advance from top to bottom. And where I live, altitude is a factor. I can head up the mountain to rewind the season back a couple of weeks. So I’m lucky to be able to brew elderflower champagne into early July.
Helpful Elderflower Champagne-Making Facts
I’ve been making elderflower champagne about four years now and I’ve learned a few things by working with a range of variables and conditions. It’s a simple process that’s very forgiving, but as with any sort of fermentation, there can be surprises. Here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way.
• Never harvest all the flowers from a single plant else it’ll bear no berries. The birds will hate you and you’ll hate yourself when it comes elderberry jelly time.
• Harvest elderflowers on a dry day in the morning before bees and wind carry away the flavor-packed pollen. Pollen is everything.
• An elderflower’s scent is sweetest and most flowery before 11AM, after that it books south toward the land of cat pee and cabbage.
• Don’t wash the flower heads. DO NOT! And don’t shake them to remove insects. If insects are a concern, lay the flowers on a white surface—paper towels are good—and the bugs will disembark.
• Trim away the leaves and stems so you mostly have the tops of flower heads. Too many green stems, and any leaves at all, can taint your brew with bitterness or sliminess.
• Work clean! Wash champagne-making vessels, utensils, and bottles with soap and scalding hot water. I dunk everything in a water and chlorine solution then rinse.
• Hold the flowers in the fermentation for 2 days, 3 days tops, then strain them out. Going longer can make the mixture slimy and not as delicate.
• Store elderflower champagne in plastic carbonated beverage bottles or in glass flip top bottles, such Lorina French lemonade bottles or Grolsch style bottles available where beer-making supplies are sold.
• Fermentation is unpredictable. If you end up with an especially active batch, soda bottles are designed to take the pressure and flip top bottles are designed to flip their tops. Other containers are likely to burst.
Makes about 6 quarts or liters
- 6 quarts (or 6 liters) water, divided
- 4 cups sugar (or 3½ cups honey)
- 10–15 large elderflower heads (5–6 inches), leaves and major stems removed
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar or cider vinegar
- 2–3 very fresh lemons, thinly sliced (add orange if you like)
- A pinch of yeast—champagne yeast is best but baking yeast will do. You may not need the yeast
- Bring 2 cups of the water to a boil and remove it from the heat. Add the sugar and stir until it’s dissolved.
- In a large non-reactive storage vessel, combine the hot sugar-water mixture with the remaining 4 quarts of cold water. Add the elderflowers, vinegar, and lemon slices—first squeezing their juice into the mixture. Stir to combine, then cover the container with a thin kitchen towel or cheesecloth. From that point on, stir the mixture every few hours, when possible, with a clean utensil.
- In 2 days, ideally, you should see the signs of active fermentation—a little foam on top, some bubbles rising when the mixture is stirred. If so, strain out the flowers and lemons. If, however, there’s no activity, add a pinch of the yeast—only a pinch—and gently stir for a minute to dissolve the yeast. Let the it ferment for another day and then strain out the solids. Don’t allow the solids to remain longer than 3 days.
- Continue to ferment the elderflower champagne, covered with a towel or cheesecloth, for 3 or 4 more days.
- Pass the champagne through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth into sterilized plastic soda bottles or glass flip top bottles (see note above). Rinse or wipe-clean the bottles and place them in a cool dry place. Drape them with a kitchen towel in the unlikely case that a container bursts.
- For the first few days, morning and evening, open the lids or flip the tops of the bottles to release pressure. Reduce the frequency as the hiss becomes less urgent. By day 4 or 5 I’m usually able to stop releasing pressure.
- Elderflower champagne mellows nicely in about 2 weeks. (That’s not to say you can’t taste a bottle after a week.) The flavor improves every week, for many months. To me, elderflower champagne hits its peak around 6 weeks—just in time to quench the dog days of summer.
- Chill elderflower champagne until it’s icy cold before serving. It’s quite refreshing mixed with club soda, or gin, or both. A crush of mint or lemon verbena is a nice touch as well.
Flat Elderflower Champagne and Second Chances
At the risk of over complication, I’ll let you in on a new process I’m testing this year. I discovered it last year after I neglected a batch of champagne that was brewing in soda bottles. I let it ferment out, meaning it turned into regular unfizzy wine. So I looked to the methode of true champenoise to rekindle the magic. By simply sprinkling some sugar (between ⅛ and ¼ teaspoon) into flip top bottles and filling them with the flat wine, I was able to reboot the batch. It turned out to be the clearest, most effervescent elderflower champagne I’ve ever made. It was a bit drier too, and long lasting—I opened the last remaining bottle in February. What a lovely reminder of summer.
So this year I’m doing two batches, one as the quick and easy method described above and another that replicates the two step fermentation process. I’ll let the second batch ferment out for 3 or 4 weeks in soda bottles, letting off gas every day until it’s tapped out, then I’ll strain it into sugar-laced bottles. If results are excellent like last year’s, this may become my go-to method…champagne-wise.