Pea Shell, My Belle

I’ve repaired Adirondack chairs that were rotting and turned shipping pallets into adorable porch swings. But for my money (or lack thereof), peapod wine is the ultimate trash-to-treasure.

We literally are turning shells that were bound to be thrown in with JennyJack Farm’s hog slop into quite drinkable table wine. And what started as a joke — a riff on the running gag in the ’70s brit-com “The Good Life” — has become a bit of a passion.

OK, it’s actually good, we thought. Now, how can we make it better? What would the best glass of peapod wine taste like?

It’s been our quest to find out.

The stuff is a polarizer, for sure. The color can range from a pale ochre to a blush but most often settles around a clear auburn. It’s typically dry and thin. And though this can all be tinkered by varying the yeast, amount of citrus, and the age and type of peapods, not everyone has been a fan of the final product.  

Once, at a party, a girl was astounded to hear that we created alcohol from pea shells. “I am a good Southern girl,” she said, “and the only homemade wine I’ve heard of is my granny’s muscadine.” She made tracks to the kitchen to give it a try — and she never came back to give us her thoughts. But there was merlot in her glass later, so, as Depeche Mode might say, words were very unnecessary.

For every experience like that, there’s a happy story, too. Like when we caught someone taking a snapshot of the wine bottle so they could track it down in the store, or the time we took three bottles of different homemade wine to a pot-luck and an actual argument ensued over which was the best.

Oh, and drawing the labels has been a lot of fun, too.

Considering all we’ve learned in our occasional winemakery over the past four years, and the surging popularity of “natural wines” (made without added sulfites, like ours) we thought it might be good to share our latest and best recipes and a sort of rogues’ gallery of the labels. 

2014: Barnyard Peapod Wine

This is where it started for us. The name, Barnyard Peapod Wine, was a play off of both my last name, Barnes, and an incident that happened to Jenn and a group of friends at dinner in Fort Worth one night. When our friend Kristen, who knows well her wine, chose a bottle, the server pushed back with a different recommendation. “That one is a little too…” he started, snobbily, “… barnyard.” Nevertheless, she persisted. And I promise you the first bottle of our own bubbly was more barnyard than the one that restaurant begrudgingly uncorked. 

The branding, “Blue Blaze Wines,” was a short-lived homage to the markers on the Pine Mountain Trail. 

I drew the goat eating the screaming peas because, well, Jenn loves goats. And because screaming peas are more fun than docile ones, in my experience.

You can read more about our initial endeavor in this old post, though we’ve honed our process to exact specs now. I’m not sure what variety of pea this was, because our notes weren’t very specific then. They were probably zippers, if memory serves. Also, we hadn’t mastered the what-and-when of measuring specific gravity at that point, so we have no idea what the final ABV of that first batch was, though it was enough to do the job.

2016: Pinkeye Tuscadero

The next time we were able to get our hands on organic shells was when JennyJack’s Chris and Jenny grew pinkeye peas in 2016. This gave rise to the obvious pun — which was also a litmus test for the age and “coolness” of our test subjects. If they didn’t know who Pinky Tuscadero was, they could just sit on it.

We were astounded that the pink color imparted the look of red wine to the product. It might not taste like grape wine (it never will, and shouldn’t), but it kind of looked the part now.

We stuck with EC-1118 yeast at this point, a foolproof yeast that’s known for making good, dry champagne. Rather than mess with that, we focused on nailing the measurements of pods, citrus juice, sugar and the like. We tried some initial gravity measurements to determine ABV, but we never really succeeded until our fourth batch of wine, in February 2017. (We were still using the pinkeye pods from the previous year’s harvest, which we’d frozen, but only the fresh batch came out pink. Once they’d gone in the chest freezer, they made amber wine.)

When we finally nailed specific gravity measurements, the wine was regularly clocking in at an impressive 14.2 to 14.5 ABV.

There were three iterations of the label with slight variation, each using a different background color so we could ID the batches easily. We made a fourth batch in June that had a silver label and a unity-flag halo over Fonzie’s head. 

2017: Peason of the Witch

Our friends at Randle Farms ferried us about a half-bushel of pinkeye pea pods right as summer was dropping into fall last year, just in time to make and bottle up 3 gallons of what we called our “October brew.” We didn’t change anything from our standard operating procedure at this point, but we’d begun starting with less sugar, then doing the gravity readings and letting those readings tell us how much sugar to add to get to the desired initial gravity. Up til now we’d just been adding 8 pounds of sugar and hoping for the best, but in some cases that proved to be too much. And if you’ve got too much sugar, your yeast might struggle to turn it all into wine. Which is great if you like Kool-Aid.

2018: Crazy Dan D. Lyon’s Natural Wine

JennyJack stopped growing peas, because they chew up a lot of farm real estate for relatively small crop yield. Also, they stopped growing hogs, so the pea shells were no longer an incentive on that end. Randle Farms had brought that last batch of pinkeyes from a neighbor, and it was unclear if that guy could be counted on as a regular source. (Organic or naturally-grown peas are particularly important for wine making. The last thing you want on those shells is the residue of some chemical the farm used to spray the crops.)

So, in desperation, I gathered 5 quarts of dandelion flowers over the better part of an afternoon last May with the idea of making dandelion wine. It was back-breaking, and, having never made the stuff, I wasn’t sure what the results would be like. But, thanks to Ray Bradbury’s childhood and industrious country folk everywhere, there were lots of dandelion wine recipes floating about the inter-ether.

There were two big issues.

  1. I didn’t discover I was out of yeast until I already had the dandelion flowers boiled into must.
  2. I didn’t discover our town’s lone homebrew shop had closed until after I realized I was out of yeast.

I shot out a “help” message on The Facebook Toilet Network, and a friend of a friend who makes mead ponied up a packet of D-47 yeast the next day. I gave him a bottle of peapod as thanks.

But that wine-must sat for a bit longer than ideal before I could add the yeast. And my unfamiliarity with this new yeast led me to let it linger in the fermentation tank probably a few days too long. When I finally moved the liquid to a carboy, it smelled, um, — sorry, but there’s no other word for it — pukey.

At this point, there was no harm in letting the stuff run its course. We could always pour it down the drain if it didn’t improve. Dandelion wine takes a notoriously long time to age anyway. Like, a year.

But after just three months in the carboy, we were damned if the stuff hadn’t gotten much better. It was still a bit funky on the nose, but nothing like it had been. It tasted fine, if not stellar, at bottling. We went ahead with the bottling and vowed to give it a nice, long aging.

Here’s the thing, though. Just as a kick, we brought a bottle to a gathering last weekend, with some of our other concoctions. And when we cracked it open and tasted it, it was actually very good. If it improves from here, it will rival our peapod wine for flavor. We’ll keep y’all posted.

2018: Mantra Chez Nous

After that summer no-yeast scare, we ordered a bunch more EC-1118. But we were also curious to try making some wine with a different yeast to see what would happen. I wanted something maybe slightly less dry with a bit more body.

I chose a yeast called “premiere classique,” which is a stupid name that’s not nearly as interesting as its former name, Montrachet. I don’t know why folks changed the name, but I suspect there’s some French lawsuit involved.

Whatever.

When the Randles gave us another half-bushel of pinkeye shells, it was game-on for the new stuff.  Jenn came up with the great pun in homage to the original yeast’s name. We were ready to make some Mantra Chez Nous.

We used the same recipe we’d been using for our previous peapod batches, only changing the yeast and using our less-sugar-to-start-with trick.

It’s too early to judge final results, but we were both impressed with the taste at bottling, and we also cracked a bottle at that dinner party. It’s definitely sweeter and less dry than our previous wines. The bottle was downed quickly.

One of the revelers asked if we were selling the stuff. And that may be the biggest compliment of all.

Peapod wine recipe

So here’s the working recipe for what we think is our best batch of peapod wine. This makes 3 gallons of must and will yield about 14 bottles of wine. As mentioned above, source your peas as organic or certified naturally grown so you know they’re chemical free. Use organic citrus, too, since you’re using the peels. This should go without saying, but be sure to sterilize your fermentation bucket and all the other accoutrements before using them. I’m also assuming you know the basics of bottling your own wine, which I don’t cover here.

Cin-cin, sláinte, cheers and all that!

Ingredients

  • 1700 grams pea pods
  • 1-1/4 cups lemon juice (about 6 lemons)
  • 2 cups orange juice (about 5 large oranges)
  • 92 grams of orange peel*
  • 79 grams of lemon peel*
  • 15 quarts + 1 cup of water (61 cups)
  • 5 to 8 pounds of organic sugar
  • 2-2/3 tsp yeast nutrient
  • 2/3 tsp tannin
  • 1 packet of wine yeast (premiere classique, EC-1118 or D-47 will do nicely) 

*The exact amount of peels can vary. Just grate off the peels of however many oranges and lemons you needed for the citrus juice.

  1. Bring water to boil (We use our pressure canning vessel). Add pea pods and orange and lemon peel and return to boil. Boil for 30 minutes, regularly stirring and pressing down the pods.
  2. Strain out the pea pods and citrus peel, setting them aside to cool, then compost. Stir in lemon and orange juice. Allow the must to cool some, then move it to your primary fermentation bucket.
  3. Stir tannin and yeast nutrient into 1 pound of sugar to mix. Add this mix to the must and stir to dissolve. Add 4 more pounds of sugar and stir until dissolved. Measure the gravity with a hydrometer. Calculate how much additional sugar to add, if any, to reach an initial gravity of between 1.070 and 1.100. (A good rule of thumb is one cup of sugar will raise the specific gravity .018 per gallon. There are lots of great online resources, like this. And here’s a calculator app for Windows 95(!)) Add what you need and stir until dissolved. Write down that initial specific gravity. You’ll need it to determine ABV later.
  4. Check the ideal temp for your yeast. When the must is at that temp, activate your yeast and add it to the must. Cover the bucket with a cloth or a lid with some ventilation. Check it periodically. In our experience, the EC-1118 takes off that same day, while the premiere classique took better than 24 hours to start chomping down.
  5. Check the must daily for activity for the next 5-7 days. When activity tapers off (you don’t see much bubbling or hear any fizzing), siphon the must into a 3-gallon carboy — leaving the bulk of the sediment behind. Put your vapor lock on the carboy.
  6. If a substantial amount of sediment builds up on the bottom of the carboy, rerack it into another sterilized carboy. (We re-rack ours when there’s an inch or better of sediment.) Keep an eye on it for the next month or so.
  7. When the vapor lock is no longer sending up much in the way of bubbles, it’s time to take another gravity reading and bottle your wine for final aging. (I usually watch the vapor lock until I get bored. If five minutes or more passes without a bubble, you’re probably ready.)
  8. Use the initial specific gravity reading and the final gravity to calculate your wine’s ABV.


 

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