Autumn Flower Champagne and Alan Titchmarsh

Andy Hamilton in a hat

Andy Hamilton man about the forest

I approached this recipe for Booze for Free in the same way that I’d approach making a curry. With a curry you know the basis and so can experiment with other ingredients without really worrying that what you get will be unedible. I’d been making elderflower champagne for years and understood that although the elderflowers were used for their yeast that other flowers might work too. I searched through my library and picked up a copy of Homemade Root Beer, Soda and Pop by Stephen Cresswell. A great book which helped inspire some the drinks in Booze for Free. I saw a recipe for dandelion Champagne which helped my thirst for experiementation (and new drinks). I decided I’d go for a walk along the river and just pick whatever edible flowers were around it was the autumn so autumn flower champagne was born.

A few months later I was teaching Alan Titchmarsh to make some on his show. The crew were a lovely bunch and watching the man himself at work I could see why he’s at the top of his game. He was a nice fella too and I’m not just saying that to be some kind of media lovely. He made me feel at ease and just before the cameras were rolling he turned to me and said, “Passion Andy, passion” and that did seem to help!

Autumn flower Champagne

The Himalayan balsam flowers add a real colour to this most flavoursome, champagne making it blush a bright pink.


3 litres/6 pints of water
1 kg/2lb sugar
1 litre/2 pints of balsam flowers
500mls/1 pint of red clover flowers
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tsp citric acid
2 tsp lemon juice
champagne yeast (as back up)


Wash the flowers to ensure that they are bug free. Place into bucket with all the other ingredients apart from sugar. Cover with half the water and give a stir. Meanwhile bring the rest of the water to the boil and stir in the sugar. Add that to the rest of the mix.

Leave with lid loosely on or a tea towel over the top occasionally returning in order to give it a stir. After two to four days it should have started to fizz when it does filter through muslin cloth into bottles. Put the bottles straight into the fridge or release the gas from them daily as they can be prone to exploding.


If the wild yeasts refuse to play ball after a couple of days then pitch a champagne yeast instead. If you can’t find enough red clover and blasam flowers experiment with any wild edible flowers, dandelion, mustard even white nettle flowers can all be used.

Andy Hamilton’s fireweed, bramble tip and Himalayan balsam wine

fireweed, brambletip and hymalyan balsam wineI love working with other home winemakers to come up with new wines and so would like to hear from you!  This month I have teamed up with Mike Griffiths from Nottinghamshire who has been making wine since before I was born. By combining a variety of edible flowers into Mike’s bramble tip wine it helps transform it from a white wine into more of a rosé. I’ve chosen to use Himalayan balsam flowers and fireweed both readily available at this time of year and both often to be found growing along riverbanks or in waste ground. Luckily this is also often the habitat for brambles (blackberry vines).

The great joy of using Himalayan balsam flowers is not only that they impart a lovely reddish-pink tinge to any wine, cordial or jam you are making, but by using them you’re also helping biodiversity. Himalayan balsam, an invasive interloper introduced by the Victorians, can produce up to 700 seeds per plant. It also fires these seeds up to 7 metres away from the plant. It grows tall enough to smother native flower species while being irresistible to bees – a double blow to biodiversity.

1 carrier-bagful of bramble tips dropped into the bucket and not particularly pressed down (The tip is the 4 or 5 inches on the end of a young bramble)
Juice of one medium sized lemon
1 cup of Himalayan balsam flowers
1 cup fireweed flowers
500g sultanas
1 kg sugar
1 teaspoon yeast nutrient
1 teaspoon general purpose wine yeast

Chop or mince the sultanas add them to a big pan with the bramble tips. Add seven pints of water and bring to the boil, cover and simmer for an hour. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved, then replace the cover and allow to cool. Strain into a fermentation bin over the flowers, stir in lemon juice, yeast nutrient and yeast.

Cover the bucket loosely and leave to ferment in a warm place until any foaming has died down. Syphon into a demijohn, top up with cold water, put under an airlock, sit back and wait.

After about three months the fermentation will have finished and the wine will be clear. Rack off into a clean demijohn (there’ll probably be a decent deposit from the sultanas), top up again and transfer to the coolest place you have in the house. After another three months bottle the wine and leave it to stand for a further six months.

Birch Sap Wine and how to tap a birch

Birch sap being collected

Birch Sap being collected

One of the first signs that spring has sprung is when small, neatly wrapped parcels of leaves start to appear on the trees. These buds indicate not only the start of spring but that the sap is rising, and the sap  from the birch can be tapped and drunk. The ambrosial birch sap need not be just a taste of early spring as it can be preserved as a wine. Any birch tree can be tapped, but ensure you tap an older tree of at least 25–30cm in diameter: any smaller and you risk damaging the tree before it has had a chance to grow. Drill a hole into the tree at a 30-degree angle facing downwards. The hole should just penetrate the bark and should be as thick as the piece of tube you will need to insert into the tree. Push the tubing right into the tree and put the other end in a bottle or demijohn. Leave for a day or two, returning twice daily to check on progress. If the sap that comes out smells and looks a bit like dog pee then the tree has been infected with a fungus and the sap should be discarded.

It can be difficult to tap a birch tree if you live in a town or city. My friend and fellow forager Fergus Drennan suggests that you climb the tree and tape or tie the demijohn to a higher branch before tapping up there. The sap rises right up the tree so you should still get a good amount.

When you have finished tapping the tree, make sure you plug up the hole. There are several ways to do this, including shoving a piece of cork into the hole and covering it with wax so you can come back on alternate years, pick the wax off, pull out the cork and tap again. Personally, when I plug a birch I find a small twig or branch underneath the tree, cut that to shape with a penknife then hammer it home with a stone. If you don’t plug a tree you leave it open to infection, which could kill it.

Birch sap does not keep very well and should be put into use as soon as possible. If refrigerated it will last for only a few days, but it can be frozen until needed.

Birch sap wine is certainly a delicacy of the woods, so much so that it is available commercially in many countries. By altering the amount of sugar used in the fermentation process you can determine how sweet or dry your wine turns out to be. This recipe will make a slightly dry wine.


4.5 litres birch sap
250ml white grape concentrate
1kg sugar
2 tsp citric acid
half tsp tannin
Hock wine yeast

Bring the sap, concentrate and sugar to the boil, remove from the heat and add the citric acid, then stir until the sugar has fully dissolved. Allow to cool to room temperature then stir in the tannin and sprinkle the yeast on. Cover loosely and leave for ten days.

Siphon into a demijohn and rack after about four weeks. Allow to ferment out before bottling and age for at least three months.

First published on the Observer Organic Allotment blog