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We'll drink to that: Learn how to grow plants used for making wine or beer

Make wine and other libations with these plants.
July 29, 2016

The flavors of fine wine aren’t just the province of vineyards, although you’ll find some superb flavors at the first-ever Wine and Art Walk, August 27 and 28. Many of the tastes and aromas of the beverages we enjoy come from plants that we can grow in Midwestern gardens.

Here’s a sampling:  

A clump of purple grapes hang from a leafy vine
Grapes
A grapevine needs a large, sturdy trellis or fence in full sun and well-drained soil. To be productive, a grapevine has to be ruthlessly pruned every year to encourage new growth. The fruit grows on new twigs and each bunch of grapes needs space in the sun to ripen. Home gardeners have the best success with varieties of American native grapes, such as ‘Concord’, ‘Delaware’, and the seedless ‘Reliance’. These varieties are usually grown for eating, not fermenting, although it’s possible to make wine at home.

Small white flowers poke out from a green shrub
Sweet woodruff

The elusive herbal flavor of Riesling wine comes from sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), which often is planted as a groundcover in the Chicago area. It’s a low, fine-textured plant with deep green leaves and delicate white May blooms that will creep among taller perennials in the shade garden.

Light green hops hang from a vine
Hops

Trying your hand at home brewing? Then try growing your own hops (Humulus lupulus), the perennial vine used to flavor and preserve beer. Hops grow well in the Chicago area in light, well-drained soil in full sun. Even though the vine will likely die back to its roots each winter, it will resprout in spring and require a large trellis to support its vigorous growth. You’ll need a female vine to get flowers for beer.

Close-up on the sunny yellow flower of a dandelion
Dandelions 

Most Chicago gardeners have no trouble growing dandelions. Their yellow petals can be used for dandelion wine, a beverage that goes back to the Middle Ages in Europe (where dandelions are native plants). Dandelion wine is usually flavored with lemons or oranges. If you want to try making it, be sure to collect only dandelions that are free of pesticides and pet waste.

Green apples hang from a tree branch
Apples

Applejack or hard cider is what happens when unpasteurized apple cider is allowed to ferment, developing a low alcohol content. Any apples, no matter how tart, can be used to make cider; it was the most common use for apples until the 19th century, when sweet eating varieties were developed. Just be sure you don’t let your cider ferment too long, or you’ll have apple cider vinegar.

Want to learn more about these plants or others for your yard? Contact the Arboretum's Plant Clinic