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Dining SEEN Feature Food + Drink

Custom Spirits 

Published December 23, 2015 by

Home-brewing, wine-making grows passion among local enthusiasts.

By Andrea Zarczynski | Photography by Brett Mountain

Michigan has become a destination for wine and beer aficionados in recent years. Belle’s Brewery in Kalamazoo County was ranked among the Top 50 U.S. Craft Brewing Companies by the Brewers Association, and the vast winery scene of Old Mission Peninsula in Grand Traverse County continues to welcome new labels.

Some local libation connoisseurs are choosing to bring their pastime even closer to home. Louis Finkelman of Southfield has mastered wine making and ages his own collection to enjoy with family and friends throughout the year.

“I grew up in the Bronx, and our house had grapevines in the backyard,” Finkelman said. “For years, generations of our family used the grapes to make wine and, growing up, my mom picked them to made grape jelly. I was always interested in the process of winemaking.”

Finkelman, who has also lived in California, experimented with winemaking as a teenager. He perfected the craft six years ago when he and his wife, Marilyn, successfully produced a tasty batch of mead, or honey wine. The project was spurred by an excess crop of grapes that the couple accepted from a neighbor. When Finkelman wanted to repeat the process the following year, he picked his own grapes from the vineyard at Honeyflow Farm in Dryden, which he still visits today.

Vineyard to cellar, the winemaking process takes about four months. Finkelman begins by assembling equipment and picking about 100 pounds of grapes each September. Grapes are processed through a de-stemming machine and then passed through a wine press. After collecting the juice in a bucket connected to a faucet, the fermentation phase begins.

“I like the fermentation part the most,” said Finkelman, a literature professor at Lawrence Technological University, who produces between 5-10 gallons of wine each year. “The little bubbles are as fascinating to watch as any television program. It’s fun to just sit there and watch them get bigger and bigger.”

Because Michigan grapes contain lower amounts of sugar than varieties grown in states like California, they do not typically preserve as well, Finkelman said. He bypasses the challenge by using a hydrometer to measure the sugar and yeast levels of his wine and calculate the correct amount of sugar to add in order to reach quality-level fermentation.

He then seals the bucket airtight and opens a valve located at the top for fermentation gases to escape. After several weeks, it is time to “rack,” or separate the liquid from its sediment.

Finkelman allows the liquid to clarify and begins tasting, bottling and corking sparkling clear wine by early January. His wife, a calligrapher, creates custom labels for each bottle.

“Making your own wine is the best because it’s your own!” he said. “You did it all, and when you serve it to people, it’s not good because you bought it, but because your hands turned grapes into wine. Don’t get uptight about it; try it and see what happens.”

Finkelman said people making wine at home should not aim to replicate retail varieties, rather focus on local crops that produce more complex flavors. The result, he said, is an unexpected new taste each year.

A Retirement Hobby

Keith Kennedy of Rochester Hills began making wine at home in 2005. His challenge quickly turned into a hobby, especially upon retiring from his career as an attorney.

“A friend of mine had been making wine for few years, and my wife gave me winemaking equipment as a Christmas gift in 2004, so I got started,” he said. “The process gives you a great sense of accomplishment; following a recipe and getting it right is what I like most. It’s a nice way to create a wine collection without spending a lot.”

Kennedy purchases California Winexpert brand kits to make his wine, which has reached a total of 75 batches to date. Each of his batches yields approximately 28 bottles. What makes his collection higher in quality than retail blends is that he chooses not to top off bottles with water, which he says thins out wine.

“Mostly I make red wines, for my wife and myself,” said Kennedy, who has traveled to various wineries across Michigan and California, where his daughter currently lives. “If we have family parties or company over, I enjoy sharing it with them as well.”

Kennedy reminds all winemakers to secure quality equipment and adhere to strict sanitary standards and procedures, including sanitizing bottles and equipment. Making wine from kits, about $115-$160 each, retail, takes him almost three months because he chooses to extend the standard 14-day clarification period to 21 days. He recommends aging red wines for at least six months.

“The kits contain very clear instructions. You just need to be sure that you read them all the way through,” Kennedy said. “It’s a nice hobby; it doesn’t take a lot of time, and it’s a great accomplishment when you bottle your wines, put them on a rack and just wait to drink them.”

Home Brewer Turns Pro

When it comes to beer, Kevin Debs of Oak Park spent seven years perfecting the craft before “going pro.” He enjoyed the process so much that now he is a professional head brewer for the Royal Oak Brewery. What he enjoys most about brewing at home is having the time and space to experiment.

“Usually that means new recipes and odd variations,” he said. “I like to give my beers strange names. I save labels for special occasions because it’s a pain to make and remove them. And even more of a pain to prepare the bottles.”

Debs began home brewing at age 22, after spending six months tending a Samuel Smiths pub in London. He had learned about cask ale overseas and wanted to recreate the brew at home.

“Brew days at my house start with a big breakfast,” Debs said. “Then a trip to the home brew shop for ingredients.”

First he heats strike water and mashes in barley. Depending on the variety of beer, he might add infusions to raise the temperature of the mash. After the starch converts to sugar, he must extract innumerable flavor, aroma and color compounds.

Once mash is fully converted, Debs proceeds to lauter — remove the wort from the grains — and sparge — rinse the grains with hot water to extract even more sugar and flavor. He collects about six gallons of wort and boils the mixture for one hour, then adds hops. He cools the remaining wort and adds yeast, and about 5 gallons are left to ferment.

“I make my own beer because I love the strange and magical process of making beer. As a brewer, I am tapping into a tradition that stretches back to before the building of the pyramids. A weird and semi-scientific tradition,” said Debs, who added that anyone can learn to make beer at home. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed by fancy brewer equipment nowadays, but all that is just extra stuff. You can make beer without any technology, and people did exactly that for thousands of years.”

Legally, home brewers are limited to producing 200 gallons of beer per year. Many Michigan brewers avoid producing during summer months to avoid the challenges of erratic temperature changes. Debs recommends home brewers read the book The Complete Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian, which he calls the bible of American home brewing.

“A lot has changed since that book was released,” he said. “When Papazian wrote the book, bleach was the only sanitizer available … but this text remains the most useful and comforting source of knowledge for home brewers. Papazian’s famous quote is, ‘Relax, don’t worry, and have a home brew.’ This is advice you can follow always.”

An English bitter can ferment in just two weeks, though he said that even a 7-month-old stout can taste good. Beer makers always welcome equipment upgrades, he added, though all that is required is one 5-gallon kettle, one 7-gallon bucket and a well-equipped kitchen.

“Bring a craft beer to a party, and people will get excited,” he said. “Bring your own beer to a party, and people will get so much more excited; they’ll corner you and ask questions and want to shake your hand.” NS

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