Wild Wonderful West Virginia Elderberries with WVMountaineerJack
Harvesting Elderberries the EASY Ways.
Tips collected from www.winepress.us, www.finevinewines.com, www.winesathome.co.uk/forum/ and Mr. Jack Keller of http://winemaking.jackkeller.net/.
How to Tell if the Elderberries are Ripe:
So how do you tell if the berries are ripe before you pick them. Thats not an easy question as lots of people have different opinions on when elderberries are ripe and of course there are differences in wild vs cultivated, there are different species, there are different growing conditions, drought and rain affect the crop also. We are picking canandensis and nigra varieties in a wineyard that has drip irrigation. The birds also like our berries, if the birds haven't been in the bushes we know the berries are not ripe yet. Once they turn from green to reddish to then deep purple black we squish a few berries, the juice must be intensely red and the berry soft before it can be considered ripe. One problem with elderberries is that not all the berries one the same flower head ripen at exactly the same time so that you can have fully ripe berries and a few reddish berries and even an odd green one in the center. It has also been mentioned that some elderberries get a blush on them when they are ripe, this is really easy to see on some species from out west but we rarely see a blush on more than a few berries in the whole wineyard. I wonder if this is a species difference or a geographical difference? Our elderberries go from ripe to raisins or they just fall off with no dusting stage in between.
Different Ripening Levels of Fruit from the Same Flower Head.
20 Hard Green Unripe Berries, 21 Hard Red Unripe Berries, 22 Berries Beginning to Ripen, 23.5 Ripe Soft Berries
Juice from Unripe and Ripe Fruit from the Same Flower Head
20 Hard Green Unripe Berries, Berries are Hard and have Very Little Juice - Dont Pick These, May Make You Sick
21 Hard Red Unripe Berries, Berries are Still Hard but have Clear to Light Red Juice - Dont Pick These
22 Berries Beginning to Ripen, Skin Black, Getting Softer, Juice Turning Red - Dont Pick These
22.5 - 24 Fully Ripe Soft Berries Full of Red Juice - Pick These
You can either pick wild elderberries or grow your own. In our area the wild ones are far apart and in someone elses yard so we decided to grow our own, see links for places to buy elderberry plants. Once the berries are ripe, you have a couple of choices on how to harvest them. First, clip the entire berry cluster/flower head off making sure the berries are RIPE. Discard any green berries or red ones, you only want dark black soft berries, see Flowers page for pictures of ripe berries. Also its a good idea to knock off any bugs, especially the stink bugs.
Pick and Knock in the Bucket:
Rich, who manages a couple of allotments devoted to elderberries for wine making in London, UK. has shared a new method with us on www.Winepress.us. Rich takes the ripe fruit heads and shakes off the elderberries in a bucket, most of his elderberries are the S. Nigra varieties. Rich says the green and unripe berries stay on the stems and just the ripe berries fall into the bucket. We tried that with our berries and found they needed to be quickly knocked several times against the sides of the bucket to get the berries off. Me and the wife picked over 2 gallons of berries in 30 minutes by bucket knocking. We could have gone faster but we had a lot of bugs to pick out first. The berries were ripe, we only had to pick out a few berries that were not ripe, and very FEW stems, including very FEW of the finer small stems. This has become our preferred picking method. We also like to further sort the berries with water, see below.
Harvesting Elderberries by Knocking them in a bucket.
Sorting the Fresh Ripe Berries with Water:
Luc, one of our European members on Winepress.us, shared a very good way to sort out most of the unripe berries that have gotten into the picking bucket. The berries are washed and flushed with cold water. Most of the unripe berries will float and can be floated right out of the bucket. Most of the small stems and bugs will also float away. Though this method is not 100% effective it does get rid of most of the unripe berries. Another bonus is that the cold water chills the berries down quickly.
Washing the unripe berries, bugs, stems and other junk out with water in a bucket.
Some elderberries, especially the small ones and some wild berries dont come off very well with the knock in the bucket method. A wire baking cooling rack or even hardware cloth nailed to a wooden frame can be used to easily strip the berries off of the stems (unknown source). This method leaves a few more stems in the berries than the knocking in the bucket but is much faster than harvesting by hand. The berries can them be passed through the screen again to sort out the stems. The berries can then be sorted with water as above.
Using a screen to harvest elderberries.
Another method for the highest quality harvesting. One advantage to hand picking the berries off of the stems is that the ripe berries come off easily while the unripe green and reddish berries that havent fully ripened are harder to pull away from the stems. So its easy to sort out the green and under ripe reddish berries while picking off the soft ripe black ones. NO, YOU DO NOT PICK EACH BERRY WITH YOUR THUMB AND FOREFINGER. Instead, we take a section of the whole flower head and gently roll with our thumb against our fingers from the center to the end of each section. We are stripping multiple berries off at a time, not each one individually. This goes pretty fast watching TV in a nice comfy chair. And since the ripe ones come off easily you just dont try to roll them with your thumb hard, a really ripe flower head comes clean almost effortlessly while one with a few unripe berries takes a little more work and clues you into maybe you can leave them on the bush for a few more days. We also like to further sort the berries with water, see below.
Freeze and Knockoff:
On the www.winepress.us forum we learned you can freeze the fruit for a couple of days in a ziplock big bag or plastic container and then knock the berries off by slapping the bag against the ground until the berries are knocked off of the stems. You can then sort them through a wire mesh (thanks Jack Keller) to get rid of the bigger stems. The berries can then be used or quickly put back into gallon ziplock freezer bags and into the freezer again. Then another nut designed a sorting table to sort the elderberries from the stems using OSB (thanks Cellardweller). So we froze and meshed and sorted, adding a jigsaw to the table to get the berries to bounce a little more down the table. A few problems for us using these techniques are that the frozen berries thaw quickly so we cant use the sorting table when its warm which limits our elderberry sorting to cold days and we still get a lot of the smaller fine stems and we have to then also make sure to sort out green and red unripe elderberries and frozen bugs, especially the stink bugs. This does work if you have a large volume of berries you want to pick but cant match handpicking for quality. About 5-5.5 pounds of berries will fill up a gallon ziplock bag.
Sorting Frozen Elderberries:
If we choose the freezing method of knocking the berries off we separate out the smaller stems using a shaking sorter table. We saw the original elderberry sorting table on winepress.us/forums made by Cellar Dweller of Wisconsin. The sorting table was made from OSB board with sides, to keep the berries from jumping out, and slanted into a catch container. Cellar Dweller says that the roughest OSB board does the best job of separating the little stems from the elderberries. We added a shaking motor (jigsaw, no blade) to make the berries jiggle a little more going down the sorting table, helping separate the stems a little faster.
Some people advocate the Afro Comb or even a fork for picking off the berries. We tried the comb and found that it still pulled off the unripe fruit and some stems. We may not have been doing it correctly, but it did not seem to be worth the effort, especially comared the the above methods.
Celler Dwellers Original OSB Board Roller Elderberry Sorting Table
Courtesy of Cellerdweller and www.Winpress.us