Zen and the Art of Making Rakija
One more item was crossed off the “Belgrade bucket list” this week when I was invited to watch grape rakija (lozovaca) being made in a village outside of Fruska Gora. Fruska Gora is national parkland about an hour outside of Belgrade. It’s known for its fresh air, gorgeous scenery and wineries. Yet we weren’t there for that. We were there for the rakija.
My friend Lisa, a professional photographer working in Serbia, invited me to join her to document the experience. I don’t have her photography skills, so I can only guess I was chosen for my drinking skills. Whatever it takes, people. We arrived just as the grapes were being poured into the distiller.
The grapes had been sitting in barrels for about a week. Normally they might ferment a bit longer, but Serbia’s late summer moved the natural process along quickly. This weather has also been great for wineries—the drought forced grapes to produce more sugar than usual. Look for 2011 vintage wines over the next couple of years. We couldn’t wait that long, so we tasted some of the young wine that our gracious host provided.
I normally don’t like young wine, but this tasted more like fresh grape juice with slight carbonation. The best part is that there’s nothing but fermented, pressed grapes in this pitcher. It doesn’t get any more natural than that. After a toast to the harvest, we turned our attention to the giant, slightly scary distiller. The machine looks crazy, but it’s actually pretty simple. Fermented grapes are poured into a container heated by a wood stove underneath. (Grapes go into the container closest to the camera.)
The stove must be kept very hot, and the grapes must be stirred via crank to prevent burning or sticking. A flour paste is pressed along the seams of the distiller to prevent steam escaping.
After two hours or so, the mixture becomes hot enough that it begins to boil. Steam then rises from the first container, travels along the long pipe and moves the second container, which is filled with cold water to help condense the steam and cool the liquid, which is—almost—rakija.
I say “almost rakija” because the first liter of liquid isn’t rakija at all. It’s methyl alcohol, a substance that is highly flammable and poisonous if consumed. One must wait until the methyl alcohol has been passed (the prvenac, or first batch) to start collecting the drinkable ethanol/grain alcohol. You should know when the methyl alcohol has passed because the smell (like rubbing alcohol) will make you recoil.
After the prvenac, you can start collecting the rakija in glass jars. Our host first stores rakija in glass for about three months, then decides if he wants to age the rakija in barrels or glass. If rakija is golden, it’s likely because it was stored in wood, and not necessarily because of how long it aged. Or it’s because coloring has been added–a big no-no in the homemade rakija world.
We tasted the first drinkable batch of rakija, but it was pretty harsh. It takes several months for rakija to be smooth enough to drink comfortably, and years for it to taste like the rakija I’ve come to enjoy. Good things come to those who wait, I suppose.
It was a special day of Serbian sights, tastes and sounds, but my favorite part of the day was waiting for the grapes to boil. I was happy to sit around the distiller eating fresh goat cheese and bread, sample grapes and apples from our hosts’ orchard, and smell the wood burn. It was a surprisingly meditative process that resulted in a feeling of accomplishment: making one of the oldest beverages known to man. Serbians may not practice zen, but the art of making rakija comes pretty close.
If you’d like to see Lisa’s photos that day, you’ll have to wait–but you can see other amazing shots of Serbia on her website http://lisaquinones.photoshelter.com/