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This. I wish I could bottle this smell and send it your way. But if you’ve been in our corner of the state recently, you know the exact smell I’m talking about — Concord grapes. Thousands of grape-d acres perfume Michigan’s Sunset Coast in the early days of October.

So here we are in the heart of fall, smelling all the grapes we can. 

When my family first moved to our Bridgman farmstead with 10 acres of Concords and two acres of Niagaras, I was left thinking, what do we do with all of these grapes?  Thankfully, Totzke Farms Agricultural Service stepped in to tend and harvest our vineyard — and then sell to Welch’s Products. But even after harvest, there are still so many purple clusters hanging from the vine.  And, by golly, I thought, they will not go to waste

So we juiced and canned. Here’s how my family has made juicing grapes our delicious Sunset Coast tradition.

The Grape Harvest + Cleaning

There are plenty of U-pick grape stands in our area for you to choose from: Stovers Farms, Dinges Farms, Lazy Acres Vineyards,  and Lemon Creek Winery and Farm Market. And the list goes on. We, of course, pick from our own vineyard. The picking, my kids will say, is the fun part — the best part. They run from row to row, peeling and tearing the clusters from the thick shoots, and dump handfuls of Concords carelessly into 5-gallon buckets. If it weren’t for the fun of picking, I probably wouldn’t even bother making my own homemade juice. U-pick is central to any harvest fun, in my opinion. Typically, the kids and I will pick two or three buckets-full (maybe 25 lbs.) to yield a healthy supply of grape juice for the winter (and plenty of juice for grape jelly making, too). 

Next, we haul the buckets of grapes to the back patio where the kids and I (but mostly the kids) strip the grape clusters from their stems. With wide smiles of mom’s-letting-me-get-all-kinds-of-messy delight, they yank the grapes from stems, unintentionally squeezing out grape guts. Once their paws are all purpled, they strong-arm the buckets of grapes into a large colander and rinse them with the hose — we are on a farm, after all.  This way, we avoid purply stains on countertops (although, it’s probably inevitable at some point in the process). Once rinsed, strained and dried, the grapes end up in brown paper grocery bags and carry them inside to be juiced. 

Concords dive into the steam pot, ready for a new, juicier look.

The Grape Juicing

This is where the world of professional juicers diverge. You’re either a steam-and-sieve-kind-of juicer or a pot-and-strain juicer. My family is all about easy peasy, so we choose to pot-and-strain our grapes. The three-tiered steamer is a bit of an investment, but totally worth it if you plan on making this kind of canning an annual fall-harvest holiday. 

Next, the entire family gathers in the kitchen to juice the grapes.  We prep the jars, fill the pot with water, pile the grapes on top and wait for the juice to appear in the clear tube, pinched off with a clamp. When the deep purple settles for the first time in the tube, the kids squeal and fight for first in line to help pour.  Carefully, we take turns funneling the new juice into hot jars. My mom and I take turns sealing and readying the juice for its long winter nap in the basement. 

Side note: everything I learned about this method and all of these directions, I learned from my mom. I am by no means a canning queen or Martha Stewart (on the contrary, I’m very much the opposite). So, folks, the lesson here is that if I can do it, then anyone–and I mean anyone–can do it. 

Ready. Set. Juice. 

Pure Michigan, ready to drink.

Homemade Grape Juice Recipe + Directions

  • Two brown grocery bags–or more– of fresh juicing grapes (Concord, Niagara, or any other fragrant grape variety) 
  • Water
  • Steam Juicer 
  • Mason Jars

Makes 6 Quarts 

Directions: 

  1. Rinse the grapes. With stems or without stems — we found it doesn’t matter. (But letting kids pluck stems from the grape is the best way to keep them busy for at least an hour. You’re welcome!). 
  2. Prepare for the canning process by preheating the oven to 350 degrees. 
  3. Fill the bottom of the three-tiered pot with water one inch from the top. Heat on the stove and bring it to a rolling boil. In the meantime, fill the top tier of the pot with as many grapes as you can squeeze in. Cover with a lid. It usually takes about an hour to cook all the grapes down and extract the juice from the center tier. 
  4. While the grapes cook down, prepare the Mason Jars for canning. Twist the lids and rims off the jars and set them aside. Place the lids in a saucepan with an inch of near-boiling water. Keep the lids hot until you’re ready to can the juice.  Next, fill a 9 x 13 glass pan with an inch of water. Set the jars in the pan. Slide the pan in the oven and heat the jars while the grapes are cooking. Jars should be scalding to the touch when you take them out from the oven to preserve the juice. 
  5. When the juice appears in the clear, clamped tube, place a hot-to-the-touch jar below the pot in reach of the tube. Unclamp the tube when ready and let the juice flow into the jar. Fill sterilized jars, leaving a ¼ of an inch of free space from the top. When done, clamp the tube to stop the juice. 
  6. After each jar is filled, tong out the hot lid and outer band. Immediately press the lid on and seal with outer band. (Oven mitts suggested to prevent burning hands. Ouch!). 
  7. Let the jars, once filled and sealed, sit on the counter to cool. In about an hour, you’ll hear the seals pop, indicating that the jars are fully sealed, preserving the juice. 

Store jars in a cool, dark place. They will keep for 6-12 months. 

And there you have it. With this easy canning method, anyone can bottle that smell–that taste–and savor it all year long. (Or until the kids gulp down all the grape juice reserves.) It’s fresh, local, and made with love. Made with family.  

What other harvest recipes does your family make to celebrate our SW Michigan fall?

Tracy Becker