I can think of no better way to celebrate a new year and a new website design than with a glass or two of durian wine.
A toast to you, your durian adventures, and a good durian season this 2016!
Do you know how hard it’s been not to spill about this? I wanted to post about durian wine about five minutes before the sheeny stuff touched my lips, when grad student Lu Yuyun was still pouring it out of it’s plastic lab container into wine glasses that looked totally out of place on the cafeteria-style laboratory tray.
But I had to wait, because the Wine Enthusiast accepted my ensuing article (here it finally is) and asked me to wait to publish my blog post until the issue came out. Oh, contracts.
A wine actually made out of durian is perhaps one of the most unlikely foods I’d ever heard of. Durian is creamy, thick and fatty. Drinking a durian sounds as implausible as making wine out of avocado (oh wait, that’s a thing).
Then there’s the whole durian+alcohol=death equation. If just combining durian and alcohol is dangerous, what about a bottle of alcohol made from durian?
So when a reader of this blog passed me Lu Yuyun’s new study on durian wine, I got in touch with the research group at National University of Singapore (NUS) and inquired if they could pretty please let a depraved durian addict (ahem) give the wine a try.
They were kind enough to oblige, and so one very hot day last August my friend Austin and I trotted across campus for our own private wine tasting.
The Durian Vintners
The Food Science and Technology Program is on the fifth floor of an enormous grey building on the campus of the university.
Lu Yuyun met us at the door. He’s a tall thin PhD student from China studying Food Science and specializing in fermentation and microbiology.
Here’s something I hadn’t considered: there are scientists whose whole job is to add microscopic critters to our food. Not prevent them: add them. Because whether or not they give us the heebie-jeebies, bacterias and yeasts that we eat can often make us healthier and even add flavor to our food. That’s right: they create flavor.
There are whole teams of food scientists like Yuyun working on understanding how micro-organisms interact with our food to make it taste good.
This was not something I understood until we sat swirling our glasses and inhaling little puffs of sweet-durianish aromas while Yuyun explained the difficult art of choosing the right combination of yeasts to yield the best tasting durian wine.
How Durian Wine Is Made
First we need to get over our cultural obsession with Purell and face the fact that we are eating bacteria at every meal.
In fact, durian flesh is laced with several bacterias and yeasts, most notably lactobacillus durianis. Hell-to-the-yes durian has its own bacterial strains (PDF).
These bacterias are the reason why durian ferments into delicious tempoyak paste instead of rotting into brown slime, and also why some durians taste like wine or rum or have an alcoholic bite. They’re already fermenting on their own.
Yuyun just guides the process by controlling which yeasts he wants to grow and which he would rather not grow, just like vintners do with grape wine. In fact, the art and craft of flavoring wine is largely controlling the yeasts, sometimes multiples of the critters, each one adding a new aromatic bouquet to the concoction.
In the wine we tasted, Yuyun used Saccharomyces cerevisiea EC-1118 and non-Saccharomyces Biodiva. In case that means something to you. And if it doesn’t, here’s a picture to not clarify things.
The Basic Durian Wine Recipe:
1. Dilute durian flesh with water.
2. Blend until smooth, and strain out extra fibers. Test the sugar content and add extra sugar if necessary.
3. Heat the concoction pasteurize it and kill off unwanted feral yeast strains.
4. Add your packets of wine yeasts, which you can purchase on Amazon.
5. Leave it sit for 2 weeks.
6. Strain again to remove any cloudiness.
Tasting Durian Wine
In preparation for tasting durian wine, I actually took an online wine class on EdX. I may write a lot about tasting durians, but wine was a bit out of my field of familiarity. (I passed the class, but based on my scores I should probably not consider vintner as a new career move). I was glad Austin came along to taste with me, both for fun and science’s sake.
Yuyun poured the wine out of snub-topped plastic containers that looked like what my mom uses for excess shampoo and conditioner for traveling. The containers were marked in blue permanent marker.
Out tumbled a light, cream-colored white wine with 7% alcohol content.
We sniffed. We swirled. We held our glasses to the light and watched the fat ribbons of viscous liquid run down the sides. I don’t know why wine snobs do that, but I wanted this to be a legitimate wine tasting session. It looked pretty.
Meanwhile I kept thinking there was something too perfect about the sophisticated wine glasses sitting on a Food Grade Only cafeteria-tray under the white industrial lights. I found the incongruity amusing, just like durian.
Finally we sipped. Slowly. Judgmentally.
It was pleasantly sweet and bright, with a bouquet like sugar cookies and cabbage. I asked Austin what he thought.
“It has a vegetal quality. Some grape wines taste almost grassy, this takes it to an extreme, like wheat grass!” he said, displaying a deeper familiarity with wine flavors than I currently have.
We mulled over the wine while we chatted, but try as I might I couldn’t quite catch the durian-ness of it. There was an elusive quality about it, something familiarly funky, but so subtle that if I hadn’t already known it was durian-derived I would have just assumed it was a slightly woody-tasting white wine.
I thought anyone would like this wine, durian lover or not.
As if confirming my thought, Yuyun said: “I don’t like durian, but I like the wine.”
So what about the durian+alcohol=death thing?
This is one of the most interesting things about durian wine.
Sulfur compounds in durian are the suspected culprits for the discomfort and death when durian is combined with alcohol. (I wrote a whole post about durian and alcohol studies).
These sulfur compounds almost disappear during the fermentation.
How does this happen? Where do those sulfur compounds go? What do the yeasts do with the sulfurs? These are questions to be answered with further research.
Why Research Durian Wine?
One of my favorite blogs, Stinky Spikes, was the first to spot that my article was alive and well on the Wine Enthusiast (thank you!). I actually hadn’t noticed.
In her blog post about my article, she questions whether research money should be spent on a random and seemingly pointless project like durian wine. With so many problems in the world, why waste research funds on making wine out of durian?
Here’s why durian wine has possible commercial value (ie why it’s funded):
Durians tend to drop all at once, creating a surplus that is amazing for durian piggies like me but not so awesome for people who need to earn a living growing and selling durians.
This surplus, combined with durian’s super short shelf-life, means that thousands of calories of durians are simply composted every year for want of a way to store them to eat later.
If you travel in the height of the season out to rural areas, like in interior Kalimantan or Sumatra, durians are worth literally pennies. When I went to Lanjak, I was buying durians for $0.25 US per fruit. Crazy right?
Growers in Malaysia and Thailand face a similar transport, shipping and surplus issues that just aren’t as extreme as in Lanjak.
A durian wine would give growers a way to store and sell their surplus durians, and a delicious new way to enjoy durian flavor that can be shipped around the world for durian lovers everywhere to enjoy.
Durian wine is still under development by the NUS. Currently they only make 6 liters at a time, which is a far cry from commercial production. It’s probably going to be a long time before durian wine hits supermarkets and wine stores.
Unless of course, some of you get creative (send me some).
Most exciting is the concept that durian flavor and aroma could be controlled through microorganisms.
I imagine durian-wine craftsmen who isolate the particular flavors we durian lovers enjoy so much (chocolate, coffee, vanilla) while shedding the flavors we don’t love so much (farts, anyone)? It could be heaven without the hell.
Maybe it’s just wrong to strip durian of its yin and yang. But maybe durian wine, with 7% alcohol content, has just enough naughty to be true to durian in a new, shelf-stable way.