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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Mead Making Simplified

My latest brew, a small batch of sweet raspberry mead. We had an abundance of raspberries this year.



Making wine out of honey, a recipe for one of the simple joys of life


My mead making years began when my youngest daughter who I’ve shared many cooking adventures with wanted to make pumpkin wine, like in the Harry Potter books. It was autumn, and time for a family activity involving pumpkins. Part of our inspiration came from the last page recipe of an old cookbook called Pumpkin Happy by Erik Knud-Hansem with a forward by Pete Seeger. The recipe was for pumpkin wine or vinegar by Emilio Rodriguez Vazquez. The difference between making vinegar or wine is that for wine the fermentation MUST happen in an airtight container whereas for vinegar the container is NOT airtight.  


Being a creative just-do-it kind of person, who doesn’t worry about every little detail, I went straight to the local home brew store and asked what I needed to buy so I could make pumpkin wine and how to do it.


The first step to making anything is to gather supplies. To make my first brew I bought from my local homebrewing store: a general wine recipe pamphlet, a 5 gallon glass car boy, a fermentation water lock and stopper, a primary bucket (plastic fermenter), cheese cloth for straining any fruits added, a large food grade funnel, a hydrometer, thermometer, racking cane and tubing, GFS extract for a non-toxic sanitizer, a hand corker for corking the bottles, about 50 corks, 24 glass bottles, wine yeast. I then looked long and hard at some honey… thinking wouldn’t this whole thing be better with honey? I had just started beekeeping and didn’t have any surplus honey from my own hives just yet. A large stainless steel stockpot may also be useful for certain styles of mead. The supplies for getting started in mead making may run you $100 - $150.


You can enjoy creating various styles of honey wine. My first wine was not mead; it was made with sugar instead of honey. Pumpkin apparently has a lot of natural sugar of it’s own because that first wine came out very strong in alcohol content. It tasted pretty good to me though, enough to keep me trying improving and varying my batches each year: the raspberry-current wine of 2008, elderberry mead 2009, wild grape mead 2010, saffron mead 2011, and the lemon ginger mead in 2012. The pumpkin wine, my worst batch ever, was apparently quite drinkable and served to show me that wine and mead making is not that hard and can be a simple joy in life. Each year the seasons bring us something special. The honey, fruits, and flowers of the harvest are unique to their time and place, and in a bottle of mead the flavors of that particular year mature and ferment into something new, the spirits you have cultured from the place you live. It is very companionable to have a bubbling carboy of mysterious mead brewing in a corner of your home.


Types of mead

Mead making and wine making are basically the same process and it is just as easy to make mead as wine, in fact I would say it can be simpler with mead because you don’t have to add fruit or any kind of flavor, the honey itself gives the brew a fine flavor. I always like to try something new, so I’m always experimenting with different flavors and levels of sweetness. Traditionally wine and mead making were ways to use fruit and honey that would otherwise be wasted. If you have fruit trees or berry bushes that are giving you more than you can eat, that’s an opportunity for making melomel, a fruit mead. Mead made with grapes is called Pyment. The wild grapes I collected from the vines growing up the trees along our neighborhood road made an excellent Pyment. When mead includes spices it is called Metheglin. The saffron and the lemon ginger meads I have made are examples of this. I suppose my latest and still untried chamomile mead of 2013 would also be considered a Metheglin. Besides flavor another thing you can play around with is how sweet or dry or bubbly you want your mead to be. The more honey you add the sweeter it will be. For a five-gallon batch 10-11 lbs. of honey would be on the dry side. 12-14 lbs. of honey would be more medium, and 15-18 lbs. of honey would make a sweet mead. I’ve read a lot about how to make mead and it all sounds very complicated so instead of following any recipe I approach it the way I approach cooking generally. I read a lot of recipes, I get a general idea of the process, think about what sounds yummy and interesting, think about what I have that I can use, and then I pretty much do what I want. I’ve never made an undrinkable batch this way. In fact it seems to me my mead gets better every year. Actually the mead does get better as it ages. Be sure to save some of your bottles of mead from each year and you will be rewarded with the taste of time. Also it is fun to have a tasting with friends and family of some of the different varieties made over the years.


The “musts” of mead making: things you have to do and how I do them.


Sanitize your equipment: I don’t like bleach, which is often recommended for sanitizing, because it smells bad and is toxic. One tablespoon of regular bleach per gallon is the recommended solution for sanitizing. I have been using about 30 drops of grapefruit seed extract in five gallons of hot water to sanitize my equipment and that seems to work just fine. It is important in all stages of the process to work in a hygenic manner suitable for cooking for your family and friends. Common sense and courtesy rather than a phobia of microorganisms should be your guide, after all this is fermentation.


The fermentation lock: The purpose of the fermentation lock and stopper on the carboy is to keep oxygen out of the must as it ferments into mead. Some people fill the water lock with vodka, but I never have and find this unnecessary. It is very important that you at least put water in the water lock though. Failing to do this can cause extreme and definite mead failure. You also want the carboy to be filled up into the neck, not leaving too much air space. If you must clean out the water lock due to its becoming filled with sediment that has bubbled up do so at time when the mead is fermenting vigorously, so that the bubbles push out the oxygen that leaks in.


Temperature for your mead: Most mead making books will tell you that a consistent temperature of around seventy degrees is needed for fermentation. I have never had a place with such a consistent temperature to ferment my mead or wine, and so far my meads and wines have always come out fine. We heat with a woodstove and at night and when we are away it can get pretty cold, and sometimes in our small home a fire in the woodstove might be too much and bring the temperature up to eighty degrees. This seems not to hurt the mead. Cold temperatures will slow down or stop the fermentation, and too hot temperatures can kill the yeast or “cook” the flavor of the wine, or mead. It may be the type of wine yeasts that I choose to use allow for the variance of temperature that I have in my home 40°- 80° degrees. There are no temperature recommendations on the packages of the two types of yeast I have used:  Red Star Pasteur Champagne, and Red Star Pasteur Red. I can’t be sure how other yeasts would tolerate inconsistent temperatures.


Time: I put my mead together in the fall and let the must (the unfermented or fermenting blend of honey, water and other mead ingredients) ferment in the carboy until a convenient time in the summer for bottling, 6-9 months later. You can drink it at that point but it improves over time and a year later it will be even better.


The main ingredients: The most important and primary ingredients in your mead will be honey and water, the quality of both is very important. If your tap water tastes like chlorine you’ll want to find a source of pleasant tasting water to use for your mead. The honey you use will also give it’s own special flavor, so use honey from your own bees or pure honey from a source you trust that tastes good to you. Also I recommend NOT heating the honey. Heat destroys some of the subtle floral flavor and aroma of honey. If you must heat honey always use as low a heat as possible.



My recipe for Sweet Wild Grape Pyment:


Pick wild grapes stems and all and wash in cold water. Pick out any rotten or dried up grapes. Next, put grapes stems and all in an enamel pot and cover with water. Bring just barely to boiling. Let cool. Use an empty wine bottle to crush the grapes in the pot. Pour off grape juice to use later. Compost the pulp left behind.


Sterilize the utensils you plan to use in making the mead with GSE grapefruit seed liquid concentrate.



16-19 lbs of honey

4 gallons of water, approximately, or enough to top off the 5-gallon carboy

Red Star Pasteur Champagne yeast

Wild grapes, I used a few cups of these


Heat 1 gallon of water in large pot. Do not boil. Turn off heat. Add half of the honey to this and stir until dissolved. Pour this mixture into the primary (the big bucket with the water lock on it you bought from your local homebrew store) Add and stir in the rest of the honey now. Now add the juice from the wild grapes and some elderberry syrup for medicinal effect if you have any. Next add and stir in 3 more gallons of room temperature water. If you plan to use a Hydrometer to measure the alcohol content of your mead later you would take a starting hydrometer reading at this point. However the use of a hydrometer is optional and due to lack of space I will not go into further detail about the hydrometer. Measure the temperature of this mixture that is now in the primary fermenter with a candy thermometer. Rehydrate the yeast by heating about a cup or two of water to about 100° F pour this water into a small bowl and add the yeast. Let sit for 15 minutes, then stir thoroughly to mix. To Pitch the yeast, make sure the primary is about 70° then give the yeast a quick stir and pour it right into the center in the fermenter. Alternatively I sometimes skip rehydrating the yeast and simply scatter the Red Star Pasteur Champagne yeast into the primary and stir in to dissolve the yeast and tooxygenate the must. You’ll need a long handled spoon to stir the must. Stir vigorously for 5 minutes. Close the primary fermenter bucket and attach the water lock. Fill the water lock with water. Let must ferment in the primary for several weeks. Temperatures of 60° F top 75° F are ideal. Within days you should notice bubbling in your fermentation lock. About two to three weeks later the bubbling should slow down, now it is time forracking (the process of transferring the must from the primary fermenter to the carboy).Sanitize your empty 5-gallon carboy and its stopper, your siphon hose and racking cane. Have your carboy well below the fermenter. Attach the hose to the racking cane and fill completely with tap water. Crimp end of hose. Have a pan on the floor by the carboy to catch the tap water before the mead begins to flow. Put the cane into the full fermenter, being sure it never touches too near the bottom. Lower the hose end down to the pan on the floor next to the carboy, release the crimp in the tube end and let the water flow out into the pan until the you see mead starting to flow. Quickly crimp and move the tube end into the carboy. Now let the mead flow into the carboy. Be careful to keep the hose end below the surface of the liquid during this process. Keep the hose end well above the bottom of the fermenter to keep from siphoning up spent yeast and sediment – the idea is to leave this behind and discard, a step toward clarification. Your carboy should be filled up to the neck. If it is not you can top it off with water. Install the fermentation lock on your carboy and fill the fermentation lock with water to the fill line. About 6 to 9 months later when the bubbling has ceased you are ready to bottle. You can use the same process for bottling as you did for transferring the mead to the carboy from the primary. You can start the suction on the siphon by mouth instead of with tap water if you prefer.


The Complete Meadmaker by Ken Schramm is an excellent resource for getting an understanding of the mead making process. I also search online for recipes, ideas, and the experience of other mead makers. By comparing the online information I gather with my own experience and the understanding I’ve gained from The Complete Meadmaker I am able to come up with my own recipes and ways of making mead that work for me.


The pleasure of mead making is sharing the experience of changes in nature. Fermentation is essentially when a food goes bad yet turns out to be delicious. It’s culture, preservation, and a story about ourselves.


Pretty Fantastic to be a Bubble.


In my dream I was a bubble.

All that was me was the consciousness of the tiny bubble.

You were there too, a tiny bubble just beside me

And we were holding onto the bottom of a glass,

Our entire world.


We decided to let go and together we floated up

Among the floating stars of other bubbles

Glittering in the dark glass of sky.


We went straight up with the spirit of fermentation,

And I said to you just before we touched

The open surface of the horizon,

“We are about to be absorbed”


Our fun little ride was over, our identities would be no more, I knew.

We were only bubbles in a glass,

And now we would join Air,

Without borders, you and I, and the sky,

After our short ride together as little bubbles.


I didn’t have time to say all that and more to you,

Only that little warning,

“We are about to be absorbed.”


-Alice Eckles









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