Sunday, December 04, 2005

On mead, the basics

Now is a great time to check out the local brew shop, if they are having any holiday sales. West Creek (when it was around) used to sell homebrewing starter kits for $50 or so, for either wine or beer. You want the wine starter kit for mead. This ought to be just the equipment. I know money is an issue (and isn't it for all of us!), so if there is such a bundle available on sale or discount for gift giving this year, you may want to consider jumping on it.

For a 5- gallon batch, you will need:
6.5 gallon carboy OR 7-gallon foodsafe bucket (mine is a kitchen trashcan that has ONLY been used for this purpose). This is your primary.
5-gallon carboy. This is your secondary.
Some way of stopping them that allows air to escape and no bugs in. Tin foil or cling film will work, but the ideal for the carboys is a bung with a bubbler.
Racking cane with syphon hose. This is how you get liquid from primary to secondary and into bottles.
Corking device. Rams corks into the wine bottles. Depending on how much money you spend, the easier it is to do- varies from cheapo you pound with a mallet to table mounted things that glide in with a pull of a lever.
Large cooking pot. I have 5-gallon pots but have used a 6-quart pan or a 2.5-gallon pot to start a batch of mead.
Spoon big enough to stir in such a big pot.
Something you can use to sterilize things. I use lots of boiling hot water and vodka, but I'm allergic to a lot of cleaning products.
Optional: Large funnel to dump stuff from pot into 6.5-gal carboy.

For each batch:
25 to 28 clean wine bottles
25 to 28 new corks.
something for a label. I suggest water-soluble glues so the labels come back off. Have used milk or cream instead of glue.
Ingredients! :)

For a one gallon batch, you can use a smaller bucket, like a one or a two-gallon foodsafe bucket. The important thing is that the bucket never contained toxic chemicals or nasty bacteria.
For your secondary, you will need a one gallon bottle.
And if you like, you can use another one-gallon bottle to bottle it in for drinking, because I know that first batch always goes way too fast. :) Or 4-5 wine bottles and 4-5 corks.
You will still need the racking cane with syphon hose, and a corking device for the wine bottles.

You will want to make what you like to drink, unless you really want to enter it for A&S and expect to win for documentation. I have a bibliography of books that I've seen if you like, so that you may read up on the subject. I divide mead into four categories, for convenience. Plain mead (honey + water + yeast = mead), fruit mead/wine, spiced mead, and braggot (which is between beer and mead). Yes, you can have a spiced fruit mead, but I suggest limiting how many ingredients. And yes, I can bring an example some time of too many fruits and spices in one wine- I call that batch Plonk, which is the sound your head makes if you have too much of it.

For plain mead, you want 3 to 5 pounds of honey per gallon. Yes, that's 15 to 25 pounds of honey for a 5-gallon batch. And because there is so little else in the mead, your honey flavor will affect the finished mead. I've used cheap Sam's Club honey, and I've used orange blossom from a home apiary. There is a difference. Heavy honeys like buckwheat should be avoided unless you really like those flavors.

For a spiced, you should use the same amount of honey in a plain mead. And then you can add whatever spices you like. Amount depends on when you add it (some people only spice the secondary which does affect the flavor- light spices like vanilla are better added to the secondary), and what shape the spice is when you add it. Flavor is leeched into the mead as a factor of surface area and time. The more surface area, the longer it's in the mead, the stronger the flavor. I do advise against powders because they are not always easy to get out of suspension and interfere with the clarity of your mead. A whole cinnamon stick is less flavor than the same stick that you've crushed with a hammer. Adding it to the primary is less time than adding it to the secondary. And, if you toss a stick into each bottle, the flavor will change depending on how long you let it age in the bottle. I also recommend limiting spices to a max of 5, with 1 to 3 being ideal. More than that and you will probably overwhelm your tastebuds. See Plonk, above.

For a fruit, you will have variety of flavor profiles depending on quantity of fruit and how fresh it is and the character of the fruit itself. It is possible to get two runs off the same fruit for different qualities of wine. Quantity of fruit will dictate quantity of honey needed- and it should total 5 pounds per gallon, max. If I had 4 pounds of strawberries, I'd want 1 pound of honey, per gallon. 3 pounds of peaches get 2 pounds of honey. 1 pound of bananas can have 4 pounds of honey, but I'd probably do 3. Two pounds of pumpkin need 2 or 3 pounds of honey. Thinking like this, you can make up a recipe for almost anything. I also have some odd books that have recipes like these. The other important thing that needs to be mentioned for fruit is pectinase. Pectin, if you have ever made jam, is what makes the fruit congeal to make those lovely clumps. Those lovely clumps in mead are scary-looking and not conducive to a jovial atmosphere. So you need to get pectinase from the brewshop and add that 24 hours before you add the yeast, following manufacturer's guidelines because it does differ by brand. Do not let fruit sit in the primary longer than 10 days. It will start to rot and/or start growing things you don't want in your booze. Botulism and mold are not flavors you want in mead. ALWAYS use the bucket for fruit. Getting fruit out of a 6.5 gal carboy sucks.

For a braggot, well, that all depends on how you like your beer and what you want out of a braggot. It's too intricate to gloss over. For the one batch I made, I used 6 pounds of dry malt extract and 8 pounds of honey and a champagne yeast.

Other: Besides the fruit/spices/malt and honey, you can also mess with the water. I have heard of people using maple tree sap and maple syrup for an awesome drink called Acermead. I have also used fruit juices instead of honey. The pomnegranate was devine, my apple cyser is reknown. And I have been given recipes for mountain dew mead and coffee mead, but I've never made these because I like to sleep off my hangover.

You will have to go to the brew shop (or online ordering- I love Williams Brewing) for wine yeast. My favorite yeasts are Champagne and Flor Sherry. I simply detest with all the passion for yeast I can muster Montrachet or "mead yeast" - I hate the flavor of that yeast. But whatever wine yeast you get, it's definitely NOT the same yeast that is sold in the grocery store for bread. These yeasts have been bred for different purposes and have different extra flavors called esters that they produce besides alcohol. I like to think of yeast urine as alcohol and the esters as yeast poo. Sometimes the poo enhances the flavor- sometimes it just tastes like poo. Bread yeast puts out a lot of poo with its pee, and that's a different flavor profile than a good wine. I recommend two packets of the dry yeast of your choice per 5-gallon batch. It's cheap. If you are opting for liquid yeast, more expensive, one packet is fine.

You can also make a yeast starter by dumping the packet in half a glass of orange juice, about half a day before you start the batch of mead. I also like to add yeast nutrient, which is vitamins for the yeast. Honey doesn't have a lot of vitamins the yeast can use, so sometimes it poops out early. The nutrient helps prevent this. In period, they may have added some bread crust to their mead for the same reason. Other additives people will add include tannin and citric acid or malic acid to get the pH balanced properly. I've frankly never noticed a difference in this, but I understand it can be more critcal for grape wines.

Because you can taste the difference in water, city water is often avoided.Sulpher water is always avoided. If your water tastes good to you, use it. Spring water is good. Filtered water is good. Distilled water is not that good because distilled water by its nature has no flavor. Some people will go as far as getting the water analyzed and try to make their water match certain profiles, like the water in X location at Y time. I'm more in the if the water tastes good, use it camp.

One gallon batch is assumed, because that's the easiest to do with what you probably already have already. And if you like what you make, then you may want to invest in the stuff needed to jump up to the 5-gallon batches. We'll go with a plain mead, because it's easier.
In a 6-quart pot, bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Turn off the stove but don't remove pot from burner. Add honey. Rinse honey jars with more really hot water. Stir until honey dissolves. Cover and allow to cool. This liquid is now called "must." If it was a beer, it would be "wort." You can hurry the cooling down by filling the sink with cold water and ice and letting the pan cool in there. Or, in this weather, you can take the pot out on the back porch and put in a snow drift (probably not feasible in an apartment though). Once cool, pour into your primary. Room temperature-ish is ideal. Add yeast and maybe the nutrient, and cover with the tin foil or cling film. Pouring into the bucket is fine, as oxygen added to the water at this point is good. Make sure there is at least one whole gallon of liquid in your bucket.

Now the hard part. Ignore this for a week, except to see if there are bubbles within 24 hours on the top, and I mean a foam, not random one or two, and to make sure it stays covered. My cats like trying to knock covers off. Small children will do the same (have heard horror stories where small child added a germy favorite toy and ruined a batch).

In 7 to 10 days, use the racking cane to syphon from the bucket to the secondary bottle. There will be sludge in the bottom of the bucket that you do not want to transfer if possible, so you have to be careful with both ends. Certainly the first time you do this you will want someone to help you- one person per end of the syphon. One makes sure the end of the cane is above sludge and the other to make sure the other end stays in the bottle. You do want to avoid a lot of splashing from this point on, because most of the fermentation is done. The sludge is mostly yeast carcasses. From here on, oxygen can do bad things to the wine including lovely off flavors. Yes, you will leave some liquid behind that you can't syphon without getting sludge, but that really can't be helped. You can now clean the racking cane and cover the top of the secondary bottle.

Harder still is ignoring this bottle from 3 to 6 months. You may think it tastes great now. You probably can go ahead and drink it. But really, it won't hit its flavor peak for about 1 to 2 years. I have 15 carboys. I can keep batches going in rotation and always have stuff on the verge of ready to drink. Depending on the clarity in the 3 to 6 months, you may want to rack it again into another bottle the same size, making sure you avoid any sludge at the bottom, and let it sit again for another 3 to 6 months. It can stay in the carboy for years sometimes. And um, yes, I have stuff in carboys I haven't touched for more than 4. Mead takes time.

Bottling will depend on your corker in part. Some people will boil their corks to sanitize them first- I am lazy and don't bother. Clean the bottles thoroughly. Use your syphon again to syphon from the secondary to the bottles. Cork. Label. Store and/or drink.

That's pretty much it in a nutshell. It's easier to watch someone doing these things instead of learning out of a book though.

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