Episode 6: Mead

Mon 14 Jan 2008 - Filed under: Not a Journal., | Posted by: Michael

A record of my first experiments in brewing that most literary of all beer (though not technically a beer), ambrosia to the Greeks, bal-che to the Mayas, the gold of Midas, the honey-wine of gods and heroes—mead.

Let me just get the obligatory reference to a certain great English epic out of the way, and we’ll get down to business.

Then for Geatish tribesmen, close together all,
Was a bench made ready in the wassail-hall
There the stout-in-spirit went to take their seat
Proud of this their prowess. A henchman did as meet,
Mindful he to bear round the figured ale-tankard,
And pour to each the clear mead. Whiles would sing a bard,
Clear of voice in Heorot. Reveled there the thanes,
A host of happy heroes, Wederfolk and Danes.

For the adventurous: try it in the original.

Besides its literary stature, mead may also have the most history of any alcoholic beverage ever brewed. Arguably the earth’s oldest libation, what other can claim to have been conceived of independently by cultures so far-flung across the globe? The Chinese, the Indus Valley Civilization, the Mesopotamians, the Gauls, the Mesoamericans–every cradle of human culture seems to have developed and propagated its own unique tradition of fermented honey.

Mead is something of a holy grail for homebrewers–one of two, I would argue, the other being barleywine. Like barleywine, mead’s uniqueness of flavor, not to mention the extra patience required by its long maturation time, make it a point of strong contention. Everybody seems to have had the urge to try making mead at one time or another, but not many get around to it–surprising, because it’s actually very simple to brew. Two different homebrew-supply store owners I’ve asked about brewing mead have tried hard to deter me. They warned of the prohibitive cost of buying honey, questioned its cost-benefit ratio, and even went so far as to imply nudgingly that meadmaking shall forevermore remain the exclusive province of crazed LARPers and SCA people. Fie upon that, said I, for I am both beer geek and straight-up geek, and I shall not be so easily swayed.

Part of the trouble, I think, is that very few people have ever tasted mead, let alone good mead—and conceptually, alcoholic honey-water seems like it would come off cloyingly sweet and disgusting, and you’d be better off drinking Smirnoff Ice. (That’s a joke. Please don’t drink Smirnoff Ice.) Me, I’ve only tasted one true mead. It was a homebrew, and it was eye-opening–far more balanced and subtle than I expected, sweet, tangy, floral and fruity, activating the entire palate, but with no one note overpowering any other. I would say it had more depth than any champagne I’ve ever tasted, and I enjoyed it more and found it easier to drink than any white wine (possibly because it lacks the sourness of grapes).

But the brewing gurus are right–good honey costs money, and without it you can’t make good mead. I had to wait a long time for the opportunity to acquire a whole lot of good honey at once, and only recently did I finally come into a windfall: a 20 pound jar of wildflower honey culled from hives on an herb farm in the Berkshire Hills. It’s a rich, reddish amber, the color of scotch ale. It has some bits of crunchy honeycomb covered in crystallized sugar floating at the top. Mmm. The nose isn’t overpowering, but has hints of mullein, calendula, star anise, and probably a bunch of the other flowering herbs grown for medicinal purposes at Singing Brook Farm, but which my hop-ravaged olfactory sense cannot detect. My wife says the smell reminds her of spruce. In short, it’s a damn fine honey, local and unfiltered, the best kind for making mead. (The mass-produced honey that comes in non-microwave-safe plastic bears at the grocery store has had the stuffing purified out of it, as a result of which it loses a lot of its floral scent and complexity of flavor.)

The plan is to make two small experimental batches, one effervescent dry mead, and one still sweet mead. Actually . . . I may vary even further, and do still and fizzy versions of both sweet and dry. The object here, since I haven’t tasted barely any mead at all, is to find out what kind best suits my palate and build from there. To that effect, I’m using the simplest possible recipe. For a two-gallon batch of must (the mead equivalent of wort, meaning simply the sweet, unfermented liquid to which yeast will be added), which I’ll divide into two one-gallon jugs, my ingredients are as follows:

  • 6 lb. unfiltered Berkshire Hills wildflower honey
  • 1/2 oz. tartaric acid
  • 1 oz. malic acid
  • water

And that’s it. The purpose of the acid, as I understand it, is to balance out the powerful sweetness of the honey in order to create a more ideal environment for yeast to thrive, as well as to enhance the fruitiness and floral flavors of the finished product.

I proceed as follows:

  1. Sanitize everything. (See Episode 4 for details, and Episode 2 for the full list of equipment.)
  2. Boil a gallon of water.
  3. Remove pot from heat and slowly stir in the honey and acids. I bought a brand new digital kitchen scale, and am measuring everything out by weight. More consistent that way. I also got a pH tester for Christmas, so I can’t resist trying it out. Prior to adding the acids the must comes to 3.4–more acidic than I’d expected (beer is usually around 5.2), but on the advice of wiser brewers, I toss in the acids anyway, after which the pH drops to 2.1.
  4. Top off with enough water to bring the total volume to about two gallons. Return must to heat and bring to a boil. Some creamy white foam, like the froth off a latte or a can of Boddington’s, gradually rises to the top of the must. Research indicates that this froth contains some impurities which will negatively effect flavor. (E.G. liquified bee exoskeletons, a wing or two, a couple dozen legs…good for ya. Protein.) So I skim it off every five minutes or so with a fine mesh strainer.
  5. As soon as the must hits boiling, I cut off the heat. If you’ve read through Episode 4, you’ll note that this is a significant departure from the beer brewing process. Beer wort needs to be boiled a long time in order for naturally-occurring enzymes in grain to break the starches down into sugars. Honey, on the other hand, is all sugar. Also, the delicate floral aromas of unfiltered honey can be ruined by too much boiling. Finally, honey has another advantage over grain in that its natural preservative qualities make it resistant to bacterial growth. British archaeologists who found honey stored in 2,000 year-old Egyptian tombs were able to dip right into it to sweeten their tea without the slightest fear of ancient plagues brought on by heathen curse. Hence, I am choosing to go without the long boil.
  6. Now it’s time to bring the must down to room temperature, in order to make it safe for yeast. Normally, I’d fill a bucket with ice and pour the hot must over it. But it so happens I’ve made another slight upgrade to my process, by procuring a wort chiller. A wort chiller is a coil of heat-conductive copper tubing with a siphon hose attached at either end. I drop the chiller into the hot wort, hook one end of the hose to a cold running faucet, and as cold water passes through the coils of copper pipe, it absorbs the heat from the surrounding wort, then exits the other end of the tube. In a matter of five minutes, I can reduce my wort from a scalding 170 degrees fahrenheit to a warm, inviting 80.
  7. Out of curiosity, I use my hydrometer to measure the must’s specific gravity: 1.110, very high for beer but actually on the low end for mead, which means the final flavor will be dry unless I add a bit more honey after fermentation. I also sneak a taste of the must. An intense but not-overpowering sweetness, balanced by a surprising fruity acidity. It reminds me of ginger beer a little bit, though of course there’s no ginger. Interesting. I bet some damn fine mohitos could be made with such a concoction come summertime…
  8. Because I am experimenting with two different varieties of yeast, I siphon off the must into two separate one-gallon jugs. Pasteur champagne yeast goes in the first one, a white wine yeast called “Cote des Blancs” goes in the other. I put on my fermentation locks, label the jugs so I don’t get confused later, and I’m done.

At least for now.

I won’t be bottling either of these meads for a year. In that period, I’ll probably rack the mead (transfer it to a new, clean bottle to avoid deterioration in flavor caused by contact with dead yeast cells) three or four times (sampling a bit each time). If fermentation starts to taper off I may help it out by adding yeast nutrients. And towards the end of the year, when fermentation is finished for good, I’ll probably add a little more honey to bring the sweetness up to where I want it. Maybe, if your attention span lasts that long, you’ll be able to come back here in a year and hear how it went.

Update (One Month Later) – Stuck Fermentation

I noticed the mead I pitched with the white wine yeast didn’t seem to be doing much fermenting after two or three weeks. I was prepared for this possibility—what brewers refer to as “stuck fermentation”. The sugar content of honey is by nature more difficult for yeast to break down than corn or barley sugar. This is why it can take so long for mead to ferment to completion. And if the conditions in the must aren’t just right (temperature, pH, freshness and quality of yeast, etc), fermentation can stop altogether. Homebrew supply stores sell something called yeast nutrient, which as I understand it is merely the dried, skeletal remains of dead yeast. I added a teaspoon of this to my gallon jug, and in a few days the white wine yeast had recovered enough to bypass the champagne yeast.