Mead is an atmosphere drink; there’s magic involved, of the stagecraft variety. It’s the difference between being handed a paper cup of wine at an end-cap in the supermarket, compared to having a waiter, with mood-lighting, italian music, and all, do the little routine where he offers you the cork to sniff.
Let’s say you have started brewing mead, and you finally have a few good bottles on hand. Now you have the potential to be the kind of host you yourself would love to visit. Take a moment to think about this. Mead is a gift from the Gods, from our ancestors, from countless bees carrying miniscule amounts of pollen for miles, from the yeast which is also a creature of the Gods, and you will now be able to share this relatively rare and undeniably divine gift with guests in your home. Ideally, it should not be much about you. This is hard, but I try to always acknowledge the Gods and the bees, and to never hold back in assisting others to find their way into mead-brewing. Yes, I show off some, and you can too.
Look what I made, isn’t it great? Yes, I am proud of my cellar with its rows of very special bottles accumulated through years of learning my craft, and from trading bottles with other meaders that I admire. Yes, I get to watch people’s eyes cross with pleasure at that first sip of an exceptional batch, and you can too. What I’m saying is that some humility is in order. You will feel better about yourself, you’ll be showing respect due to those who have gone before, if you never open a bottle of mead without keeping the history, the magic, and a strong reverence for the traditions in the front of your mind.
Okay, enough preaching. Back to having some mead on hand, some company coming, and how you can maximize the gifts that you now have. First know that not all meads are created equal. In fact, when it comes to home-brewed mead, every batch is different and deserves to be presented at its best. A good rule of thumb is that mead should be a touch sweeter than what it follows. Simply put, if more than one mead is on the menu, start with the driest one, and work your way through to the sweeter ones. A good dry mead can be astounding, but if you serve it on the heels of a sweet strawberry chocolate mead, it is denied a good showing. If you serve mead with food, you can apply the same kind of thinking that goes into food/wine pairings. This takes practice, but an example is that a toothy dark braggot would do well with a pot roast, but not with a pound cake. A sparkling strawberry mead, semi-sweet, would go with the pound cake, but not with the pot roast.
Let me give you two scenarios. In the first, you have some friends over, you’re excited about your mead, and you say, “Hey, glad you came over, I made mead, want some?” They of course say they would love some, and you whip out a bottle, a corkscrew, a couple of jelly jars, and pour out some mead. You hand it to them, and they take a slurp. Eyebrows go up, lips are pursed, evaluative expressions are tried on for size, and you get, “Huh. Interesting. Mead is what, viking beer?”
In the second scenario, you have some friends over, you take them out to the backyard where there’s a little fire ready to go, maybe some thinly sliced steaks and saplings to cook them with. You allow them to relax and settle into your lawn furniture while the stars come out and the coals build up. After a while you step inside, and return with a nicely labeled bottle of your first batch of mead. In your other hand is a drinking horn, a leather tankard, at the very least a wooden cup or big old chipped coffee mug that was your grandfather’s. You cut off the seal, make a good show of drawing the cork with a satisfying thwop, toss the cork into fire, saying, “That’s Grendel’s share.” Pour, pause, take a deep sniff, smile with what has to be real satisfaction, take a sip, move to pass it to your left but think better of it, take another sip, smack your lips, say, “This you can’t get down at the White Swan,” or whatever your local bar is called. Now you pass it. Set the stage, bring up the lights, and let atmosphere and the uniqueness of your very own mead do the rest.
Uncomfortably long ago, when I first made mead, several others were closely following the process, and I made the mistake of more or less following the first scenario. “Hey guys, the mead’s done, here’s a glass, whattya think?” My friends were pleased that I had made some, because at that time mead was like kryptonite in that everybody knew what it was, and nobody knew where to get any. But they were underwhelmed. Mead is an atmosphere drink; there’s magic involved, of the stagecraft variety. It’s the difference between being handed a paper cup of wine at an end-cap in the supermarket, compared to having a waiter, with mood-lighting, italian music, and all, do the little routine where he offers you the cork to sniff.
Offer people mead when they’re relaxed and sitting down, in a special vessel, with a little showmanship and maybe even a story, but don’t wait for their reaction. Assume that they’ll be impressed (because they will), and accept compliments with grace. Build the magic up around it, as if of course they’re wowed, this is the stuff Hrothgar served, for Pete’s sake! And no fire in the backyard would be complete without it. And you’ve given all your wine to the Salvation Army since you’ve discovered mead. And you happen to be able to reel off a few lines of Beowulf, the Poetic Edda, the Odyssey, or even Gilgamesh because mead just brings that much magic.
What I’m trying to say is that mead is the embodiment of a millenia-old tradition of reaching magical altered states using a unique beverage, and it is best introduced to new people with style, implied mysticism, and respect. You wouldn’t offer someone real moonshine on the corner of Broad and Elm in a thermos, you’d do it in the woods with your finger hooked into the ring of jug emblazoned with xxx. You wouldn’t give somebody their first pint of Guinness in a paper cup in the cafeteria, you’d do it with the right glass, a poster of a toucan on the wall, and a massive wooden bar under everybody’s elbows. In that spirit, present mead in a horn, with a fire blazing, a song or a story ready to share, and the stars and silver moon above.
This latest batch was a variation on the previous one, except that I used about a half gallon of wild black cherries given to me by a friend. These are wild fruits, so they had some bitterness to them. Imagine the cherry flavor we are all familiar with, the tanginess, but with an accompanying bitterness rather than a sweetness. Combined with the sweetness of the honey, I expect a VERY interesting brew.
Getting the pits out was extremely tedious. I worked for 45 minutes, and realized I was probably less than 10% of the way finished. A quick call to another friend with a food mill, and a 30-minute trip later, and I was home with a small jar of black cherry juice. Whew!
I used the same sumac methodology as last time (3 drupes steeped in warm chaga decoction overnight). This time I also used a full gallon of honey rather than 15 cups, to help counteract the bitterness of the cherries.
Beautiful color, not unlike the previous wild berry batch:
Bottling tonight. Here’s the label:
This mead turned out very sweet and quite delicious! It won First Place for Best Melomel at the first annual Maine Pagan Meaders’ Cup in early 2011. It was probably my favorite batch from all the berry meads I did in 2010.
I’ve been enjoying the berry mead so much lately, I decided to tweak the brew a bit. This brew differed from my Standard Mead Recipe pretty significantly.
I began with a 2-gallon chaga decoction, as I have done regularly the past several batches. When the decoction was finished, I strained it immediately, then poured the chaga over 3 wild-harvested Staghorn Sumac drupes:
I then let this sit overnight. When I tasted this tea in the morning, I could definitely taste both tartness and tannins, and this was achieved from my local ecosystem! Score!
I then strained the sumac out of the tea:
Once I had this chaga/sumac tea mixture, I could make the mead as normal, expect I don’t need black tea from India or citrus fruit from the tropics. This is a VERY exciting development in my brewing. In addition, this method means I don’t have sumac floating in the must, as I did with the previous blackberry batch.
One other difference, my meads have been very sweet so far. I wanted to make a bit drier mead, so I used the standard gallon of honey, BUT I pulled one cup of honey back out before adding the tea. Since there are 16 cups in a gallon, I used 15 cups of honey in this batch. Let’s see how the dryness is.
For this batch, I used a berry medley with blackberries from my yard, as well as blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries from a farm down the road:
I then blended the berries together, and strained them into a smooth puree, and added it to the must. I rehydrated the yeast, combined all the ingredients into the carboy, shook it well to oxidize it, and I had a batch of beautiful Wild Berry Mead in which everything but the yeast is local. w00t!
I feel better about this batch than any I’ve done so far. Time will tell!
I’ve been wanting to experiment with using wild yeast, local in my atmosphere, to make mead. I’ve been getting such good results with my other recipes that I’ve been hesitant to change from it. So finally, I decided to do a one-gallon experimental batch.
This method is pretty close to Ethiopian Tej, a honey wine brewed with wild yeast there. I learned about this method from the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Kats. This is a great brewing book, as well as for fermented foods (sauerkrauts, etc), which have also been a big part of my life in the past year.
The method is simple; combine honey and water in a wide-mouth jar, cover with a cloth for a few days until it starts to bubble (after wild yeast gets into the must), then transfer to a carboy with an airlock to ferment as normal.
I started with a quart of honey:
I then filled the rest of the jug with spring water, covered with cloth, and let it sit outside for a few hours:
I’m very intrigued by how this will turn out. I’ll keep a close eye on it, and will provide updates as they happen.
UPDATE (Sept 22): Unfortunately this didn’t turn out. I kept it out for several weeks, stirring it occasionally, hoping the yeast would colonize it. It didn’t happen. Possibilities include: I didn’t stir it enough; I shouldn’t keep the cloth on it; the ratio of honey:water was too high. I’m sure I’ll try this again sometime, but the results from this batch were negligible at best.
I’m going to do another batch of mead soon, and I’m going to use sumac a little differently. This time, I will prepare a chaga tea as normal, but after it is done decocting, I will pull out the chaga and then put in the whole sumac drupes (the flowery fruit formations), without worrying about pulling them off the stems. I will let this sit for a while (20 minutes minimum, or perhaps overnight) before straining and then beginning the mead recipe.
This should result in a tea that, apart from the chaga medicine, should be high in tannic acid, ascorbic acid, malic acid, and ready to make a most excellent local mead.
The benefit of this method is that there won’t be any floaties in the must after fermentation that I have to deal with.
Blackberries are up at this time of year, so of course a blackberry mead is in order. I made a few modifications to my Standard Mead Recipe. I used chaga tea as a base, which has almost become the norm for me at this point.
I blended a quart of wild blackberries, most of which were given to me by a friend, though I added about a cup from our yard, and strained out the seeds. I poured the blackberry puree into the must with the chaga tea and the honey.
In general, my quest is to use the highest quality, yet local, ingredients wherever possible. Up until now I have been using black tea and citrus fruits (oranges/lemons) to provide the citric acid and tannic acid desired by the yeast. Neither of these grow in my local ecosystem, and that has troubled me a bit. I wanted to take things to the next level here, and find a way to make it work without these imported ingredients.
However, Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) does grow in my area, and it contains both citric acid as well as tannic acid. Some friends of mine tried using sumac in their meads and it seemed to go well (started bubbling within 24 hours) so I thought I’d give it a try with this batch as well. You don’t want the sumac to get too hot, so I poured warm (maybe 120 degrees) water over it and let it steep for a few minutes:
I then poured this tea, unstrained, into the carboy with the yeast, and the must came behind it, when I topped it off to 3-gallons. The result is the darkest color mead yet:
I’m anxious to see how it goes with the sumac rather than the tea/lemons. It started bubbling away within 8 hours and is going strong now. I really hope the results are good, because now literally every ingredient in this mead, except for the yeast, is local: spring water I harvested myself; local honey from Tony’s Honey in Buckfield, Maine; wild-harvested blackberries, chaga, and sumac.
The next step, and it will happen soon, is to start experimenting with wild yeast.
UPDATE: Here’s the label I made for this batch, with the new logo:
Spent several hours bottling tonight, thanks to LM for the assistance. Scraping labels off recycled wine bottles with razor blades is tedious work.
I bottled a gallon each from 4 different batches (Spruce, Dandelion, Strawberry, Goji), yielding 20 bottles:
This is the official beginning of my mead cellar. W00t! Some of the bottles are spoken for, I’ve committed them to friends for sharing. There is more on the way behind this! Exciting harvest!
PS – Thanks to Harper Meader for his post earlier today. I learned the basics of meadmaking from him, so it’s a pleasure to have his thoughts here. I can definitely attest to the quality of his raspberry braggot! Hail!
Hey, Harper Meader here, pinch-hitting for Jim. I have been brewing mead for about 25 years, and have never actually repeated a recipe. As people who have taken my occasional class know, my method is the “Stir With Your Arm and Measure by the Handful” method. I like to spice mead intuitively, use a lot of fuits and berries, straighten it out in the end with fingers crossed and a hydrometer for a general clue.
Until now. A little background, though. I experimented with a few braggots (mead with malt as well as honey) over the last five years or so, and generally liked the results, even though the “Black Fairy” stoutish batch was only appreciated by a few friends. To my dismay this past winter, I found that a five-year-old bottle of it had spoiled terribly. It tasted like mildew. My theory is that the malt doesn’t keep well, which makes sense since beer generally is better in the first few months than later.
I took this badly, but then thought, “Hey, all this means is the we have to drink braggots faster; that’s not ALL bad!”
With this in mind, I tried a new batch, aiming for flavor in the neighborhood of good Belgian lambic, a fantastic raspberry beer that, if you haven’t tried it, you should. The resulting braggot is just beautiful, lush, complex, a little tangy, and it has been a pleasure sharing it at every occasion. The recipe follows, and I have decided to actually repeat it, a personal first.
Harper’s Raspberry Braggot:
+/- 18 pounds Honey
3 lb. can of raspberry puree (didn’t note the brand)
a half can (1.6 lbs.) Unhopped extra light malt extract
juice of 14 clementines (1 3/4 cups of juice)
4 black teabags
fresh-ground nutmeg, maybe 1/2 tsp?
two packets Redstar Pasteur Red yeast
Warm up the honey enough to completely dissolve, with twice the volume of water, stirring, then turn off the heat.
Add puree, extract, juice, nutmeg, and stir.
steep the tea ten minutes in 4 cups of the must, microwaved to near boiling, then add. With hydrometer, adjust by adding water if needed to have a starting potential alcohol of 17%.
Cool a cup or two of the must in a bowl until it’s below 95 degrees, then pour the yeast on top and let sit to proof. (This makes sure it’s good yeast, and helps it start better)
When must is below 95 degrees, pour into brewing container, stir vigorously with a slotted spoon for a minute or two, and add the proofed yeast.
Cover and add airlock.