Cherry Red Ginseng Mead

One of the most abundant wild foods in my ecosystem is the chokecherry. Prunus virginiana is indigenous to North America, and was “the most important fruit” in many Native cultures. My friend Arthur Haines recently produced a video showing how he likes to use the choke cherry:

Many people believe chokecherries to be poisonous, which is a bit of an oversimplification. The seeds do contain an element called prunasin which can adversely affect our respiratory system when taken in quantity, though like all poisons it depends on the dosage. Smaller doses can have a medicinal effect for lung disorders, this is one reason cherry cough drops have become so popular.

Regardless, there are a few ways to deal with the prunasin. You can either take the seeds out entirely, or heat-treat the seeds either via drying as Arthur does in his video or via cooking to deactivate the prunasin, rendering the seeds edible without harm to the human body. For this batch of mead, I used the former strategy, juicing the chokecherries and discarding the seeds.

My wife knew of a patch growing nearby and was kind enough to harvest more than half gallon of the cherries:

Wild-harvested chokecherries, including a sample of the leaves for identification. Thanks LM!

I couldn’t wait to use these in a mead! I wanted to combine it with an herb, since I’m trying to expand my use of herbs in my meads. After a lot of thought, I decided to use Red Ginseng Root as the herb. Traditionally in Chinese herbalism, Ginseng is only given to the very old and convalescent. It is respected as a powerful stimulant for those who need it in the short term, and not as a “caffeine substitute” in the west. Regardless, this herb has a long and rich history:

In Asia, wars have been fought over possession of fields where ginseng grew abundant and wild. Ginseng is a known adaptogen, which helps the body adapt to stress, and to help balance itself. A vast amount of research has been done over the last 20 years that has gone a long way in proving that ginseng does have properties that improve memory, mental acumen, and in relieving stress and fatigue. The German E Commission has noted that used as a tonic, it may help fortify and invigorate in times of fatigue, or in times when great concentration may be needed.

I made a decoction using both Chaga and the diced root of Red Gingseng. The scent of the tea was wild, almost exotic! I can’t describe it, it smells like nothing else. After I reduced the heat, I added some Staghorn Sumac powder in a teabag to infuse for about an hour. I then strained the tea, and let it cool to blood temperature.

I then juiced the cherries, to yield about a quart of gorgeous red cherry juice:

A bit over a half gallon of chokecherries yields about a quart of juice.

I then added enough of Tony’s Raspberry Honey to get to an 18% alcohol potential:

18% alcohol potential, though it's a bit hard to see with the foam

The result is a very nice red colored must:

Cherry Red Ginseng Mead! Or at least it will be in several weeks....

I think this will be a good one!

UPDATE: 11/18

This one came out a very brilliant yellow color! Surprising but very cool. This is also the best tasting mead I’ve done in a while. It’s about 4.5% alcohol potential, which means this is 13.5% alcohol.

Raspberry Damiana Mead

Recently, a friend of mine asked me to brew up a custom mead for him. He wanted to work with Damiana, which is an herb I’m only vaguely familiar with. My wife had worked with a Damiana honey infusion. He then mused, “and I think it would go really well with raspberry.”

I did a Raspberry Mead last year, but in general I have been looking to expand my berry meads into using more herbs and other flavoring complexities, apart from my now-customary chaga base.

Damiana is a very interesting herb. One of its Latin names is Turnera aphrodisiaca, an evocative name that gives away one of its ancient uses:

The Greeks named it aphrodisiakos, and it was known as the “goddess of love”. The Mayas and Aztecs used damiana as an aphrodisiac, and also as a general tonic to improve health. They also used to smoke it for relaxation, as well as burning it during ceremonies to induce “visions”. Currently, it is made into a liqueur in Mexico that is quite popular. The herb has historically been considered more important for focusing sexual energies than for creating them.

As you might expect, damiana tea has an enchanting scent; musky yet floral, heady and earthy, a scent that presents itself with the confidence of a lover. You are quite right my friend, it will indeed go very well with raspberry.

Raspberries grow all over my ecosystem, and was able to scrounge up a fabulous variety of them this year (thanks to my generous friends who contributed some…. you know who you are).

I started with a 2-gallon chaga decoction, and at the end of it I threw in a staghorn sumac drupe and a handful of Damiana, let it steep for an hour, then strained it into a carboy to cool.

Once it was cool, I blended 2 quarts of fresh raspberries and strained them into the tea. I then added enough of Tony’s Raspberry Honey to get up to 19% alcohol potential:

After I took this photo, I realized a bit of honey was still undissolved in the bottom of the pot. After I stirred it in, it was just a bit over 19%, which meant the last bit of water I added to top it off brought this brew right up to 19%.

Once mixed together, the high concentration of raspberries (I used almost twice as much as last time) gave a beautiful hue:

The final color is as bright of a mead as I’ve yet made, with the possible exception of the Prickly Pear Mead:

Let’s hope this batch brings some extra special juju to my friend’s gathering. Thanks for the great idea!

UPDATE: 18 December

This mead is now 5% alcohol potential, which gives it a 14% alcohol content.

Lammas Harvest 2011

It’s that time again! Bottling!

When you have a small amount of space dedicated to brewing, as I do, keeping things running efficiently from carboy (Primary fermentation) to jugs (Secondary fermentation and clearing) to bottles is essential to ensure that mead production continues efficiently. All my jugs were full, yet I have a batch or two ready to rack into the jugs, so bottling was the quagmire — as it often is. Bottling is probably the most work of the entire meadmaking process, especially if you are cleaning recycled wine bottles.

Anyway, this time the Prickly Pear Mead and the Coca Kola Mead were ready for bottling, and a bountiful harvest it was:

As you can see, the Prickly Pear (on the left in the photo above) remains just an absolutely stunning color, it looks (and almost tastes) like a deep red wine, almost merlot-ish, with purple overtones when you hold it up to the light. The Coca Kola Mead still has some clearing to do…. it might have been smarter to rack it again into another jug, since it has been sitting in more coca leaves and kola nuts in the secondary fermentation stage. Ah well, I wanted to keep things moving so I just went ahead and bottled it. Most likely the Coca Kola Mead will settle out in the bottles over time. It needs some time to age some more as well.

And finally, a close-up shot of the bottles, with labels applied:

Next up: rack the Spruce Tip Mead and the Dandelion Sumac Mead into jugs, freeing up carboys to make another raspberry mead and a choke cherry mead. Watch this space for updates on each of these batches to be done in the coming days.

On Sulfites

As I learn more about fermentation on a commercial level, the issue of sulfites has come up for me. I’ve never added sulfites to my mead; it’s an extra ingredient that I never really needed. I wasn’t even sure what it did, though I know it was surrounded by a sort of enigmatic haze that it’s bad for humans; I vaguely remembered warning labels from wine about sulfites.

Sulfite is a salt, its chemical formula is SO3. It is naturally occurring, but it also is routinely added to commercial ferments. When added to a fermentation, it stabilizes the ferment where it is: the yeast dies, the fermentation process stops, and the sulfites resist oxidization and act as a preservative of the brew. Sounds reasonable, especially in a commercial setting; using sulfites prevents unanticipated fermentation after bottling (the last thing a commercial brewer needs is one of their bottles exploding in a customer’s face), and makes each bottle more consistent over time.

The problem is, some people react to sulfites similarly to having an allergic reaction. These people should avoid consuming excess sulfites, though exposure to some naturally-occurring sulfites is almost inevitable.

I still don’t think I’ll ever use sulfites for my homebrews, there is just no need for it. And philosophically, I don’t like the idea of “killing” my beverages, regardless of the specific questionability of sulfites themselves. For commercial brews, I can understand why it is used.

Plus it’s not so simple than just choosing not to use sulfites: if a commercial brewer decides not to use them and claim “no sulfites” on the label, then they must submit a sample of the brew for testing, to ensure that it truly does not contain sulfites. It’s not as simple as saying “we have added no sulfites” to a particular brew.

I haven’t decided yet if I’ll use sulfites for the Bardic Brews Meads that I will release with UFF. Watch this space.