So You Brewed Some Mead…

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.

Youn man drinks from horn
Mead served in a coming-of-age ceremony.

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.

May you never thirst,

Harper Meader

Harper’s Raspberry Braggot Recipe and Musings

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:

Sumbl Horn
The Sumbl Horn, caught in a rare dry moment.

+/- 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.