Longest Night Blackberry Cyser

Tonight is Yule, 2013, otherwise known as the winter solstice, which means it is the longest night of the year. On this night it is traditional for our ancestors to stay up all night, often in quiet contemplation, while awaiting the return of the light at dawn. In addition, where I live there is an ice storm coming. There isn’t much happening yet as I write this, but there is been a bit of rain most of the day, which will continue and get more intense as the temperature drops. By the time the storm is done on Monday we could have up to 1″ of ice coating everything outside. In short, a great night to make up some mead.

It’s blackberry cyser time. Last year I made the blackberry cyser with cranberries, and while it was good I thought that the tartness from the cranberries mixed with the tartness of the cider was a bit much. So this year I used more blackberries and no cranberries. The blackberries grew in our yard and were picked as they ripened throughout the summer. I froze 2 quarts of them for meadmaking, and thawed them out before juicing:

2 quarts of thawed blackberries, picked this summer in our yard
2 quarts of thawed blackberries, picked this summer in our yard

The juice was as vibrant as ever, and it eliminated the problem of seeds getting into the mead:

juice from 2 quarts of blackberries
juice from 2 quarts of blackberries

I also got 3 gallons of fresh pressed and untreated apple cider from Thompson’s Orchard near my home. The cider sat for a couple of days before I used it, and in that time a bit of sediment formed at the bottom of the carboy:

Sediment formed at the bottom of the cider after sitting for a few days
Sediment formed at the bottom of the cider after sitting for a few days

I decided to take advantage of this settlement and I siphoned the clear(er) cider out of the carboy, leaving the sediment behind. This way I should have a bit less sediment at the end of my mead fermentation.

I mixed 2 batches of this cyser tonight, in 2 different 3-gallon carboys, one batch at a time using half of the ingredients. I ended up using about 1.25 gallons of cider, 0.75 gallons of Star Thistle Honey (I wrote about this fantastic honey in my previous post Star Thistle Mead), about 2 cups of black tea (for the tannins), topping it off with spring water to get me to three gallons, and a 17% initial alcohol potential.

Lalvin Rhone 4600 Yeast

One interesting note with this batch is that I am using a different yeast than I normally use. I love the Red Star Montrachet yeast that I have used in the vast majority of my meads, but Phil over at The Honey Exchange was excited about this yeast and hooked me up with a bit of it to experiment with. The Lalvin Rhone 4600 yeast is very similar to Montrachet, but is apparently common with commercial wineries. According to one of the sellers,

Lalvin Rhône 4600® was selected by Inter-Rhône’s technical department after three years of research.The purpose of the study was to select a strain, which would be particulary suited for the production of elegant and fruity white wines, but also being appropriate for rosé wines. Lalvin Rhône 4600® has the qualities required to successfully ferment musts with high sugar and low assimilable nitrogen contents, and a high alcohol tolerance.It enhances wine fruitiness with pineapple and apricot aromas.

In short, have 6 gallons of beautiful cyser ready for primary fermentation:

6 gallons of blackberry cyser
6 gallons of blackberry cyser

I can’t wait to see how this comes out with the new yeast and the tweaked recipe!

Black & Cran Cyser

Last year’s Blackberry Cyser (cyser means “apple mead” or mead made with apple cider rather than water) was really good, and I knew I’d be merging apples and blackberries most years moving forward. The apples here where I live in Maine are generally quite tart, in a good way, and the blackberries I pick in my yard give a nice earthy, smooth counterbalance to the tartness of the apples.

I also new that I wanted to use some cranberries we had in the freezer in a cyser this year, to play off the contrasts between 2 different “shades” of tart (apples and cranberries). Originally I thought I’d do them separately, but due to a similar situation as what happened during the Fox Pyment (basically I poured in too much honey), I had to split the batch into 2 smaller batches. There was also a slight mishap during the juicing process, but we were able to recover with some amount of grace.

This is a simple one, with no real herbal ingredients. I did add 3 cups of organic black tea to each batch to provide a bit of tannic acid, tweaking both the pH and the flavor.

It turns out that cranberry and blackberry juice mixed together are gorgeous:

Juice from 1qt of Cranberries and 1qt of Blackberries

I took this, mixed in some honey, and realized I way overshot the honey. I had forgotten that late-season cider is sweeter than normal, so I ended up with nearly 25% alcohol potential. So I split it into 2 batches and proceeded from there. Both batches have similar amounts of blackberry/cranberry juice, but one will likely be a sweet mead (19% initial alcohol potential) and one will likely be dry (16% initial alcohol potential):

One batch (pictured) came in at 19% initial alcohol potential, for a sweet cyser. The other batch (not pictured) came in at 16%, which should yield a dry cyser.

Color on the two is quite similar, as you can see below. First is the dry Black & Cran cyser:

Dry Black & Cran Cyser!

And this is the sweet (mislabeled, it is 19% not 18%):

… and the sweet Black & Cran Mead (mislabeled, it is actually 19% not 18%).

I look forward to seeing how these come out!

UPDATE: March 31

Finally got a round to racking these. The Dry Cyser is now 2%, so it is 14% ABV. The Sweet Cyser is now 4%, so it is 15% ABV. Both different flavors of delicious!

Beltane Mini-Harvest

Just a quick post to document a small bottling session I did the other night:

This is just the Blackberry Cyser Mead…. the Perry Cyser is still in jugs clearing, and of course all 4 batches in the Mad Trad Trial will be ready for racking soon. This mead is delightfully clear, nice and tart, with a bit of berry sweetness underlying it. I’m sure we’ll enjoy it at today’s potluck and into the future!

Blackberry Cyser

For much of 2011, I’ve been experimenting greatly with herbal meads. Some of them have been fantastic, others powerful brews yet perhaps not the best tasting. There have been quite a few complex brews this year as I experiment and hone my meadmaking craft with the herbal skills I am also gaining.

I wanted to make a simpler mead that celebrated the local season. In Maine during autumn, this means cyser. We also had some blackberries floating around from earlier in the  year (love our new freezer), so I thawed a quart of those to put into the batch. Simple: blackberry cyser. Just the ticket.

I started with 3 gallons of fresh, nonpasteurized, non-UV treated cider from the orchard around the corner:

3 gallons of fresh-pressed, non-treated or processed apple cider

I added 2 cups of organic black tea:

And I whizzed up a quart of thawed blackberries in the blender:

Mixed it with enough honey (about 3/4 gallon) to get to 18% alcohol potential:

And the result is a cloudy but beautifully-colored must:

Definitely a seasonal brew. Can’t wait to try this one in a few months!

UPDATE, 20 Feb 2012

Just racked this brew. Wow, delicious! Needs to age a bit but it’s very well-balanced, semisweet at 3% remaining alcohol potential, 15% alcohol, and a lovely tartness from the apples balanced with a nice blackberry layer of flavor.

It’s still cloudy, though clearer than the Perry Cyser. Not much blackberry coloration, it looks pretty much like a plain cyser:

Already tastes very good, should get even better given a few more months….

Perry Cyser

I was first introduced to Perry on video, in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall‘s BBC show River Cottage. In one of the episodes, Hugh picks some pears, and is taught how to make Perry, which is basically like apple cider except made with pressed pears rather than apples.

I knew I wanted to make another cyser after last year’s Autumn Berry Cyser turned out so well. It was my first successful dry mead, with a delightful tartness coming from the apples I used (that came from Thompson’s Orchard around the corner). I knew cider season was here and I could get great cider from them. But I wanted to try a different additive than autumn berries, since it’s still a wee bit early for those.

My wife recently found some wild pears and brought home a milk crate full. I decided to juice them (thanks for juicing them LM!), and it produced about a gallon of pear juice.

I began my evening by clearing out some jugs and bottling up 3 gallons of Blueberry Nettle Mead and Treequinox Mead:

Mini-bottling session. 5 bottles of Treequinox and 10 of Blueberry Nettle.

Once I cleared some jugs, I racked the Raspberry Damiana Mead into them to age and clear. This one is another very interesting brew!

Once I had a clean carboy (thanks for the help LM!) it was time to begin making the Perry Cyser by brewing up 2 cups of black tea, and pouring this into my stockpot, followed by the gallon of pear juice, about a gallon of cider, and about 3/4 a gallon of honey. I then added a bit more of honey and cider until I had 3 gallons of must at 15% alcohol potential:

15% initial alcohol potential should give a nice dry cyser with moderate alcohol content.

The must was dark and murky, like the deepest mysteries of autumn distilled:

Perry Cyser Must

When I finished, I had a dark mead the color of leaf piles:

Perry cyser in the carboy on the left. Leftover cider on the right, fated to become apple cider vinegar.

It’s still early, so I think the cider will improve in quality in a few weeks. I’ll likely do another cyser soon….


This is now very dry, at 1% alcohol potential, which means this is 14% alcohol. It’s still quite tart, and once it has a chance to age and clear this will be delicious!

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.

Fermentation Internships

I just heard today from Eli Cayer at the Urban Farm Fermentory in Portland, Maine. Great news for those who might want some hands-on experience in a commercial, community-oriented fermentation operation: he is looking for interns to help with production. Right now he is doing mostly ciders, but there are plans for other ferments and cultures in the future.

If you are local to Portland, and interested in spending some time learning in a commercial fermentory, contact Eli.

Fermenting Hard Cider

My good friend Daniel Vitalis just released a new video on fermenting hard cider that I wanted to share with you. Cider is something that I’ve only recently begun to appreciate, and I definitely think a batch or two is in order before the end of the year and the local apples are done.

Cider fermentation is very easy, and is done with only wild yeast. You simply leave your cider in a wide-mouthed container until it starts to froth from wild yeast in the air, then transfer it to a carboy with an airlock and let it go for a few weeks. Doesn’t get much simpler!

Here’s part one of the video:

And here’s part two:

Autumn Berry Cyser

So all summer long I’ve been thinking about the cyser (or cysers) I’d do in the fall. Well, fall is here in full swing, and a friend just happened to turn me on to some Autumn Berries (also called Autumn Olives):

The autumn olive, elaegnus umbellate, is native to China, Japan, and Korea and was introduced to the United States in the mid 1800s. It is a deciduous tree or shrub that grows up to 20 feet high and 30 feet wide. In the 1950s it was promoted throughout the states to control erosion, and as a wildlife habitat. It was once used to help refoliate areas that were stripped bare due to mining and other environmental disturbances. Now, it is considered an alien invasive species.

He gave them to me still on the branches, so I had a bit of food processing time as I picked the berries off. Once picked and rinsed, I had probably less than a cup of the berries:

Turns out Autumn Berries are quite healthy also:

With as much as 15-18 times the amount of lycopene found in tomatoes, autumn berries are being touted as one of the best cancer preventative natural medicines. (The autumn berry has 40 to 50 mg/100g of lycopene compared to 3 mg/100g for a fresh raw tomato and 10 mg/100g for canned whole tomatoes.) The carotenoid is thought to be helpful in the prevention of heart disease, muscular degenerative disease, bladder, breast, gastrointestinal, cervix, mouth, throat, lung, prostate and skin cancers. The berries also contain vitamins A,C, E, flavonoids and essential fatty acids.

I thought these would go nicely in a cyser with the local apples, since both are quite ripe just now. Of course, to make cyser you need cider, so I went around the corner from my home and picked up 3 gallons of fresh, unprocessed, unfiltered, non-UV treated cider from my local orchard. I left them a 3 gallon carboy, which they held until their next pressing day which was yesterday.

Since I’m using cider, I decided to make a small amount of sumac tea, so I filled a saucepan half full of water, added a sumac drupe, brought it to a boil and let it steep for a couple hours until the liquid was a lovely pink color. Here’s the beginning of the infusion process:

Once done, I let it cool off some, strained the tea into the high speed blender with the autumn berries, and let it whizz for a couple minutes. Then I poured the puree into the pot, that I’d put about 2 gallons of cider and about 1/2 gallon of honey.

I mixed everything up well, heating it slightly up to about 85 degrees, so everything would dissolve. I then took a hydrometer reading and was showing about 13% potential alcohol. I then added a bit more honey until I reached a 15% alcohol potential.

I chose this number because I want a bit of a dry cyser. I’ll be doing more hydrometer readings from now on, simply because I think my meads have been great but a bit too sweet. I want a better understanding of how to “tweak” this parameter to achieve the desired sweet/dry end result.

For now, my stakes in the ground are that 15% potential will produce a reasonably dry mead; 20% will produce a reasonably sweet mead. 17.5% (what Harper generally recommends if you aren’t sure) is a great middle ground.

End result is interesting, it looks like cider with a hint of pink to it (from the sumac tea and the autumn berries):

Looking forward to trying this one, though I’m not sure how the aging process will go. Time will tell!


Finally racked the autumn berry cyser. Fermantation slowed down with the cooler seasons, plus I let it go a bit longer than usual (12 weeks). Final alcohol potential is under 1% but we’ll call it good at 1%. This means the cyser is 14% alcohol. Taste is exquisite, tartness from the cider, very little remaining sweetness. Very nice!

Here is the label for this batch:

This mead won First Place at the first annual Maine Pagan Meader’s Cup, for “Best Dry Mead.” It’s a private event, and was my first ever mead award! :-)