Mabon Moonlight Mugwort Mead

A shaman friend of mine, who also has the most infectious laugh I know (I do not think this is a coincidence), swears by mugwort. I remember him bringing a huge, 6′ tall smudge stick he had made out of mugwort to a large gathering a few years back and speaking with great respect, almost awe, of its herbal properties. Indeed, that was one of the best gatherings I remember.

When I was visiting him one day, I mentioned that I was using herbs other than hops to brew with. He told me I had to try a mugwort brew, and he gave me a couple ounces of dried mugwort he’d harvested in the wild.

I was waiting for the right time to brew with it, because I wanted to treat it with the respect a directive from a shaman deserves. Tonight is Mabon, the fall equinox, and is very near a full moon. Seems like as good a time as any.

There are many interesting things about Artemisia vulgaris, or Mugwort:

  • Mugwort is one of the nine herbs invoked in the pagan Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, recorded in the 10th century in the Lacnunga.
  • Much used in witchcraft, mugwort is said to be useful in inducing lucid dreaming and astral travel/astral projection. Consumption of the plant prior to sleeping is said to increase the intensity of dreams, the level of control, and to aid in the recall of dreams upon waking.
  • Mugwort is called chornobylnik in Ukrainian, and has given its name to the abandoned city of Chernobyl.
  • Mugwort has been used as a digestive aid and stimulant for ages.

I began by boiling 2 gallons of water, and I added about 2 ounces of the mugwort, continuing to simmer for about 15 minutes. I then turned off the heat, and added a sumac drupe. I stirred the infusion well, and let it sit for several hours until it cooled off to about 90 degrees. I did NOT use chaga in this mead, which is the first time in a while I have not done so.

From there, I used this tea as the base for my mead, using my standard mead recipe with 13 cups of honey (which somehow seemed appropriate). I’ve been wanting a bit drier meads as of late, and this should fit the bill.

Also, for the first time in a long time I took a hydrometer reading, and got 17% alcohol potential.

It has a rich, yellow-brown color:

Perhaps in a few months, I’ll be more active in dreamspace….

UPDATE: The autumnal equinox was about 90 minutes ago. The carboy spent the moment of the equinox (and still is) outside, bathing in the full moon light, the harvest moon.

UPDATE 12/12: Just racked it. This took a long time to ferment, probably because of the reduced temperatures. WOW! It’s delicious, a wonderful herbal mead. Potent, too. The final hydrometer reading is 3%, which means this mead is 14% alcohol.

As you can see, the mead is already somewhat clear:

Here’s the label for this batch:

Dry Vanilla Peach Mead

A friend of a friend hooked me up with some beautiful local peaches that were extremely ripe. I thought a Dry Vanilla Peach mead would be fantastic.

I wasn’t quite ready to brew with them when I got the peaches a few weeks ago, so we chopped them up (just enough to get the pits out) and froze them.

I used my standard mead recipe, with a few modifications:

  • I only used 3/4 gallon of honey (12 cups). This should result in the dryest mead I’ve yet made; I think the vanilla and peach flavors will offset the dryness nicely. At the very least, this will give me a new benchmark.
  • My liquid base was a chaga decoction, as usual made with mountain spring water I gathered myself, and wild-harvested chaga. I also used a Sumac infusion but I only used 1 drupe, and I let it steep for only a few hours. I’ve tasted the first 2 batches of mead made with sumac and while they are excellent, the tannin flavor of the sumac might be a bit too strong, so I backed off a bit.
  • I added 1 Tablespoon of ground raw, wildcrafted, vanilla beans. Obviously, vanilla is known in the west primarily for its flavor, but in addition to being one of the most exotic (and take for granted) flavors the world has known, “the mythology of the pre-Columbian Totonac tribe (who resided in what is now Mexico) refers to vanilla as an aphrodisiac.” This of course is right in line with what a good mead should be.
  • I whizzed 2 quarts, maybe a little more, of fresh local peaches, skins and all, in the vitamix, and strained it into the must. In retrospect I’m not sure straining was necessary since there was very little matter left in my strainer at the end. Better safe than sorry.
  • I heated the must a bit for the first time in a long time, mostly because the weather is cooling off quite a bit. I’m sure it never got anywhere near 90 degrees, but the honey did completely dissolve.

The result is a gorgeous, deep brown color:


UPDATE: When I racked this into 1-gallon jugs a week or two ago, I added whole vanilla beans to do an extraction of the vanilla essence. I’m anxious to see how well the tincturing works (ie, mead has less alcohol than 80 proof vodka for instance). Hopefully it will add a nice finish.

Here’s the label for this batch:

Meadmaking 102: Racking and Plonk

I wanted to expand a bit on what I wrote in my Basic Mead Recipe about the next steps in meadmaking, once primary fermentation is finished.

I generally brew 3 gallon batches, and once it’s brewed it generally will bubble steadily for 2-4 weeks, and then will take another week or three to completely stop bubbling. In addition, you will see an inch or three (depending on ingredients) of sediment at the bottom of the carboy. At this point, primary fermentation is finished. You can either leave it in the carboy until you are ready to bottle, but I generally don’t. Some argue that the mead will pick up off-flavors from being with the sediment, but my real motivation is to try my latest batch of mead right away!

I like to siphon the clear mead off the top of the sediment, into one-gallon jugs, for further aging/clarifying. I can always get 2 gallons of clear mead from each batch, and once they are in the jugs I put airlocks on them for further aging. This process, of siphoning fermentations from one carboy into another container, is called “racking.”

I never could get the knack of siphoning well, until I started using a carboy cap like this one:

carboy cap for easy siphoning
carboy cap for easy siphoning

This elegantly simple device allows you to easily siphon every time. Simply put a plastic hose or rod through the center, larger diameter hole so that it goes down into the mead below the top surface of the liquid, but above the sediment layer, and put the other end of the hose into the 1-gallon jug. Then simply blow air into the other, taller hole. The air pressure will force the mead up through the hose and into your other container. As soon as the liquid makes it into the smaller jug, you’ve started the siphon and it will go by itself.

In addition, I can usually get additional clear mead, and most often I drink it right away. This gives me a great idea of how the mead turned out. It’s nearly always delicious right off the bat (some batches are of course better than others), though each batch will definitely improve with age. When I first started making mead, I would drink pretty much all of the mead right away. Now that I generally have several batches going at a time, I am finally able to get some as far as bottling so that it actually can age. So nowadays I nearly always put back 2 gallons of clear mead for further aging, and drink whatever additional clear mead that I can get from the carboy.

What you are left with in the bottom of the carboy, ie, the sediment and some additional liquid, I have taken to call “plonk.” I got this term from Harper Meader but I think we might use it a bit differently. I keep a half-gallon plonk jar in the fridge, and all the plonk from all the batches goes into this jar. This is usually very thick with all the sediment, so I don’t usually drink it. Many meadmaking resources will tell you to throw this away, but I completely disagree: plonk is fabulous for cooking!

My favorite use for plonk is either as a marinade, or poured over meat of some sort that is either roasting, crock-potting, or simmering in a skillet. Let it cook down a bit (until the alcohol evaporates) and it’s a delicious additive. So far my favorite use of plonk was the sediment from my cacao mead (made before I started keeping a vigilant log here), poured over sauteed pork tenderloin medallions with veggies. Yum!

Another reason I like to keep the plonk: nutrition! There are a ton of nutrients there, between the dead yeast (proteins) and other compounds synthesized during fermentation (such as B-complex vitamins). You can learn more about the nutrients involved in fermentation in Stephen Harrod Buhner’s book Sacred And Herbal Healing Beers, and there is also a good summary of Buhner’s work in this article.

Elderberry Mead

It’s Elderberry season! A friend of mine hooked me up with some amazing locally grown organic elderberries from Heath Hill Farm in Sumner, Maine. So of course I had to do a mead with them.

The liquid base was a chaga decoction, followed by an infusion of 2 sumac drupes (for the tannic and citric acids). I let the liquid cool, and added 14 cups of honey, to go for a bit drier mead than what I’ve been getting with 16 cups (1 gallon).

I used about 2 pounds of elderberries, and whizzed up in the Vitamix. They had the most amazing hue:

elderberries whizzed in the VitaMix
Amazing vibrant color of whizzed elderberries

I then took this blend and strained it into the must:

Elderberry puree strained into the must
Elderberry puree strained into the must

After a good stir, to make sure everything is dissolved, I was left with a beautiful purple must:

swirly elderberry must
swirly elderberry must

Then, a good yeast-pitch, oxidizing shake, and an airlock, and this should be quite delicious in a few weeks:

Elderberry Mead
Elderberry Mead

UPDATE: here’s the label for this batch:

Mabon Harvest

OK, a little bit early for Mabon, but I’m rounding off.

25 bottles total: 10 Blueberry Mead, 5 Spruce Mead, 5 Goji Mead, and 5 Yarrow Mead.

I’ll get elderberries tomorrow, so I’ll be doing up a batch of Elderberry Mead in the next few days. Also, the apple orchard around the corner opened up this week…. cyser on the horizon!

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

Wild Black Cherry Mead

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.

Wild Berry Mead

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!

UPDATE: Finished label, with the new logo:

Wild Mead, First Experiment

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.