It’s been a while since I’ve made mead, and I had all 4 carboys available to me. So I decided to make 2 batches each of my current favorite flavors of mead: traditional and a bochet. The bochet is a traditional but with caramelized honey. And this time, thanks to a new smartphone, I took some footage and made a simple video:
The traditionals were made with my standard chaga sumac tea. I was low on sumac after that, so for the bochet I made a chaga decoction as usual, then steeped sumac and hibiscus in it.
Both batches were mixed up to about an 18% initial alcohol potential. But because I ran out of honey at the end, the 2 bochet batches are a bit smaller than usual. They came out nice!
The 2 on the left are the bochets, with the darker color. This will be a good harvest!
I haven’t made an Elderberry Mead in a long time. They are enigmatic to me; I love them, and use elderberries medicinally all the time, but their flavor is really bitter. The last time I worked with elderberries was to make an Elderberry Rosehip Mead which turned out quite nicely. And, five years ago I made the Elder Mead, which is powerful and complex (it also had Reishi in it which has a hugely bitter flavor).Â Last fall, someone near me was giving some away; they had a huge bush and more yield than they knew what to do with. So we picked up a few gallons and stored them in the freezer, where they sat for several months until I was finally ready to make them into a mead.
I put a chaga decoction on the stove and let it simmer overnight. The next morning I strained it and let it cool. As I usually do with berry meads, I decided to juice them:
I had about 2 gallons of berries, most of which were still attached to stems. No problem, the juicer separates everything away from the juice. 2 gallons of berries yielded just under a gallon of juice when run through our juicer:
Then, it was a simple matter of mixing up the juice, the chaga tea, and enough honey & water to give me 3 gallons of mead at 18% initial alcohol potential. I did a double batch, as always each batch is 3 gallons. So the first batch filled both carboys halfway, and the second batch filled them both up completely. I pitched a packet of Red Star Montrachet yeast rehydrated in a bit of chaga tea, and included 3 cups of strong black PG Tips tea in the second batch. The result was two 3 gallon carboys filled with beautiful that-which-will-become-mead:
It’s been nearly a year since I’ve made mead, so needless to say I’m excited to be back at it. I look forward to drinking this mead around a fire this winter!
It’s been a few years since I’ve made spruce mead, and it’s one of the more popular brews I do. I knew I’d do another batch this year, and when I tasted the Pine Barren honey from Fruitwood Orchard in New Jersey at The Honey Exchange, I knew I’d found the honey I’d use for the next Spruce Mead.
As I did last time, I began with a chaga decoction using some fresh spring water after a trip to the spring where I was enchanted by fireflies, the most I’d ever seen in Maine. Last time the chaga went beautifully with the spruce, so it’s worth repeating the recipe. After the chaga had been simmering for about 12 hours, I went out and harvested some new spruce growth, a bit beyond the “tips” stage, as they were last year:
When I brought the tips in, I rinsed them off and dumped them in with the chaga, to make a delightful-smelling herbal tea:
After the tips sat in the tea for about 30 minutes I strained it and let the tea cool down overnight.
The next day, I went to mix up the mead, starting with the pine barren honey and a little extra Maine wildflower honey. The Maine wildflower honey had crystallized, so I let them mingle together for a bit before adding the tea and dissolving:
After some elbow grease and stirring, I had a beautiful must ready to go:
I have 6 gallons in their new mini-ecosystems for fermentation:
I expect this batch of spruce to be as good as previous ones. It’s not my favorite tasting one (probably the traditionals or maybe some berries are), but this might be the most potent brew I do, since so much of the flavor comes right out of my immediate ecosystem — the spruce trees in my yard.
After finishing up the Luna Bochet yesterday, I still had some honey (not caramelized) and some chaga/sumac tea left over, so I thought I’d make up a quick traditional mead. Since today is the full moon, I thought I would name this batch after Mani, who is the Norse personification of the Moon.
I have been fascinated with Mani for some time, since I started studying the old Norse stories, mostly because Mani is male. Most other traditions depict the moon as female, which has become so familiar to me over the years that the idea of a male moon seemed strange. Interestingly, Mani’s sister, Sol, is the personification of the Sun, again going against what I had gotten used to in most other traditions with a male sun and a female moon.
The last of my honey bucket was quite crystalized, so I began by melting the honey a bit under some gentle heat, so that it would dissolve more quickly:
Once it was liquefied, I added the remaining chaga/sumac tea, then added a bit more water and honey, to get myself up to an 17.5% initial alcohol potential:
As I stirred, I could see symbols and shapes coalescing and dissolving in the thin layer of foam on top of the must. These swirls look almost like animations, and there are stories hidden within them.
Once the mixture was complete, I pitched the yeast, poured it into the carboy, shook it up, and now I have a batch of wonderful traditional mead, which has become my favorite kind of mead over the past few years:
For several years now, I’ve had my eye on doing a bochet, which is a mead made with cooked, caramelized honey. Note that this contradicts my meadmaking methodology for the most part — I am not an advocate of heating honey. There are too many wonderful things in honey that I don’t want to kill with heat, but the allure of the rich tones of flavor with a bochet was too much temptation. I had to try it.
Of course, I began with a chaga decoction in spring water that I let go for about 18 hours, tossing in a couple of staghorn sumac drupes for the final 15 minutes or so:
When the decoction was finished I strained it into an empty carboy, and cleaned out the stockpot for the process of cooking the honey.
Caramelizing the Honey
This is a tricky process. Honey, when it cooks, expands to nearly 3x its volume, so I had to make sure my 3 gallon stockpot had less than a gallon of honey inside. It is also essential to stir the honey constantly so it doesn’t burn. It’s a long process; I decided to cook the honey for about an hour. A small ordeal offering was in the works, during the cooking process a small amount of boiling honey splashed onto my hand and stuck to the skin, leaving a blister. Ah well; a gift for a gift.
I began with solid, crystalized honey, getting it into the pot to heat up and start melting:
As the honey heated up under gentle heat with regular stirring, it would start to foam a bit at the top. Just keep stirring:
Once the honey hits its boiling point, things start to happen very quickly. This is where it is most important to keep stirring, so as not to scorch the sugars, and the honey expands 3x to fill the pot within a matter of a few seconds. Do NOT leave this unattended! You could have a huge mess on your hands.
Once the honey is at this point, the real work begins. It’s important to CAREFULLY monitor the temperature of the flame and keep stirring. For an hour. Don’t let it stick or boil over. The sugars in the honey will begin to caramelize. Every 20 minutes, I took a sample of the honey:
It was interesting to follow the flavor development as the honey caramelized. In some ways, the first sample taken 20 minutes in had the most intense flavor; it seemed to mellow out and get richer as it aged, finally the bottom left, fully caramelized honey was wonderful.
At the end of an hour, I turned off the heat. The honey then contracts pretty quickly, within a few minutes. Very important — if you let it cool completely, you will end up with extremely thick honey many compare to roofing tar. Therefore it is important to add your liquid before you get to this stage. In my case I added the chaga/sumac tea, which was still warm. Adding hot water helps the mixture to not splash as much when you are adding the liquid:
I added 1 gallon of the warm tea (I’m saving the rest to finish off this batch, and to do another batch of plain traditional mead in the next day or two). Then, I VERY SLOWLY added some cool spring water, to get me up to close to 3 gallons.
Normally at this stage I would take a hydrometer reading to see where I am in terms of alcohol potential, but the mixture is still far too hot. Therefore, it went outside under the snow (with a lid on), and under the full moon behind the clouds. Within a couple of hours, it had cooled to blood temperature:
Finally I brought it back inside, adjusted the final levels to get me to an 18% initial alcohol potential, pitched the yeast, poured it into the carboy, and was left with this utter thing of deep brown loveliness:
Needless to say, I’m extremely excited to see how this one comes out in a few months! Hail!
2014 has been a slower year for meadmaking for me. There are a variety of reasons for this, and it’s OK. One of the issues is storage space…. I have to have physical space to store all the bottled mead I am aging!
But, it’s harvest time. This means berries in my part of the world. I got 2 quarts of lovely raspberries from a friend who had them growing, and my wife and I (mostly my wife) spent all summer picking blackberries as they were ripe from our property in the woods. So this time, I did 2 batches: Raspberry Harvest and Blackberry Harvest.
I began with my normal chaga decoction, with a staghorn sumac infusion. As always, this tea has a very rich color that looks like coffee, although it will fade somewhat in the final mead:
I ran into a bit of difficulty, because my honey had solidified/crystalized! Believe it or not, as common as it is, this had never happened to me. I started by dunking my bucket of honey into a sink filled with hot water, to gently heat the honey and cause it to melt, to make it more usable:
Even still, tonight’s meadmaking was much more labor intensive to get the solid honey to melt and dissolve easily. Once the honey was softer, I was ready to go.
Raspberry Harvest Mead
I added about 1.5 gallons of my chaga/sumac tea into my mixing pot, along with a quart of the most vibrant raspberry juice ever:
I then mixed the raspberry juice, the tea, and enough honey and additional water to get me to 3 gallons, with a 17.5% initial alcohol potential:
I can’t wait to see how this one comes out! I haven’t made a raspberry mead since the Raspberry Damiana Mead from 2011! These raspberries had a wonderful tartness to them, that should translate well into a semisweet or a sweet mead.
Blackberry Harvest Mead
I made the Blackberry Harvest Mead the exact same way, just with the different berries. I started with a quart of fresh blackberry juice:
Then, I added the juice, the chaga tea, and enough honey and extra water to get to a 17.5% initial alcohol potential:
Similarly, I haven’t made a Blackberry Mead that wasn’t a cyser since 2010!
Harvest Berry Meads
These will be fun. I didn’t use any additional herbs in these meads (apart from my customary chaga and sumac), so the flavors should be crisp and pure as they go. They look gorgeous:
I can’t wait to see — and taste — how these come out!
UPDATE: Feb 21, 2015
I finally racked these meads tonight. They are both delicious, and sweet, coming in at about 14.5% ABV with 3% remaining alcohol potential. The Raspberry Harvest has more overt fruit flavor, probably because raspberries have a more intense flavor than blackberries. The Blackberry Harvest is smoother at the moment. The color of the Raspberry is more vibrant as well, which isn’t a huge surprise. I can’t wait to see how they age!
It goes without saying that springtime is a season of rebirth. We are right at the end of this year’s spring thaw; there is still some snow on the ground (that actually came in quite handy today), and the mud is starting to harden up.
The onset of spring is particularly evident to a gardener, to one who works with the Earth in its fecundity to sustain the family and the tribe. My Uncle John was a gardener (among many other things). Uncle John passed away this morning (while the chaga sap decoction was simmering on the stove), and I’ve named today’s mead after him. Mead is a bridge to the past and the future. Humans have been making mead as far back in history as we can see, and a bottle of mead preserves its ingredients for posterity and future nourishment. Today, as I make mead, I am thinking of John. He was a good man, a beacon of kindness in his family and his community. Today my heart is with him, with my family, and with those who loved him. Hail!
It is sap season here in Maine, so I’m going to start with several gallons of freshly harvested maple sap from one of my wife’s coworkers who lives nearby. Apart from using sap instead of spring water, I am more or less replicating what has become my favorite mead recipe, Mad Trad D.
I did a long chaga decoction in 3 gallons of the sap, letting it go for almost 18 hours, with 1 sumac drupe infusing at the end (off the heat). Unfortunately our sink stopper seems to have abandoned the premises, so I had to improvise on cooling down the tea:
As you can see, I used one of the last patches of snow in the shade to cool the tea and it worked beautifully. After the tea was cool, I started the double batch, pouring half of the cooled, filtered tea into my 3 gallon stockpot:
I mixed in enough of the new bucket of Maine Wildflower 2013 honey I picked up recently to get to 18% alcohol. 2013 was a tough year for Maine apiaries, but this honey is fantastic. Some honey has an overtone of tartness to it, but this honey is much smoother than that, reminding me of smoke & caramel.
When the first batch was mixed up, mixing the 1.5 gallons of tea, with extra sap and enough honey to get to 18% alcohol potential, I split it equally into the 2 carboys, each with Red Star Montrachet yeast inside:
Then I mixed up the second batch to 18%, and poured it into the 2 carboys to top them off. The must (sugary liquid that will become mead) tasted fabulous, almost like a syrup. This should make an outstanding mead, which is no surprise. Uncle John was a great fermenter, and made the best pickles (cucumbers and onions) from the vegetables he’d grown himself. Therefore another fermentation dedicated to John is sure to come out spectacular.
I look forward to some time in the coming years when I gather again with John’s branch of my family. I will bring some of John’s Springtime Traditional Mead to share with them on that day, so that we can raise our glasses to John and remember him. Hail!
UPDATE, April 18: Stuck Fermentation
After these 2 batches had been sitting for several days, there still was no sign of fermentation; the airlock wasn’t moving at all and there were no tiny CO2 bubbles rising in the must. This is called a stuck fermentation, and it had never happened to me before!
After doing some research, I am pretty certain that the fact that the sap I used was cloudy is the culprit. This indicates the presence of microorganisms in the sap, and most likely they were interfering with the normal yeast activity. Cloudy sap is normally dealt with by cooking it down normally into maple syrup, where the cloudy sap produces Grade B Maple Syrup with its associated richer flavor reminiscent of caramel and molasses, and the presence of many more minerals.
As my regular readers will know, I do not recommend boiling the honey-liquid, the “must,” but in this case there was little choice. I emptied one of the carboys back into my stockpot, carefully brought it to a boil to kill off any microorganisms (including the yeast I’d pitched), cooled it down to blood temperature, and put it back into the carboy with some new yeast. Voila! This morning it was bubbling away normally! Great news.
Today I will take care of the other batch in the same way.
UPDATE: August 11
I racked the mead today, and it came out at 3% alcohol potential, which means it’s 15% ABV and sweet. It has a maltier flavor to it, presumably from the fact that the mead was boiled. This mead is already quite clear, so I will be bottling it soon.
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:
The juice was as vibrant as ever, and it eliminated the problem of seeds getting into the mead:
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:
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,
The Mead Workshop yesterday at The Honey Exchange went very well! Most of the attendees were experienced beekeepers, and one of them brought his own honey from his hives to make his mead. That was great! Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of either the workshop itself or the batch of mead that I made.
One of the things I stressed during the workshop is how lucky we are in the greater Portland community to have a resource like The Honey Exchange. By far, the biggest question I get from people contacting me about mead is “where do I get good honey?” With a resource like The Honey Exchange, who not only support local beekeepers with beekeeping supplies and extraction services, but also support the general public with a wide selection of varietal and artisan honeys and honey products — including a fine selection of commercial meads — it makes things a lot easier for those of us in this area. If you have any needs whatsoever related to honey or meads, go see Phil or Meghan at The Honey Exchange and they will take great care of you.
I had looked forward to making my first batch with a varietal honey. I always use good quality local honey, but it’s usually a somewhat “typical” wildflower honey. It’s great honey and there is nothing wrong with it by any means, but it was a treat to broaden my honey palette with this batch of mead.
Star Thistle (Centaurea maculosa)
The honey I ended up using comes from Sleeping Bear Farms in Michigan. Their Star Thistle Honey is gathered from the nectar of Star Thistle that only grow in northern Michigan in abundant quantities. It truly is locally produced for them, and ships out directly to Portland.
Apparently this species of Star Thistle is native to Eastern Europe and is an invasive species in North America. It is also called Spotted Knapweed and is interesting that there have been efforts to eradicate the species, but these efforts have been resisted by honey producers in the area because of the quality of honey it produces. There is also a good argument for keeping the species active in Michigan:
Star Thistle is a non-native plant, but one that has significant benefit. Primarily, it grows and blooms at a time of the year when there is little forage for honey bees. This period typically occurs around the end of June, after clover has finished flowering, and lasts for about 6 weeks. This nectar collection is vital for the survival of the honey bees, as they are busy storing food for the upcoming winter.
Star Thistle in Michigan is a fine example of how invasive species isn’t as cut & dry of an issue as we would think. Humans have so profoundly affected the ecosystems of the planet that I think the balance of nature will have to adjust. It is no surprise to me, then, that certain non-native plants thrive in an ecosystem like this.
As far as the honey itself goes, Star Thistle Honey is fantastic. It is thicker, with a very mellow, floral, musky, flavor to it. It is lighter than what I am used to, unfamiliar to my palate, which is accustomed to sweeter and fruitier Maine honey. It’s delightful to work with, and I look forward to seeing how this mead turns out.
I used the same Mad Trad D recipe I have been using, with a chaga/sumac decoction, and added enough honey to get to a 15% initial alcohol potential for a drier mead. So this mead will be a bit drier, and also the flavor profile of the honey should be different.
Interesting to note that I did not go home immediately after the workshop, so the carboy spent about 8 hours in my car, in 30-40 degree temperatures. As such it is starting slowly. I will watch it carefully over the next 48 hours as it warms back up; I may even artificially add some heat to it. If I need to do anything technique-wise I will document it here.
As you can see the color is a bit darker than other traditional meads I’ve done with Maine Wildflower honey, but we’ll see how it settles out. Much of the dark color is due to the chaga, which does tend to fade as the mead progresses.
UPDATE: March 26, 2014
I finally racked this version, now that I have some empty jugs after the recent bottling session. This mead is already mostly clear, and is delicious! It has 1% remaining alcohol potential, so it is quite dry, and is 14% ABV. There is only a subtle hint of that young dry mead harshness, this is probably the best young dry mead I’ve done yet. It is quite drinkable already, and I’m sure it will just improve with age. It has a lovely almost tartness (sumac?) as well as a somewhat caramel-y overtone that lingers in the mouth, reminiscent of aged mead. I’m kind of blown away at how good this is already!
I’ve noticed that in 2013, apart from doing fewer batches of mead overall, I’ve been dialing in and reproducing some of my favorite recipes from the past. I’ve spent several years experimenting with smaller batches, but this year I feel like I have some favorites dialed in, and am making more double-batches. I did this with the recent Mad Trad D2 mead, where I took my favorite sub-recipe from the Mad Trad Trial and made 6 gallons of it, rather than 2 different 3 gallon batches.
I’m doing the same with this batch; basically I’m reproducing last year’s Double Blueberry Mullein and making 2 batches of it. As previously, I made a strong chaga decoction, added black tea and a fistful of mullein at the end, and strained it. I had 5 pounds of blueberries, so each batch will get 2.5 pounds (it got 3 pounds last year). Also it is starting at 18% initial alcohol potential, rather than the 19% from last year which turned out to be quite sweet. It was one of my favorite batches from last year, so I hope this year’s turns out as well!
Logistically I tried something a bit newer as well. I didn’t carefully measure the blueberries to make sure each batch got exactly half; in addition, I was down to the end of my honey bucket so I wasn’t sure each batch would get the same initial alcohol potential (though as it turned out, my estimating was spot on!). Therefore, I decided to split the first batch among the 2 carboys, like this:
Then, I mixed up the second batch, and topped off both carboys. As always, the rehydrated yeast went in to each empty carboy first.
As it turned out, both batches came out exactly at 18% initial alcohol potential, so I’m not really sure this step was necessary, but it should make both batches much more similar.
In the end, I have 6 gallons of what will become another beautiful blueberry mead:
May this batch turn out as good — or better — than last years!
UPDATE: 15 December
I racked the mead tonight, and it is still wonderfully dark but mostly clear. It is semisweet, at 2% remaining alcohol potential, which means this brew is strong at 16% ABV. Definitely less sweet than last years. Already nice, but is dry enough to have a bit of bite that will surely mellow out over time. Success!
UPDATE: 21 March 2014
I have officially decided to re-name this batch Blueberry Bite Mead. :-)