Cherry Chaga Ginseng Mead

This past weekend was the Mead Workshop I hosted at my home. It went very well! However, I did do up a new batch of mead, and utterly forgot to take photographs of it until it was too late. Ah well. That said I’d like to document it here for posterity with as much info as I can provide.

I did a similar repeat to last year’s Cherry Red Ginseng Mead. I started with a chaga decoction, and added some more Red Ginseng Root (Panax ginseng) for the last hour of the decoction. I did not use any staghorn sumac this time, because I used a lot more chokecherries than I did last year, about a quart and a half. These are quite bitter so I didn’t worry about adding the tannins or the citric acid (the cherries also have some tartness to them).

With the decoction complete, I cooled the tea quickly in the sink, added enough honey to get to 18% alcohol potential, and put it up in the carboy. Let’s see how this one goes. :-)


I just racked the mead, and it is 6% residual alcohol potential. This means the mead is 12%ABV. It’s really good! Very similar to last year’s version, which I know will make some folks happy. :-)

Happy Strawberry Mead

This is my third year making mead using local, wild and/or organic berries in season. For this year’s strawberry mead I wanted to do something a little different; at the same time I pretty much have the berry meads dialed in to produce consistent and delicious meads. Some of my herbal meads I’ve experimented with over the past year or so have been a bit heavy-handed with the herbal flavor, so I wanted to back off a bit on the herbal ingredients, using herbs with gentler flavors.

For this mead, I wanted to use my now-customary chaga decoction as a base, and also repeat last year’s experiment with strawberry leaf tea, and also add some St John’s Wort, for without that it would be mere Strawberry Mead (which is actually delicious in itself).

St Johns Wort

St Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is one of the more well-known herbs used in our culture, since it is very effective in treating one of the more widespread psychological dis-eases in our culture: depression. According to Mountain Rose Herbs,

Originally native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia, St. John’s wort is a perennial plant with bright yellow star-shaped flowers are now readily found throughout North America, growing wild in neglected fields and along roadsides. St. John’s wort rose from virtual obscurity in the U.S. to become the fifth best selling dietary supplement in mainstream retail stores. Its rise to fame came after the national media reported clinical research showing that it was safe and effective for treating mild to moderate depression, and the Greek physician Hippocrates (ca. 460-377 B.C.E.) was one of the first to speak of the health benefits of St. Johns Wort, and it as been used to treat anxiety, neurosis, and depression since the time of Paracelsus (ca. 1493-1541 C.E.), when it was declared to be “arnica for the nerves.” In addition to its value as a psychiatric treatment, Some of the original folklore uses of this versatile plant were in treating bedwetting, rheumatism, and gout.

In addition to its widespread use and lore, I do have some personal experience with this plant, having used it to to self-medicate for mild depression issues a few times in my life.

One additional use that is gaining notoriety is in using St Johns Wort as part of an herbal smoking mixture. I don’t have any personal experience with this but it is something I may experiment with.

Interestingly, one of the side effects of St Johns Wort is that it can make one more susceptible to sunburn and UV from the sun in general. However, this seemed somehow appropriate given the sunny disposition of this strawberry mead.

The Process

I began as is common for me these days with a 12-hour chaga decoction. At the end of the 12 hours I turned off the heat, added 3 organic black teabags for the tannic acid, a few fistfuls of chopped St Johns Wort, and finally a good fistful or two of dried strawberry leaves from last year’s harvest:

Tea with decocted chaga, 3 organic black tea bags, St Johns Wort and Strawberry Leaves infused.

I let this steep for about 10 minutes, and then began to cool the must. Too cool it, I used the new technique I tried recently with the Bar Mills Braggot, putting the stockpot into a sinkful of cold tap water. This technique works very well!

Placing the stockpot with hot tea into a sinkful of cold water will cool the must down about 30 degrees each time it is repeated. It is very effective!

Once the tea had cooled, I strained it and was ready to make the mead. The main ingredients are honey, the tea, and a quart of strawberries:

From left, a gallon of honey, about 1.5 gallons of tea, and a quart of strawberries in the blender.

First I strained the blended strawberries into the tea:

Straining the blended strawberries into the must.

Afterward, I added enough honey (about 14 cups) to bring the must up to about 17.5% alcohol potential:

Enough honey added to a 17.5% initial alcohol potential.

Once everything was mixed well, I poured the rehydrated yeast into the bottom of the carboy, added the must on top of it, shook it well to mix and oxidize it, and capped it with an airlock:

Yeast pitched, must transferred to carboy, everything mixed and oxidezed..... Happy Strawberry Mead!

As I write this 24 hours later,  it is happily bubbling away.

Root Mead

I never remember being a huge fan of root beer when I was a kid. I’d drink it, but the unusual, deep-root flavors were a bit much for my young, Standard American Diet, unevolved palate. It was sweet, though, so I’d drink it.

When I got older, I learned that root beer — with sassafras root as the primary ingredient — was a uniquely American beverage, and that people have been using this herb to make beverages on this continent for a very long time. Naturally, I wanted to make a mead based on this centuries-old technique of root beer.

There are a few ingredients I wanted to use. The obvious one is sassafras root, because it’s been the main traditional ingredient in root beer for a very long time. In addition, sarsaparilla has been used quite a bit in root beers, so it felt natural to include it here as well. Lastly, spikenard root is another herb local to my northern New England ecosystem that has a similar flavor. We begin with details on these three ingredients.


Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is one of the primary medicinal herbs of the American continent, having been used for hundreds (if not thousands) of years by the indigenous people, as well as European colonists, both medicinally and for tonic, tasty beverages. In nineteenth-century herbal medicine, it was regarded as “a tonic, blood purifying herb, an aromatic stimulant, warming, diaphoretic, diuretic, and alterative,” which means that “it helps liver function, helps cleanse the bloodstream of accumulated tocins from a monotonous winter diet, and provides a warming stimulation to all parts of the body” (Buhner 302-303).

In recent years, there has been some controversy over whether or not sassafras is carcinogenic, since it was categorized by the FDA as such in the late 20th century. Indeed, there is some carcinogenic activity in safrole, which is the main volatile oil in sassafras. This categorization is in conflict with the fact that sassafras has been used extensively by indigenous people for generations; furthermore, these populations had very little incidence of cancer in general. Buhner notes that “the FDA ban [on sassafras] is thus, like many FDA bans, absurd,” because the safrole in a 12-ounce can of old-fashioned root beer is not as carcinogenic as the ethanol in a can of beer. I leave to the reader to decide, but I have no problem emulating our ancestors in my beverage preparation.


Sarsaparilla (Smilax regelii), also known as China root, was another medicinal root used extensively by North American healers for generations. In the early 19th century it became an in-demand ingredient in Europe and the UK, and there was a lively export trade around this species indigenous to North America.

It has a lovely scent and flavor, and is a tonic for the whole body. According to Buhner, “it has been found to possess antibiotic and antimicrobial activity and is useful in digestive complaints, for fevers, as a diuretic, and for hypertension” (Buhner 284).


I first heard about Spikenard Root (Aralia racemosa) from my friend and botany expert Arthur Haines. When I mentioned to him that I was doing a root mead, he said right away that I should include spikenard, since it is similar in flavor and effect to the above two more common herbs, and is indigenous to northern New England.

I was surprised at the lore of spikenard, since I’d never heard of the plant until Arthur mentioned it:

“Known since ancient times, spikenard is named in the Old Testament as one of the ingredients in the incense burned in the holy temple of Jerusalem. The powdered root is cited in some Islamic traditions as the forbidden fruit Adam ate in the garden of Eden against God’s wishes. In medieval Europe spikenard was part of the spice blend used in Hypocras, a sweetened wine drink” (from Mountain Rose Herbs).

 The Process

I began this mead as I do with so many of my meads, with a chaga decoction. Chaga adds a beautiful dark color, and a very delicate maple/vanilla flavor to a mead, which I thought would go beautifully with the root beer flavor. I put 2 gallons of spring water and maybe a fistful of chaga chunks into my 3 gallon stockpot, brought it to a boil, and then reduced the heat, allowing it to simmer for about 6 hours. Then, I added 1c each of Sassafras and Sarsaparilla, and 1/2c of Spikenard:

Chaga, Sassafras, Sarsaparilla, and Spikenard decoction

I let this simmer for another 2 hours, before turning the heat off and cooling down the decoction, by dunking the stockpot into a sinkful of cold tap water. I let the tap water around the stockpot warm up, drawing the heat out of the decoction, then drained the sink, then repeated the process twice to complete the cooling. I’m actually quite pleased with how will this works, it reduces the tea to room temperature within an hour or so at most.

Once the decoction was cool, I strained it, cleaned out my stockpot, and returned the very darkly colored tea into the stockpot. I then added enough honey and extra spring water to bring it to a full 3 gallons, at 19% alcohol potential (I want this root mead to be sweet, like root beer):

Sorry for the slight blur. This is just about 19% initial alcohol potential.

I then added the must, along with the rehydrated Red Star Montrachet yeast into a 3 gallon carboy, shook it well to mix/oxidize the must, and capped it off with an airlock.

24 hours later (as I write this) it is happily bubbling away. This should be another very interesting experiment, and as always I look forward to sampling the results!

UPDATE: July 28

This mead cleared very quickly! By the time I racked it 5 weeks in it was pretty close to clear enough to bottle. Very cool! It comes in at around 4% remaining alcohol so it is quite sweet, and stands at about 15% alcohol. It’s delicious! Already very much a success, and it will only get better as it mellows a bit with age.

I’m thinking about tossing a vanilla bean in to each jug to further smooth the flavor.

Mad Trad – Not Half Bad!

Well it turns out, in the Mad Trad Trial, the 2 batches I did with chaga (B and D) cleared much more quickly and were ready to bottle. I really needed the space for new brews so I decided to bottle Mad Trad B and Mad Trad D.

They came out beautifully clear:

Mad Trad B and Mad Trad D were ready to bottle before the others.

Mad Trad A and Mad Trad C, along with the Perry Cyser, are still clearing. When they are ready to bottle watch this space for new batches….

Bar Mills Braggot

I think of a braggot as a type of mead, but actually it is more like half-mead, half-beer. It is mead made with some of the fermentable sugars having come from grains, as opposed to honey. This is not the first braggot detailed on this site; my friend and meadmaking mentor Harper Meader posted his recipe for Raspberry Braggot a couple of years ago.

Note that with braggots, we can accurately use the term “brewing” for the process, since we are extracting fermentable sugars from the grains. Despite this, I regularly use the term “brewing” as it applies to mead; since the vast majority of the time I am beginning with some sort of tea rather than plain water, I feel I can justify using the term.

I was very pleased that this batch of braggot meant I got to spend time in Bar Mills, Maine with my good friend Kevin (you can see his blog here if you are interested). We had spent time brewing beers together several years ago, right up until I fell in love with mead and pretty much stopped doing beers. Kevin has been making beer for a long time, and I learned a lot from him, so it was nice to spend time with him in brewspace once again.

One difference in this batch and Harper’s recipe is that he used malt extract, which is a commercially-available, thick, syrupy extract in liquid form, where the fermentable sugars have been extracted industrially. Since I can remember, Kevin has preferred to make beer using whole grains, as opposed to malt extract syrup. In his experience the whole grain brews give a richer, more complex, and better overall flavor. I wasn’t about to argue with him, and when I wanted to try a braggot I knew I would be picking his brain on how to do it whole grain style.

The grain in question for most beers (and braggots) is barley. There are many varieties of barley that can be used, each of which has its own color and flavor profile. Kevin was planning a batch of Traditional English Bitters Ale, and had acquired the appropriate strains of barley to use in this recipe, so I thought I’d adapt them for this braggot.

We began with 64oz (4 pounds) of grains. Most of the grains were Maris Otter Barley, with about 1oz of British wheat and 5oz of British Crystal Malt mixed in to achieve the flavor profile for the ale he is brewing. We began by measuring out 64oz of the barley mixture:

64oz total of 3 different types of barley were called for in this recipe.

The first step in brewing is to begin to activate the enzymes which will extract the sugars from the grain — a process called “Mashing” (there is lots of jargon associated with making beer — bear with me and I will try to explain all the terms as they come up). To do this, you must put the barley in water that has reached a certain temperature, and maintain that temperature long enough for the sugars to come out. In this case, we want to mash our barley at 150°F for 90 minutes.The temperature is important; too low and the mashing will not occur; too high and other things get released from the barley which affects the flavor.

We wanted to end up with about 2.5 gallons of “wort” (this is the sugar-rich liquid that will eventually become beer — akin to the term “must” with meadmaking), and later in the process we will be boiling down the liquid to reduce it, therefore we started with 4 gallons of spring water in a very large, 8 gallon stockpot:

4 gallons of spring water

Because the barley will cool down the water a bit when it is added, we heated the water up to about 160°F so that it would be right at 150°F after the barley was added:

Mashing in progress! This will extract the fermentable sugars from the barley grains.

After you add the barley to the 160°F water (and it cools down to 150°F more or less instantly), the biggest concern is maintaining a constant temperature for 90 minutes. We accomplished this by preheating the oven to 170°F, turning off the heat, and putting the “mash tun” (this is simply the stockpot in which mashing occurs) into the warm oven.

After the time is up (90 minutes in this case), the next step is to heat the wort up to 170°F, which will put a stop to the mashing process:

After mashing, heat the wort/grains up to 170°F to stop the extraction process.

While the wort was heating to 170°F, I had some time to plan ahead. Normally with beer, a bittering agent is added at the next stage, and the vast majority of time over the past 500 years, that bittering agent has been hops. However, I’m not a huge fan of using hops for reasons that have been well documented (see Stephen Harrod Buhner’s work, where he describes the xeno-estrogenic, soporific, and sedative effects of hops). Instead, I am using Reishi, which is very bitter and works well in meads. Reishi is tough and difficult to cut without a good knife, but I had my Becker BK2 with me and it make short work of the reishi.

The Becker BK2 makes short work of the reishi, which is tough and can be difficult to cut without a good, heavy-duty knife.

The next step is to separate the liquid wort from the spent barley grains. Traditionally, this has been doing using a technique called “sparging,” which is where 168°F water is gently sprinkled over the spent grains, and allowed to drain out the bottom of the container. This is a very complex process, but it gets every last bit of fermentable sugars out of the grains. However, it is time-consuming, labor intensive, and requires the use of extra fossil fuels to heat the extra water up.

Kevin had heard about a new Sparge-Free method that he wanted to experiment with. Instead of sparging, you simply strain the water out using a scoop, and use use a little bit extra grains to compensate for the extra sugars extracted through the sparging process:

In the sparge-free method we are using, we simply strain the wort off, filtering out the spare barley grains so we are left with just liquid.

Once the wort has been separated, it needs to be boiled, both to add the bittering agents (the Reishi described earlier), as well as to reduce the volume of the liquid, thus increasing the concentration of sugar:

Add the reishi, and boil for a while to both reduce and to extract bitterness from the reishi. Hops are much more commonly used, but I prefer reishi.

After the wort had boiled for about 90 minutes, it had reached about 2.5 gallons which is what I was looking for. However, at the end of this process, it is important to cool down the wort quickly; if it lingers at too high a temperature it invites bacteria to come in and infect the wort. There are sophisticated wort chillers on the market (which are actually really ingenious) but we ended up just putting the pot into a sinkful of cold water and soaking it, to bring down the temperature:

After boiling, it's important to cool the wort down quickly so it does not get infested with bacteria. We used cold water in the sink.

We drained the sink water 3 times until the wort cooled down to below 80 degrees. At this point we called it a day, and I returned home with a carboy full of wort.

Once I got home, I measured with a hydrometer and found that I had about 5% alcohol potential. At this point, I could simply add yeast, let it ferment, and when it was done I would have a very nice ale. However, this is to be a braggot, not an ale, so I added enough honey to bring the total alcohol potential up to 12%. This alcohol potential is a bit lower than what I usually go with for a mead, but for a braggot I think it will leave a nice flavor. Any beer that is more than 9 or 10% has a very strong flavor (at least of the one’s I’ve sampled) and I want this to be very drinkable. So 12% it is:

12% total alcohol potential after honey was added

Lastly, the yeast was pitched, I added the wort/must into the carboy, shook it up well to oxidize, and sealed it off with an airlock:

Bar Mills Braggot, ready to ferment!

And there you have it! After reading this post you will know how to make beer from whole grains, in addition to braggot. Thanks again to Kevin for sharing his process with me!

From here, the process will be similar to any other mead; I’ll let it go until fermentation slows/stops, then I will rack it, allow it to clear, and I will bottle it, most likely into grolsch bottles. I doubt if I’ll use my traditional wine bottles, simply because braggot should be consumed while fresh, and not aged like other meads.

UPDATE: June 26. Racking.

To my surprise, this batch finished primary fermentation in about 2 weeks. The fermentation was very fast compared to normal mead; this is because there is much more yeast nutrients in the grain sugars than in plain honey. The airlock was literally bubbling 4-6x faster for this batch than it normally does. I racked this into another glass carboy on June 26, at which point I took an 11% alcohol potential reading.

UPDATE: July 8. Bottling.

I bottled the braggot tonight. Unfortunately most of the pictures I took didn’t come out, but I will explain the process. It’s a bit different for a braggot, because we want it to carbonate inside the bottle. This is accomplished by adding fresh sugar — called “priming sugar” — for the yeast to ferment inside the bottle; since the bottle is airtight (with a cap), the carbon dioxide cannot escape and instead dissolves inside the liquid. Typically, beers that have been “bottle conditioned” in this way are ready to drink in a week or two after bottling.

Specifically, I had some leftover dried malt extract that I could use as a priming sugar:

Dried malt extract, to be added as a priming sugar to carbonate the braggot.

The formula I used comes from Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy Of Homebrewing. For 2.5 gallons of braggot (or beer), I need 5/8c of malt extract for a priming sugar. I dissolved this sugar into about a cup of spring water:

5/8c of dried malt extract dissolving into 1c of water

I heated this up enough to get all the sugar to dissolve. Then I poured this sugar water into the bottom of a plastic brewing vessel with a valve at the bottom, that I used to use regularly when bottling beers. Then, I siphoned the braggot into this same vessel, so that the sugar water would evenly dissolve. From there, I was able to fill each bottle with a siphoning tube just by using the valve, without having to siphon:

8 grolsch bottles, 6 twelve-ounce bottles, and 4 twenty-two ounce bottles

You can see the result in the above photo, I got 14 12oz bottles, and 4 22oz bottles all told, including losing some of it due to being careless and having a bigger than usual spill. :-(

The braggot tastes delicious now, though it is flat; I can’t wait to try it in a week or two once it’s carbonated!

Mad Trad Racking

The first stage of the Mad Trad Trial is complete. Tonight I racked all 4 batches into jugs, so that they will have a chance to clear before bottling. It was nice to do, because I got a chance to test each batch.

To refresh, I did 4 batches of traditional mead, all with very slight variations on the same basic recipe. To recap, and to provide new data, I present the following photo, with observations below:

From left, Mad Trads D, C, B, and A. Note that the chaga was used in D and B, and these 2 are the darker of the 4. The lighting in this photo is imperfect so the colors aren't completely accurate, but this conveys the general idea.

Mad Trad A

This batch was the most basic recipe doing things the way I was taught. It is the closest to a traditional mead, in that it uses water, honey, yeast, and a small amount of orange juice for the citric acid and black tea for the tannic acid. Like all the Mad Trads, the initial alcohol potential was 18%. The remaining alcohol potential is now 6%, which means this is 12% alcohol and still very very sweet.

The flavor is already excellent with a bit of that young mead harshness. The sack mead sweetness helps cover it up. The flavor of the oranges and the various notes from the honey used predominate the flavor. All in all it is a very fine, very sweet mead, but it was actually my least favorite of the bunch.

Mad Trad B

This batch was the same as the previous batch except it was made with chaga tea instead of plain spring water. The color is a bit darker, and the flavor is a bit richer. In addition, fermentation was better because this is just 4% remaining alcohol potential (after starting at 18%).

This mead is a very pleasant sweet mead, at 14% alcohol. The chaga gives the flavor more smoothness and richness. The orange and the honey are still the dominant flavors, but this one has a different layer than Mad Trad A that I find appealing. This was my 3rd favorite of the 4 at this stage.

Mad Trad C

This batch is the same as Mad Trad A, except it uses sumac rather than orange juice and black tea. It too started off at 18% alcohol potential and is now at 4%, so it too is pleasantly sweet.

The flavor here with the sumac was very light and crisp, but the honey was still very predominant. In a sense, the sumac let the honey flavor out better than the orange, which tended to dominate the flavor. This was the second best of the 4 at this stage.

Mad Trad D

This batch had both sumac and chaga, and was my favorite of the bunch. It too started off at 18% alcohol potential and is now at 4%, so it is also pleasantly sweet.

Mad Trad D has the richness of Mad Trad B, and the crispness of Mad Trad C. This was my favorite of the 4. It has the most complex, and also yet the most balanced flavor of the 4.

Next Steps

From here, these 8 gallons of Traditional Mead will settle out in their jugs before bottling, pictured here with 2 gallons of Perry Cyser that are also still clearing:

From left, 2 gallons each of Perry Cyser, Mad Trad A, Mad Trad B, Mad Trad C, Mad Trad D

This will make 48-50 bottles of mead as soon as it clears…. hopefully soon!

UPDATE, 10 May 2012

Mad Trad B is already clearing significantly! I have 2 gallons in jugs, and another half-gallon-ish in a large bottle. All 3 are clearing, and none of the other jugs are. This is what it looks like now (saving the 2 gallon jugs for bottling, this is out of the large bottle):

Mad Trad B

It will be interesting to see how the rest of them clear…. Mad Trad B was made with chaga, and with black tea & oranges.

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!

Elder Mead

If we wish to honor our Elders — our ancestors; our blood-roots — then we can do well to learn from their wisdom. Their wisdom honors us, if we are attentive to it. In some way, I regard Elderberries, Reishi Mushrooms, and Rose Hips as Herbal Elders. Our Elders used these plants/fungi considerably. These herbs have been our companions as humans for a very long time.

All three of them have profound healing properties on some level, all working in close harmony with our immune systems, strengthening and regulating them when they are out of balance. All three herbs are abundant this time of year, going into the cooler months where we are more likely to benefit from their properties. And all three have been used to strengthen the immune system, aid in healing sickness, in many traditions and cultures worldwide, all over the planet, for millennia.

I wanted to bring all of these Elders together in a mead. This chronicle will start with the ingredients used first.

Reishi (Ganoderma tsugae)

“Reishi is that age old medicine cited thousands of years ago in several texts and scripts as being a tonic for emperors. At one time this mushroom was specifically used under the prestigious vestiges of the ruling class, but it has since made its way into the pantries of us common folk. Traditional and contemporary Chinese medicine admire it as a tonic benefiting vital energy or “Qi”, and it is popularly prescribed for a multitude of maladies.”

Reishi seems like an elder to me. It has been in use for thousands of years; its Chinese name translates to “mushroom of the spirit” or “supernatural mushroom.” There is a wisdom to this “immortality” fungus that western scientists are just beginning to wonder about.

Much has been written about Reishi; there are plenty of places to learn about it. I won’t repeat any more here, other than to say Reishi is one of my absolute favorite herbs to work with. Its decocted taste is extremely bitter, so I’ve wanted to incorporate it into a brew for a while now. Elder Mead seemed an obvious choice.

I began by chopping up my reishi into tiny pieces, to increase their surface area which will allow more medicine to be in the tea:

Reishi can be tough to cut, but the newly-sharpened Becker BK-2 makes short work of it.

I put the reishi into 2 gallons of spring water, brought it to a simmer, and let it decoct for about 10 hours.

Rose Hips (Rosa canina)

Rose Hips to me embody the wisdom of the divine feminine, our Mother-Elders have an unbroken, living lineage back to the dawn of time. Their scent conjures springtime, and they look over us, nourishing us with vitamin C and their other, many nutrients. Bringing this mother-herb into this mead was a no-brainer.

Right at the end of the Reishi decoction, I put the (frozen, then thawed, to soften their skins) rose hips into the tea and let everything (hot water, reishi bits, rose hips) infuse and cool overnight. The next morning, I strained the tea, which was a gorgeous, clear color tasting both bitter and tart:

Reishi (decoction) Rose Hip (infusion) tea.

Once the tea cooled to blood temperature, I was ready to put everything else together.

Elderberry (Sambucus Nigra)

Elderberry is one of my favorite berries to brew with. 2010’s Elderberry Mead was one of my favorites of the year, both in terms of taste and in terms of its effects on the body. Elderberries are extremely medicinal, with a long history of medicinal lore not only from the past, but also right up through the present, where its “H1N1 inhibition activities… compare favorably” to other known flu medications. Elderberry syrup is one common way to get this fantastic medicine into our bodies, but mead works just as well, and might last longer.

I got some gorgeous, purple elderberries:


I did the usual; I whizzed these up in the VitaMix and then strained it into the must. This time, however, I did something different with the mark; after I strained it I saved the pulp and the seeds, put the mark into a small (leftover Rite Chocolate) jar and then covered it all up with vodka. I’ll let this tincture for a few weeks, strain it, then mix it with honey to make an Elderberry Cordial:

Making an elderberry tincture with the leftover pulp and a bit of vodka.

I’ll report back as to how the tincture goes.

Then, I mixed in enough honey to get up to a 17% initial alcohol potential:

Transfer everything to the carboy, give a good shake, label it, and clean up the bit of mess, and we’re good to go:

Elder Mead, with Reishi, Rose Hips, and Elderberries

Here’s one for the Elders. Tonight I raise my horn to you. Hail to the Blood Roots! Hail to the Mud Roots! May your wisdom bestow us with health in the coming cold months….


This is quite dry, and very bitter from the reishi! Nice! 1% remaining alcohol potential, which means this is quite strong at 16% alcohol. This one is very complex and very nice…. should just get better as it ages.

Chaga Pyment

I’ve wanted to make a pyment for a while now. Pyment is simply one of the fancy names for mead variants (such as melomel, metheglin, cyser, etc) that refers to mead made with grape juice. I was going to do a pyment last season, but never did — apparently I was distracted by the plethora of choice ingredients available for mead at this time of year when grapes are ripe in this climate. However this year, after a phone call from a friend alerting me to a patch of wild Concord Grapes, I finally had a good chance to do so.

Concord Grapes (Vitis labrusca) were developed nearby (in Concord, MA) in the mid-19th century:

Experimenting with seeds from some of the native species, Boston-born Ephraim Wales Bull developed the Concord grape in 1849. On his farm outside Concord, down the road from the Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Alcott homesteads, he planted some 22,000 seedlings in all, before he had produced the ideal grape. Early ripening, to escape the killing northern frosts, but with a rich, full-bodied flavor, the hardy Concord grape thrives where European cuttings had failed to survive. In 1853, Mr. Bull felt ready to put the first bunches of his Concord grapes before the public — and won first prize at the Boston horticultural Society exhibition. From these early arbors, fame of Mr. Bull’s (“the father of the Concord grape”) Concord grape spread world-wide, bringing him up to $1,000 a cutting, but he died a relatively poor man. The inscription on his tombstone states, “He sowed–others reaped.”

These grapes are hardy, and can be found in abundance in New England, having been cultivated here for many decades. Indeed, it sometimes seems that the grapes outlast the abandoned human settlements where they were first planted. I found a patch in an urban setting, and harvested about 2 quarts:

about 2 quarts of wild grapes

The grapes have seeds in them of course, and while there is a bit of sweetness to them, the overwhelming flavor is tartness/sourness. It will be a nice counterbalance to the sweet honey. After harvesting, I blended the grapes in the blender, and then strained them into the 2 gallon chaga decoction I had made previously:

straining the grape juice into the must

I then added about 14 cups of honey, enough to get me up to a 17% alcohol potential:

under all the foam, the hydrometer reads 17%

Normally with meads, one must add various acids (citric and tannic), but grapes contain both of these, so I just went simple: chaga decoction, spring water, honey, and grapes. The result is a beautifully rich colored brew:

Beautiful chaga pyment

I look forward to this one! I have only tried a few pyments, and really want to explore this further. Now I’ll have a chance!


This one is fruity and beautiful. It is sweet at 4% remaining alcohol potential, and is 13% alcohol.