I had my first bottling session in a while today. That’s kind of what happens when your production rates slow down as they have the past couple of years. Only 24 bottles, but boy are they purty. I got 10 bottles each of Blackberry & Raspberry Harvest, and another 4 bottles of Longest Night Blackberry Cyser. Yum. Used up the last of my clear bottle stash also.
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 Máni, who is the Norse personification of the Moon.
I have been fascinated with Máni for some time, since I started studying the old Norse stories, mostly because Máni 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, Máni’s sister, Sól, 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:
Hail Máni on this night of the full moon!
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!
The last meadmaking workshop at The Honey Exchange in Portland was a great success, and sadly we had to turn people away at the door! We have rescheduled another class to accommodate the great interest in meadmaking. Needless to say I’m very happy to help foster more meadmakers in the world!
On Saturday, January 24, 2015 from 1:30-4:30pm, I will be teaching a “From Alcohol to Alchemy – the Lore and Craft of Mead” workshop. Class registration is $50. Complete meadmaking kits are on sale for $75, and a variety of bulk honey is available starting at $50 per gallon (enough to start your first 3 gallon batch of mead.)
This workshop will include:
- A talk on the Lore, history, cultural, and nutritional aspects of mead
- A copy of The Lore And Craft of Mead eBook
- A demonstration as I brew up a batch of mead
- An (optional) opportunity to acquire your brewing gear and make your first batch of mead under expert supervision, keeping both the gear and the mead you make! I will provide 2-3 gallons of freshly gathered spring water for everyone making mead at no additional charge.
To register or for more information, call Phil or Meghan at The Honey Exchange, 207-773-9333.
This class is limited to 6 people for space, so register quickly before this one fills up too!
Today’s meadmaking workshop at The Honey Exchange in Portland was a great success. We rescheduled the date, and on the new date it sold out so quickly I didn’t even get a chance to publicize it here. There are six new meadmakers in the world as of today!
One of the nice things about working with the Honey Exchange is that they stock a large assortment of varietal honeys; you can tell by the different colors of each batch here. One gentlemen made a raspberry mead with some raspberries he brought, everyone else made a traditional mead…. but they all look different!
It was a full house today, with all 6 attendees making mead. Sadly we had to turn a few people away for lack of space…. which of course gives us some solid motivation to have another workshop soon. Watch this space, it could be as soon as January 2015.
Thanks to all the attendees!
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!
UPDATE, Oct 8:
For a variety of reasons, this workshop is going to be rescheduled for later in the fall. Watch this space for details!
I am happy to announce that I will be giving a “From Alcohol to Alchemy – the Lore and Craft of Mead” workshop at The Honey Exchange in Portland, Maine on Saturday, October 11, 2014 at 10:30am.
Class registration is $50. Complete meadmaking kits are on sale for $75, and a variety of bulk honey is available starting at $50 per gallon (enough to start your first 3 gallon batch of mead.)
- A talk on the Lore, history, cultural, and nutritional aspects of mead
- A copy of The Lore And Craft of Mead eBook
- A demonstration as I brew up a batch of mead
- An (optional) opportunity to acquire your brewing gear and make your first batch of mead under my supervision, keeping both the gear and the mead you make!
Call the store to sign up, or for more information: 207-773-9333. Or, for the Facebook denizens in the house, you can get more info there.
Space is limited, so register soon!
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.
It’s been a quiet winter; I took much of it off on somewhat of a sabbatical from social media and blogging. But mead continues in the background, and it was a bit overdue for time to bottle. I had two delicious batches cleared up and ready to go: Chaga Spruce Mead and Blueberry Bite Mead.
I had run out of bottles, and a snafu at a bottle supplier delayed me a bit, but finally I had everything in hand. One difference is that these days I’m paying the $0.50 per page to get the labels laser printed, which makes a big difference in the quality of the label.
I’m grateful for this harvest, particularly in light of the bad year for honey in 2013. It’s not as available as it has been in the past, but I am hopeful 2014 will be a better year for the honeybees and those who care for them.
New bottles means empty jugs, which means racking some of the other batches I have going. Watch this space for updates.
Our meadmaking eBook is available:
Herbal Asthma Strategies with Sean Donahue is also available:
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