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.
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,
Lalvin Rhône 4600® was selected by Inter-Rhône’s technical department after three years of research.The purpose of the study was to select a strain, which would be particulary suited for the production of elegant and fruity white wines, but also being appropriate for rosé wines. Lalvin Rhône 4600® has the qualities required to successfully ferment musts with high sugar and low assimilable nitrogen contents, and a high alcohol tolerance.It enhances wine fruitiness with pineapple and apricot aromas.
In short, have 6 gallons of beautiful cyser ready for primary fermentation:
I can’t wait to see how this comes out with the new yeast and the tweaked recipe!
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’m really looking forward to this event for a lot of reasons, but the main one is in working with all the incredible varietal honeys that they have available! I’ve always used high quality local honeys, but The Honey Exchange gives me (and you!) access to much more exotic honeys for use in fermentation.
As always, 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 my supervision, keeping both the gear and the mead you make!
Registration for the workshop is $50. The (optional) brewing equipment kit is $75, and you can choose from the varietal honeys available.
To reserve your spot, call Phil at The Honey Exchange at 207-773-9333.
I look forward to seeing you there!
I’m excited to announce that my next meadmaking workshop is set up and ready to go in Portland, Maine on Saturday, November 16 at The Honey Exchange. The Honey Exchange is a fabulous resource for meadmakers in the area, because they offer a very wide variety of honey to use in our meads! You can get a base honey for about $50/gallon (this is enough to do a 3 gallon batch of very sweet honey), and they have more exotic varietal honeys available at various prices.
Registration for the workshop is $50, and you will also have an optional opportunity to brew your own batch of mead and take it (and all the equipment) home with you. The brewing equipment kit is $75, and you can choose from the varietal honeys available at The Honey Exchange. To reserve your spot, call Phil at The Honey Exchange at 207-773-9333.
I look forward to seeing you there!
This is just a short log to acknowledge the bottling session I did today. I got 20 bottles of Mad Trad D2, and 10 bottles of Fox Pyment Double Mead from last fall. I unfortunately don’t have pictures because my digital camera is complaining and not working well.
I really love the Traditional Mead formula I’ve worked up, it produces what might by my favorite mead of all. So simple, so satisfying; it has a purity to it that is very appealing to me. The Fox Pyment this batch didn’t get as clear as my other batches do, despite the fact that it is nearly a year old and has been clearing since March. I believe it is probably a pectin haze from the wild fox grapes.
One technique that I tried in this bottling session, for the first time. With the Mad Trad D2, I had 4 jugs clearing, 2 jugs each from 2 different batches, done at the same time, that came out slightly differently. This time I filled each bottle halfway from one of the batches, then filled each bottle completely with the other batch, effectively combining the 2 batches into one mead. This technique is common in commercial meaderies used to dealing with larger batches; it has the benefit of averaging out all the flavors — including any off-flavors — thereby making a more consistent product.
All in all, yet another bountiful harvest! Gratitude!
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. :-)
On Wednesday, August 7 at 10pm Eastern Time, I will be interviewed on Wyrd Ways Radio, a show on heathenry and polytheism hosted by Galina Krasskova. We’re going to be discussing craft as devotional work, the place of mead in Northern Tradition lore and ritual, and, basically, all things mead. We’ll also be opening up the phone lines and taking calls.
Tune in to paganstonight.com to listen and chat live, call in to the show at 347-308-8222, or if you miss the live show, get it archived on iTunes.
I’m very much looking forward to this one.
The show is archived here. The interview with me begins at about 71:30 into the podcast.
I started with a decoction of chaga and a sumac drupe, cooled and strained back into the carboy:
Next, I used double the amount of strawberries relative to last year — 2 quarts, which weighed 3 pounds – that were lovingly (and knee-achingly) picked by my wife and daughter this morning:
Next, I juiced the strawberries in our juicer, which created about a quart and a half of strawberry juice:
Next, I added the chaga sumac tea, a bit more water, and enough honey to get me to a 15% initial alcohol potential:
Then I pitched the yeast into the carboy, poured the must in after it, and topped it off, to give me 3 gallons of strawberry thunder goodness:
I initially thought about calling this batch Strawberry Solstice Mead, but the Solstice was a few days ago, and right when I was making this batch a classic summer thunderhead blasted its way over our house. Strawberry Thunder it is! I expect this batch to be potent, and dry, and full of strawberry flavor. Time will tell!
UPDATE, 12 April 2014
This mead went for a very long time without clearing! It still isn’t clear which is somewhat of a rarity for me these days. I’m sure it’s because of the extra pectin from the abundance of strawberries I used. I finally racked it today and, while not clear, it is delicious, a bit sweet, and tastes strongly of strawberry, coming in at 12.5% alcohol, meaning there is 2.5% remaining alcohol potential, which is somewhere between semisweet and sweet. The strawberries add another layer of perceived sweetness so we’ll call this one a sweet mead.
Because it didn’t clear, I may end up not bottling it in the normal 750ml clear wine bottles, instead using smaller grolsch bottles or larger jugs, for use at fireside gatherings where it will be served in horns and the lack of clarity is not to be noticed. :-)
Our meadmaking eBook is available:
Herbal Asthma Strategies with Sean Donahue is also available:
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