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.
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.
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:
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!
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:
First I strained the blended strawberries into the tea:
Afterward, I added enough honey (about 14 cups) to bring the must up to about 17.5% 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:
As I write this 24 hours later,Â it is happily bubbling away.
Quick entry…. I’d like to plan another meadmaking class this summer, somewhere between Portland and Augusta in Maine. It’s been nearly a year since the last one. If you are interested in attending, contact me; I’d like to have an idea of how many people are interested before I decide the location.
I would also like to set one up in Ohio (Cincinnati area) this summer, since I am planning a visit there this summer. If you are interested in having a workshop in that area, please contact me.
Contact info is brewmeister AT the domain name of this site (ie, bardicbrews.net). Die, spam, die.
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).
Â 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:
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):
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.
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 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….
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:
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 150Â°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:
Because the barley will cool down the water a bit when it is added, we heated the water up to about 160Â°F so that it would be right at 150Â°F after the barley was added:
After you add the barley to the 160Â°F water (and it cools down to 150Â°F more or less instantly), the biggest concern is maintaining a constant temperature for 90 minutes. We accomplished this by preheating the oven to 170Â°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 170Â°F, which will put a stop to the mashing process:
While the wort was heating to 170Â°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 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 168Â°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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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!