Sunday, December 04, 2016

Return of the meadmaker

As I write this, it's been just over four years since I last started a batch of mead. I've made beer/ale since then, but not mead. Considering that batch is what gave me the ice wine metheglin that received favorable reviews at the 2014 Texas Mead Fest. What made that batch successful (at least the ice wine version--plum and pear didn't turn out so well) was the fact that I'd finally learned the need to degas the must daily to release all the dissolved CO2 that can become toxic and stress the yeasts, as well as keep the fermentation temperature low--below 70F at least. I'd gotten into homebrewing by making ales, which ferment normally at high temperatures using (duh) ale yeasts. Put wine yeasts in the same conditions, and they stress greatly, creating fusel alcohols and off-flavors. So it only took me a decade of making mediocre meads to learn this--what can I say? I'm a slow learner.

Now, however, I was ready to put that earned knowledge to work. One problem though--the big, 6-gallon Mr. Beer fermentor (pictured above) was no more. Back this summer, when I brewed up 12 gallons of "In-The-Buff Brown Ale" for my book release party, I discovered the entire bottom of my Mr. Beer was ringed with deep cracks. I learned this when I tried to sanitize it for the wort, and the water I poured in spewed out the bottom almost as quickly. Color me depressed. I had other fermentors for the beer, but the Mr. Beer was special. Follow: Back when The Wife and I were planning the whole wedding thing, I went with her to Target, JC Penney and Dillard's to do the whole bridal registry thing. There's a reason it's called a bridal registry and not a groom's registry. The entire day (it was a Sunday, if memory serves) consisted of her saying "What do you think about these bed sheets?" or "How do you think this silverware would go with the china?" To which my replay was a variation of "Whatever you want." Late in the day, being quite tired and more than a little disinterested, I turned a corner in Dillard's and there it was, a huge Mr. Beer display at the entrance to the Men's section. My eyes lit up. A choir of angels began to sing in the distance. The Wife-To-Be said "Absolutely not." It was a preemptive no before I could say anything but I was not deterred. "Look," I said, "our wedding registry has 597 items picked out on it, of which I've contributed zero. I think I'm entitled." So I took the little barcode scanner and added Mr. Beer to our registry.

The next day, when I got home for work, that Mr. Beer was on the dining room table, waiting for me. Having it on our registry so mortified her that The Wife bought it for me just to keep it from the list. And I've been home brewing ever since. I particularly loved the Mr. Beer because it was clear, PET plastic, which let me watch the fermentation as it happens. That's not the case with opaque buckets. So when Midwestern Supplies had 6-gallon "Big Mouth Bubblers" on sale for Black Friday, including free shipping, I could not resist. These, like Mr. Beer, have a spigot, so there's no need to siphon. That makes racking and bottling very easy. It came in on Thursday. To get it ready, I needed to clean and sanitize it. Many homebrewers look down on using chlorine bleach for sanitizing, but I've had good success in the past. I capped the bung at the bottom with a borrowed spigot from a plastic bucket fermentor I have, and tossed all the other parts into the Big Mouth Bubbler, added a couple cups of bleach and filled up all the way with water in the walk-in shower. After that, I let it sit for the better part of a day.

I decided to put to use all my accumulated knowledge of meadmaking and approached this batch differently than in the past. I've learned a lot more about honey, for starters, and that a disturbing amount of bulk honey--even that labeled as North American sourced--is actually laundered from China and India, and contaminated with pesticides, antibiotics, etc. The way those countries get around bans on their contaminated product is by super-filtering to remove pollen. Honey's place of origin is determined by analyzing the unique pollen found therein, so if all the pollen is filtered out, there's no way to discover where it originated. In light of that, I went semi-local, and bought 7.5 pounds of Walker Honey Farm wildflower honey from HEB. They're based in Rogers, a town I know fairly well, and are the folks behind Dancing Bee Meadery, which produces some pretty decent meads. Also, I planned to make only 3 gallons this time. In the past I've always tried to make 6 gallon batches, and that's a lot of time and money gone to waste if it sucks. I figure 3 gallons is more manageable (one gallon batches are so small they're not really worth the effort).

First up, I had to dissolve the honey in water to make it fermentable. Honey is so dry, so to speak, that yeast and bacteria cannot survive in it. This is why honey is so resistant to spoilage. I heated a gallon or so of tap water on the stove to about 140F. Lots of homebrewers frown on using tap water, but I like New Braunfels tap water. Really, any place that gets its water from the Edwards Aquifer is going to have pleasantly-flavored water. Many meadmakers also frown on heating honey. I've long since passed the stage where I worried about contamination and pasteurized the honey for 30 minutes or more. I just heat the water because the honey dissolves so much more quickly that way. At 140F I cut the heat off, and as I stir in the honey, the temperature of the water drops quickly, so I'm not losing any significant flavors or aroma to boil-off.

Lots of stirring with a sanitized spoon to ensure it's all mixed in well. I keep intending to get a longer, plastic or metal spoon dedicated to homebrew, but have not yet gotten around to it. Again, some other brewers may look upon my use of a wooden spoon with horror, as it could be harboring all types of bacteria and wild yeasts, but it's fresh out of the dish washer and I've not had problems before.

In a tea kettle, I heated up some additional water to approximately 140F. This, I poured into the various jars of honey--now mostly empty--to recover as much honey as possible. There were some pretty thick layers of honey on the sides and bottoms of those jars.

After pouring in the hot water, I screwed the lid on tightly and shook like the dickens. You can see how much honey I recovered from those jars by the yellow hue the water took on. I poured this water in to the main pot and mixed everything together.

By this time, the honey-water mixture had cooled to below 110F, so I covered it and set it aside to continue cooling.

Now here's where things get interesting. The mead recipe I'm following this time is Bray's One Month Mead--known popularly as BOMM online. This did not exist the last time I made mead. It was invented by a fellow named Bray who experimented with using a bunch of different Belgian ale strains that had high gravity and high alcohol tolerances to find which ones might be useful for mead. Most beer yeast is stressed and/or killed by alcohol levels approaching that of wine, making them inappropriate for the most part. But Bray found that Wyeast 1388 Belgian Strong Ale produced a quality mead quickly at relatively high temperatures. The yeast's listed alcohol tolerance of 12 percent is solidly in the lower range of wine, so that's a plus. Until now, I'd only used dry yeasts--liquid was new for me. But I activated the packet as instructed and set it aside for six hours of so for the yeast to build up momentum.

I emptied the fermentor of the bleach water and rinsed it out thoroughly. You don't want to skimp on this part--bleach is not a good addition to mead or beer. Once everything was clean, I assembled the proper spigot in the bung and set up the airlock in the lid. With the honey-water must cooled, I poured that into the fermentor, then added cool water to bring the volume up to a shade over 3 gallons. To this, I added the additional ingredients as called for in Bray's recipe, tripling the dosage for my 3 gallons (his recipe was for 1 gallon): 3/4 tsp of diammonium phosphate (yeast nutrient) and 2-1/4 tsp of Fermaid K (different type of yeast nutrient). I then added 2-1/4 tsp of potassium bicarbonate. The original recipe calls for potassium carbonate, but that's not so easy to come by and I saw that most people online are successfully substituting the common bicarbonate with no ill effects. Shortly after this, I saw that Bray also has a 5-gallon version of his recipe up, which calls for 3/4 tsp of potassium bicarbonate--the same amount the one-gallon recipe called for, which I tripled. Oops. Will this negatively impact my mead? We'll find out. The immediate result was a ph reading of roughly 5 (the winemaking ph tester only went as high as 4.4, and it appears my color was slightly darker than 4.4) which is higher than honey's native acidity. Hopefully this will make the yeasts happy.

After pitching the yeast, I measured the specific gravity at 1.080, adjusted for temperature at 70F. If this is accurate (and it should be--reading a triple scale hydrometer is pretty straightforward--the mead should finish up around 10.4 percent ABV. This is a little lower than I'd intended. I the past, I've used 3 pounds of honey or more in my mead, and they tended to run closer to 14 percent ABV. Using the ale Wyeast 1388, I used just 2.5 pounds per gallon, shooting for a final ABV around 11-11.5. Depending on how the primary ferment goes, I may add a bit more honey in the secondary to boost that some. We'll see. The important thing is, the yeasts are happily fermenting away, and just a short while ago I shook the fermentor vigorously to release any built-up CO2, and was rewarded by a huge foaming eruption. Fortunately, the fermentor being only half-capacity allowed plenty of space for the degassing to rage. Fingers crossed that this one will be a winner.

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