I can’t help it. Every time I come over the crest of 148 street down towards the beach I breathe a sigh as I look out over the bay, and marvel over the place I’m privileged to live in. It’s a blessing to be in a place with so much beauty and so many wonderful people.
And there are some great things coming up. I can’t wait to dive right into 2019 and take great big bites of the future.
I’ll admit it: I am a victim to clickbait. This headline popped up in my newsfeed:
Are You Making This Big Mistake with Wine Corks?
and like a dope, I fell for it. But you won’t believe what happens next!
What happens is, I’m not going to link to the article. It doesn’t deserve my help generating clicks. You can find it yourself if you like, but I’m going to take some care to interpret it here for you in case you hate clickbait too.
Pimped out as their ‘Wine Wise Guy’, their author wrote an article that illustrates everything wrong with the concept of the modern sommelier and showed himself as a prime example of the self-important, narcissistic jackassery that follows it around like a foul stench.
What’s wrong with sommeliers? Nothing actually. Sommelier is a job description, and it means ‘guy who sells wine in a restaurant’. It’s as descriptive as ‘receptionist’, or ‘usher’, or ‘sanitation engineer’.
It doesn’t mean a damn thing more: guy who sells wine.
Unfortunately, in our celebrity and reality show obsessed culture the concept of sommelier as something ‘other’, something aspirational, something to be revered and worshipped has taken hold. Several things have conspired to create a cult of personality around ‘somms’, not the least of which are the sommeliers themselves. But they’re not the worst offenders: the worst offenders are the schools that offer sommelier ‘courses’, offering to teach everything about wine and to turn you into a wine professional.
These courses force a hapless student to memorise thousands of facts about wine regions and styles, most of which might be interesting in a Jeopardy Daily Double kind of way, but are useless in the real world, and are tarted up as trick questions, the better to exclude people who haven’t paid the tens of thousands of dollars for the course, or memorised a stagnant morass of factoids like an obedient Labrador Retriever doing tricks.
The thing to remember about sommelier programs is that they’re not actually recognised as an official education by anyone who matters. Sure, doing your time in wine prison is like a union card to enter the world of selling wine in a restaurant, but unlike a Red Seal for a Chef (transferable around the world), there is no formal recognition of this nonsense, and different schools of sommelier-dom don’t teach the same things.
Lest any somm-worshipper out there get in a flounce and accuse me of sour grapes (haha, see what I did there?) because I don’t hold that job description, let me reassure you: I am a recovering sommelier. At one point in my life I sold wine in the most overblown, pretentious, expensive restaurant you could name. Back in the early 80’s the soup was twenty-five bucks.
This is the first time I’ve admitted to doing that job in decades, because even back then it was a soiling experience, mainly because the owner was a fraud who kept the wine in a furnace room or a walk-in cooler, and 80% of the bottles that cost more than $40 were at our ‘other cellar’, which was the liquor store down the block, where the owner would sprint down to pick up a bottle as it was ordered. I did the job for a month before I quit in disgust to become a dishwasher instead.
When I had my first gig as GM of a resort hotel I took over the sommelier role and loved it. I got to help people enjoy wine by asking what they wanted and doing my best to give them exactly that. There’s no wrong way to enjoy wine, only the way the customer wants it. If they wanted red Bordeaux over ice, then I brought them ice. If they wanted Port with their fish, I made sure they knew what they were ordering and I served it. I had a bunch of backpackers come in who wanted kalimotxo, and when I found out it was cheap dry red and cola, I made up a pitcher. Why? Because I am not the arbiter of human taste or fashion: I am a service professional!
Which brings us back to the article. In it, the author first waxes his ego by mentioning in order a) how hard the exam was, b) how intimidating the examiners were, c) how obscure the questions were, and d) how much he hated serving wine to stupid peasants who came to the restaurant and expected him to serve wine.
Personally, I bundle most of these maneuvers into what I call “the frippery” of wine service: stuff that makes most people I know slink down in their seats in hopes that the sommelier will call on someone else to taste the wine.
Really? A quaint old ceremony, one that is the essence of the job makes him squirm? I wonder how he feels about the people who are paying him to do the job?
But then I see that person: The Imbiber. He’s the one—and it’s always a man—who relishes the pageantry of it all, the pomp and circumstance, who imagines that everyone else in the room is intently watching this noble ceremony take place. And when the sommelier places the just-pulled cork on the table to the right of the glass, The Imbiber picks it up ceremoniously, rolls it between his thumb and forefinger, and takes a deep, satisfying sniff.
The Imbiber deserves to be dunked in a barrel of wine.
Rolling a cork—which is just a piece of bark from a cork tree, after all—between your thumb and forefinger is just plain silly. And sniffing it? Sillier. That is, unless (and this is an important unless) you’re the person pulling the cork.
Yes, murdering customers because they expect you to do a job, preciously described as being so haaaard is a completely reasonable response. After all, why make them happy when you can measure your manhood against theirs and make fun of them?
Know this: I like corks. I know a lot about corks. In my time in my industry, the companies I worked for made (aggregately) enough wine to fill more than a fifty million bottles per year, and we bought corks for them all. Over the course of a thirty-year career, that’s a lot of metric tonnes of cork. I’ve toured cork forests, cork factories, cork warehouses and dealt with almost every cork manufacturer on the planet. I know more about corks than the author of this article ever will, or can ever hope to. I not only examine, roll and sniff the cork from most bottles of wine that I am served, I habitually carry a razor-sharp knife and cut the cork in half to examine the inside for flaws and density.
Even if I weren’t a professional with a deep interest in the world market, I’d probably still be interested in the cork. It’s the only thing standing between the wine inside the bottle and a harshly cruel environment that wants to spoil it. If the cork looks compromised or has an odour (more on this in a minute) then I’m going to sit up and start paying attention to the process at hand: trying the wine to see if it’s a) what I ordered and b) in good condition.
The author goes on to pontificate why the consumer has no business assessing the cork. First, of course, he has to explain to us peasants what a corkscrew is and how it works, since as a professional, he’s sure that’s quite beyond us. Then he warns that he might not deign to hand you the cork at all:
It might fall apart because it’s too old; it might snap in half because it’s brittle; the center of it might disintegrate, because it’s soaked through and crumbly. If any of those things happen, there’s no cork to present to The Imbiber.
Wrong: if the cork crumbles, you immediately show it to the customer, perhaps carefully assembled on a napkin to keep the bits together. Why? Because he is buying that bottle of wine, and it’s his right as a consumer to see it. But he doesn’t see it that way: the mark he’s sneering at has no right to his own wine, just to the almighty somm’s opinion about it.
If I’m the server, yes, I’ll immediately smell the wet end to see if there are any “off” odors that might indicate the wine is flawed, damaged, or just plain dead. The wet end of a cork is still moist and porous, but the liquid at the tip either absorbs or dissipates pretty quickly. And a few seconds later, the cork smells like… cork.
This is an easily dismissed falsehood: if the wine is contaminated by cork taint, the cork will smell like it, practically forever. This taint is 2,4,6 Trichloroanisole (TCA) and is caused by an interaction between chlorophenol compounds and corks or wood used in elevage, or processing wine. It’s a lot less common since cork producers stopped using chlorine to bleach corks, and started keeping sheets of cork bark off of the ground post-harvest/pre-processing (they can pick up a fungus off the ground that makes TCA contamination a lot more likely). Even in minute amounts (below the microgram level) TCA can ruin a good wine.
To sum up this whole sordid pile, articles like this, written by people who have an overweening, narcissistic view of their own worth and status are why I avoid modern sommeliers and their cult of celebrity. The job is exactly the same as the one done by the person who serves the bread, or the nice lady who takes the reservations.
If the bread guy started rolling his eyes, writing articles about how stupid people who eat bread are for asking for white or rye, or the reservation lady wrote snide blogs about how people who made reservations were dumbasses who really should let her handle things because they’re unqualified, the consumers who patronise those restaurants would lose their collective minds–as they should. But because some people buy into this cult of sommeliers and assume that they are the final word on how to drink wine, they get away with smug, nonsensical crap like this.
What’s the answer? I don’t have one, that’s for sure. However, a good first step is to avoid any restaurant that this guy works for. Also, if there’s a celebrity sommelier in a place you’re thinking of going to, don’t take any guff from them: you are buying that wine, and if you want to drink it out of a coffee mug, or eat the cork with a dab of mustard, you damn well do so.
I have been saying this for thirty straight years, and I’ll say it again: nobody can tell you how to enjoy wine–if they’re offering advice, trying to help you find a good match or something tasty in your price range, then they’re a good person, doing a good job and they deserve thanks. But if someone tries to tell you that you’re doing it wrong, or you’re not qualified to know your own mind and enjoy the things you like, as you like them . . . put your hand on your wallet and back out of the room, because they can’t be trusted.
One last thought, because as the man says, there always is one:
. . . unless you really like having sommeliers think you’re a twit. In that case, go right ahead, smell all the corks you want.
Dude, I’d rather you hated my guts than change anything about the way I enjoy wine to suit you.
All right, here’s the stupid article, if you must. Do me a favour and open it in an incognito browser. I don’t want to get this blog all sticky.
Canada doesn’t look too bad for one hundred and fifty.
It isn’t that it’s a perfect country. It is definitely not: we have a lot of problems, and we have a lot of issues we need to address. Income disparity, social justice, political polarisation, the treatment of indigenous peoples and many other things are part of our national dialogue right now, on this day.
But that’s our strength. That’s where we can be proud: we are having these dialogues–these and more. Just fifty years ago the mere idea of addressing these things would have been the talk of fringe kooks and political outsiders.
I know, because I was there fifty years ago to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the BNA act, which united the colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick into a single Dominion within the British Empire called Canada. It was even called ‘Dominion Day’ at the time.
I can remember the excitement of the day: there were ceremonies, marching bands, RCMP members on horses, people in costume, dances, food and fireworks. As a very tiny boy I was terribly impressed by it all, especially the horses, one of which chose to leave a massive load of manure right in front of me. There was literally nothing on that day which could have pleased me more, and that memory is one that fixes my feelings about Canada perfectly. So much beauty, so many people moving in the same direction, wanting the same things, having the same aspirations, sharing the same joys, but there being a completely down-to-earth reality to who we were.
I’ve grown up and grown older in a country that invented the concept of peacekeeping. That has universal health care. That welcomes refugees and immigrants as a source of strength and joyful diversity. That continues to value justice and decency.
But I’m a political creature. I can’t help it. I worry about our economy, our society, our place in the world, our relationship with our partner/neighbour/ally/friend/brothers-and-sisters to the south and I worry about whether we’re doing enough to care for each other and the rest of the world.
That worry is offset every time I look out my front door and I see my friends, my neighbours, my countrymen. We are a broadly decent, open and just society, making our way better every day, with a long way to go before we can rest on any laurels. To paraphrase Dr. King, the moral arc of Canada may be long, but it trends toward justice.
I’m proud of you Canada, and I’m proud of your citizens, your ideals and your national character. And if I am here to see you at 200, I hope to see more of the same, still striving for a better nature and a better country.
May you all be blessed with peace and plenty this day, and family and friends to share it with.
The generalized clamour for my head (preserved in a jar of honey) has died down, but I’m hopeful that with my descriptions of filtration and preservatives (as well as lots more sugar) will stir that all up again.
When We Last Left the Barkshack . . .
. . . it was fermenting strongly fizzing away for five days. I had a look at it every day, and when the vigorous fermentation dropped off, I took a specific gravity reading.
The first reading was 1.044 and now it was at 0.994, indicating complete dryness and an alcohol by volume of around 6.5%. That was a little more than I was expecting, as it had fermented out very low–the Saison yeast appears to have had a powerful and thorough effect!
The colour was great, the aroma was fantastic, but the flavour was dry beyond words. It wasn’t overly acidic, and the tannins derived from the raspberry seeds weren’t overwhelming (on the contrary, they were a like a backbone running through the mead) but it wanted some sweetness to bring out the character of the fruit. Interestingly, it had a light but definite honey aroma and flavour. I was pleased that it carried over the fruit, ginger and lemon notes as it really added to the character of the mead.
Adding Mad Adds
I hit it with my standard winemaking processing addition for fruit wines that I wanted to clear in a hurry, sorbate, sulphite, and finings. The three need to be done to any wine that’s going to be back-sweetened and not Pasteurized or sterile-filtered.
Sulphite stuns yeast and forces some cells to dormancy while preventing oxidative damage. Without sulpite additions the mead would lose that gorgeous colour and start losing flavour pretty rapidly, especially after getting exposed to oxygen like I was planning to do with it (more on that below). Since the mead was at a pH of 3.2 I settled on a single dose to bring it up to 50 PPM FSO2, counting that some would get burned off in processing and absorbed by oxygen extant in the mead already.
(If you’re not a fan of sulphite, I don’t actually care. If you’d like to argue with me about it, I don’t do that because there’s no defensible argument against correct sulphite usage. Sulphite is wonderful, and everyone should eat some every single day–oh wait, you do, because it’s in everything, including wines labeled ‘No Sulphite Added’. Want more info? Check out my awesome blog over at Master Vintner: Lies, Damned Lies, And Sulfites: The Facts)
The finings remove colloids, proteins and other material from solution, making it clear, but more importantly from a stability standpoint, they remove yeast cells, and that’s part of the strategy to get the mead stable enough to bottle. A good fining regime can reduce the yeast population to the point where they will no longer make alcohol and carbon dioxide, even if there is enough nutrients and food for them to do so.
This is because yeast has two different schemes that are in operation in an alcohol fermentation. First, they breed up to culture strength, which is on the order of 10 to 20 million live yeast cells per millilitre of wine (or beer or whatever). When they hit that mark the population levels are too high, so they stop breeding. It happens all at once, and while it’s got to be some kind of chemical signal that does it, nobody has caught them at it yet.
After they stop breeding, they change their metabolic pathways and start turning sugars and nutrients into carbon dioxide and alcohol, rather than into millions more daughters. They’re ruthless, but practical. When they run out of food, they mostly go dormant, and a good percentage of them die. Between the sulphite stunning them and the finings pancaking most of them down to the bottom, they cease most activity.
But in the next stage, when we add back sugar to balance the flavour, if there are any yeast cells present, they will start breeding again, and when they hit that magic 10-20 million mark, the wine will go cloudy and re-ferment. And that’s where sorbate comes in.
What is Sorbate? What Does It Do?
Sorbate is a polysaturated fat in the form of sorbic acid (it’s made into potassium sorbate by reacting it with potassium). It’s found in blueberries, huckleberries and mountain ash berries in large amounts. It’s a food additive recognized by Health and Welfare Canada, and it’s classified as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) meaning it’s pretty darn benign. One of the more thorough studies I’ve read showed that the only side-effect to large-dose feeding of sorbate to rats was a slight extension in life span (attributed to a protection against lung infections engendered by the sorbate).
Here’s the fun thing about sorbate: it doesn’t kill yeast. It doesn’t even make it late for work. What it does, is prevent yeast cells from budding off new daughters. It’s birth-control for yeast. That’s why it’s so useful. When you get the yeast population below the fermentation level, then add sorbate, the yeast can’t climb back up to the point where they can start making carbon dioxide and alcohol, and they leave the sugar and nutrients alone, so the wine doesn’t change character or flavour/aroma.
After the sulphite, I added 250 PPM of sorbate and a dose of gelatin finings. I chose gelatin because it’s relatively strong as a fining agent, and because it reacts strongly with tannins, meaning it would tame the raspberry seed tannins a little, and work with them to clear the mead. I let the wine settle for ten days, and then went to the filter.
Filtering and Back-Sweetening
The mead wasn’t completely clear, but it was Friday, and I was heading down to the Pacific Northwest Homebrew Conference on Monday, so I rammed it through my filter anyway. I don’t recommend this: filtering should only be performed on clear wine/beer/mead in order to polish the appearance. Being as I was in an all-fired hurry, I did it anyway.
I did achieve a beautiful, sparkling clarity, but more importantly I reduced the yeast cell populations to a very low level, ensuring that with proper care I wouldn’t get re-fermentation.
The mead was still very tart and crisp, but what I was shooting for was lively, crisp and luscious. I dissolved a kilogram of sugar in 500 ml of water, along with a pinch of citric acid, to make invert syrup. I’d like to tell you how much I used, but I did it to taste and some of the invert went into another project, so I can’t be sure how much went where. I’d say about 2/3 of it went into a 19 litre Corny keg, gently stirred.
I banged the keg into my keezer and attached it to my CO2 system at 30 PSI and left it until Sunday afternoon, when I grabbed a glass to see if it was going to pass muster.
Oh yeah. The glass looks cloudy, but that’s condensate: the mead is perfectly clear. It was slightly overcarbonated, but that was handled by blowing the pressure down and leaving it to stabilize on its own. It was fresh, crisp, lightly but positively gingery and redolent of raspberry, lemon and honey.
Next step, off to Portland to talk to a roomful of eager meadmakers.
If you’ve just tuned in, be sure to read Making Mad Mead Part One and Part Two. As we return to our story, I am still a persona non grata with certain elements of the mead making subculture. Still, it’s nice to get mail from angry strangers, even if they can’t spell ‘nincompoop’.
Part three logically would be about processing my fermented Barkshack Ginger Mead. But first, a dark confession: I had already made a batch of mead, well before the delicious pink juice you saw in part one and two . . .
I was counting on my pal Jason to supply the attendees with great examples of well-made, modern mead done with the sensibility of someone who had a background both in wine and beer making, and who was good enough to sell mead commercially. He came through in a big way, with a generous shipment of his excellent meads.
I had commercial mead, I had my disruptive interpretation, and I also had a dark secret: I had already made an authentic prehistoric mead (sort of).
A couple of years ago I went on a hike in the Mayan jungles. After many amusing misadventures, including falling down a cenote and losing a car, I came across a little rural stand, way off the beaten path, that was selling honey. The folks in charge had only a modicum of English, so one of their kids explained to me that they gathered honey from wild hives in the jungle and sold it to tourists. They also traded it to folks in Oaxaca for coffee beans, which they roasted over wood fires–they made me the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had in my life.
I brought that bottle of honey home and tucked it into the cupboard, mainly as a curiosity: it was dark as the Coca-Cola that had previously occupied the bottle it came in, with a deeply aromatic caramel note and quite a lot of detritus from being an unfiltered product, as well as being unpasteurized unregulated and untouched by modern methodology. One day, however, I decided it was time to confront mead on its own turf, and formulated a plan to replicate the ancient ways. What can I say? It’s my attention surplus disorder leading me down every possible path.
By itself my Mayan honey wouldn’t be enough to make a satisfactory gallon of mead. Fortunately, I had a little bit more honey around that fit the bill. The first was a jar of Cuban honey (relax, I’m Canadian, we can trade with them), a gift from a friend. Low-tech processing ensured it was minimally altered from the natural state, although I’m pretty sure it got at least some filtering. There was finally a small dribble of honey from a jar of unpasteurized Elias organic honey that my wife may have used in a dessert without telling me. They’re a producer from Prince George British Columbia that’s got a very good reputation for quality. Together all of these honeys fit the bill for an old-style of honey, and would help me make a roughly traditional mead.
With just over three pounds of honey, I was ready to make a gallon of mead. I diluted the honeys with half a gallon of 55C/130F water, stirred to thoroughly mix, and cooled it to 24C/75F, then topped up with dechlorinated water to 4 litres/one gallon. Predicted SG on this would be around 1.100, so if it fermented completely dry it would make around 13-14% ABV. In keeping with primitive methods I didn’t bother with a hydrometer reading. If it was off there was no way to correct it in any case: I had no more honey suitable for the recipe.
I chose to add yeast nutrient and a commercial yeast strain, because I wanted to give the fermentation a fighting chance. I used Fermaid K and Lalvin EC1118 Champagne yeast. If you’ve never used EC 1118, it’s . . . it’s kind of like the Incredible Hulk of yeast. It’s the strongest yeast, kills other yeast casually, ferments everything, and tolerates most conditions without producing off flavours. I could have left it outside to get a wild yeast, but we have hummingbirds. I could also have used bread yeast, but if you’re gonna add a commercial culture, you don’t bench the champ.
I pitched, fermented at 24C/75F, racked to two half-gallon jugs after four weeks of (very slow) fermentation and tucked it into my cellar to get a couple of months of age.
It wound up very nice and clear, and smelled awful, kind of like a combination of raisins and Porta-Potty: not in the enteric bacteria sense, but in the sense that I really wanted to do everything I could to avoid it. When the call came in from the PNWHC to do the seminar, I bottled up half of it and put it aside to age and left the rest under an airlock to do it’s thing for a year or two. We’ll see what it tastes like in 2018.
Snapping back in the present, in the next installment well get on with my Barkshack Ginger Mead. Processing that is going to involve fining, sterile filtering, stabilising with sulfite and sorbate, and back-sweetening with inverted sugar, and finally artificially carbonating in a keg with CO2. I’m hopeful that further explanations of what I’ve done will help mollify some of the mead makers who were concerned that I was going off half-cocked. I can assure all of them that I’ve never gone off more than one-quarter cocked in my life.
Note: Part one of this blog has attracted a rather startling amount of pushback from Internet commenters and via email. Turns out that if you speak about mead in anything but hushed, reverent tones, mead traditionalists get all soggy and hard to light, and will brand you a “hater”.
I’m not trying to disrupt for disruption’s sake, I’m here as a non-mead drinker trying to figure out how to make mead I’ll enjoy. The fact that anyone who doesn’t adore and love mead with their heart, soul, and passion would speak about it shouldn’t sadden mead lovers. Maybe the takeaway is that there are different points of view out there that keep mead from being a mainstream beverage, despite its potential: why not learn about them?
Anyway, who cares. Let’s talk about mead.
As a non-consumer of honey, I wanted to give my mead a fair shake by getting the best bee-juice that I could lay my hands on. Costco sells buckets of honey quite cheaply, and there’s a popular honey outlet not too far from where I live, but I was hopeful that I could do a little better than mass-market stuff. I heard from an apiarist friend that the BCB Honey Farm was run by fanatics who took honey extremely seriously, to the point of treating it like a sacrament and a medicine as opposed to a foodstuff.
I thought he was exaggerating, but it turns out that was the truth: Dr. Iman Tabari came to Canada to produce medicinal honey and help reverse the decline of honey bees. Entering his shop I got a lecture on how most honey was not worth the money, how his stuff was almost perfectly monocultural, and how it was processed to preserve a whole host of innate qualities that were destroyed by traditional methods.
My woo-meter was off the chart, but I noticed something interesting. All of his honey samples, even ones from crops that got a lot of colour in them, were much lighter in hue than I was used to. One of my issues with most honey is a dismal cooked-sugar character that made it taste blandly caramel-like. Could he be on to something with his processing? The only way to find out was to (gulp) taste the honey.
So I did.
The honey was delicious. Far from the bland, caramelised goo I was expecting, it had a light, nectarous and floral character with a very clean, pleasant aftertaste. Not only did I buy a big jar for my mead, I bought another for the house, and I’ve even eaten some on toast.
One other thing about this honey: it is absurdly expensive, $50 for a four-pound jar. The proprietor averred that mass-market honeys were cheaper because of issues with what the bees were fed, and some were perhaps adulterated to an extent. I can’t comment on that because I have zero knowledge about the honey trade, but given the difference in quality between his honey and every other I’d ever tried, I had to concede that there was something going on.
The Other Ingredients
In addition to my jar of honey and sugar to boost the gravity, I rousted the freezer and turned up some rhubarb and raspberries, both from my garden from last year. Hitting the produce store I got a few stalks of lemongrass, lemons and some ginger. I sanitised all of my equipment and got to work.
I washed the lemongrass and bashed it to open the stems and tossed it into the fermenter.
I hacked my ginger into medallions and they went in too.
I zested a whole lemon and tossed it in.
I squished the lemon and tossed that in.
With those things in, it was time to concentrate on the fruit and sugar.
I prepped the sugar by dissolving it in boiling water that had 20 grams of tartaric acid in it. Acidulating the water causes the sugar to invert. This has a bunch of effects (principally that the sugar won’t crystallize out of solution after that) but I did it because I wanted to put it there so I didn’t forget to add it to the bucket–the acid was there to balance flavour and reduce pH.
I brought the water back up to a boil and added my raspberries and rhubarb. I left it on the heat to bring it back up to 160F. The fruit was previously frozen and then thawed, which helps break down the cell walls and release the juices. If I was making a higher-alcohol beverage I would have simply dumped ten pounds of sugar onto the frozen fruit and left it for a week. The sugar acts like brine, drawing liquid out of the fruit and bursting the cells through osmotic pressure differential, while the high sugar levels prevent bacterial growth. As I was shooting for around 1.050 in starting gravity, I couldn’t use that much sugar, so I took this route.
After a few minutes of stirring the mixture hit 160F and I took it off the heat and stirred in a tablespoon of Fermaid K, my favorite nutrient. No real reason to add it at this point except that I had it handy and it was easy to dissolve in the watery fruit soup. Without letting it cool, I poured it into my fermenting pail.
At this point it smelled really good, as the hot liquid release the fragrance from the lemon and ginger.
I added the jar of honey and rinsed it out with boiled water.
I topped up the fermenter to 21 litres/5.5 US-gallons with lukewarm water. If I’d been using a standard wine yeast I would have used cold water to bring the temperature down, to reduce ester production. However, I chose to use Belle Saison yeast, which has a spicy, somewhat estery profile which shows off even more when it’s fermented above 80F. Yeast like this is what gives Saison and Farmhouse ales their peppery-spicy zing.
Just before I pitched the yeast I took a hydrometer reading. Honey adds about 35 points of gravity per pound, per gallon. I couldn’t be sure that this honey was as dense as normal: it seemed to flow pretty freely, but 35 is close enough for back-of-the-envelope.
Sucrose adds about 46 points of gravity per pound, per gallon.
I added 4 pounds of honey: 4 x .035 / 5.5 gallons = 1.025
I added three pounds of sugar: 3 x .046/5.5 gallons = 1.025
Therefore, at 60F/15C, my starting SG should be around 1.050. A reading of 1.044 at 80 F corrects to . . . exactly 1.050.
Those numbers are so close it’s spooky. I probably did something wrong.
After that, I pitched that yeast, sealed the fermenter and put it aside for five days. It started fermenting within four hours and was fizzing angrily within 12, putting out a really great smell.
Next Blog: stabilizing, clearing, back-sweetening, filtering and carbonating. Still a ways to go to the mead seminar.
It may come as a surprise to some people, but I have a few strongly-held opinions, among them that 90% of sour beers are awful, no country music worth listening to has been made since 1977, and that honey is disgusting.
It’s not that I don’t like bees: I have an organic community garden and help support a half-dozen hives, planting flowers and borage to keep the girls in nectar and pollen. But honey . . . what do you call something an animal swallows, adds a bunch of body fluids and enzymes to, and then pukes back up?
In addition to the queasy aspects of eating something that’s already been eaten once, there’s the whole idea of exploiting the labour of indentured workers: 2 million flowers must be visited by bees who have to fly 55,000 miles to produce a single pound of honey and an average worker bee makes only about 1/2 teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
So between my feelings on this and my repeated statements that I despise mead, I was asked by the organisers of the Pacific Northwest Homebrew Conference to give a lecture on making mead.
What is Mead?
Mead is a fermented beverage made from honey. In its most basic form it’s just honey diluted with water, with yeast to convert the sugars to alcohol. It’s a very old beverage. Archaeometric evidence suggests that it might be the earliest fermented beverage.
Mead has a big share of historical imagination about beverages. The saga of Beowulf features mead and when Vikings died honourably in battle they were thought to wake up in a great mead hall (the mead came from the udder of a goat . . .) In addition, ‘honeymoon’ describes a gift of mead that newlyweds were given. It was believed their consumption of it over the following month would increase fertility.
Why Historical Mead is Awful (A Rant)
All of this romanticism about mead has made it popular with a certain class of enthusiast. Now, I’m not one to criticize Renn Faire devotees, but their uncritical devotion to mead as some kind of special beverage has left little room for the truth about it: most historical mead tastes exactly like other historical drinks: oxidised, poorly fermented, and badly balanced towards excessive sweetness and alcohol levels.
Think about it: mead came before wine, and co-existed with early cereal beverages. Beer made with ancient grains would rarely have been higher in alcohol than four or five percent, and would have been consumed at least in part for the rich, porridgey calories it gave. Fermented honey could exceed 10% ABV, sometimes even higher, intoxicating drinkers with a swiftness that nothing else did. It deserved the reputation it had.
But just as we no longer drink bowls of murky porridge through a filtering straw (true story) we no longer have to drink overstrong bee-juice for kicks. Modern brewers use a variety of recipes, techniques and post-fermentation interventions to achieve clear, stable beers that have more-or-less subtle and well-balanced flavours. If beer brewing was stuck where most amateur mead-making seems to want to stay, we’d all be crumbling up biscuits into clay pots on brew day, and drinking it three days later, before ‘demons spoiled it’.
In short, despite having judged mead many times, and tasting one truly, epically great mead, I had very little respect for it as a beverage, even if you left out the bee vomit.
Enter the PNWHC and An Ally
The Pacific Northwest Homebrew Conference is a riot. Much smaller than the NHC, it’s also easy to navigate, and the attendees are seriously enthusiastic and friendly to a fault. I attended the first year and had a great time, so when they contacted me to ask if I’d give a seminar, I gladly agreed. When they told me they needed a lecture on mead making, I instantly agreed, because this was my chance to see if I could influence meadmakers in a positive way.
Funny enough, in talking to my peers in the beverage industry they all agreed I was the perfect man for the job–or maybe they just thought it was delightful that a man who didn’t even eat honey should be forced to make mead and teach others how to do it. I contacted my old friend Jason Phelps for some advice and support.
Jason is a colleague from my days at Winemaker Magazine and founder of Ancient Fire Mead & Cider. He makes beer, wine and a lot of really excellent mead. Not only did he lend me his PowerPoint presentation, he also sent along a case of mead for my class to taste. That left me with making a couple of batches of mead of my own, to demonstrate my theories of ancient vs. new techniques, and the advantages of approaching mead like a winemaker rather than a brewer.
Don’t Make Mead Like a Brewer
Brewing is a craft derived from empirical observations, while winemaking is a science influenced by serendipity. The difference is subtle, but for me it comes down to the fact that brewers can control the starting conditions of their beers more-or-less completely by manipulating the grain bill, the mash schedule, the water chemistry, the hop additions, the yeast choice, etc. However, once they’ve pitched the yeast the number and kind of interventions they make to their brew drops off pretty steeply.
In winemaking on the other hand, the vintner is always at the mercy of his ingredients. some part of weather, climate, terroir, late rain, mold, bird attacks, et cetera, will influence the raw materials coming into the winery. Important interventions can be made to ensure a clean and healthy fermentation, but how all of the factors that go into a wine will eventually meld together can’t be completely predicted.
But it’s post-fermentation where a winemaker can work magic. The process of taking a wine after primary fermentation to being finished is called elevage. It’s a French term that means ‘raising’ or ‘upbringing’ and it’s applied to both children and livestock to mean the same thing: doing what you can to ensure the best outcome for something in your care. Acid balancing, adjusting sweetness and alcohol, fining and filtering adding tannins (or taking them out) preventing oxidation or re-fermentation, sur lie, battonage, barrel-ageing . . . the host of techniques goes on. Mead makers needn’t avail themselves of all of these, but approaching a mead like a winemaker who is shaping it as they go is an important distinction that separates us from the ancient ways.
Getting My Recipe On
The last time I had made mead was back in about 1984 (don’t laugh, I’m old) from a wadded-up photocopy of The Joy of Homebrewing. As a lark, and to make a friend happy, I followed the Barkshack Gingermead recipe from out of the book. My hazy memory of the drink was that it was extremely well-received, and I never made it again, because honey.
I hauled it out and inspected the recipe with the eye of thirty years as a winemaker.
7 lb Light honey
1 1/2 lb Corn sugar
1 oz To 6 oz fresh ginger root
1 1/2 ts Gypsum
3 tsp Yeast nutrient
1/4 tps Irish moss powder
1 lb To 6 lbs crushed fruit
3 oz Lemongrass, or other spices
1 pk Champagne yeast
Not bad, but there were some weird things in there, like gypsum (calcium sulfate) and Irish moss (seaweed) that didn’t make sense to a winemaker. Sure, gypsum would drop the pH, but there are more subtle ways to do that. Also, it was a lot of honey for what I was shooting for. My revised recipe looked more like this
4 lb really Light honey
3 lb sugar
6 oz fresh ginger root
Zest and juice of one lemon
20 grams of tartaric acid
10 grams Yeast nutrient
5 lbs crushed fruit (rhubarb, raspberries)
6 stalks bruised Lemongrass
1 pk Belle Saison yeast
With a little luck, it would barely taste like honey at all.
Part Two: Assembling the Ingredients and Making the Mead
In the month of December there are more than 30 religious and secular festivals celebrated by people of all faiths (and those with no organised religion) around the world.
I like that. It stems from a common heritage, marking the solstice, the turning of the seasons, celebrating the significant days of religions, of traditions, and of just being mindful of the passage of time.
In my home, we celebrate with the traditions of Christmas. I was raised a good church-going boy and was even the bible reader if you can believe it, but nowadays I take pleasure in the trappings and ceremonies rather than the observances.
We do puzzles, exchange gifts, laze about in our pyjamas and even have a drink before noon–the sort of thing that’s perfectly acceptable in pyjamas. We also have some food traditions.
First, Christmas eve is always a Peking Duck and champagne, eaten picnic style on the floor in front of the fireplace. It’s a tradition that got started nearly 30 years ago when we got trapped away from our home and decided to do the best we could. It was so good we’ve never considered spending the 24th any other way.
We also watch two movies, in order. The first is the Dr. Seuss classic cartoon, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
It’s uplifting and sweet, and like all the very best stories, it’s all about redemption, how reconnecting with one’s humanity and opening one’s heart can save anyone. The second movie is even more of a redemption story, the one and only true version of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, with Alistair Sim.
I’ve watched this movie once a year since I was old enough to sit upright in front of a television. I can recite along to any line, any narration, and I know the story deep into my heart. But I wouldn’t miss seeing it again for anything in the world: redemption, for a creature so black and cold as Scrooge is a true miracle, and fills me with joy, right to Tiny Tim’s ‘God bless us, every one’.
The 25th we have a big Turkey Sandwich. I like some of the trappings of a turkey dinner (Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce) but am indifferent to the others. For me, it’s all about fresh homemade bread layered with mayo, turkey, cranberry sauce, a pickle, maybe some lettuce, but always a lot of fresh cracked pepper.
Lazing about with a sandwich always within arm’s reach, a crisp glass of Chardonnay at my elbow, I like doing the traditional Christmas puzzle, going for walks, and maybe messing about a bit in my cellar, or fiddling with beer. Or cheese. Or pickles. Or winter herbs. Or whatever hobby has caught my eye recently.
I also take time to reflect on the year. Part of the most ancient of mid-winter celebrations goes back to a time when there was little certainty in the world, when a bad harvest or a terrible storm, or other dangerous events might take people away from us. Part of the gathering around the fire, of feasting together, singing songs, telling tales and playing games was an acknowledgement that some people gathered around the fire might not be there come springtime. It’s a perfect time to take stock of what’s important in your life, and to be mindful of the good things you have, and the good fortune you possess.
However you and your family celebrate, may it be a merry and festive season. Sol Invictus, Happy Hannukah, Yaldā Night and a Merry Christmas to all of my friends
I don’t always drink wine. Or even beer. I don’t even drink whisky every day, come to think of it. I don’t like soda pop for the most part, and I drink about two quarts of milk per calendar year. There are only two beverages I consume on a daily basis: water, of course, since I am a squishy bag of mostly water by design, and coffee, because it is delicious brain juice that lets me function in society.
I started drinking coffee quite young. In retrospect, being in the single digit range for birthdays was probably a little on the youthful side for drinking caffeinated beverages, but if you believe the Coffee Achievers, it was probably the making of me, and there are worse habits.
My taste in coffee has evolved over the years, as has the way I consume it. As a kid I liked it with lots and lots of milk and sugar. I lost my taste for sweets after a while, quit bothering with milk, and started drinking hot, black coffee by the gallon. Keep in mind I was raised by simple prairie folks, and the coffee wasn’t premium or sophisticated. It was pre-ground, canned coffee that was on sale, and made in an automatic drip machine manufactured by a company more known for electric drills and sanders than for food equipment.
A friend of mine once described this beverage as ‘Lutheran Coffee’, after the kind of brew you find in one of those giant percolators in a church basement. I liken it to hot brown coffee-water. After I left home I started buying beans and getting them ground at the store. Then I bought my own grinder, and one of the most perfect coffee making machines ever invented: the Melitta Cone Drip. That worked for years, until I got a bug in my ear about espresso. Then I had several set-ups, refining how I like my coffee with automated espresso makers, stove top units, et cetera.
I keep experimenting with coffee making, but the final frontier for me has been to seize control over roasting my own beans. Coffee is the seed of a cherry-like fruit, and after gathering and processing, it looks like a little green rock with a cleft in it, and it doesn’t taste of anything special. It’s not until you roast it to a rich, chocolatey brown that it releases that heavenly aroma and beguiling flavour.
By this time you should be getting the idea that I never leave well enough alone, and everything in my life is in imminent danger of becoming an obsession. I did some research, fiddled around a bit with primitive methods, including roasting beans over a wood fire in an iron pan like the Ottomans did, but a conversation with a professional coffee roaster made me realise that there was something to having the right piece of equipment for the job: heat ramp-up especially was a thing. There’s a long explanation, but if you heat the beans up too slowly they dry out and lose some of their nuance. Heat ’em up too fast and they just char instead of roasting nicely. A good roasting machine can take that into account. A good machine like the Behmor 1600.
The unit is a masterful design. You can check out the manual here, which is an excellent segue: always read the instructions. With some things, like an ice-cube tray, the stakes are low. If you do it wrong, worst-case, you don’t get ice cubes. Because this machine is using high heat to dry out and subsequently roast cellulosic vegetable matter saturated with oil (coffee), if you overdo it, it can catch fire. Which is bad.
If you’re going to get a roaster, read and pay close attention to those instructions. They’ll make sure you stay safe and that you get a decent cup of coffee from the first try. After that, you can start fiddling around with the time, ramp-ups, drum speed and all that jazz. But start with the basics. To show you those basics, have a look at this overview of roasting basics that I put together in my kitchen.
The manual may be a little intimidating at first, but as you can see, it isn’t rocket surgery: Follow the instructions, don’t leave the Roaster unattended while it’s on, and learn to recognise the difference between first and second crack and you’re in.
If you’re curious about the coffee making rig shown at the end of the video, it’s an Aeropress, and it’s what I use to make an excellent–just about the best, really–cup of hot coffee I’ve ever had.
But what if you want a bigger thrill? What if you want the ultimate in coffee deliciousness? What if you want . . . this
Cold-brewed coffee is the hottest-cold thing to show up in coffee use in the last ten years. You get flavour extraction by trading the heat of the water for time. Rather than a three or four minute steep with water around 200F (your mileage may vary) you use tepid water and soak overnight, or for 24 hours. This slow, gentle extraction leaves behind a lot of the harsh tannins, while teasing out the smooth, rich flavours that make coffee so wonderfully good.
And Nitrogen dispense is what has made Guinness Stout so popular. Forcing your cold-brewed coffee through a Stout Faucet with medium-pressure nitrogen gives it that creamy, foamy ‘cascade’ of flavour goodness. Honestly, it makes coffee wickedly drinkable, to the point where I have to monitor my intake or I’ll wind up dancing around like wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man.
Previously, if you wanted to do nitrogen dispensing at home, you needed a full-on setup, with a keg refrigerator (standard homebrew kegs are not fridge-friendly: they crowd out the pot roast), a nitrogen tank, special regulator, and a bunch of other bits and bobs. Not a stretch if your life includes that kind of thing as a hobby, but a bit of a stretch for your average coffee fan.
Pop the tap and the regulator off of it and the whole keg fits onto a shelf in a standard fridge, ready to dispense your coffee at any time. (Don’t tell anyone I told you, but it’ll also dispense Wine like a champ).
Second, check out that regulator, with the attached nitrogen cylinder. You don’t need to buy the full-meal-deal nitrogen tank, regulator et cetera, you just screw in a cylinder of nitrogen gas, pop it on the keg and dial up your pour. You can even take the Cannonball keg with you to parties or the back yard, or wherever. This is a brilliant enabler of coffee usage.
Check out how I do it.
I’ve nearly got the whole coffee thing handled. Five, six more years at most and I’ll have my system perfected.