Monthly Archives: April 2017

Making Mead Part 3: The Meadening

Stalwart collectivist female forages my borage

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.

Bee wings, legs, guts, wax, pollen, et cetera–all good things

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.

The unusual suspects

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.

Looks like a gallon of espresso

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.

Finished. Looks like strong iced tea

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.

Mmm, smells great

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. 

Making Mad Mead Part Two: Honey, I’m Home

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. 

Honey

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.

Honey evangelist

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.

I ran the table. They were all excellent.

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

The unusual suspects

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.

Just belt it hard

I washed the lemongrass and bashed it to open the stems and tossed it into the fermenter.

Normally I’m more of a Mary-Anne guy

I hacked my ginger into medallions and they went in too.

Zesty!

I zested a whole lemon and tossed it in.

When life hands you lemons, establish dominance

I squished the lemon and tossed that in.

The smell was fantastic

With those things in, it was time to concentrate on the fruit and sugar.

The magic ingredient

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.

That’s funny-looking soup

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.

Lightly seasoned

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.

Getting closer . . .

At this point it smelled really good, as the hot liquid release the fragrance from the lemon and ginger.

Fifty bucks in ten seconds.

I added the jar of honey and rinsed it out with boiled water.

A departure in yeast choices

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.

Corrected for temperature, just about right.

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.

Down for the count of five

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.

 

Making Mad Mead Part One

 

Technically not vegan . . .

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?

BLARRRRRRRF!

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.

Mmm, sanitary!

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)

He’s doing a thing he loves. More power to him. But mead sucks.

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 and his lovely wife Margot. Did I mention that he’s a first-class mensch?

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.

Venn you’ve got it, flaunt it

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

Mostly complete

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northern Brewer Canada

When you’re this Vintner, they call you Master

Since 2015 I’ve been working on the Master Vintner project for Northern Brewer/Midwest Supplies. As Technical Winemaking Advisor I’ve been incredibly happy putting my skills to good use, bringing out the first new kit introduced into the home winemaking in more than a decade. First we launched our Small Batch kits, along with Winemaker’s Reserve and Tropical Bliss, and now we’ve added Limited Edition and Sommelier Select.

After 25 years in the wine business, it’s immensely gratifying to be in a position where I don’t have compromise on anything. The vineyards I work with, the grapes I get, the winemakers who do the blending and packaging for me, they’re all the product of a process that has one straightforward goal–help people make great wine, every time.

It’s important to assert dominance.

Throw in a customer service team that really, truly gets what it’s all about (one bad experience and people never come back, so do your best always, and fix everything, every time)  and I’ve been in pretty much a state of work-related bliss. Heck, I’ve only worn a suit three times since I’ve been with the team–that’s bliss in itself. Plus, I now get to actually get back to beer, something that I couldn’t do for over 15 years. Oh beer, I’m sorry I was gone so long: I’ll never leave you again!

New Things

But there’s something coming. Something big, cool, exciting and wonderful: Northern Brewer Canada.

Putting the North into Northern Brewer

NB Canada is a full-service home beer and winemaking supply site. Soon we’ll have most of Northern Brewer USA‘s wonderful content and products, along with Master Vintner winemaking supplies and some special additions as well (mainly me!)

Will There Be a Local Shop?

Notice I said ‘site’: we’re mostly internetting it. Northern Brewer USA has some very nice brick and mortar stores, but they grew organically from local shops. Here we’re starting fresh and e-commerce is the goal.

But that doesn’t mean we’re an interwebs discount house. A lot of people in the industry who own consumer wine and beer making shops will have heard my lecture: “Don’t discount: a race to the bottom on prices hurts you, your business, your employees and ultimately your consumer when you can’t afford to expand or improve your selection and service.” (Actually, I usually said it a lot more colourfully, and with more emphasis.)

Not only do I stand by those words as staunchly as ever, so does Northern Brewer. From their company philosophy:

The future of homebrewing

We didn’t open six months ago to make a quick buck off a hobby that’s trendy right now; we are interested in the long-term health of homebrewing (. . .) . We dedicate a significant percentage of our profits to give back to the community and to create new homebrewers. When you shop with Northern Brewer, you are helping to make an investment in the future of homebrewing.

Fair prices

Northern Brewer has been serving homebrewers and winemakers for over 22 years, and we aren’t going anywhere. Rock-bottom, fire-sale price structures are unsustainable and create an uneven playing field that ultimately hurts the industry, hobby, and the community. Our price structure is competitive but built around sustainability, because our goal is to grow homebrewing as a hobby and industry, which will benefit the consumer by sustainable lower prices and improved selection through increased demand.

You can see how that suits the criteria of my value system. I know a lot of people in the industry, I helped quite a number of them open their stores, others I’ve simply enjoyed as peers and friends. I’m pleased to be in the boat with them, and not as a discounter just out to grab market share.

What’s Next

Yep, that’s how happy I get when I have beer. Unless I get happier.

Next, we get Northern Brewer Canada fully stocked. We keep adding products and content and give you great service and excellent value on innovative products. After that, you let me know: we’ve got a Limited Edition program, we’ll be bringing in some kick-butt clone recipe kits for beer (how do you feel about having a Pliny the Elder clone as your house beer?)

I’m looking forward to a great time bringing Northern Brewer to Canada and keeping Master Vintner hopping as well. Check out the Master Vintner blog and tune into our Instagram (@Nbrewcanada) and Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/northernbrewercanada/

Non-Enzymatically Mashed Beer: Update

The first beer worked out well, but with the very low levels of dextrins even the small amount of hops I put in have it out of balance. It’s not bad (in fact it tastes exactly like most of the IPA’s I used to brew!) but I corrected that in the next batch, and also managed to execute my double-brew strategy, incorporating the used grains from the NE batch to make an imperial version of the same recipe.

Check out my results (so far) below.

A New Leaf

Renewal and redemption

Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.
–The Buddha

They say things never stay the same, and they’re right. I’ve made some recent changes in my life, and I’m eager to share them with you. After a long period of self-reflection I realized that my carefree days of spreading the word about making your own wine and brewing your own beer are just a phase I was going through, and those days and many others needed to end.

Out, vile liquor

Accordingly, I’ve emptied out my barrels, taken all of my cases of wine to the dump, poured my kegs down the drain and had all of my brewing equipment crushed at a scrapyard, so it could never again be used to make alcohol.

How could you eat something with a face like that?

In addition to this, I’ve discarded my unhealthy addiction to eating meat, and my entire diet is now Paleo-Vegan. Tofu tastes better than steak! I’ve also stopped using caffeine, and I’ve gotten all of the chemicals and GMO’s out of my house, because I don’t want to catch autism.

How did I ever think those things were fun?

I’ve also gotten rid of all of my guns, my motorcycle, and my gardening tools–those pursuits are vanity, and gardens should grow wild, free of the hand of man.

Chad is such a good guru

My next steps? I’m going to a ashram to get tested for Gluten poisoning, and then I’m getting my vaccinations reversed. When that’s done, I’ll be a leaf on the wind, watch me soar!

I’ll also be converting this blog into an information centre for how you too can change your life, and I’ll be deleting all of my previous posts that deal with the vanity of the world and praising the eightfold path to righteousness all day long. I invite you to join me: discard all of your wine, beer, steaks, whisky, fancy toys and clothes and cars, and live simply, as nature intended. There is plenty of space here in my new home under the bridge.

Be happy!

Have a blessed day.