Sunday, October 04, 2009

Is That You, Honey?

Several years ago, my wife decided that I needed a hobby, and I ended up with a wine making kit. I did manage to pull off some decent fruit wines (never really got into the whole grape thing - no press, y'know), but percentage-wise, my efforts at the oenophilic arts have not been a complete success.

To put it another way, I've probably ruined a truckload or two of fruit trying to drink it. And there's very little that's good about 5 gallons of battery acid. (Although, come to think of it, the one attempt that really qualified being called "battery acid" would have been that attempt at orange wine, but I only made a one gallon batch of that.)

We have discovered, though, that I can make a mean mead. And as a fairly direct result of that discovery, I've got about 5 gallons of honey bubbling away in a corner of my kitchen right now.

OK, technically, only about 16 pounds of it is honey. And another one ounce is made up of yeast. In a couple of weeks, it gets racked into a secondary fermenter, and a couple of weeks after that, it gets bottled and put away for at least a year. Maybe longer. (This is a long-term hobby; there's not a lot of instant gratification going on here.)

Honey is a fascinating product. Evidence shows that humans have been cultivating it for around 10,000 years - roughly 4000 years longer than some people believe that the world has been around. So it's literally a Stone Age skill, if you still use that pop-culture, ethnocentrically-biased term, anyway. (I do, but I'm shallow.)

As Alton Brown will tell you, honey is the only food produced for us, by animals. What about milk, you ask? Well, you actually have to work to get the milk out of the cow - now, if the cows milked themselves, and stored the milk in little bladders, and then stored the bladders in giant cow-hives, it would be an equivalent situation. (Of course, then you'd have to shoo off the angry hordes of cows before you could harvest the milk, and that would probably take bulldozers and massive, pitchfork-shaped cattle prods. So overall, it's probably best that bees are small.)

Honey has been used in medicine for centuries, and for good reason. It's hygroscopic, antimicrobial, and even antioxidant. If you get a cut, you could easily smear honey on it (like they did for centuries), and the antibacterial qualities could keep it from getting infected, the hygroscopic qualities would keep the wound moist and cut down on scarring, and all you'd be left with is figuring out how to deal with all the ant bites.

If you really insist on it, you can get all mystical about the stuff. On a bookshelf in the kitchen (next to The Joy of Home Wine Making), I've got a copy of Mad About Mead. I suppose that the subtitle should have warned me - "Nectar of the Gods." It's about 150 pages long, and the first 40 are taken up with mysticism, ancient religious beliefs and questionable history. I suppose it must be useful to somebody (even if you build your own religion from scratch, you've got to get building materials from somewhere). But I was definitely not the target audience.

The second two thirds of the book contain some decent tips, although I take many of them with a grain of salt, as well. For example, I don't support the idea of the "open fermenter" method: when the mead is in its initial, most active phase (where the yeast is bubbling away like mad), the author believes that an open drum covered with a sheet is the perfect container. I don't agree - although I can laugh at the idea of pulling an angry cat wrapped in a honey-soaked sheet out of a large trash can, I'm pretty sure that the reality would be much less entertaining.

On a related note, even though he barely touches on mead-making, I strongly recommend The Joy of Home Wine Making, which was written by Terry A. Garey; he also has a website,, which is an equally important resource. Mr Garey's book is the bible of wine-making (only more readable, and more useful, than the actual Bible). Everything you need to know about making alcohol from various forms of sugar is in that book.

Mead is relatively bulletproof (which is probably why I can do it without screwing up too badly). At its core, mead is really just honey, water and yeast; in fact, if you make it this way, the result used to be called a "show mead," and it was the only type eligible to be entered into competition in the UK.

There are other varieties of mead, too. For example, if you use herbs and spices to flavor it, you have "metheglin," and if you use fruit, you end up with "melomel." (Don't blame me - that's what they're called.)

Almost every culture has their own version of honey-wine. This is probably because honey often has strains of "wild" yeast in it, and will sometimes, if mixed with water, ferment itself. This isn't recommended - the yeast won't be very good at making alcohol, and might screw up the flavor to the point where you can't drink it.

The first step to making mead is to boil the water and honey, to kill off the "wild yeast" and break up the proteins. Most people also add acid (to make the yeast more comfortable), yeast nutrient (sometimes called "yeast energizer," to round out the yeast's diet a little), and tannin (to help the flavor). While it's boiling, a lot of proteins will break and rise to the surface as foam, which you skim off.

Then you pour it into a primary fermenter (in my case, an airtight jug fitted with a pressure-release valve called a "bubbler"), along with enough water and ice to make 5 gallons. (You need to reduce the temperature to around 70-75 degrees, or you kill the yeast; if it's too cold, you put it to sleep. So you have to be careful with the ice.)

And then you sit back and let the yeast do its thing.

"Its thing," if you're taking notes, is to eat sugar, belch carbon dioxide, and crap alcohol. (Yes, I could have said "excrete alcohol," but let's be real here, OK?) The yeast dies when the alcohol content is too high; this used to be around 10-13 percent, but some of the more modern wine yeast can produce around 18 percent alcohol.

You get some sludge settling at the bottom of the container as it ferments, so, as the first stage of fermentation starts to settle down, you siphon it into a secondary fermenter (most people use a big jug called a carboy), leaving the sediment (or lees) behind. You can "rack" it (which just means siphon it out, basically) a couple of times to clear more sludge; some people recommend it, some people say anything more than once is too much. I figure it's all waste, and cleaning the toilet is a good thing.

Once the bubbling is pretty much done, you bottle it and store it in a cool dark place for a while; in the case of mead, like I said, the absolute minimum is a year. I've never had it last long enough to tell you what the top end is, but I'm told that seven to ten year old meads are incredible.

(Quick disclaimer - that was less than you needed to know to make the stuff. There's all kinds of chemistry you can do - which I mostly fake - and other steps you need to know about. This was the 5-minute overview for the layman.)

On this batch, I'm experimenting on a couple of steps. First, I didn't boil it. I've been reading that boiling destroys a lot of the "nose" (smell) of the mead, and you only need to heat it to 152 degrees to kill off the wild yeasts. I admittedly went closer to 160 degrees, but I never let it boil.

Secondly, I went semi-natural. Instead of a powdered acid, I used the juice and zest (peel, with as little pith - the white stuff inside the peel - as possible) of two lemons and three oranges. And instead of powdered tannin, I brewed strong black tea and added that.

However, I did add yeast nutrient (hence, semi-natural). I could have added raisins, but that isn't the flavor I wanted. And the other top choices I found were bee pollen (didn't have any), and crushed bee larvae (umm... ick). And besides, I had yeast nutrient, so I'm pretty happy with my choices here.

This might be the first batch I've made that turns out badly. I won't know for a year. But as I write this, on day 2, it's over there popping like a tenor drum about once every three seconds. So it seems like I've done something right.

Only time will tell.


Anonymous said...

If you don't boil it, do you have to skim off the scum?

Nameless Cynic said...

No. As far as I know, the scum that rises when you boil it is the remains of broken protein chains which were damaged by the heat. You don't get that particular gray foam at the lower heat.

I suspect that this batch won't have the same clarity as some of my earlier bottles - I plan to rack it a couple of times, to see if that'll help. I guess I'll find out.