Sunday, November 14, 2010

Homebrewed Mead: Traditional Yule

After adding everything together, and before the cloth on top!
My apprentice and I just made mead, and it wasn't nearly that much of a trial as some authors seemed to imply.  I personally think it's easier than canning, which frankly makes me nervous. You almost can't screw up making mead, and it's one of the most sacred and magical tasks we do here in the Medieval Still Room that connects us to our ancestors.  My husband pronounced it as the best concoction to come out of the brewing room yet!

Mead is possibly one of the first alcoholic beverages and has achieved legendary status among many pagans and historical re-enactors as the traditional guest drink of Northern Europe - the beverage of Beowulf, the Viking Norse and the Halls of Valhalla. Druids and Odinists alike embrace it as a extant example of traditional lifestyle and tech, as well as a communion with the culture of the ancestors. Yule, the Norse sacred holiday of Solstice, is not the same without this divine gift of the Gods. Since our modern pagan and Christian traditions were largely lifted wholesale from Yule, in our household, especially as pagans of North European descent, our down home Holly Days cannot be complete without a fine flowing of mead.

Mead is mostly honey based, of course. The yeast can't as easily digest the honey as it can some other sources of sugar, like dextrose or sucrose, so in modern times, either another type of sugar or a chemical nutriment is added to help feed the yeast. We wanted to be a bit more purist, so we added a fruit to our mead, making it technically a melomel rather than a pure mead. The apple tree produced more than enough apples this year, so our fruit component was an easy choice. To help access the nutrients, a bit of acid is recommended, usually lemon, so we included that as well.

Like country wines, many recipes suggest bread yeast for mead.  However, since the alcohol component for mead is higher due to the sugars, we chose the recommended champagne yeast. "Beer or bread yeast may essentially be paralyzed when the alcohol concentration reaches 6% to 8% alcohol. Wine yeast can normally tolerate at least 12% to 14% alcohol, and the hardier varieties (with a little help) will get to 18% or so." 1 We do use bread yeast in our country wines and vinegars, which is selected to act quicker but can leave a slightly bread tasty flavour, mostly because it's darn cheap and readily available. However, bread yeast would simply not be able to continue brewing in the mead environment. We also use filtered or reverse osmosis water in all our brewing, mostly to keep out the chlorine. Not only is it detectable to my palette, chlorine is included to inhibit bacteria growth, not exactly what we are going for here...

With that in mind, it was really such a simple process. We melted the unpasteurized honey, fresh and cheap from our local Farmer's Market, and some of the water in a pot. While it cooled, we washed and prepared the apples by cutting them up into fairly big pieces and cutting off all the nasty bits that might ruin the brewing process. We didn't bother to peel them, and I think we even used windfall! We popped those into a big glass gallon jar, like one of those restaurant pickle jars, and once the honey water was reasonably cool, we poured it in with a bit of lemon, the yeast, and enough water to fill it nearly to the top, and did a gentle but thorough stirring. Don't forget to leave enough space at the top to ensure that the brew doesn't gurgle over the edge in it's enthusiasm! We then covered our mixture with a clean rag tightened with an elastic band, which we took off once per day in order to stir the brew.

After the bubbling was noticeably halted, we got out our big funnel, stuffed it with a bit of cheesecloth to filter, and poured the brew into a cider jug. The gravity method, as in letting the apples sit for a bit in the funnel, got out nearly all of the apple bits and other detritus. I suppose we could have used those now alcohol soaked apples for something, like some decadent dessert, but they just went into the compost. Bunging up our remaining liquid with an airlock, we just left the poor neglected thing on the shelf until it cleared up, the yeast fell mostly to the bottom, and the bubbling went down to only two per minute. And it still took about a month!

For bottling, though it's not as traditional, we decided that we wanted sparkling mead, so when we siphoned and re-filtered, we just used old pop bottles that we still had the caps for. I didn't want to dilute our brew, so we plopped in carbonation drops into each bottle rather than use more sugared water to carbonate. We did taste some of the bit on the bottom of the jar, of course, and it was truly sublime. The darn things should be magnificent by Yule, and they are the perfect beverage to bring out for something very special. Even better than our handmade cider! Although it might compare to the applejack I'm making from that...

It really is a snap. Each part of the process only takes about an hour, and you can make as small or as large a batch as you have the equipment and patience for. We didn't even bother to boil the water or honey! Though we did sanitize every bit of equipment before we used it... Helps keep down the chance of souring...

For those of you who want to try this sacred and ancient beverage at home, here's the recipe we used.

3 lbs honey
3 cups water

Heated until it melted in a stainless steel pot. (Though glass or enamel are always more recommended, to reduce the chance of reactions with your brew, especially if you use herbs or spices in your blend!)

6 - 10 apples
lemon juice or concentrate
champagne yeast
enough filtered water to fill jar

Wash, cut, and groom apples, though peeling is not necessary. Fill a layer or two on the bottom of your glass gallon container with apples. Pour in cooled water/honey mixture. Add 2 Tbsp. of lemon concentrate (we used certified organic), one package of champagne yeast, and fill up the remainder of your container almost to the top with water. Leave some amount at the top for bubbling, or it will overflow. Cover with a clean, not too thick cloth, and tighten with a rubber band.

Stir every day. After about a week or two, the bubbling will appear to be gone. Filter into another glass container that you can stopper with an airlock. Let sit for another month, checking the bubbling occasionally. When it's down to about one bubble a minute, bottle it by siphoning the brew out of it's container until just before it hits the crud on the bottom. If you choose not to sparkle it, it will have no grouts on the bottom of the bottles, and you can drink as is, without concerning yourself with the type of jars you need. Masons will do, though not terribly classy...

If you wish your mead to be sparkling, like we did, it's only slightly more complicated. Adding more honey water or sugar water stimulates the yeast back into action, and creates more bubbling. As it does so, just like homebrewed beer, it will generate more grouts on the bottom of the bottle, so be careful when pouring it out. Only use bottles designed to handle the pressure, like beer or pop bottles, and make sure you do your calculations right, or your bottles may explode! Carbonation drops take out the guesswork of making up a sugar water addition, but they are highly processed sugary drops. I didn't want a water dilution, so we opted for those.

Because honey is harder for the yeast to digest than sugar, it does take far longer for mead to brew than beer or wine.  We suspect that without nutrient or fruit added, ancient mead makers may have just put it in a barrel or pot and forgotten about it for a year or so.  We just opened one of the bottles from the batch we started in September, and it only just began to get bubbly!  But it was sooo amazingly good... So be patient with your mead, and to keep yourself from cracking it open, try a new recipe in your gallon jar almost as soon as you bottle up the last one.  This time we have apples and fresh ginger!  It already smell like ambrosia...

Even after it's done, remember:  the longer you leave your mead to sit in the secondary fermentor with the air lock, or in the bottles, the better it will taste!  So by all means drink as much as you can for the holidays, but save a bottle or two for Imbolc or Midsummer.  As one of the mead makers for your gatherings, you will always be one of the popular guests! 

I find it even easier to brew mead than beer.  Even for those who haven't tried making home brewed beer or wine yet, mead is truly inspiring beverage that has loosened the tongues of Gods, and giving the bardic gift to mortals for centuries.  Lift up your glasses!  Got Yul!