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The Compleat Meadmaker by Ken Schramm

Those who know me personally know that my passions tend to kind of take over. When I am interested in something, it begins to occupy a big part of my mind. I think about it a lot. I talk about it a lot.

Those who know me are used to it, I suspect. Hanging out with a homebrewer can be something like hanging out with a writer of the talky kind. I have friends who are writers of the non-talky kind, the sort who seem to feel that talking about their current projects is a way of abandoning the project to oblivion, a way of “losing steam” as they sometimes put it.

For me, it’s not like this. I talk about what I’m writing. I talk about what I’m brewing. And one thing that’s come up lately is the subject of mead. I’m not particularly interested in making wine: the wait for the payoff is too long, and access to the right ingredients can be pretty tough in Asia. Little wonder that wines made here often suck.

Home brewing is a little better, though the costs for malt are ridiculous, because of exorbitant tariffs on malted grains in Korea. Still, I’ll likely keep at it because I love doing it, and because I feel like I am learning something.

Meadmaking, though, that sounds like a hobby one could keep in Korea with very little trouble. Honey is about as available here as it is anywhere. Fruit, too — maybe not great fruit, maybe not so much wild fruit, and maybe not such a big variety, but it is available. Meadmaking could well work out to be less expensive, and could also be a much better training in patience than home brewing.

(After all, one of the reasons I took up home brewing was to learn patience. Beer is usually ready from 5 weeks to 2 months after it is brewed. But meads tend to be ready for proper enjoyment anywhere from 6 months to a few years after the process begins — or, for meads made with dark fruit, sometimes even up to ten years later!)

So… meadmaking. To get a better handle on the subject I picked up what is, basically, the book on the subject, and I have to say, I’m not sorry I did. Schramm’s book lacks the downhomey rustic DWRHAHB wisdom of Papazian’s books, but what it lacks in missionary zeal, it more than makes up for in quality. Schramm clearly knows what he is doing, has oodles of experience, and a great interest in making clear exactly how to make good mead.

The book is split into four logical sections, each dealing with an important aspect of meadmaking: Background, Process, Ingredients, and Recipes.

Background is a brief crash course in the history of fermentation, and the role of honey within it, as well as a look at the styles of mead that are popular today.  Process is a meatier chapter, dealing with the routine involved in making a batch of mead, advanced techniques, some information about yeast and the process of fermentation, and about conditioning mead. One thing I was surprised to discover is that while sanitation is just as important in meadmaking — something I expected — it isn’t absolutely necessary to boil the must (the water/honey blend which will be fermented into mead). There are all kinds of useful tricks, tips, and observations throughout this section, though perhaps not much that will be completely new to a homebrewer of even rather modest experience, like myself.

Part Three, which is focused on “Ingredients,” is by its nature also an exploration of the variant styles of mead, from melomel (mead made with fruit or fruit juice) and cyser (mead made with grapes) to metheglin (spiced mead) and braggot (mead made with fermentable sugar from grains, ie. the same fermentables as beer).  Schramm has tons of great advice, especially on the buying, using, and study of spices. The chapter on Melomel also interested me greatly — much more than the one on pyment, for obvious reasons. I do believe there’s a braggot in my future, at some point. Perhaps when I can get my hands on those Chinese juniper branches I need.

Finally, the recipes are rather wide-ranging, and while not quite as thorough as in some other starter books on brewing styles (Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing and JEff Sparrow’s Wild Brews), I think Schramm gives us enough to start with on building own own mead recpes. Meadmaking seems a little more open to experimentation than beer sometimes seems, though this may be a mistaken impression. Styles are mainly determined by ingredients, and so seem a little more open-ended. Where you can start with a certain base malt when homebrewing, and take things in all kinds of directions, into all kinds of styles, with meadmaking, the style seems determined by a couple of simple factors: what (if anything) has been added to the honey, and what kind of yeast is used.

Anyway, I think this week, once I can get some rubber stoppers, I’ll be making a few test batches of different sorts of mead. I figure I may as well start now, since the stuff takes so long to come into its own. Schramm has done his job, I think: I’m very excited to start trying my hand at meadmaking. These meads should be ready by the late fall, and that’s an exciting time, I think. (Well, one will likely be ready sooner: I’m planning on trying out the famous JAO —  Joe’s Ancient Orange, based on the unorthodox recipe listed here.

But I think in time, I’ll be producing far more interesting, exciting, and nuanced meads. It’s only a mater of time, and practice. So, like IO said, I think Schramm has done his job admirably here! If you’re interested in meadmaking, I think this is probably as close to a perfect starter book as you’re going to find — in our universe, anyway!

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