Mead “Brewday”: Meadmaking & Bottling & So On…

Last night, I bottled my “Belgian Pale Ale”. It feels a bit weird to call anything that utterly hoppy by the name, though: it’s definitely out of style, even though the IBUs and the yeast and all are right. The magic of late additions gave this beer a really over-the-top hop flavor (tons of lemon and tropical frut) and a hoppier aroma than other beers I’ve made. (The aroma is not quite so overwhelming as I expected, but it’s certainly present, and I’m a bad judge of aroma to begin with…)

I will be kegging my American Pale Ale tonight, and look forward to seeing what happened with the same wort fermented with a cleaner yeast (California Ale yeast) as well as with a more Pacific-Northwestern hop profile.

The nice thing about kegging a beer — especially if you are pressure-carbonating it — is that it’s basically easy: once you’ve flushed your keg with CO2, you just fill it up, seal it, pressurize it, and leave it. No mess, no fuss, no worries. Easy! That will make tonight’s job much easier than last nights — bottling involves so much rinsing, so much switching around, and inevitably a certain amount of cleanup that kegging doesn’t. (I’m way less messy bottling now, but still not perfect.)

However, I will have some other work to do once the kegging is finished tonight, because… the time is upon me, I must maze, or I must desist from mazing.

So I shall maze.

If you’re not familiar with the word, “to maze” is not a typo: it’s the verb for making mead. (EDIT: Well, okay, not really, says Ken Schramm: apologies to all.) Specifically, I’ve been planning two meads for a while now, and after having found some honey on sale at a department store recently, I have more than enough for a braggot and a couple of gallon-sized batches of mead.

Since I have two 5-gallon batches of dry mead taking up keg space already, I figured that I might as well go with sweet mead for the smaller batches: they condition more quickly, and it’d be a gentler way to kick the yeast I have into action. (It’s been sitting for about a year, and while I expect it should be fine, a gentler start would be a good idea.)

Here are the batches I’ve worked out in planning:

1. Wonmisan Pomegranate Melomel

This mead will be basically just a blend of wildflower and acacia honeys, with some pomegranate juice added to the primary fermentation, and then more pomegranate juice added to the secondary fermentation. The pomegranate juice will add color and a vinous quality in the primary fermentation, but in secondary I hope there will be a more distinctly pomegranate flavor as well. The juice should be tart and tannic enough to balance the mead.

2. Wonmisan Metheglin (Spiced Mead)

This second mead will be mostly lighter-colored honeys, like acacia honey, and will be spiced with a blend of spices, each added at different times.

The plan is to make a gallon of Earl Grey tea, into which I’ll stir my honey so as to dissolve it — that should provide the tannins and a nice bergamot flavor as well. That’s all the spice I’ll actually add in primary, though there will be some yeast nutrient as well… unless I add a little bit of fresh lemon juice and some lemon zest. We’ll see. The acid would help, and the lemon zest could zing up the flavor, as well as maybe giving a touch of bitterness to balance the sweetness.

In secondary, I’ll begin spicing the mead. Spices I’m considering include:

  • white cardamom
  • vanilla bean
  • a tiny bit of star anise (just a touch, as I am not crazy about the black licorice flavor it imparts)
  • clove (a single clove at a time, till I have exactly the level I want)

These sweet meads will be much simpler to make than beer: no boiling, just heating some water, dissolving honey, cooling, and then putting into a sanitized fermentation vessel, aerating, and pitching yeast.

However, I will be keeping the temperatures low, which will mean daily vigilance. The lower-end range for this yeast is 18°C, and I intend to try keep the mead within a few degrees of that point as much as possible throughout the (several-week) primary fermentation period. It’s likelier I’ll have the mead swinging from 17-20°C, which may prolong the fermentation period a little, but better that than have the temperature rise too high.

My theory is that I will be able to keep more honey aroma and flavor intact if the fermentation temperature is controlled and kept at the low end of the range, just as it was for the cider I made earlier this year. It would be optimal if this minimized the harshness in the mead and made it ready to bottle and share sooner. We’ll have to see, however.

All of this also has me curious about how a Belgian yeast, like a Trappist High Gravity yeast, would perform making mead. I bet it would be interesting. But then, I’m also wondering what a hopped mead would be like — the boiling of hops being limited only to 15-20 minutes or so, after which the water is strained, honey added/dissolved, and then everything chilled and the yeast pitched.

Maybe for the next one. Or maybe I’ll try a tiny batch… I have one 3.5 gallon-ish jug left which I might be able to use, if I can find a stopper and a spare airlock… hm. Maybe Trappist yeast and a subtler (noble) hop? Hmmmmm. I suppose it would be a metheglin. (I’ve read some Eastern European monks somwhere made this sort of thing, traditionally.)

UPDATE (7 Sept. 2011):

So, did you know that if you leave Earl Grey tea to sit long enough, it loses the bergamot aroma/flavor? It does, as I discovered last night when I dug the airtight container of very nice Earl Grey I had in the cupboard.

Foiled thus, I decided to sleep on it, and in the morning I resolved that I would still be doing a metheglin, but… a peppermint tea-based one, which I’ll simply call the Wonmisan Mint Metheglin. So I made a gallon of peppermint tea in one of my big pots. I’ll experiment with other spice additions later, in secondary. The mead is now chilling, and I’ll pitch the yeast before I leave for the day.

And now, by the way, I definitely will be making a hopped mead. I screwed up on the pomegranate metheglin and dissolved the honey into… 1 gallon of water. Then I realized that I wouldn’t be able to add the juice. So I took out approximately a liter of the must put it into the freezer. I figure, this is as good an excuse as any to make a hopped mead. So that’s tonight’s bit of homework… I’ll figure out which hops, how much, when to hop, and what OG/FG to shoot for.

I don’t have a hydrometer that measures over 1.060, so my specific gravity levels are guesstimates — especially for the pomegranate mead — but here are the estimates:

I used 1.5 kilos of acacia honey for the mint metheglin. This gives a starting gravity of  ~1.119, which, if it finishes at 0.998, should suggest a maximum ABV of 15.65%… but since the yeast has a tolerance only up to about 11% (or, I’m told, with nutrient, maybe 12%) that leaves a good deal of sweetness. I may have to fill one bottle, and then dilute.

For the pomegranate melomel, I used two of the almost 500-gram bottles of POM Wonderful, plus what I’m guessing works out to about 1.35 kilos of  mostly mixed blossom honey (with a little acacia thrown in). Between the pomegranate and the honey, that should give an approximate starting gravity of 1.121, meaning it’s going to come out a little less sweet. (Max ABV would be ~14.4% with a more tolerant yeast.)

Also, I added a tsp of Yeast Nutrient to each, which may boost the yeast tolerance up a bit… we’ll see.

Both meads look pretty dark in their little one-gallon jugs, but in fact the mint should be less dark when it’s served in a wine glass. The pomegranate, on the other hand, will be dark and red-wine like.

UPDATE (9 Sept 2011): Well, finally these boys are krausening. I wanted to photograph the yeast behavior because it was really odd. I put the two jugs into a fermenting bucket with some ice water, to really chill it as far as I could, and I guess it got pretty far down, that is, into single digits. However, the water only went up to the bottom of the neck of each jug.

When I pitched the yeast, it sort of hung out in the neck, where it was warmer, presumably reproducing. It was weird to see these gloppy little colonies right there in the neck, fighting not to go down into all that sweet wort. So I left the jugs warm up, shook them a little to mix up the wort and get the yeast out of the neck, and then dumped a little of the must out into pot (to conserve the honey for my third mead batch of the week). Then I shook the jugs again, once more oxygenating them to help the yeast reproduce.

This morning, finally — 40-odd hours after pitching the yeast — I finally have a little krausen in those two jugs, which tells me the yeast have finally finished reproducing and have begun working through the sugars. They are about to be joined by a third little mead batch, which I’ve written about here.

UPDATE (14 Nov. 2011): Today I racked both the Pomegranate Melomel and the Metheglin to new containers. The former was stunningly clear, and I topped it up with some more pomegranate juice. The latter is still cloudy, and I think it’s still fermenting out a bit, so I didn’t bother to top it up.

Both taste quite sweet, but appealing as dessert-wine type meads. Since they were fermented on sweet mead yeast, their sweetness is far from surprising. I will probably rack them once more in a month or so, if I can scare up another 1-gallon jug, and then chill them as much as possible until they are clear, so I can bottle them. Then the waiting game begins…

I’ll update with pictures when I can.

UPDATE (11 April 2012): Well, a couple of days ago (on 9 April) I finally bottled the Pomegranate Melomel. It had finished out at 1.020, which is sweet, but not as sweet as some other things had finished out recently. It tastes pretty damned good, if you don’t mind a little fruity sweetness (I don’t!) but I won’t be making another such melomel for a long time, it looks like. (The POM juice is too expensive, and I won’t have time to age it while in Korea anyway.)

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