I am on a quest to make a mead that my husband will like…. and that I will like too. I know a lot of mead makers, but the sad truth is that most meads are too hot, meaning that there are too many phenols and they overpower the subtilties of the honey resulting in drinks that taste more like fingernail polish remover than the drink of the gods. If you are a mead maker and you are insulted, I mean no disrespect – I’m just being honest. Now let’s talk about the happiness that is mead.
I made my first mead last January in honor of a dear friend who had passed away last year. Ken Stout made some of the most amazing meads I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. Ken was like a mad scientist in the kitchen on brew days, throwing random amounts of various spices or fruits in his mead must. Nothing was ever measured nor written down, and no two batches ever came out the same. Once he gave me his basic recipe. I took that recipe and made a gallon of mead from a random wildflower honey I got at the grocery store. The mead came out tasting like fingernail polish remover. It is sitting in a wine rack aging now. I don’t know what Ken the Meadmeister did that made his mead so darned good and I guess I never will. Hopefully after a year or so of aging the phenols will dissipate and it will taste nice, but in the meantime I decided to try something different.
Some friends of mine up in North Carolina make lovely, sweet mead in large quantities that they share at various events we go to sometimes. I called my buddies to get some advice. The first thing they told me was to not bother boiling the must – just mix your honey and water then toss in the rest of the ingredients. The second thing that makes their mead special is that they add tea leaves to the must – it helps clear the mead. And finally, they stop the fermentation after six weeks by adding crushed Campden tablets. By leaving many of the fermentable sugars in their mead it results in the delicate sweetness of their meads.
I tried their method with a local wildflower honey from a source I trust. While that was fermenting I heard Ken Shramm, champion mead maker extraordinaire, interviewed on the Basic Brewing podcast. He had lots of great advice and so I decided to read his book The Compleat Meadmaker in an effort to make the elusive great mead. I learned that two of the things I had read in recipes and had seen people do can have negative effects on the overall flavor of mead: boiling the must and using the wrong type of yeast. There are lots of other little things he talks about in the book and if you are seriously interested in mead making you really must read it yourself.
My second batch, the unboiled, wildflower mead, came out tasting okay. It was ready to bottle by six weeks without using Campden tablets to stop the fermentation. It still had a bit of a phenol flavor, but was much better than my first attempt. One of the things that Mr. Schramm recommended to make a good wine great was to oak it. I happend to have some untoasted French oak chips, so I put 1/4 cup of them in a muslin bag and let it sit in the mead a few days. Since the chips have more surface area touching the mead than a barrel would have, it only took a few days for the mead to take on a slight oak flavor. I am happy with that mead, but I still wanted something better.
My hubby and I decided to up our yeast game. Until around May of this year we had been using relatively cheap, dry yeasts for our beer, wine, cider, and mead. So we did some research and went to our local home brew store with a laundry list of yeasts we wanted to try, mostly from White Labs or Wyeast. For mead and wine I ended up with White Labs WLP720 Sweet Mead/Wine yeast. The main difference between the dry yeasts and the liquid yeasts is that the liquid ones are live, active cultures.
For all my little experiments I only brew one gallon at a time. I really don’t want to spend a tremendous amount of money on something that ends up tasting nasty, so one gallon batches suit me fine, at least until I figure out what works best. I didn’t want to use the whole tube of my fancy new yeast on one gallon of mead (it can ferment up to five gallons), so I split it between a single variety mead must (using purple starthistle honey) and a gallon of blueberry wine (using organic berries we had picked at a local farm). Using another bit of advice from Mr. Schramm’s book, I made a yeast starter and let the yeast multiply for 24 hours before pitching it in the mead and wine. This allows the yeast to multiply and boosts the little critters’ ability to eat up the fermentable sugars and turn them into alcohol.
My blueberry wine was ready to bottle after six or seven weeks, but my mead lingered on actively fermenting. After two months I decided it was time to at least rack the mead off of the sediment. We tasted it and I must say, it is really good! The flavor of the honey is still perceptible with a slight citrus flavor and no phenol flavor or aromas. Eureka!!!
But how to stop the fermentation? I could go with the Campden tablet thing, but I really didn’t want to add chemicals to this delicate mead. Then I remembered that a friend of mine in Charleston told me that he used sunshine to stop his mead fermentation. Anything you read about brewing or fermenting always includes a line about keeping your precious ferments away from light. I decided to give it a try and it worked!
I left the mead out on my deck all day yesterday to soak up the South Carolina sun. It is still nice and warm here and the mead may have gotten up to 90 degrees or so. It was still fermenting away most of the day. Every once in a while I would go by and shake the jug a little to help degas the mead. Then around dark I brought it inside. We have an opossum that visits once in a while and I wouldn’t want him tempted by this jug of liquid gold. This morning I got up thinking I would set it outside again today, but when I looked at the airlock the liquid had gotten sucked back into the chamber closest to the mead. I’ve only ever seen that happen when fermentation is completely finished. So yea for sunshine!!!
The mead still isn’t clear. I had added tea leaves in the beginning, but it is still cloudy. My first couple of meads were clear by this point. So I just added another tea bag to the mead and 1/4 cup of French oak chips. Hopefully I’ll be bottling it in a couple of days!