New labels and matching bottles in 750 and 375 ml. Uncle Beth’s Old-Fashioned Mead is movin’ up in the world.
New labels and matching bottles in 750 and 375 ml. Uncle Beth’s Old-Fashioned Mead is movin’ up in the world.
Last November Kim and I started a gallon of mead with our bees’ honey. Since then I’ve been racking it occasionally but mostly forgetting about it. I discovered it again recently and declared it ready to bottle.
It was, like everything I make, extremely dry and boozy, so I back sweetened it with 1/4 cup of honey. Booziness aside, I’m very happy with it. It’s so different from the store honey mead and, dare I say it, better. I’d say it tastes richer and has a stronger honey base. There’s also a lot less of it. I’ve been free with the 5 gallon batch of mead, taking it to parties and pawning it off on friends, because 5 gallons is a lot to have of anything. One gallon, on the other hand, filled just 11 beer bottles. Beer bottles are perfect for gallon batches, because they can be portioned out more slowly.
They’re also perfect for my small homemade labels. Technically this was the prototype for the official label, but I think I like it more.
It’s about time I had some good mead news.
My first big batch leaked all over the floor, and I was too depressed and sticky to even write about it. My second batch started out strong, but then it just kept getting stronger and bubbled longer than it had any right to.
But this batch… is still the second batch. It’s the same mead, hastily thrown into four separate containers to try to stop fermentation because I didn’t know what else to do. But here’s the thing:
It’s actually good!
I’d been dreading opening up these fermenters, and I put it off for a few months. This may actually have been the best thing I could have done. All the mead makers I’ve talked to have said the same thing – if you don’t like it now, just forget about it for a while.
Tommy was visiting from Texas, which got me inspired. He’s always up for some good blog fodder. We hauled up the mead and gave it a taste. It was outrageously boozy – everything I make is. I need to get a better handle on the fermentation process so I can stop warning people not to pour a full glass every time they open a bottle of wine.
Five gallons of mead is a heck of a lot of mead. My parents have been stockpiling bottles, though, and handing them off every time they see me. It felt excessive until I actually needed them. I was especially grateful for the big double wide bottles, because they gave us extra time to think between fillings.
The corking was a bit of a pain. The corker is inherited from my dad’s wine making days and is made of plastic older than I am. You have to press with all your strength for it to work, but I’m worried all my strength will snap it in half. Some corks didn’t make it as far as others and had to be redone later.
When all was said and done, we had 10 normal bottles and 7 double sized bottles. I’d painstakingly removed the labels from a few, but when the mead kept flowing we had to break out the reserves. I gave some away before I had a chance to scrub their labels off, but the ones I kept got cleaned up to make way for… wait for it…
Uncle Beth’s Old Fashioned Mead. Ben designed it, and I’m very happy with how it turned out. My dad’s always had a mustache, and I’m carrying on the tradition. The labels were printed by Bottle Mark and came extremely fast. I’m not sure I’m wild about the red, but for a first run I think it’s great.
And it feels a heck of a lot more professional than ball point pen on stickers.
Die-hard fans may remember that I started a five gallon batch of mead back on October 30th, also known as three months ago. Well… it’s still bubbling. I don’t think it should still be bubbling.
There’s not much airlock activity, but there’s a constant flow of tiny bubbles travelling up the side of the carboy, like in a glass of champagne. Something is clearly still happening in there.
I racked this mead away from the lees right before Thanksgiving, but I’m wondering now if enough yeast is still present to keep the fermentation going past its welcome. I hope so, because the other option is that something strange has started growing in there.
That theory really has me worried, because recently some little guys have appeared on the surface. Is it mold? I don’t know, but the prospect of five gallons of honey vinegar is more than I can bear. I can’t bottle the stuff while it’s still bubbling, but it can’t stay here.
Because the universe is an uncaring place, I don’t have any other five gallon carboys. There’s a spare six-gallon kicking around, but that would leave too much headspace. What I do have are three one gallon jugs and a two gallon bucket. They’ll have to do.
For the job I have a brand new long auto siphon and, to go with it, some horrible old kinked tubing. It turns out it’s all I have that will fit the cool new siphon. And since I have no hope of lifting this carboy up off the ground, I have to pump it all manually. The result is an intermittent jet stream through a tube that fluctuates between wide open and barely passable. This is not ideal.
To call it oxidizing would be an insult to understatements.
The sheer volume of bubbles I’m pumping to this mead makes the danger of an extra gallon of headspace seem stupid. But I’m committed, so I soldier on. I finally get all five gallons into their new containers in a very poorly lit corner of the basement. Only time will tell if they keep on bubbling or grow new strange lumps or do something else worrying. At least now they’re split into four samples that may behave differently from each other.
Once everything is safely stowed away, I actually taste the stuff. I should probably have done this first, but once the racking fever took me I couldn’t stop. All that’s left are the dregs that got awfully yeasty on the trip up the stairs, but even so I’d give the flavor a confident rating of Not Bad. It’s strong, but not vinegary. Given a little time to settle and, God willing, quit fermenting, I think it could still be good.
I just hope all that oxidation doesn’t ruin it.
Ever since we harvested the first batch of honey in August, I’ve had three pounds of the stuff in my kitchen cupboard.
But no more!
Kim and I finally got into gear and started fermenting it into honey. And Omar, my cat, started modelling it.
We set the honey jar in a warm bath for a few minutes to get it flowing. Even warmed up, it didn’t exactly rush through the funnel.
This gave us plenty of time for photo ops.
I’d put a few inches of water in the bottom of the jug to begin with, hoping that it would keep the honey from sticking to the bottom. Honey, it turns out, is a lot denser than water. It sank straight to the bottom. Maybe a couple hardy water molecules stuck to the bottom…
Before the jug was completely full, I gave it a good shake. I missed getting to do this when I did the five gallon batch. This process both mixes the honey and water together and aerates the must.
I got really into it.
And I may have aerated too vigorously.
With all those bubbles, the primed yeast and nutrient didn’t have much space. I’m having bad flashbacks to my raspberry melomel…
Despite some cramped quarters, the mead is a beautiful color. I’ll have to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t blow its lid.
As avid readers may know, the last time I tried to make mead in bulk, it wound up inches deep on my basement floor. I could have been drinking it right now…
It took me a while to grieve, but I’m finally ready to give it another shot. I am, as always, using the cheapest honey I can find. These handsome three pound bottles came from the bulk store and cost $8 apiece. As you can see, I bought so many they let me keep the box.
The rule of thumb I’ve discovered is that three pounds of honey makes for one gallon of mead. It was six gallons I lost to the honey gods last time, but on this pass I’m going to do a modest five. One of Ben’s birthday expansions was a new five gallon carboy I want to use, and this sixth bottle I’m saving for a strawberry melomel I’ve got in mind.
So that means a paltry five bottles, or fifteen pounds, of honey. That’s heavier than my cat, and he’s fat!
There are very different schools of thought on whether or not to boil honey before fermenting it. Lots of people, including the author of my mead book, believe that you should for sanitation purposes. Plenty of purists are horrified at the thought, because being unheated is what makes raw honey so special and so much better for you. Since my honey was delivered on a pallet and was most assuredly boiled at some point, I’m not too worried about that. Purists of a different sort, however, insist that honey doesn’t need to be boiled because microbes can’t survive in it and it’s essentially sterilized from the moment it comes out of the bee. This school of thought requires less work, so I’m inclined to go with it. All I did was submerge the bottles in a warm bath for a few minutes to get the honey flowing at a rate that wasn’t maddening.
Weight was a big consideration working with five gallons of liquid. I can carry my one gallon batches up and down the stairs all day, but five gallons is a different animal. Not only do I not think I could carry that much mead down two flights of stairs, I would never want to. Just the thought of losing another huge batch, this time on the stairs, brings tears to my eyes. But my basement is dark and scary and the sink, while existent, is far from sanitary. I split the difference and did as much work upstairs as I thought I could manage – two gallons of water and all fifteen pounds of honey. It was heavy going on the starirs, and visions of the bucket’s handle breaking flashed before my eyes, but I made it.
The warm bath worked like a charm, and the honey flowed right out.
Once each bottle was empty, I ran a little bit of water into it, shook it like there was no tomorrow, and added it to the bucket. This caught a lot of that pesky honey clinging to the walls and, I hope, really oxygenated the must.
I wrangled the bucket down to the set of Saw VII and added the final gallon and change of water. I mixed the honey and water like crazy, added two packets of rehydrated yeast, secured the lid and airlock, and left it to work its magic.
Now it just has to pass the next couple months not on the floor, and we’re in business!
Today is all about dark wine. It wasn’t meant to be, but completely by accident all my dark, autumnal-looking wines were due to be racked at roughly the same time. Which is good, because they all catch the autumn light in such a way it’s a shame they live in the basement. I’ve read that exposure to light can give wine off flavors. I’m not sure off flavors are a real concern for someone at my level, so I may consider relocation. It would be the most roundabout stained glass in town.
Then again, sunlight beating down on my wine might heat it up to an uncomfortable extent. This may be a sight that comes only every month or two. It’s more special that way. From left to right we have Raspberry Melomel, Elderberry Wine, Plum Wine, and Strawberry Wine. “Melomel” is the beautiful old fashioned-sounding term for mead flavored with fruit. The even older fashioned-sounding “metheglin” is mead flavored with herbs or spices. If I learn the professional language, I’m one step closer to being a professional myself. Right?
Speaking of metheglin, I racked my lavender metheglin last week, and it received rave reviews. It’s incredibly strong (I’m still getting the hang of the hydrometer) but the little bit I tried tasted lovely, especially with a little honey mixed in. One of my roommates said it reminded him of Viking’s Blod, a household favorite mead, so I took it as the highest of compliments. Viking’s Blod don’t come cheap, so I’d dearly love to be able to replicate it. The recipes I’ve found involve hibiscus, not lavender, so I may need to explore the world of flower-flavored metheglins.
But enough about future projects. In the here and now, I’m still racking this elderberry wine which, as you may remember, tasted like vinegar back in July. I sure remember. I’m still dutifully racking it every month in the hopes that it will, as the recipe suggests, improve with age.
And as far as my monthly notes are concerned, my hopes are not unwarranted. In July this wine was “…Not good” and I was “hoping for an ageing miracle.” In August another ellipsis introduced an incredulous “…getting better?” Now, in September, I swear it was downright close to drinkable. It tastes and looks to me like a very dry red wine. Is this stuff actually improving, or is my palate getting more and more accustomed to dubious homemade fruit wine? The latter is almost definitely true, but I’m hoping the former is a little bit true, too. We’ll see.
I also racked a mulberry melomel that had been fermenting in a bucket for a few weeks. True to form, I’m following a half-remembered friend-of-a-friend forum post recipe and hoping for the best. In a departure from my usual methods, I soaked the berries and sugar in water overnight and added the resulting strained and simmered juice to the honey and more water. After it had cooled, I combined it with raisins and yeast and let it sit in an air-locked bucket for two weeks. I opened it up to find some very alcoholic reconstituted grapes floating on a sea of hooch. I have got to get my alcohol content under control before I go blind.
Despite its potency, the mulberry melomel is really delicious. It has a light mulberry flavor with a strong honey base. And its color is fantastic. It reminds me of freshly pressed cider and has an opacity to it that I hope doesn’t disappear. So far I haven’t made a mead I don’t like. The honey makes for such a warm background to other flavors that it avoids that astringency I tend to get in straight fruit wines. Once winter kicks in and the fresh fruit is from California, meads brewed with dried herbs and spices might be just the thing.
I counted, and I have eleven and a half gallons of wine sitting in my basement. None of it’s ready yet, but in a few months’ time my apartment may have to have a serious Bacchanal.
After giving the triangle board a few days to work its magic, we stole the full honey box right off the top of the hive. We got all suited up, lit two smokers, set the honey box in a wagon, wrapped it in a sheet, and booked it on out of there.
We needn’t have worried. The bees didn’t even seem to notice that we were making off with a month’s hard work, and the honey box was completely deserted. The triangle board could not have worked better!
Actually, it could have worked a little better. The bees who left late must have been tipped off that something was up, because some of the honey had disappeared. After a certain point, every bee must have taken a bellyful of honey when she went through the triangle board. It’s not a huge loss, though, and it’s likely just been moved to the next honey box.
We brought the honey box back to Kim’s house and set to work spinning. I’d heard of “spinning honey,” but I’d never known what to picture and certainly didn’t think to take the term so literally.
When the bees declare a cell full of honey, they cap it off with a layer of wax. It’s almost as if they know what we’re up to and are trying to make it harder on us. To clear a path for the honey to slide out, we have to remove every single cap. For the first frame we used a tool that looked like a pointy afro pick to poke them out. For the next frame we tried out an electrically heated knife that came with the rental equipment. It was a lot more effective. It was like running a hot knife through butter. Except the butter was wax.
Once the first three frames were uncapped, we initiated the next phase. This contraption is the extractor itself. A tall cylinder with a hand crank on top, it’s a lot like an ice cream maker. Inside are three wire racks, each of which holds a frame. It’s like an ice cream maker with a rotisserie chicken cooker inside.
With the frames loaded up, it was time to spin. And spin is exactly what we did.
Turning the hand crank whirls the racks around and the honey, uncapped, gets flung out of the comb by centrifugal force. It hits the walls of the cylinder and slides down to collect in a reservoir in the bottom. I gave it 200 cranks in one direction, flipped the frames, and gave it 200 in the other direction. I threw in another 50 for good measure at the end.
Here I am getting into the spirit of things.
Between the hot knife and the spinning, we got a nice two-man procession line going. Before long we had all nine frames extracted and were ready to move on to filtration. At this stage, the honey contains a lot of wax and more than a few stray bee parts. You gotta strain. Disastrously, our rental equipment was missing its filter! My huge brewing straining funnel stepped up to the plate, though, and performed admirably. You’d never even know it wasn’t part of the setup.
We let the honey drain out of the extractor into the funnel, then through the funnel’s mesh into the bucket below. Honey doesn’t move fast, and the day took on a slower pace from this point forward.
When the extractor was empty, we could move the bucket and funnel mess up to the table and begin bottling into 1 lb and 1/2 lb jars. I also set aside three pounds to make into mead.
We opened up a bottle of my previous batch of mead to sip while the honey drained. I have to admit, this honey has a richness to it that the store-bought stuff I’ve been using in my mead lacks. I’m so excited to brew with honey I’ve actually raised and harvested myself, but I’m afraid this will ruin me for the cheap and easy method.
So it goes.
I’m also becoming more aware of the tremendous range of flavor honey comes in. So many mead recipes I’ve read call for specific blossom varieties, a distinction I’ve never really taken to heart. I thought there might be notes of specific flavors that came through mainly to those who were looking for them. Kim and I sampled a few different honeys, however, and I was bowled over by how different each batch was. We tried a jar from our garden in the spring of 2013. (The last jar in existence, Kim said. There’s a dark finality in small artisinal batches, man). It tasted, for all the world, like flowers. Way beyond slight notes.
Then we tried a jar from the fall of the same year. From color alone, you could tell something was different. It was dark. Almost brown. And it tasted, I swear, like autumn. It was smoky and so rich. I’ve never had honey like that.
Then we tried a store-bought bottle from the Caribbean that Kim had been given as a gift. She says once you become an acknowledged “bee person,” people start giving you honey stuff. I’m alright with that. This bottle was completely different. It was dark, but not thick. And while it was sweet, of course, it had a spiciness to it. It was almost hot. I’m not sure I’d put it on my granola, but it was fascinatingly different.
All told, we collected about 30 pounds of honey. Not bad at all for just one month with the honey box! At this rate, we may very well get another harvest in. We’ll be selling the honey within the community garden and using the proceeds to offset bee costs.
Maybe buy a hot knife of our very own.
My first mead was good! I’m as surprised as anyone. And since the only thing to do with moderate success is run with it until you trip over yourself, I’ve whipped up two more meads. They’re flavored, more ambitious, and a lot more free-wheeling. On the left we have raspberry mead, and on the right we have lavender mead. Both are bubbling away nicely.
Now for a note on honey. Here’s the thing about honey: it don’t come cheap. Or more correctly, it don’t come cheap unless you buy the cheap stuff. There will come a day when I have the money to buy humanely raised meat and raw, local honey. I hope. But it is not this day. Particularly when I’m still learning, I’d rather not pay top dollar for my honey. For my first batch of mead I used generic brand, pasteurized clover honey from my neighborhood grocery store (as far from purist as you can get) because I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t want to spend too much. And I was so happy with the results. So for the moment I’m sticking with my cheapo, heated, store brand bulk honey and aiming for quantity (and therefore variety) rather than quality.
That being said, I’m trying to make improvements in quality where I can. I thought my grocery store strawberry wine was a little lacking, so I’ve flavored my crappy honey with home grown ingredients. The raspberries were grown in my parents’ garden and frozen at peak ripeness. The lavender was donated by my community garden neighbor Ken, who’s getting overwhelmed by his huge lavender bush.
I wish I had that kind of problem. This is my lavender bush at present.
It’s over a year old and still so tiny!
Anyway, I had a hard time finding a definitive recipe for lavender mead online. There were plenty of rumors and memories of friends of friends who make it all the time, but nothing really concrete. And the few details that were concrete varied wildly, from steeping the lavender into tea, to leaving it whole in the mead for a month, to leaving it out completely until bottling. I’d already picked my lavender, so that last one was right out. In the end I decided to make up my own recipe, roughly adapted from this guy’s vague remembering.
In a sterilized pot I heated some water to 160F, then added an ounce and a half of lavender flowers. I let them steep until the water turned to a nice golden brown tea and the whole house smelled like lavender. I may have driven my roommates away for the night.
I let the tea cool a bit, then combined it in a gallon carboy with three pounds of honey. I topped the carboy up with water, added yeast nutrient and sodium metabisulfite, shook it up, and let it sit for a day with a towel over the top.
This may not have been a good idea.
I swear I’ve added nutrient and metabisulfite to must simultaneously before, but maybe never in a fully topped up carboy. When I checked on it the next day, the must had bubbled up into what was by then a very crusty towel. My suspicion is that I was feeding the natural yeasts from the lavender at the same as I was inhibiting them, and the feeding won out in the end. If this is the case, I may have some sub-par mead on the way.
Then again, I may have just shaken it too vigorously and the bubbling over happened in the first minute.
Only time will tell. Or maybe it won’t.
My raspberry mead had some hangups, too. Actually, raspberry mead isn’t called mead, but melomel – a fermented mixture of honey and fruit.
My raspberry melomel had some hangups, too.
I thawed and smushed the raspberries (just under two pounds) and shook them up with three pounds of honey, some sodium metabisulfite, acid blend, pectic enzyme, and enough water to equal a gallon. I did not add any yeast nutrient, because the recipe I was vaguely following didn’t say to. Maybe these recipes know what they’re talking about, because this one did not bubble over in the night.
The next day, however, I continued to follow my recipe closely and set my yeast and nutrient in a cup of water to get it started. I then poured it into the carboy and the liquid filled up straight to the top. No room for even a single bubble. Until now I’ve been pitching my yeast straight into the must, and for some reason it didn’t occur to me that extra water would mean extra volume. Whoops.
I had to get some of the liquid out; I was afraid that the very first bubble was going to pop the cork off this thing. The whole top layer was yeast, though. I wanted to get rid of the liquid in the middle. I eased the auto siphon in and the carboy promptly overflowed. There went a lot of my yeast. I released some liquid and pulled out the siphon. It was coated in a lot more of my yeast. No!
There was no immediate activity in the airlock, and I was worried I’d completely eradicated the yeast. I didn’t want to add more, though, in case I wound up with too much. I decided I’d give it until morning to start fermenting, and went to bed uneasy.
Lo and behold, this is what I woke up to! The next morning the raspberry melomel was bubbling with a vengeance, as was the lavender. They’ve both been put in cool and dark storage in the cellar.
The main lesson I’ve learned is that there’s no reason to do a primary fermentation in a carboy. I’m not sure what possessed me to do it, and to do it twice! The little bit of liquid I removed from the melomel tasted fantastic, though, so I have high hopes.
Just as long as those seeds don’t sprout…
The wines are resurfacing! For the past month or so, they’ve been bubbling and settling away in the cellar. Every now and I again I check on them to make sure they haven’t exploded and created an ant paradise. Since I went through such a wine frenzy, everything was brewed at roughly the same time. Meaning everything has to go through its next step at roughly the same time. Meaning now!
I dragged everything upstairs and we had a Grand Tasting. Most of the wines just needed to be racked, but how can you not taste a little bit? These are our findings.
Rhubarb Wine: Still looks like dishwater, but not unpleasant. I have hope for this one. I racked away a lot of lees, so I can imagine it clearing up some day. The taste is basically unchanged.
Grapefruit Wine: Close to undrinkable. To be honest, the main problem with the grapefruit wine is that it tastes so much like a grapefruit. I’m not sure what I expected in that regard. I’ve been picturing something light and crisp and sweet, more with the fragrance of grapefruit than anything. And that still may be achievable, with a lot of ageing and a lot of back sweetening. This wine has such an edge to it, I can’t imagine it would be any fun to drink dry.
Blueberry Wine: A strong contender. This was one of the house favorites. It’s got a very distinct blueberry flavor that borders on being too tanniny. There was a huge amount of sediment in this one, and I had to make up for the missing volume with water. It’s so dark and strong, though, even with the added water, that I think it’ll be alright. For the future, though, I need to invest in some glass marbles for bringing up volume.
Elderberry Wine: Basically vinegar. I don’t know where I went wrong with this one. I had such high hopes for it when I racked it the first time. It was dark and raisiny, by far the closest thing to grape wine I’ve made so far. But something has obviously changed between then and now, most likely one of those stray foreign yeasts I’m always sanitizing against. Everything I’ve read has said that if you do one thing right, it should be sanitizing. I try to sanitize faithfully, but I do have a cat and roommates and a kitchen that’s far from spotless. At my level a bad wine now and again may just be par for the course. The recipe I’m following does say that this wine improves with age, so I’ve racked it and put it back in the cellar in the hopes that the long road to improvement includes an early vinegary phase.
Mead: Genuinely good. I started the mead and the strawberry wine earlier than than all rest and had racked them both once already. According to my recipes, this meant that I could bottle them or let them age, depending on my tastes. Mead apparently gains a lot more complexity if you age it, and some people whose blogs I’ve read wouldn’t dream of drinking mead that’s under a year old. I’m new to this, though, and impatient. And the mead was really very good. So I decided to bottle it! I can always make another batch and age it for longer to do a comparison.
My only complaint with the mead was that it was very dry. I like sweet wine, and the flavor of honey especially feels disjointed to me when it’s not accompanied by sweetness. Everyone who tried it said they liked it just the way it was, though, so I split the difference. I siphoned the whole carboy off into a bucket and added some Sodium Metabisulfite and Potassium Sorbate to inhibit any remaining yeast. This is absolutely necessary if you’re back sweetening with honey, but I’m paranoid about exploding bottles and figured it couldn’t hurt for my unsweetened batch, too.
I filled five bottles with the unsweetened stuff. Maybe I’ll hide one of these bottles from myself in the cellar to see how it ages. To sweeten the rest of the mead, I just added honey, stirred, and tasted until I was satisfied. I’m really happy with the result. It has a strong alcoholic body to it, with a sweet finish. It’s very obviously made of honey. And the alcoholic body is strong. Back in May I was too eager to get started to take any hydrometer readings (something I will be doing from now on), but I wouldn’t be surprised if the alcohol content is at or over 20%. I’ve put it in beer bottles with the idea that they can be shared or portioned out over a day or two like wine bottles. Or drunk by one person after a particularly hard day.
Strawberry Wine: Also good. I’m so happy my bizarre sprouting wine has come out okay. Over the past month it’s settled beautifully and really cleared up. It has an amazing summery smell. According to the recipe, it can be bottled very young, so I took the same tack as with the mead and back sweetened it to taste with honey. Since this batch had been downsized to a half gallon that still produced a lot of sediment, I got only six beer bottles’ worth. I like the look of a hodgepodge of saved bottles, and I even threw in an old Jarritos bottle to show off the beautiful clear blush. I chose to use beer bottles because this wine, too, is incredibly boozy. I have an open bottle in the fridge right now that I’ve been nursing over several sittings, like a liqueur. My only regret is that I think you can taste the fact that I used grocery store strawberries that had been shipped from who knows where. Sweet as it is, I think there’s a noticeable undertone of that white, foam-like core you get in big, under-ripe strawberries. I’m going to hunt down some farmer’s market berries and attempt another batch, because I think it could be really great.