Steve Rosolio's Label Design
Way back in April, just before a club meeting, Bruce Brode, myself and a cast of other Falcons gathered at the homebrew shop. The effort at hand - making a little mead for everyone to enjoy at our 40th Anniversary party. (And boy did we have some mead to enjoy!) The challenge – getting it ready in time for the party in October. This article covers both how we sped the mead through production and how we adjust everything for optimum flavorage.
All mead starts with the same basic axiom - great mead needs great honey. You're not going to make the best Viking fuel in the world with the little squeeze bear bottle with honey of indeterminate origin. (do a search for "fake honey").
To that end, the club bought 60 pounds of Orange Blossom and three six pound jars of varietal honey from Bloom Honey of Thousand Oaks. It wasn’t cheap, but it was worth it! All told the club spent about $360 on the honey or ~$4.60 / pound. At today’s honey prices, that’s not too terrible for raw, cold packed honey. (I prefer minimally processed honey for mead making since I have a better chance of capturing the aromatics) Another good option in the area is Bennett’s Honey Farm in Filmore. A 5 gallon pail (~60 lbs of honey) is enough honey to produce 4 5-gallon batches of mead. The extra 18 lbs allowed us to extend for another full batch.
- 10 pounds Orange Blossom Honey, 6 pounds Blackberry Honey
- 10 pounds Orange Blossom Honey, 6 pounds Saw Palmetto Honey
- 10 pounds Orange Blossom Honey, 6 pounds Wild Cherry Honey
- 18 lbs Orange Blossom Honey
- 10 pounds Orange Blossom Honey (a hydromel or lower alcohol mead)
We heated up the honey to get it more fluid and heated up a little bit of water and then the crew scrapped, weighed and mixed the honey and water together. We then added cooled boiled water to bring each carboy up to ~5 gallons of volume. It was a messy, sticky process that we could have planned better, but oh well – we made mead!
Batches 1-3 with their 16 lbs of honey were designed to be “medium” meads with an apparent sweetness, but not overwhelming. Batch 4 at 18 lbs is firmly in the “sweet” camp with a strong sweetness that still shouldn’t be obnoxious candy like. Batch 5 was a bit of an undershoot. It was supposed to be 12 lbs to be dry and white wine like, but we lost 2 lbs of honey somewhere in the process and ended up with a 10lbs for a lower alcohol hydromel.
Bruce took two portions home with him to get the superb Deacon treatment. He grabbed batches #3 and #4. I took the other three.
Each mead was pitched and fed according to the staggered nutrient profile described in Ken Schramm's "The Compleat Meadmaker."
A Digression on Mead and Nutrients
The core of the staggered nutrient technique is:
- Take your normal nutrient addition for a batch and divide it into 4 or 8 equal doses.
- At pitching time, add a dose and swirl to dissolve
- Every 24 (4 doses) or 12 hours (8 doses) add another dose until you run out of nutrient
Obviously, the question is "why?" If you read anything older than the Compleat Meadmaker or talk to older Mazers, you'll run into traditional knowledge that mead can take a good year or more to setup as a drinkable beverage. A large part of this is due to the fact that a mead must is a terrible place for yeast's to do their business.
Honey's a great simple food source, but there's nothing there for the yeast to use nutrient wise. This causes a lot of yeast stress and stressed yeast produce stressor chemicals. It takes time for those less than pleasant smelling byproducts to be absorbed or dissipate.
So, in theory, adding staggered doses of nutrients makes the nutrients more available for the yeast when they need it. The nutrients help encourage growth and reduce the generation of fusel alcohols and the like. Happy yeast = less bad stuff to age out = faster mead production.
Is the science sound? Don’t know, but I do know that the technique works. At the 2010 St. Paul American Homebrewer’s Association Conference, I attended the “Mead Maker’s of the Year” Panel with 5 previous winners of the AHA National Competition in Mead. Steve Piatz gave a handout to the crowd (Find it here) And then they presented a metric ton of meads to prove their points and skills. After all the tasting was done, they dropped the final bombshell that the meads we’re were drinking were about 3 months old.
Back to the Mead
I fermented my three batches in the brewery using coldwater baths to keep the Spring heat at bay as I fed the yeast for the first four days. The three carboys were foil capped and stayed that way until a few weeks prior to the Banquet. I transferred the meads carefully to kegs and let the kegs settle at near freezing temperatures for a few days to settle out most of the yeast haze. The day of the banquet I added adjustments to each bottle, filled with mead and then sealed with push “t” corks.
Drew's Meads Fermenting in a Giant Water Bath
Bruce, meanwhile, kept the meads down next to the coast in his abode where they chilled and were dutifully babied. Bruce has much more the winemaker’s experience with his mead and clarified his batches with bentonite (1/2 tsp per gallon) and sparkolloid (1 tsp per gallon).
Both of us sat down and tasted and made adjustments to the base meads. Here’s where you have to put your vintner’s hat on. Unlike beer, where virtually everything about the beer is determined by the recipe and fermentation, wines and meads aren’t truly done until they’re packaged. When you taste the mead, you need to stop and think about what you taste and how the mead feels on the palate. A vintner’s primary tools for adjusting are acid and tannin.
Acid provides your wine/mead/cider with a sense of brightness and “tightness” (to use a winemaker’s terms). Acid works on your tongue to make your various flavors pop. It’s the same principle in play when you see people squeeze lemon on a fish or finish a dish with a splash of vinegar. Your choice of acid can help reinforce certain characters in the mead. Primary choices are Citric (lemony tangy), Malic (crisp green apple, slightly bitter), Tartaric (tangy, but salty) or Mead Acid Blend – a blend of all three.
Tannin, usually powdered grape tannin, is a bittering compound. In the vinting world, the bitterness provided by the tannin is actually a structuring agent, not like the way bittering is used as a “cutter” in beer making. You have to be very careful with tannin additions because a very, very little goes a really long long way.
Note that Batch’s 1,2,5 (aka the one’s I handled) were adjusted at the bottle level for the Anniversary party.
Batch Notes and Adjustments
- (OB/Blackberry) Sweetness on money, acid on target, needs a pinch of tannin. Added ~1/16 tsp tannin per 750 ml bottle. Otherwise, flavor is spicy and bright.
- (OB/Saw Palmetto) Meaty, Caramel, Earthy with sufficient acid and tannin. No adjustments needed
- (OB/Wild Cherry) 2 teaspoons Mead Acid Blend (50% malic, 40% citric, 10% tartaric), Potassium sorbate for stability
- (OB Sack) 2 teaspoons Citric Acid, Potassium sorbate for stability
- (OB Hydromel) Watery, lacking in body. Added ~1/16 tsp tanin per 750 ml to boost body and bite.
Bruce bottled the whole batch with proper corks and capsules and waited labeling for the party. Both batches were bottled 100% straight. I wanted to play with the mead a little more and lacked the time to bottle everything before the party.
Mead also provides the perfect playground for flavor additions. Since I was treating my bottles as “growlers” that meant I had room to play with some fresh flavors as well without having to worry about re-fermentation. I ended up making these variants:
Nicely Labelled Mead Bottles
- Blackberry with Berry Hibiscus
- Saw Palmetto with Coffee
- Hydromel with Maple
- Hydromel with Peach
- Hydromel with Tahitian Vanilla
I’ll walk you through my why and the how:
Blackberry Mead Variant – Tea Tincture
With the blackberry mead, I wanted a variant that said “fruity” because it’s the one thing the base mead is not. Naturally when you see “Blackberry Honey” your brain desperately wants to find a berry flavor and aroma even when you know objectively that’s not going to be the case. So instead of fighting that trend, I looked to give the palate what it expected. In this case, I mixed the contents of 4 bags of Berry Zinger tea (which is a berry hibiscus tea) with 4 oz of vodka in my iSi ½ pint Stainless Steel Whipping Siphon. I charged the siphon with 2 canisters of nitrous, shook well and let sit for 30 seconds before venting all the pressure. The process creates a near instantaneous tincture by force gas and vodka into the target ingredient and then violently releasing it. After testing the mixture, I added 75 mls of the extract per 750 ml bottle. After sealing, gave the bottle a few quick flips to mix thoroughly.
Saw Palmetto Variant – Coffee Extract
The Saw Palmetto had a really caramel, earthy body to it that felt like it wanted a bit of a cutting flavor that still worked with it’s primary components. All the crazy coffee drinks people seem to order these days inspired this variant. I’m a huge fan of cold steeped coffee because it emphasizes the natural sweetness of the coffee bean while minimizing the harsher acidic roast characters. For this, I course ground a medium roast Columbian coffee to produce a cup of grounds. I mixed that with a cup of cold filtered water and let that sit for 16 hours in a French press on my kitchen counter. I pressed it to pour off a very concentrated coffee extract. The flavor was pretty close to what I wanted at the ratio of 100 mls per bottle. I think a darker roast with a more assertive flavor would be better suited for this mead, however.
Hydromel – All About the Base
In perfume, you’ll hear people talking about “base notes”. These are the oils and aromas that provide the long body to a cologne/perfume. And body is what this hydromel desperately needed. Even with the addition of the tannins, the lighter weight mead felt a little too water like for my tastes, so all three of the flavor variants were about providing a body boost. One variant I didn’t get to try because I didn’t have any on hand was a lactose addition. Another variant was a sparkling hydromel. Carbonation will add liveliness and would make this hydromel feel a little Champagne like.
Maple – Breakfast in a glass. Smoky and complex Grade B (or in the new scheme Grade A Dark Amber) provides the right lift and interest to the mead. Since these bottles were intended for immediate consumption, I didn’t sorbate the mead, but if you wanted to hold onto the maple character the sorbate will prevent the yeast from reactivating and fermenting out the maple syrup. Total addition was 75 mls per bottle.
Peach – Think Bellini. There were two ways to accomplish this one – Peach Schnapps or Peach Nectar. Since I wanted to mimic the Bellini, I went with Peach Nectar and could get away with it because it was intended for drinking now. I used Kern’s Peach Nectar, which is water, corn syrup (blech), peach puree and apple puree. This is a quick shortcut – not necessarily the best ingredients, but it works well in this application. Popped the can and added 150 ml to each bottle. Same note as the maple – sorbate to prevent re-fermentation. This also added a bit of “cocktail” to the evening as the bottle needed to be flipped before pouring to redistribute the peach puree.
Tahitian Vanilla – Very simple straight forward made with a homemade aged tincture of Tahitian Vanilla. TV is very different from the more assertively “vanilla” of the Bourbon variety beans. Tahitian extracts read more floral and perfumed. The thought behind the vanilla addition on it’s own is that we read vanilla as rich and sweet. 50 mls of extract per bottle provided a nice body bump without being overpowering. (Vanilla is a very interesting flavor to explore, so you totally should!)
An Early Shot of the Mead and Cider Table