Making mead: my first attempt

mead, brewing, wisconsinI love craft beer and wine, but for some reason I’ve just never wanted to make it myself. I’m not really sure why. I think I looked at the cost of the kits and I wondered if it really made sense financially — for the amount of beer I would get, wouldn’t it make sense to leave it to the experts? After all, if I screwed it up, I would have to go buy that beer anyway. Plus, I really don’t drink that much beer in the first place, despite how much I like it. So whether it’s actually worth it or not, I’m just not sure.

But I was at the home of a friend who is one of the most prolific brewers of things that I know. His basement fridge/bar is always stocked with several of his home brews on tap, as well as homemade wines.

One day after yoga his wife invited me to stop by for some home brews and homemade soup, an invitation I happily accepted. This friend served me something I’d never tried before: mead. Here I was drinking the nectar of the knights of Beowulf out of a mason jar, and it was delicious: sweet but not overly so, robust and filling.

So my ears perked up when my friend then explained to me that mead is actually one of the simplest things to brew. Perhaps this is my window into the world of home brewing. I once thought things like homemade bread were difficult — I’ve since realized how easy, and cheap, it is to make your own bread, using this recipe. I then modified that recipe to make pizza crust — basically it’s the same thing but flattened out and with shorter bake times. So maybe mead would be the same?

Well, after hours of research, I’ve learned that it’s not exactly simple. And my trip to the homebrew supply store didn’t help matters.

First of all, many of the videos I found online were missing key elements — either they used specific terms they didn’t explain, or they skipped key elements in the process that were confusing to someone who didn’t know what was going on.

I finally stumbled upon this very simple recipe for mead — perfect I thought! It actually was meant to need almost no extra equipment, but I thought I would use an actual brewing jug and airlock.

I went to Bull Falls Brewing Supply store, which has a great selection of stuff. But this is also where things got more complicated.

I really just wanted to buy the things I had put on my list, but the man who runs it was a little overly helpful. It ended up being a very awkward encounter — the two things that would have been helpful would have been A) he let me simply buy the things on my list so I could follow the recipe I’d already pre selected, or B) he’d walked me through the entire process, picking out the specific items I needed. Instead, he offered unsolicited advice, spoke in jargon without explanation or in vague terms. (For example, he said “This yeast will take care of you, as long as you feed it once in a while.” He seemed non-plussed when I asked what that meant.)

This goes to my principal of either you do something, or you don’t. I’d really have preferred to simply buy what I needed. If the man was going to supply me with information, he should have started at the beginning and walked me through the process as he sees it. By offering select bits of info, much of it unexplained, he simply confused me.

Don’t get me wrong, he was obviously very knowledgeable about brewing. But knowing, and being able to help others, are two different things. Also to his credit, he offered his card with his number and told me to call any time I had any questions — and repeated that a couple of times to emphasize I really am welcome to call him for advice. He was friendly and meant well.

mead suppliesI left the shop with the supplies I need, and a few things I wasn’t planning on buying. Ultimately I decided to follow the recipe as planned, but I plan to add one process not in the simple recipe: I plan to rack my mead after it is done fermenting, before transferring to bottles.

Those supplies by the way? That’s just to make the mead. The ingredients themselves I still had yet to acquire.

I’d already gotten the recommended yeast, with some Lavin something or another. It’s the one our friend at Bull Falls told me would work best for mead. Good enough for me.

The main ingredient in mead is honey, so I bought a shitload of it. I stopped at the first stand at the Wausau Farmers Market that had honey, and bought the largest amount. I promptly found others that were slightly less expensive. So it goes sometimes.

The recipe called for oranges and raisins. I already had oranges, but figured I would get raisins at the grocery story on my trip the next day. Which I promptly forgot.

Finally I stopped at Downtown Grocery on the way to yoga class and found a nice bag of raisins for $1.38. Perfect. After I returned to yoga and making myself some supper, I promptly cleaned my kitchen and set about to making the mead.

The first thing I did was sanitize all my equipment. I’d purchased a quick sanitizer from Bull Falls so I was set to go — just fill a sink with water and disolve a tablespoon or two into the water, which you run everything through. The point of this is so other bacteria don’t get into your mead and create something entirely different than mead.

The process was pretty simple. I followed the video below:

Basically you heat the honey (about 2.5 pounds) and about half the water for 20 minutes, while activating the yeast (stirring it in room temperature water), then you put it in a jug, fill it up some more, add your oranges and raisins, “pitch” your yeast (a fancy way of saying add it) top it just a little more (leaving a decent amount of room at the top for the foam that will form) and put your airlock with a little water in it on. I’m oversimplifying but the whole process is in the video, which I recommend.

I moved my jug (carboy) into the basement, where it should be a desirable, cool temperature for making mead. I have a bar, and so it is currently sitting on top of the bar.

This is where I got nervous. What if nothing happens? I of course hopped down the stairs in a couple of hours to see if anything was happening yet. Nope. I checked it the next morning before heading to yoga, and didn’t see anything either. The yeast had basically attached itself to the raisins, which looks a little weird – so it must be eating. When it’s fermenting, little bubbles should pop through the water in the airlock. It releases the byproduct of fermentation without letting air in, and that’s the whole point of the airlock.

I came back from yoga and a few errands (on bike of course) and sat and watched the airlock for a bit. I thought I saw something resembling a little bubble – and then it burbled up through the liquid. Success! It occurred to me it might have been doing this earlier and I simply didn’t stick around long enough to see.

This made me more excited than it really should have. But I’m ecstatic to know that my little science experiment worked. At least so far. It’ll turn into something alcoholic. Maybe it’ll taste like garbage. Who knows.

What I do know is that in three weeks or so, it should be ready to transfer into another carboy (jug) and maybe I can start another one.


I’m B.C. Kowalski, writer and photographer, among other things, in Wausau, WI. I also write books, including the Robot Awareness series, and I run Define Photography. Follow me on Twitter too!

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