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Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ February 2014

Making Mead — Memorably — in Maryland

By Keri Thompson

Hwæt!* A Home Brewer Tries to Make a Beverage Fit for a Monster-Slayer, and How it Did Not Quite Turn Out as She Had Hoped

As you may already know, our neighborhood has a thriving home-brewing scene anchored by our local brew club, Brewers and Drinkers Around Silver Spring.  I joined the club very soon after it formed more than two years ago, which coincided with the beginning of my brewing adventures.  I began brewing because I like beer, like cooking, and had a large empty space in my basement which was crying out for a time- and space-intensive hobby.

Although folks in our club primarily brew beer in all its many variations, one member and almost neighbor, Rich Suchoski, is also an avid mazer, or brewer of mead.  Having sampled some of Rich’s delicious mead, and being fascinated by the myth and legend surrounding this traditional beverage, last fall I decided to try to make some myself.

History

Mead has been made throughout the world for at least the last 4,000 years.  T’ej, the national drink of Ethiopia, is essentially a mead with the addition of a bittering agent derived from the gesho tree.  Aside from t’ej, most of us probably associate mead with the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, though it was an equally popular drink in the Celtic world.  Mead is found in several places in the Welsh classic Mabinogion, and, in fact, the word for spiced mead, metheglin, comes from the Welsh for “healing liquor.”  Mead is mentioned several times in Beowulf, where the mead hall Heorot plays a key role:  “The benches filled with famous men/who fell to with relish; round upon round/of mead was passed….” — Beowulf line (1012-1014, Seamus Heaney translation).

Nowhere does mead play a more important role than in the culture and myths of the Norse.  In Valhalla, dead heroes feast on the meat of a boar that is reborn every day, and drink an endless supply of mead milked from a goat.  (How you get mead from a goat is not explained.  I assume Vikings knew how goats worked, and this is some sort of metaphor.)


The carboy (at right) is a large jug.  The specific gravity of the mead, tested with the hydrometer, tells when fermentation is complete.

Aside from myths and legends, mention of mead is also found in the works of Aristotle and Pliny the Elder.  Pliny the Elder has a recipe in his Naturalis Historia for “milities,” which is certainly a honey wine:  “... a wine is also made of only water and honey ... adding one part of old honey to three parts of water, and then keeping the mixture in the sun for 40 days after the rising of the Dog-star.  Others pour it off after nine days and then cork it up.  This beverage is called in Greek ‘ water-honey,’ hydromeli; with age it attains the flavor of wine.”

Though Europeans’ consumption of mead declined after the Reformation, it remained popular in Central and Eastern Europe where drinks such as Medovina are widely commercially available.  In the last few years, mead has enjoyed a renaissance in the United States and, while still primarily the product of homebrewers, a number of commercial meaderies have sprung up around the country.

So What Exactly is Mead?

Sometimes referred to as honey wine, mead is simply a fermented honey beverage.  Usually a golden straw color, like grape wine it can be sweet, dry, or sparkling and can vary in strength anywhere from eight to 20 percent alcohol (ABV).  Like both beer and wine, mead is made through the magic of yeast consuming sugars, turning them into cellular energy, and producing alcohol as a by-product.

The chemistry can get a little complicated, but, at its most basic, making mead requires only a sterile container fitted with an airlock to let air out but not in, honey, water, and yeast.  Brewing beer, on the other hand, requires many more steps because you first need to extract the sugars from the grains (usually malted barley) before you can ferment them.

Like beer, subtle changes can be made to mead made by changing the base ingredient — for instance, using clover honey versus orange-blossom honey.  Of course, mead doesn’t have to be just honey and water.  If made with spices and herbs, it’s called a metheglin.  If made with apples, a cyser; with grapes, a pyment; with other fruit, a melomel.

I started out trying to make a metheglin by adding cloves, cinnamon stick, and ginger to the nine pounds of honey that made up my three-gallon batch of mead.  Yep, you read that right.  Nine pounds.

In retrospect it would have been prudent, and much more economical, to make a one-gallon test batch, but what’s a good story without a little hubris?  My goal was to brew mead and have it finish fermenting in time for me to give it as Christmas gifts to my relatives who don’t drink beer.  Spoiler alert:  they all got socks.

The Process

I warmed the honey briefly in the microwave to make it flow better, and mixed it with around 2.5 gallons of warm spring water.  The spices were soaked in ¼ cup of vodka for an hour to “sanitize” them then added to the honey water mixture which is poured into a carboy (the brewer’s term for one of those big jugs you may see in a water cooler).  After the mixture cooled to room temperature, I added a special strain of wine yeast designed to ferment to a high alcohol content; this is not your supermarket bread yeast.  After putting an airlock on the carboy that would allow the gases produced by the yeast during fermentation to escape, I moved the carboy into a darkened part of my basement.

Then I read a little more about mead and found out that mazers often let their mead sit in the carboy for one to two years.  Whoops.  Well, mine would have three months to sit before I planned to bottle it.  Every month or so I would take a sample to taste, and use a hydrometer to check the specific gravity.  Specific gravity measures the density of a liquid compared to plain water, and knowing this measurement allows you to calculate how much sugar the yeast have converted to alcohol, and when it has stopped converting, i.e., fermentation is complete.

For all its simplicity, there’s a lot of chemistry going on inside a container filled with yeast and honey, which means there’s also opportunity for messing that chemistry up.  Introducing oxygen when it’s not needed during the fermentation process produces a similar result to leaving a partially cut apple out on the kitchen counter, i.e., it makes it a lot less appetizing.  It’s also critical that everything that comes into contact with the mead be sanitized properly.  Although I was pretty sure I sanitized everything, it seems that somewhere in the process I introduced oxygen into the carboy, possibly while I was transferring it from one container to another, or when I sampled it to see how things were going.  This added a musty, cardboard-y taste to my mead.

The result of my first venture into mead making was drinkable, but not really good enough to give as presents.  After experimentation, I discovered it was much tastier after being mixed with carbonated water, which produced the color and flavor of a (not very expensive) Champagne. Thus, sham-mead was born.

If there’s some sort of lesson here it’s “measure twice, cut once” or maybe it’s “all’s well that ends well.”  Take your pick.  At any rate, don’t let my accidents put you off trying something new like brewing mead.  It was drinkable in the end.

[*Hwæt, an Old English word which Heaney translates as “So,” is the opening word to the heroic epic poem Beowulf.  Thompson lives on Loxford Terrace.]   ■


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