Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bee More Thankful (and more Careful)

Just as a true appreciation for wine is impossible without an understanding of the grape, an appreciation of mead is incomplete without an understanding of the honeybee. After all, they are the little guys that make our hobby possible.

My early childhood memories of bees are not happy ones. During the summers in West Virginia, the ground was covered with clover, and countless honeybees buzzed from flower to flower gathering nectar.

My friends and I would run barefoot through the cool grass in my yard, and occasionally we would step on a bee. It wasn't intentional, but we certainly paid the price for our inconsiderate footing. I remember picking barbed stingers out of my feet on many occasions, and my mom would rub a baking soda paste onto the wound to draw out the poison and relieve the itching.

I also remember my dad using our abundance of honeybees to treat his arthritis. He'd go into the yard and pluck a clover flower while a bee was sitting on it. Then he would gently grasp the bee with two fingers, place them on an aching joint and blow on them to trigger their sting reflex. He swore it worked. I didn't have the nerve to purposely make a bee sting me -- but I didn't have arthritis either, so I guess I lacked the necessary motivation.

My interest in mead has stirred up those childhood memories and kindled an interest in bees. So, here's some fun facts for you:
  • Honey bees can beat their wings nearly 12,000 times per minute.
  • Bee hives work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Honeybees tell each other where to find honey with a dance that communicates distance and direction.
  • The typical hive can have as many as 50,000 bees.
  • The hive's workers are females, although they are sexually immature and cannot mate.
  • Honeybees typically only live about 30 days.
  • Honey is regurgitated nectar. Yummy.
  • A worker bee will only produce about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey during her life.
  • Bees must fly about 50,000 miles and collect nectar from two million flowers to make a pound of honey.
  • There is enough energy in a pound of honey to allow a bee to fly around the world.
  • Older bees teach the younger ones how to make honey.
Let's break that down. For a gallon of Joe's Ancient Orange mead, using three pounds of honey,
  • 150,000 bee miles were flown
  • 6 million flowers were visited
  • 2,304 bees worked their entire lives (and worked themselves to death)
  • 1,194,393,600,000 wing beats occurred
If working themselves to death is not enough, bees currently face some serious challenges to their survival. Bees have been disappearing in huge numbers, and a mysterious phenomena called Colony Collapse Disorder has farmers very concerned about the survival of this little creature, which is the workhorse of agricultural pollination.

There are a number of things you can do to help. You could plant sunflowers, or visit the District Direct website to learn about other ways to get involved.

So, when you sip a sweet glass of mead, say a little prayer of thanks for the bees that worked tirelessly to create the main ingredient -- and please walk more carefully through the clover.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Good Place to Start

If you're ready to make your first batch of mead, and you want to do it on the cheap, this tutorial is for you.

Tommy's Biscuit Mead
(I call it this because I was too impatient to order a good brewer's yeast. Instead I used the yeast my wife keeps in the pantry for her bread machine. A friend of mine who brews beer teased me by saying: "It'll probably taste like sourdough bread." But don't worry. It won't.)

  • 1 ea. 1-gallon jug of room-temperature distilled water. I use distilled water because that is the purest water you can get. Some folks use spring water or mineral water. The important thing is that the water is clean and has no bacteria or chemicals in it. The jug should have the same size opening as a standard milk jug.
  • 1 ea. clear, empty, 1-gallon plastic water jug. This one is for racking the mead after 2-1/2 to 3 weeks. If you want to acquire it later, you can. It needs to have the same size opening as a standard milk jug. It should be clear so that you can watch the mead clarify.
  • 1 ea. large orange. You could use a smaller orange if you like. But I used a pretty large one, and I liked the way it worked out.
  • 25 raisins
  • 3 lbs of pure honey. I just used a pretty standard jar of honey from the grocery store: Rice's Lucky Clover Honey. It didn't say that it was pasteurized on the label, but it might have been.
  • 2-1/4 teaspoons of yeast. You can use Fleishmann's Active Dry yeast. I used Red Star Bread Machine Yeast. A standard package of Fleishmann's yeast contains 2-1/4 teaspoons.
  • 1 ea. 2-quart or larger pot
  • 1 ea. large pot with sides high enough to submerge your bottle(s) of honey
  • 1 ea. bag of balloons. You'll need more than one.
  • 1 ea. bag of rubber bands. You'll need more than one.
  • 1 ea. 10-foot section of 3/8" clear plastic tubing. I got clear tubing from the plumbing section of Home Depot. It's the same grade of tubing you would use for a freezer's water line. You won't need this until it is time for racking the mead after 2-1/2 to 3 weeks. You will need to cut it into shorter sections.
  • 1 cap full of common, household bleach. Not detergent with bleach in it!
  • A knife and a couple of bowls and dishes
Instructions for Starting the Primary Fermentation Process
(...or, creating the must and pitching the yeast"):

  1. Thoroughly clean a sink, fill it up with hot water, and add about one cap of bleach.
  2. Use the bleach water to clean your 2-quart pot. Then rinse the pot with fresh water. (In fact, make sure you sanitize any dishes, bowls or utensils you happen to use in the course of this process.)
  3. Fill the other pot (the high-sided one) with very hot water (not bleach water) and place your honey bottle(s) into it. This will thin the honey so that it pours more easily.
  4. Pour about half of your distilled water into your clean 2-quart pot (we will re-use this water in a moment).
  5. Once the honey has thinned, pour it into your jug (which is now only half full of distilled water).
  6. Cut your large orange in half, and then slice each half into quarters. Push all eight orange slices into the jug of water and honey.
  7. Drop your twenty-five raisins into the jug.
  8. Dump the 2-1/4 teaspoons of yeast into the jug.
  9. Pour the distilled water from the 2-quart pot back into the jug (do it over a sink) until the contents of the jug is about 1-1/2" from the top.
  10. Put the lid back on the jug and shake it vigorously for 5 minutes.
  11. Using the thumb tack, poke a single hole into the top-center of the balloon.
  12. Remove the lid from your jug and stretch the opening of the balloon over the opening of the jug. Secure the balloon to the lid of the jug with a rubber band.
  13. Put the jug of must on a shelf in a closet or a cabinet where the temperature will stay between 60-70 degrees.
Additional Notes:
For the next 2-1/2 to 3 weeks, your must will bubble (much like when you first remove the lid from a bottle of sprite). It may take a day before the bubbling starts in earnest. The bubbles are caused by the yeast devouring the honey, oranges and raisins and secreting alcohol and carbon dioxide. The balloon will begin to swell, but it won't grow very large. If it does, you can poke another hole in it with the thumb tack to prevent it from popping and allowing your mead to become contaminated. It is important not to move your must jug around very much, and you should keep it in the dark. If you want to look at it, keep the light source somewhat subdued. Also, if you are quiet, you will actually be able to hear the fizzing bubbles.

As the fermentation process progresses, you will notice that the honey in the bottom of the jug is slowly replaced by what appears to be a white powder. This is called the lees, and you will later rack the mead (transfer it to another container) to get it off of the lees. Failing to do so can cause the mead to have off tastes. Throughout the primary fermentation process, the fruit will remain floating at the top of the jug; this is normal.

Do not remove the balloon during the primary fermentation process. However, if you like, you can pinch the bottom of the balloon and then squeeze the air out of it via the tack hole. The air should smell sweet, and maybe have a citrus essence. The balloon should fill back up in just a few minutes. However, in 2-1/2 to 3 weeks, when the primary fermentation process is coming to a close, the balloon will fill up very slowly, or not at all. Then you will be ready to proceed to the next step.

Instructions for Racking the Mead
(...and the first taste of your creation):

  1. Cut your tubing into a 5-foot section and a 10-inch section. The five foot section will be your siphoning hose. The 10-inch section will be used to extract a taste of your mead.
  2. Create a bleach solution in the sink (see instruction #1 above).
  3. Use the bleach solution to clean both pieces of tubing and the clear, empty, plastic water jug. Rinse these items thoroughly with fresh water.
  4. Place the empty jug into a pan, and put the pan on the floor. Place your jug of mead on a counter, and carefully remove the rubber band and balloon.
  5. Rinse your mouth thoroughly with some mouthwash to decontaminate yourself (you will need to suck on the hose to start the siphoning process, and you want to avoid transferring bacteria from your mouth to the mead.
  6. If you can find someone to help you with this step, it will be much easier: Insert one end of the hose into the mead, past the oranges and raisins floating on the top, until it reaches about halfway to the bottom of the jug. Have someone hold it in that position for you.
  7. Suck mead through the other end of the hose until it is almost to your mouth, then quickly remove the hose from your mouth and kink the hose to stop the flow of mead.
  8. Quickly insert the end of the hose (the end you were sucking on) into the receiving container. Push it all the way to the bottom of the container. Ideally you want the container to fill from the bottom upwards. This will prevent splashing, which could oxygenate the mead and possibly harm it.
  9. Have your assistant continue to hold the tube to the bottom of the receiving container while you take charge of the end of the tube immersed in the mead.
  10. The siphoning process will move very quickly, so concentrate on keeping the end of the tube about half way between the floating fruit and the cake of lees on the bottom of the jug. Do this until the tube is about 1/4-inch from the lees cake, and then halt the siphoning process by removing the tube from the original jug.
  11. OPTIONAL, BUT RECOMMENDED: Insert your sanitized 10-inch section of tubing to remove a sample of your mead. Remember how you used to insert a straw into soda, put your thumb over the end, and then withdraw a taste of the soda when you were a child? Same principle. Put the small amount of the mead into a wine glass and sip it. It should be very sweet, and you should be able to taste the alcohol content.
  12. Use the tack to poke a hole in the top of a fresh balloon, stretch the balloon over the mouth of the new jug, and secure it with a rubber band.
  13. Put the jug back in the closet for about three months and smell it every once in a while to make sure nothing has gone wrong.
Additional Notes:
You may be wondering if you should use a filter during this process to avoid siphoning any of the lees or fruit particles into the receiving container. A filter isn't really necessary, and it's not the end of the world if you suck in a few lees or fruit fibers. Some wine and mead makers rack their product numerous times, each time reducing the amount of particles in their brew. But for your first batch of mead, there is no shame in having a small amount of sediment in the bottom of your container. Or even a little in your bottles, if you take the process that far. As you progress and add recipes and equipment to your arsenal, you may want to consider racking multiple times. But for now, just have fun. Your mead will taste fine.

Eventually, you may want to add a racking cane to your equipment. It essentially is a tube that you insert into your mead jug. One end is capped off, but has a hole slightly above the cap. The other end connects to your siphoning hose. You can push the capped end of the cane all the way down to the lees, and the cap will reduce the amount of lees that gets sucked into the siphoning hose.

You may also notice that the racked mead doesn't smell quite as sweet as it did during the fermentation process. That's fine, as long as it doesn't start to smell foul. The mead will also be quite cloudy. Over the next three months, it will clarify and become more delicious. Once it is crystal clear, you will be ready to bottle it.

I'll include a separate tutorial on bottling once I get to that point myself!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Choose Your Flavor

In 2004, my wife and I attended the Colorado Wine Festival in Grand Junction, and each of us came away with a much better feel for what we liked in a wine. My wife prefers her wine red and dry. I was surprised to learn that I prefer mine without... well, without grapes. I discovered that I had an affinity for the sweet taste of mead.

There probably are more variations of mead than of any other alcoholic beverage. From fruity melomels to herbal metheglins to spicy capsicumels. The myriad, delicious tastes of mead leave no doubt as to why it is was dubbed the "nectar of the gods."

For my 39th birthday, my wife took me to the Redstone Meadery in Boulder, Colorado. I sampled about a dozen varieties of mead, but my favorite was their Apple Reserve. The gentlemen doling out the samples said, "We make this one because... well, because we can." It was hands down the best drink I've ever tasted: warm, sweet, divine. It cost $4 for a 2-ounce sample, and it was worth it just to know that there is something on the earth that tastes like that!

My wife purchased a bottle of the traditional mead for me (which was about $25), and it started me thinking... What if I could make my own mead?

It didn't take much Googling to see that mead-making is wide open to anyone who wants to try their hand at it. If you want to make it on the cheap, you only need a couple of milk jugs, a balloon and piece of plastic tubing. Or, if you want to do it "right," you can buy all sorts of toys: glass carboys, hydrometers, airlocks, stainless steel crockery and a numerous other gadgets.

From amazingly simple recipes (i.e. honey, water and yeast) to sophisticated potions that tantalize your senses, the only limits are your own creativity and your willingness to try new recipes. If you want to pursue it scientifically, you can certainly do that. Or if you'd rather try to replicate what Beowulf and the Vikings drank, you can take a more primitive approach.

And here's the best part: To produce mead commercially (as with other alcoholic beverages), the licensing is so expensive, and the regulations are so rigorous, that this hobby isn't likely to fall prey to my inner entrepreneurial wolf. It's something I can actually do just for the pleasure of doing it! But if you want to go pro, who's stopping you?