Sour Apples

Okay, there aren’t a lot of ways to mess up a Riesling, in my book.

The folks over at Chateau Ste. Michelle, in the Columbia Valley, found a way. They brewed up a Riesling so tart that it made my eyes water. I got through half a glass — I’m pretty stubborn — and then dumped the glass, and the bottle.

Rieslings often have apple notes, but this detoured right around Granny Smith and kept going.

Life is too short for sour apples.

Mead, Mead, Mead, Mead

UnknownI thought I’d write down some of my long, slow accumulation of information about brewing meads. This is all from memory and experience, and may be less than perfectly correct on various points. I invite comments.

Mead is a catch-all term for honey-based fermented beverages, just as “beer” is a catch-all term for grain-based fermented beverages.

Just as a “Pilsner” or a “Session Ale” is a particular kind of beer, different kinds of mead have different names.

Type Description
Show-mead pure honey, water, and yeast
Vegemel vegetable mead
Melomel fruit mead
Pyment grape mead
Cyser apple mead
Braggot barley mead
Metheglynn herb or spice mead

One can, of course, make a fermented beverage out of grapes alone: it’s called “wine.” It only becomes “pyment” if you add honey before or during fermentation.

Other specialized terminology includes such words as “must” (the pre-fermented liquid), “pitching the yeast” (adding yeast to the must), and so forth. I’ll try to define these terms as they come up.

Honey

Honey is almost entirely a mixture of glucose, fructose, and water. It isn’t a disaccharide, like table sugar (sucrose) in which the glucose and fructose are chemically bonded. It’s pretty much just a mixture.

What prevents it from “spoiling” almost instantly is that it has so little water in it, so just adding water to honey is one of the main steps in making honey into mead. Adding water changes honey from a preservative, into food for yeasty-beasties.

The reason you want to know about the glucose and fructose bit is this: yeast can digest glucose without any difficulty at all; yeast has a much harder time with the fructose. (This is true of people, too, by the way.) This is the main reason that you find the early burst of activity in a new must, followed by a much slower fermentation. At the beginning, the yeast is chowing down on glucose; later, when the glucose is gone, it’s gnawing on fructose.

The other thing you need to know is that yeast does not live on sugars alone. Yeast dumped into pure honey-water may not ferment at all, or will ferment very slowly and poorly. There are other ingredients that the yeast requires, particularly fixed nitrogen, potassium, and phosphates. Yeast also likes a slightly acid environment, and honey-water is pH-neutral, like plain water.

SO…. You’ll get your best and most consistent brews by adding something to your honey-water, like fruit juice. The fruit (depending on what you pick) will contain most of the nutrients the yeast needs, along with the slight acidity the yeast likes.

I’ve never personally tried using apples, grapes, or barley (or any other grain), though I’ve tasted some fabulous brews. Raspberry has always turned out well for me, as has blackberry, and blueberry. Most people I’ve talked with have not had good luck with citrus fruit juices, which tend to be too acid for the yeast.

I’ve also made a number of show meads (just honey, yeast, and water), and would advise adding an “acid blend” (typically crystallized citric, malic, and tartaric acids), as well as a “yeast nutrient” blend for the necessary building-blocks for big yeasts to make little yeasts. Both of these can be purchased at any brew shop. If you don’t have a brew shop, an old-school recipe is to add the juice of one squeezed lemon to your show mead. However, the yeast won’t have a very good selection of nutrients, and you can expect a much slower fermentation, particularly once the glucose is all gone and the yeast is gnawing on the gristly fructose.

There are also wildly varying kinds of honey, from “standard” bland/sweet clover honey, to the dark, astringent eucalyptus honey we tasted in Spain. One of the most interesting meads I’ve tasted was made from prickly-pear honey.

These varieties of honey have to do with what plants the bees are harvesting pollen from, and tend to be very local. The subtleties of something like orange-blossom honey will be lost in, say, a cherry melomel. On the other hand, eucalyptus honey might need something like barley malt to offset or complement the strong flavors in the honey itself.

Taste the honey, make a guess, and go for it.

Yeast

There are lots of yeast varieties, including wild yeasts the float around in the air. A lot of “dust” that you clean off your knick-knacks and end tables consists of yeast spores.

So if you simply mix up your must and leave it in an open container where dust can settle in it, it will ferment.

The only problem with this is that some varieties of yeast, and other living things that float around in the air, taste… well, not quite nice. That’s why you want to start your fermentation with a healthy dose of a good-quality yeast. That dose is called the starter.

You can use bread-yeast — yep, good old Red Star or Fleishmann’s yeast in the little packets that you pick up in the grocery store for making bread. You can go to a beer or wine store and buy any number of exotic varieties of yeast. You can order yeast online. You can sail up the Amazon Valley, looking for exotic strains. You can put on a Ninja outfit, sneak into a famous winery, and steal some yeast.

I’ve typically used Lalvin-1118 and Lalvin-1152. The first is champagne yeast with its signature “clean” aftertaste, and the second is a muskier yeast that I like as a complement to the honey flavor.

The yeast does all the work. All you have to do is throw it in, and it will do its business. Follow the package directions: you’ll probably be using dehydrated yeast, and if you follow the directions, it will work fine. If you don’t follow the directions, you may “shock” the yeast while tossing it into the must, and it will all die. The directions are easy, so just follow them.

Knowing what the yeast is doing gets a bit complicated, and you’ll hear a lot of lore that can lead you in wrong directions.

The first thing to understand is the metabolism of yeast. It has two different metabolisms, depending on its environment: the so-called “aerobic” and the so-called “anaerobic” metabolisms. The difference has to do with the presence of oxygen in its environment.

When oxygen is present — yeast living on the surface of the pond, or in water that is violently mixed, like under a waterfall — the yeast will use their preferred metabolism, which is aerobic. Every bit of sugar the yeast can find goes directly into making yeast-babies. It’s an energy-rich metabolism, and the yeast excretes very little alcohol, but all kinds of complex waste products that taste like floor cleaner in any concentration. Fortunately, yeast doesn’t make much of the bad stuff — it’s mostly making babies.

In the absence of oxygen — yeast living at the bottom of a still pond — they switch to a completely different metabolism, which does not require oxygen. It’s an energy-poor metabolism, and results in ethanol as a waste product. The yeast still reproduces, but much more slowly.

So you want aerobic metabolism at the beginning, so that tiny little packet of dust turns into a big, alcohol-producing factory, but then you want to cut it off from oxygen, so that it starts producing ethanol instead of floor-cleaner.

Some people recommend all kinds of complex aeration schemes. I’ve never had any problem with just pouring the must into the carboy (the one, five, or six-gallon jug you typically brew in). Pouring is just like a waterfall, and the must gets plenty of oxygen for expanding the yeast population from mixing with air. If for some reason you have trouble getting the yeast to take off, it might help to start the fermentation in a wide-mouthed bucket, with some kind of porous cover (like cloth) so that air can reach the brew without exposing it to a lot of wild yeast. This is also helpful if you have a lot of vegetable or fruit pulp in the must, since carbon dioxide bubbles will stick to the pulp and float it to the surface, where it will clog your air-lock if you’ve put it straight into the carboy. A clogged air-lock means the carbon dioxide (another waste product) has no place to go. I learned this the hard way, and ended up cleaning fruit pulp off my ceiling.

You also do this with beer: they call it “primary” and “secondary” fermentation. The main reason for the primary fermentation is that it’s a godawful mess if you try to start the brew in the carboy.

A tip: if you use a wide-mouthed container with a cloth cover, make the cloth cover tight (e.g., put a strap around the bucket to hold the cloth taut, like a drum-head) and make sure you only fill the bucket about halfway. Otherwise (more hard experience) the cloth will sag into the bucket, in which a huge head of foam is growing, and once the foam touches the cloth, it will wick right out to the edges of the bucket and drip all over the floor.

Another concern sometimes expressed is, how many packets of yeast should you use? Answer: one. For the first several hours, the yeast will be reproducing exponentially, with a doubling-time of about 80 minutes. That means, after the first 80 minutes, your one package of yeast will become two. After 160 minutes, you will have four packets in there. After 320 minutes, you will have eight packets. After the first 24 hours, you will have about a quarter of a million packets in there.

Yep. Do the math.

Actually, once the population saturates its environment, reproduction will slow to almost nothing. Yeast colonies have a complex set of chemical signals that tell them when there are too many yeast in the bottle, and they simply stop reproducing. That’s the point where you want it to switch over to anaerobic metabolism.

The point is, if your yeast doesn’t all die in the first few minutes, it will quickly bloom and reach zero-population-growth on its own. Adding an extra packet or two (or twenty) won’t make any difference at all.

Water

Water does make a difference, though people can get fanatical about this. I think the rule is simple: if you like drinking the water, it’s good water. If you can taste the difference between fresh glacier-melt from an alpine stream, and tap-water in your home-town, then you’ll be able to taste the difference in your mead, and it will be about the same difference. So choose your water according to your own taste.

The yeast doesn’t care. It has evolved to grow just fine in stagnant pond-water full of dead leaves and maggots.

Equipment

Wine stores make money selling equipment, and people enjoy getting toys, so I’d recommend giving yourself a budget, and then purchase and play with anything that catches your eye. Go nuts. Have fun.

The main piece of equipment you need is the carboy, and these can be purchased in 1-, 5-, or 6-gallon sizes. You will need at least two carboys, for racking, described below. I prefer glass, because you can thoroughly clean them, though I’ve never tried anything else. The downside is that they’re heavy. The plastic carboys used for water coolers should work fine, too.

Remember that people throughout history have tended to brew in reused porous containers made of clay or wood that they probably didn’t even wash — that’s how they propagated the same strains of yeast from batch to batch — and that all turned out fine. Of course, they sometimes died of food poisoning. I prefer to err on the side of cleanliness.

You’ll need a funnel, for pouring things out of pots into the carboy. It’s strange that no one thinks of this, figuring they probably have a funnel in their kitchen. Go check: if you don’t brew, you probably don’t have one, or it’s teeny-tiny.

You will also need a rubber stopper and an air-lock, which is a little plastic thingie you stick in the small hole in the rubber stopper.

The air lock is important. The yeasties produce a lot of carbon dioxide as a waste product, and if you have a hard rubber stopper in the carboy, the pressure will build and blow out the stopper every minute or so. That’s fun for the cat, not so much for you. The air lock is just a little device that lets pressure out without letting any air in. After a few seconds of operation (at full brew), the entire area above the must in the carboy with be filled with carbon dioxide rather than air, which guarantees ongoing anaerobic conditions so the yeast will be forced to produce alcohol. The air lock also prevents any wild yeasts or bacteria from getting back into the brew.

I prefer the two-piece air locks, because they are easier to clean. WARNING: do not wash these in an automatic dishwasher. They’re made of an exceptionally cheap plastic that will warp if you put them in extremely hot water.

A further word of advice: do not worry about taking out the stopper, which you’ll have to do from time to time. The few seconds or minutes you have the carboy open to the air is not going to make a whisker of difference. The point of the air lock is for the weeks that the brew will be sitting there, fermenting.

Another important piece of equipment is the plastic tubing you use to rack the mead, described below. I’m in love with the self-starting siphons — you might prefer to start the siphon the old-fashioned way, with your mouth (since it’s almost impossible to start the siphon without getting a good mouthful of the developing brew, yum).

A large pot is necessary for Pasteurizing: I use a stainless steel lobster pot. A soup thermometer that clips to the rim of the pot is very helpful. You’ll need a large spoon for stirring.

Get a large bucket for primary fermentation, if you’re going to make a messy brew, or if you want to brew beer. A clean (new) plastic garbage pail works well, and is cheap and easy to find. Go for something that doesn’t reek of plasticizers, that can be cleaned thoroughly and easily: “food-grade” plastics are best.

I don’t own a primary fermentation bucket, and haven’t used one since my beer days.

If you care about the alcohol content of the finished brew, you’ll need a hydrometer. You’ll have to get it in a brewer’s store, or order it online. I’ll talk about this later.

You’ll need bottle brushes and clean rags for cleanup, of course.

When you’re all done, unless you expect to drink the mead straight from the carboy (a viable option), you’ll want wine bottles, corks (of some sort), and a corker. And then all the fancy stuff, like labels, shrink-tops, and gift bags. I’ll come to these later.

Preparation

I always Pasteurize my musts.

Raw honey is naturally antiseptic, because it’s concentrated, dehydrated sugars, and tends to suck the water out of anything it touches, including bacteria, yeasts, and small insects. But some beasties go into hibernation rather than dying, and when you rehydrate the honey, you could have all kinds of things in there: most of which will be harmless, but they can ruin your final product.

Far worse, however, are the fruit juices and pulps you add (if any), which will be chock-full of an entire ecosystem of yeasts, fungi, and bacteria. Again, most of this will be harmless, but it can give you terrible off-flavors as they curl up and die in the increasingly toxic environment of your delectable mead.

It’s a roll of the dice, but after I’ve spent $70 on honey, I like tipping the odds in my favor.

Pasteurizing is simple: you heat the must on the stove. You have to mix the honey with water anyway, and adding a little heat makes it easier to stir. If you do this, there are two things to watch out for.

First, don’t overheat. My rule is 140 degrees (F.) for 30 minutes, as measured by a soup thermometer, which is hot enough to kill most things, but not hot enough to burn the honey or the fruit flavors. I’ve spiked as high as 160 without ruining anything. Keep stirring, so it doesn’t burn at the bottom of the pot.

Second, put a lid on it and let it cool before you mess with it: 140 degrees is hot enough to scald you, or crack the (glass) carboy from thermal shock and dump scalding must all over your legs. No, I didn’t learn that the hard way, thank goodness.

It takes about a half hour to get it up to temperature, and another half hour to Pasteurize it, stirring constantly. Have a glass (or a bottle) of your last batch of mead handy while you’re standing there. It takes hours to cool down. Move it to the back burner and go out to dinner. Deal with it in the morning.

We can get into a fine argument over whether the entire must needs to be Pasteurized.

The truth is, I don’t have a container big enough to heat five or six gallons of liquid. I’ve got a lobster pot, and putting in more than three gallons isn’t practical. So I have two choices: Pasteurize in two batches, or just do one batch of concentrated must, and then add unpasteurized water directly in the carboy to dilute it. I don’t have the patience to let the stuff cool twice, so I choose the latter.

I also use plain tap water, from the city water supply. The light chlorination they use serves the same function as Pasteurization, so it doesn’t need to be Pasteurized. And that leads us into the whole rat’s nest of “industrialized” water, versus “natural” water. My take on that comes back to the taste of the water: if it tastes good to drink, the mead will be fine; otherwise, find a different source of water.

I’d recommend a primary fermentation tank (a big bucket) if you have lots of pulp in the must, for reasons mentioned above. But I’d recommend even more strongly pulling out as much vegetable matter as possible, and just using the juice. I’ve not noticed that pulp does anything but make a mess, and contribute off flavors to the mead. It’s the juice you want.

If the fruit isn’t juicy, like strawberries, a simple way to view it is to treat the fruit like you’re making fruit jelly. Not preserves, not jam, not butter. Jelly. That usually involves stewing the fruit and pouring off the liquid, which can be mixed right into the must. You can also add flavor at the very end of the brewing process.

That said, I’ve also had good luck in most cases just mushing the fruit and dumping it into the must during Pasteurization. One trick for hard-to-mush fruit is to freeze/thaw it a few times. The ice crystals mush the fruit thoroughly, without harming the chemistry of the juices.

Once the must has cooled, pour it into the carboy or bucket, and then finish adding the water (if necessary). I typically add the water using the sprayer-hose attachment from the sink, which has the advantages of stirring the brew, and adding a lot of dissolved oxygen from the air for the aerobic phase of fermentation. Or, you can just pour it in, and make sure it’s well-mixed by sloshing or stirring.

Finally, you pitch the yeast. Prepare it as directed on the package, then pour it into the must.

Waiting and Racking

Meads take a long time to brew, especially if the must chemistry is slightly off (for the yeast). One of my best meads ever was an orange-zest mead, but it was still bubbling (slowly) a year after I started it — it was basically a show-mead with some orange zest in it, and the yeast wasn’t very happy at all. Melomels (fruit meads) don’t take nearly that long. Beer, of course, is ready within six weeks — mead takes longer than that.

One trick, especially if you like to experiment, is to brew in gallon batches, and just keep them rolling. You just need a place to store the jugs for, say, six months, and lots of jugs, stoppers, and air locks.

As the brewing progresses, you will end up with vegetable matter floating at the top of the bottle, buoyed up by tiny carbon dioxide bubbles, and dead yeast at the bottom. Both can be quite thick within a week or two.

There is no real need to do anything about either of these, but they can contribute off-flavors to the mead, so it’s common practice to rack the mead. This is simply a matter of transferring the mead from one carboy to a clean carboy, leaving the muck in the old bottle.

I’m not an expert on Medieval or Old World winemaking, but I do know there was a time before PVC tubing, or even before rubber hoses — rubber (latex) was introduced to Europe in the 1500’s, since the rubber tree grew indigenously only in South America, and wine and mead is a lot older than that. I would guess that common practice was to put the wine barrel up on a rack built for that purpose, drive a tap into the barrel a few inches above the bottom, and then let the wine pour out into a lower barrel. The lees — the sludge left in the barrel — would then be discarded.

These days, home brewers use glass carboys and a gravity siphon. You put the full carboy in a high place, and the empty carboy in a low place, run a plastic hose from one to the other, start the siphon by sucking on the hose, and then let the brew run from the old into the new.

A hard plastic L-shaped tube is necessary here, because you want to stick it in the bottle and hold the bottom end of the tube a little above the bed of muck at the bottom. Trying to direct a floppy tube from the top is impossible: there’s lots of dissolved carbon dioxide in the brew, and it will form little bubbles in and on the tubing, which will cause it to float. It’s the Second Law of Physics: you can’t push a rope.

To get a complete racking, the bottom of the full carboy must be higher than the top of the empty carboy — or, more precisely, the liquid level of the upper carboy must always remain above the liquid level of the lower carboy. Once the liquid surfaces in both carboys are at the same height above the floor, the siphon will stop: that’s how a gravity siphon works. The siphon will also stop the moment it sucks air.

I’ve typically put the empty carboy in the kitchen sink, and put the full one on a short step-stool I put on the kitchen counter — it gives me just enough height to empty the carboy, and the sink is there to catch any mess.

You can rack as many times as you like, or you can let the brew “sit on the lees.” Aggressive racking can slow or even stop fermentation, which is one way to finish up the mead, described next.

When It’s Done

I have a lot of trouble getting my meads to stop brewing. This is because I like sweet meads, and I’ve been lazy.

In general terms, the mead is done when it stops fermenting. You’ll know it has stopped fermenting when the air lock stops bubbling.

There are generally two mechanisms that stop the fermentation.

The first is sugar starvation. If the yeasties run out of sugars, they’ll die. The resulting brew will be a “dry” brew, meaning (since the sugars are all gone) the brew will not have any sweetness. Think of a super-dry Chardonnay or Riesling.

The second is alcohol poisoning. The alcohol that the yeasties produce is, after all, one of their waste products, and as such, it’s toxic to them. If the alcohol content gets high enough, the yeasts will die. The alcohol level at which they die is called the susceptibility of the yeast, and it varies from yeast strain to yeast strain. The Lalvin-1118 champagne yeast has one of the highest susceptibilities, at about 18% alcohol. Most wine yeasts can’t handle more than about 12%. Under normal circumstances, any “sweet” brew that is no longer fermenting will be at the maximum alcohol content the yeast can tolerate.

But this last is not very reliable, because it depends on things like temperature and phase of the moon and yeastie-beastie moods and mutations. Meads are notorious, because once the glucose has been exhausted from the honey, the fermentation can slow down enough that it looks like it’s done, but there’s still plenty of activity. I’ve lost bottles of mead when warm summer temperatures kicked off a new round of fast fermentation in a mead that had been quiescent for over a year, and blew the corks. Which would have been fine if the bottles had been sitting upright in a box. These were lying on their sides, in a rack. Ick.

A third mechanism is possible, and this is adding poison to the brew. If I were going to do this, I’d add 100-proof vodka — enough to push the alcohol content well above what the yeast can tolerate, to sterilize it. But that’s cheating.

The proper (reliable) way to make a sweet mead is to first make a dry mead, then add some honey at the end to sweeten it. But it isn’t quite that simple.

Home brew is a living entity, and it’s never (ever) completely dead. Remember that doubling-time of 80 minutes. Even one living yeast cell can repopulate a whole batch within a day, given a new food source. In fact, the traditional way to carbonate beer is to let it brew itself dry, then when you bottle, add a small squirt of unfermented must (it’s called wort by beer-makers, go figure) to the bottle just before capping it. Fermentation kicks off again in the capped bottle, and the carbon dioxide — trapped in the bottle — goes into solution under pressure and the beer gets fizzy. Add too big a squirt, and the bottles will explode.

To prevent this from happening to your dry mead, first rack aggressively. It can help to add a fining agent, such as Sparkeloid — which is just (clean) clay particles that attract the yeast cells through ionic charge and weight them down so that they sink to the bottom. The idea is to get a brew that is as crystal clear as possible, meaning it has no visible yeast left in it. Note that there is still plenty of yeast, and some of it will still be alive.

Next, you add a bit of sodium or potassium sorbate, per instructions on the container. What this does is neuter any remaining (living) yeasts: it coats them in a way that makes it impossible for them to reproduce. The fewer yeast in the carboy, the more effective the coating.

Finally, you add the extra honey, to sweeten it. The remaining living yeasts will go nuts, but there aren’t enough left to do any serious damage, and they can’t reproduce, so the population never grows.

Some people try to stop the yeast with sodium or potassium metabisulfite. Don’t.

According to everything I’ve read, the sulfites are particularly toxic to bacteria, but not so much to yeasts, unless you get up to concentrations that will make your mead smell like a sulfur hot springs (and be utterly undrinkable). Red wine grapes contain natural sulfite compounds in the grape skin to inhibit bacterial and yeast growth — but it doesn’t do much good once the skin is breached and the beasties can get to the sweet insides, and the must is, of course, entirely sweet insides. A sulfite wash is often recommended for cleaning your equipment (to inhibit bacteria) in lieu of using Clorox, which is far more toxic to bacteria and yeast alike, and has to be completely rinsed clean before attempting your next brew — else it will kill the yeast and give your mead “swimming pool” notes, which is not something you want in a mead. Commercial wineries add sulfites to all wines for much the same reason commercial bakeries add preservatives to their breads: so they don’t get sued.

I’ve never personally tried the sorbate method above, but I will next time I make a sweet mead. To date, I’ve always added all the honey up front, let it sit around for a year or so, and then tried to bottle and drink it all before any corks pop. Not the best plan.

Here’s a warning about the air lock toward the end. During the early fermentation, the yeast is outgassing furiously, and your air lock — which contains water to effect the seal — will blow little bubbles. The pressure inside the bottle will always be slightly higher than the outside pressure because of this outgassing.

As the fermentation slows, the outgassing slows, and the bubbling of the air lock will slow and eventually stop. At this point, your carboy has become a classic barometer.

When the barometric pressure in your area drops, the pressure inside the bottle will be higher than outside, and the air lock will blow a bubble that has nothing to do with fermentation. However, when the barometric pressure rises, the pressure inside the bottle will be lower than outside, and the water in the air lock will backwash into your brew. If it’s perfectly clean water, no problem. But after a brew has sat on a dusty shelf for three months because you’ve forgotten about it, you can get some nasties growing in the air lock water.

Make sure you clean the air lock and replace the water when you rack, and toward the very end, you might want to empty the water out entirely. At that point, the brew should be pretty toxic to wild yeasts and bacteria alike, and the design of the air lock is such that nothing can easily get in, even when it’s dry.

A word on the alcohol content of the finished product.

If you brew a mead to complete dryness, measuring the alcohol content is simple. The finished brew is pretty much a mix of water and ethanol, with a few traces of other stuff that matter hugely to the palate, but have very little effect on the density of the liquid. Ethanol has a specific gravity of 0.787, while pure water has a specific gravity of 1.000. If your mix is 50% water and 50% alcohol (by volume), the specific gravity will be exactly halfway between, at 0.894. So measuring the density of the finished brew tells you the alcohol content.

That’s exactly what a hydrometer does. You fill a plastic tube with your brew, then drop in a sealed glass tube with a scale marked on it. (You could drop the glass tube directly into the carboy, but then you have the problem of fishing it back out.) The glass tube floats in the brew. If the brew is dense (not much alcohol), it floats high. If the brew is less dense (lots of alcohol), it floats lower. You read the alcohol content directly from the scale on the glass tube.

It’s a different story if your finished brew has stopped (or apparently stopped) while it is still sweet. Now, your brew is a mix of water, ethanol, and dissolved sugars. The ethanol makes it less dense. The sugars make it more dense. The hydrometer is useless, because you can’t guess how much sugar is still present.

Your best guess for a sweet brew is to look up the susceptibility of the yeast. If the yeast can’t live in more than 12% alcohol, then you know that the alcohol content is not above 12%. It may, however, be less if the yeast isn’t actually dead, but is only stuck (meaning it stopped fermenting for inexplicable reasons of yeast-angst).

That’s yet another reason for brewing to dry, then adding honey.

Final Steps

If you make gallon batches of mead, and only share it with people who come to your house (or not at all, bwa-ha-ha), you’re done.

I don’t know of any mead-makers who are happy with this. They want to share. So unless you hang with a hard-drinking crowd that goes through mead by the gallon, you’ll want to bottle your brew.

When I first started, in college (no money), I collected wine bottles, washed them thoroughly, and reused them. It’s water, energy, and labor-intensive to do this, and you end up with used bottles that still have glue from old labels stuck to them. And you never know what they were used for before you got them.

These days, I’ll only reuse my own bottles. A five-gallon batch will fill about 24 or 25 bottles, and you can buy new bottles pretty cheaply. They come in all colors. Because meads often have delightful colors of their own, I have a penchant for clear bottles, but that’s personal taste.

I’d do screw-caps if there was any easy way to do it, but I don’t think there is. So I use corks, which can be true cork, composite cork, or synthetic. I choose by lowest price and availability.

I did enough bottling in the past to invest in a floor-model corker. They’re a little pricey ($60), but I’ve never looked back. I let my friends borrow it when they need to bottle, so it’s also an investment in conviviality (or at least indispensability), and an opportunity to know when your friends’ mead is ready to sample.

You can get adhesive-backed wine label stock at Office Max, and print up your own labels on an ink-jet printer. I use MS Word to design my labels. The only downside is that, if the bottles get wet (and they will) the ink runs. But once the mead is flowing, who cares?

You can also get the shrink-wrap bottle caps, if you want a final touch of elegance. I put them on with a blow-dryer. They make little toaster-ovens specifically designed to shrink tops onto the bottles, called a “Bench Top PVC Shrink Machine”, available from Amazon for the low, low price of $175. You can get a cheap blow-drier at Staples for $20 or so. Or, do without the darn things: you’re just going to pull them off and throw them away.

Fixing Problems

I’ve not got much to say on this. I’ve had only four classes of problems with meads, the foremost of which is running out of the good stuff, the solution to which is… well, obvious.

The second most serious problem is fermentation restarts in my sweet meads, which blows out the corks, and I think I’ve outlined the best solution above: brew dry, use sorbate, sweeten at the end.

The third problem is very slow fermentation. I think this is just inherent to certain recipes, and it’s a question of tweaking the recipe over time to a more hospitable mix for the yeasties. Adding toxic compounds, like orange zest or some spices, at the very end rather than at the beginning will also help. But mead is not beer, and you aren’t going to see six-week turns.

The fourth problem has been just plain bad recipes. I tried a watermelon mead once, just dumping the watermelon into the must, and the watermelon flavor did not survive Pasteurization. The result was a ghastly kind of cabbage/zucchini taste. A similar thing happened with mango. There are some “fruits” that do not a melomel make. I’ve since become much softer about flavoring a mead after brewing is complete, and if I were to try watermelon again, I’d brew a show mead, then add watermelon juice at the end. Though I’m not sure watermelon and honey belong together.

Metheglynns in particular should treat the herbs as an infusion, rather than a brewing ingredient. A vanilla mead can be exquisite, but yeast won’t necessarily like the oils from vanilla beans, and it makes no real difference if the bean sits in the brew for six weeks at the beginning, or six weeks at the end. If anything, the alcohol at the end will help draw out the vanilla flavors.

My solution to catastrophic recipe failures is to wrestle the carboy upside down at the sink, and watch the problems drain away.

Final Thoughts

Buy a dedicated blank book, and write down everything you do each time you make a mead. You’ll hate every minute of recording it, and thank yourself a thousand times later.

Experiment in small batches. Never make a five-gallon batch of something you’ve never made before. I made five gallons of the nasty watermelon mead, and it all went down the sink. That was just, plain stupid.

Do experiment. I made a green chile mead that once got “best of show” at an informal gathering of amateur brewers — and also got, “Oh, my God, what is IN this awful swill?!?” That was fun.

Label your carboys (if you have more than one active at a time) and your bottles, with a strip of masking tape and a felt-tip marker, if nothing else. Include the type of mead and the date, e.g. “rasp. Sep 2014”. I can guarantee you, five years from now when it’s time to open the last bottle of that batch, you won’t remember what it was.

Clean, clean, clean. Honey is sticky and nasty, and your significant other or roommates will not thank you for leaving a mess. Any sugars you leave in or on your equipment is a breeding ground for stuff you do not want in your brew. Clean, clean, clean.

Never hoard your brews. Drink them. Share them. Give them away. Enjoy them, and make more. That’s when you’ll thank yourself for keeping that recipe book.

What Is A Good Wine?

imagesAt Dragonfest this year, I got to taste a $250-per-bottle wine. And there was a fascinating story behind it.

Phil, one of our camp mates up on Druid Hill, is a retired aerospace engineer, and he’s worked with a lot of people from all over the world. One of the chaps he worked with was from Ireland, and over the months he came to understand that this particular fellow was a master wine-taster, whose name appears in numerous books on wine as an international authority on wines.

They were all at dinner one evening, and the wine they ordered seemed exceptionally good, so this wine-expert asked the waitress to bring out the bottle. When he saw it, he smiled to himself, and then under prodding, explained his smile.

He said that in France, they have very strict production laws on wine, primarily to protect the exclusiveness and prices. Each vineyard is allowed to produce only so much wine per year, and the quotas are set by law, with fierce penalties for exceeding the quotas.

Not infrequently, the vineyard will have a bumper crop, or several years of bumper crops, and then they have the problem of what to do with the extra wine they produce. They’ve worked out a simple scheme, which all of the wine experts know about, but few others. They create a “off” label — a label no one has ever heard of.

Now it is important for the overall pricing structure that this “off” label not be traced back to the original winery, because these wineries will typically produce wines where the cheapest bottle is over $200, and can go up to several thousand dollars. So they make no effort at all to promote the “off” label as a great wine. They put it in a 1.5 litre bottle with a screw cap, and sell it for cheap.  Their legal alternative, after all, is to pour it out. And if word ever got out, their cheap label would be in direct competition with their expensive label, which would hurt overall profits — after all, these are just bumper yields they’re trying to get rid of, not whole harvests.

So in this particular case, the Irish wine authority happened to know both the vineyard and the off-label they were using that year, and the wine served in this restaurant was, in fact, the off-label brand of a French wine that normally sells for $250 per bottle. The off-label brand sold for $9 per 1.5 litre bottle.

Now, Phil has given workshops at Dragonfest on conspiracy theories of every stripe for many years, and this is third-hand information from an Irishman who, though he may have been a wine authority, might well have been pulling everyone’s leg. But it does make a perfect (if twisted) kind of sense, and it underlines the one unquestionably true thing that Phil passed on from this international expert on wines.

If you like a wine, it is a good wine.

If this story is true, that $9 bottle of wine you really, really liked, might very well be exactly the same wine that other people are paying over $200 for. Even if it isn’t, how much does it really matter?

If you like a wine, it is a good wine.

It’s really that simple.

Rieslings

Unknown-4I love Rieslings.

Riesling is the name of a varietal grape that grows well in cooler climates, such as in Germany — which is why Germany is known for Riesling wines, particularly from the Mosel and Rhine river valleys. It’s a green-skinned grape, used to make a white wine that can vary from bone-dry to dessert sweet.

My first wine-tasting, ever, featured both Rhine and Mosel Rieslings. Our priest in Arvada had a PhD in Germanic studies, and had spent some years in Germany. He had (and has) a fondness for wines, and music, and erudition, so our “church social” wine-tasting at the home of one of the parishioners — a larger home, complete with backyard pool and tennis court — was quite an education for a first wine-tasting. He’d selected the wines to bring out some of the profound differences between the Rheinweins and the Moselweins, but also the more subtle distinctions from vineyard to vineyard.

And, of course, we all got quite tipsy and had a wonderful, long afternoon that stretched into the late evening.

I went to another wine tasting, years later, which was more geared (I think) to commercial interests, particularly restaurant and bar owners. I went alone, and found that it took some pushing and shoving to get close enough to the tables to even get a sample of any of the reds. The few I managed to taste were — well, awful. Then I found a few tables out on the patio where they were pouring Rieslings — and the crisp notes of fresh apple paired beautifully with the cool evening and the moonlight.

I can’t remember the last time I had a bad Riesling. They start at good, and go up from there.

As with most wines, I understand that the truly exceptional ones tend to be single harvests from specific vineyards. But it’s hit-or-miss: you might have one exceptional year, followed by several mediocre or even bad years. It’s why many, if not most, large-scale wineries buy their grapes from multiple vineyards and blend them.

The Schlink Haus Auslese I finished the other night is, I believe, one of the blends. As an Auslese (“picked-out” grapes, specifically for ripeness), it tends toward the sweet rather than the dry, with brisk notes of fresh apple and a medium-long finish. Not expensive, and entirely delightful.

Frontera

Unknown-2I haven’t had much to say about wines, lately. Haven’t been picking up my … adventures from The Cellar, and I think I need to pick up the ones I’ve paid for and cancel.

Tonight I opened a wine called Frontera, from Chile, brought as a gift to our Fall party. It’s a blend: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, from the Concha y Toro winery. I have no idea what year — the only date I can find on the bottle is 1883, and I really don’t think this wine is that old.

The winery name is interesting. Literally, it’s Conch (as in the shell) and Bull. But in the modern Spanish of the “southern cone” of South America, which includes Chile, Marta tells me that “Concha” is what we modern Americans would call “Pussy.” No, not the feline. I’m sure it didn’t have that meaning in 1883. It’s probably someone’s name.

Anyway, the nose on this thing is remarkable. It’s clearly a Cab, but there’s a huge fruitiness to the smell, tart cherries and fresh grapes, and that touch of dustiness that comes from the Merlot. Color is a beautiful Burgundy red, almost opaque in the evening indoor light, deep and solid. You get the dry bite of tannins from the Merlot as soon as it touches your tongue — only 15% of the blend, though, so it isn’t something that demands that you rehydrate your mouth intravenously after pulling in a mouthful. It’s fairly tart to the taste, but not unpleasantly so: lots of cherry, a hint of vanilla.

I like it. A lot.

The Educated Palate, Or the Aesthetics of Ick

Women. They are always so damned pragmatic.

By women, I mean my wife, Marta. By always I mean “any time we are in disagreement about anything.” And by pragmatic, of course, I mean “right.”

The other day, while I was taste-testing the Australian Liverwurst, I wanted a second opinion, so I asked Marta to taste it. Mind you, this was after I had thoroughly aerated the wine, and had written in My Blog about the “finish of sour cherries” and let it off the hook with the self-deprecating “too tart for my taste buds.” Meaning, I’m obviously just a wimp. After all, a real man would take it that tart, and like it.

She swirled the glass. She sniffed.

“Ick,” she said.

She touched the wine to her lips and drew a tiny mouthful. She let the flavors blossom on her palate. Her eyes screwed up tight, and her lips puckered.

“Ick,” she said, and handed back the glass with her eyes tight-shut, as if to say, “Take this out of my sight. Better yet, get it out of my house.”

There really should be a revered position in the academic study of Aesthetics for the word, “Ick.” It cuts directly through all the geometric misdirection of ellipses, parables, and hyperbole, instantly resolves the ambiguity of simile and metaphor, transcends all fable, lore, and myth, and lays waste to paradigms, philosophies, creeds, and Schools of Thought.

Ick.

I’m even willing to wager a fair sum that it translates directly and without ambiguity into every language known to humankind, past, present, and future.

Ick is a valuable corrective to pretensions.

You see, there is this concept of the educated palate, which is somehow able to relish the subtleties that the uneducated palate cannot, and which presumably vastly expands the field of what is pleasurable to the taste. Indeed, it creates the entire hypothetical class of tastes which are “accessible” only to the educated palate. By the usual and ever-popular application of the Fallacy of the Inverse (or Denying the Antecedent) we arrive at the idea that therefore, if you find the taste inaccessible, you must not have an educated palate. You are a Philistine.

I’m hardly an accomplished oenologist, but I am a musician with a highly trained musical ear, and exactly the same fraud has been going on in the world of music for at least a century. Most music composed in the 20th century — apart from “pop” music and movie scores — is “inaccessible” to any but the most rarified of educated musical ears. If you don’t like Bartok, you are by definition a Musical Philistine.

I remember once commenting, shortly out of college, that Dmitri Shostakovich was a talentless hack, and being told in response that I was the “most arrogant man in the world.”

It was a strange insult. After all, if it were true, it would be a compliment. It’s only an insult if it isn’t true, which takes all the sting out of it. Furthermore, although Donald Trump had not yet intruded on the national scene, I had already conclusively theorized his existence, so I knew I could not possibly be the most arrogant man in the world.

Arrogant or not, the fact remains that most of Shostakovich’s music evokes an instant response of Ick.

By contrast, the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony has never, to my knowledge, resulted in Ick. To the contrary, the first audiences stomped their feet until the balcony swayed, and ceased only when the conductor returned to the stage and performed it again. Nor does The Moldau, by Bedrich Smetana, ever invoke Ick: indeed, that one is enough to get you laid, if you play your cards right (I speak from personal experience).

The educated ear lets me enter into the joy of music more fully, yes. And it can occasionally — occasionally — take me past a visceral Ick into an appreciation of something playful or haunting, such as certain passages from Sergei Prokofiev’s two violin concerti. But it also makes me more aware of the Ick, not less.

An educated palate should not draw me away from a good wine, which I consider one which a dinner party of my friends will clamor for a second (or third) bottle to be opened, though hopefully they will refrain from stomping their feet until the balcony rattles. It should also lead me to appreciate a great wine, which is not one which I must struggle to get past the Ick through aeration of the wine and proper preparation of the senses: it is a wine that begins at good and then carries my educated palate into ecstasy.

Even if I’m belching garlic after a liverwurst sandwich on rye.

So back to women. And their damned pragmatism.

After we exchanged a few animated presentations of Various Points of View, Marta took the pragmatic stance of saying she would be picking wines from here on out. Like it’s that easy. Fine. We’ll just see how that goes.

So we came back from Wilbur’s with a box full of under-$10 wines.

yhst-128588312714207_2232_25584436Yesterday, Marta’s son and our grandson came up to spend the night — mom is in DC at a scientific conference — and I opened a BV Coastal Estates 2011 Zinfandel that Marta picked out. Under $10. Cheap, factory-bottled California swill. Marta had a glass, and made only faces of delight. Her son — a sparing drinker even on his wild nights — said, “Say, I’ll have another glass of that.”

And you know, it brought me all the way back to earth. Is it a great wine? Probably not. It’s a run-of-the-mill good wine, drinkable straight out of the bottle with no aeration, no special crackers or food pairings, and no fancy discussion of nose or legs or bloom or finish. It smells good, and it tastes good.

I think I’ll have another glass, too.

Australian Faith and Liverwurst

The Fleur de Lyeth “proprietary blend” is gone — the last third went into the sink. Some might consider that a sin. Mea culpa. Now, moving on….

The next wine is from The Cellar, their March offering (yes, I picked it up ‘way late). It’s a Shiraz (that’s the grape) from St. Hallett of the Barossa of Australia, a wine they call their 2011 Faith. I actually opened it on Thursday, two days ago.

Thursday was a tough day. When I went to bed on Wednesday, I was a bit uncomfortable between the legs, and poking around, I felt something that scared the living crap out of me. Women are supposed to check their breasts, men their testicles. But they never tell you exactly what you’re looking for.

So I didn’t sleep much. I got an appointment with the doctor on Thursday afternoon, and it turns out to be a Nada Grande — a Big Nothing, a very-typical-in-men-your-age Big Nothing. These are the hypochondriacal pangs of aging, so stand warned, you young whippersnappers. You’ve got a lot to look forward to.

When I came home, I opened the Faith to celebrate. Maybe it was the stress and lack of sleep, maybe it really was the wine, but the first whiff of the bottle was not a fragrance, nor even an odor, but a reek. Liverwurst. If you think green bell pepper doesn’t belong in a wine, liverwurst doesn’t belong anywhere near the bottle, much less in the bottle. I actually was foolish enough to pour a bit and taste it, and it was a cacophony of horrible off-flavors. Ack.

I screwed the cap back on — a footnote, here, more and more wineries are turning to screw caps. The cork that has traditionally been used for corking the bottle comes from the underlayer of the bark of the cork tree, which grows only in Portugal. And there isn’t a lot left. For a while wineries switched to recycled cork, a mixture of some polymer and bits of authentic cork, and a lot of other vineyards went to straight plastic, but the increasing trend is the screw-top. We’re starting to see screw-tops on even the top-end wines.

I screwed the cap back on, and uncorked a Fleur de Lyeth Cabernet — another of my own random choices from Wilbur’s — and it poked me in the mouth with both green bell and jalapeño peppers, at three or four times the intensity of the blend that went down the sink. Ack.

So I did the smart thing and uncapped a Sam Adams. That tasted just fine.

Palates go south. All the senses do. I remember days back when I played the violin a lot, where every note I played — or heard — sounded flat. It didn’t matter if the note was actually sharp: it still sounded flat. I don’t really know what is the best thing to do when that happens. A professional would learn to compensate and soldier on. My strategy has always been to step away from the whole mess and get a good night’s sleep. So far, it’s always been back to normal the next day.

So I hadn’t gotten around to the Faith again until today. I just now uncapped it, and tentatively sniffed, and this time it smells like wine. Not liverwurst. That’s a good start.

The color is a deep purple typical of a Shiraz. Not the blood-red vampire memoir ink color of the last one, but a cherry red edging toward purple. I tasted the wine, gingerly, and it was really, really “hot,” which — to me — means it’s chock-full of compounds related to fermentation: aldehydes, ketones, and all the other volatile hydrocarbons that taste like floor cleaner. Fumes go up your nose and burn. Hot.

Did I ever mention that I’m kind of stupidly persistent?

I poured a glass through my $25 aerator. The Cellar’s notes on this wine — on all their reds, so far — say that it “needs air.” One way to do this is to pour the wine into a decanter and let it sit for a day or two. The quicker way is to slap an aerator on the bottle and just pour. The next sip of aerated wine suggested the wine was actually drinkable.

Sometimes, stupid persistence pays off.

After thorough aeration, it (now) has a good Shiraz nose, very fruity, with a pleasant fragrance that smells floral, but like a fruit blossom rather than a woman’s perfume. It’s not as tart as some Shiraz I’ve had, and I like that — Shiraz can be a pucker-fest, sometimes. Full fruit flavor, almost too much. This one has a medium-length finish, where the tartness and the alcohol evaporate and leave a sharp — pleasantly sharp — memory of sour cherries that slowly fades. I experience some puckering, and it leaves my mouth feeling dry.

Overall, I’d call this at best a very touchy wine that needs — not wants, but needs — some thorough aeration before you even want to sniff around it. Even after that, it’s too tart for my taste buds. Not a keeper.

Wining a Little

When we moved last summer, I needed to pick up a six-pack of beer and happened to pass through a major intersection where a young man stood in the baking sun, jittering as though he was high on meth (or was being electrocuted) while spinning, flipping, waving, and otherwise calling attention to a big sign advertising The Cellar. A wine store.

Never one to pass up serendipity when it slaps me in the face, I visited The Cellar, and fell to talking with the owner, who had just started a Wine Club. You give him your credit card number, and he picks a wine every month and bills you for it. If you like it, you can buy more at the discounted price of the Club. Why not? I signed up for the $15 “Silver” plan.

Truth is, I’ve tried $25 and even $40 bottles of wine, and it was a waste of both money and wine. I actually had a single glass from a $200 bottle once — I was on a business trip with two corporate Vice Presidents who were impressing and being impressed by another corporate Vice President from DuPont — and that was a good wine. I was all of twenty six years old, and had no idea what I drinking. It was red, it was delicious, and I managed to (somehow) stay sober enough to keep my mouth shut at the table. I wouldn’t mind receiving a case of that, whatever it was, as a Christmas gift. But I generally find my favorites in the under-$15 range.

Anyway, every month when I go in to pick up a new wine at The Cellar, the owner asks, “So how did you like the last wine?” Usually, not so much. After a month, however, I don’t even remember the type of wine, much less what I did or didn’t like about it. That isn’t really fair.

So I think I’m going to start wining a little on this blog, as a counterpoint to whining about the fall of Western Civilization and all that. After all, the whole problem with watching civilization flush itself is that a lot — a lot — of really cool stuff goes with it. One example of which is truly excellent, inexpensive wine.

It’s worth saying that I’m an absolute amateur when it comes to wine. A total tyro. A bloody beer drinker. So any true connoisseurs out there can just keep quiet and let me embarrass myself in peace. Which I intend to do without restraint or further apology.

At the moment, I have open a Fleur De Lyeth (that’s the winery, located in Saint Helena, CA), something they call their 2011 “A proprietary California red wine.” They don’t have a single word about what kind of grape is in it. I suppose that’s covered in the “proprietary” part.

I opened it yesterday, and I don’t like it much more today than I did yesterday.

Incidentally, this is NOT a wine from The Cellar. This is something I picked up blindly on a “wines for under $12” random tour of Wilbur’s, and I chose it because I liked the label. Period.

The first thing you notice about a wine is the smell.

Well, no, that’s not true at all. The first thing you notice about a wine is the price, and the size of the bottle, and the label. And the second thing you notice is the color. Usually red, or pale yellow, or somewhere in-between. This one is a dark enough red to dip in a quill and write your sparkly-vampire memoirs with it. I like the dark red wines.

So the third thing you notice is the smell. That’s “fragrance,” unless the wine is really awful, in which case you can call it the “odor.” The connoisseurs use the term “nose,” which skirts around the question of whether it was a “good nose” or a “bad nose” (I’m thinking of Dorothy upon meeting the White Wine Witch of the North) unless you happen to be in the company of Cyrano de Bergerac, in which case referring to the “nose” of anything is asking for a fat lip.

This nose is complicated. There’s something distinctly floral in it that overwhelms the underlying smell — sorry, “fragrance” — of grapes. Something dry and slightly pungent, like a floral perfume. I wish I knew my flowers, but I don’t. Well, that’s not entirely true: there’s Rose, everyone knows that one, and then Mirabilis (we had a big bush in the back yard when I was growing up) and Baby’s Breath (cloying and bitter) and Chrysanthemum (the vegetable equivalent of body odor) and Sweet William (the vegetable equivalent of a fudge-chocolate brownie covered with almond sauce.) I don’t know this flower. One of the dry, pungent ones.

I don’t like to mix perfume with wine. It’s like kissing a woman on the neck and getting a mouthful of Eau de Something-From-A-Small-Bottle. Of course, it is wine (or kissing a woman on the neck) so you don’t let that slow you down. But you can’t help thinking about gargling a few ounces of whiskey to clear the tongue.

Sure enough, the first flavor that hits me is green bell pepper, which simply does not belong in a wine of any color. Well, maybe a green wine. I’ve never tried a green wine.

After the bite of green pepper passes, the blend is very, very smooth. It doesn’t burn or pucker the way some Merlots do, and it isn’t a punch in the mouth with fruit flavors. Not tart, not sweet. Just smooth. And, unfortunately, with no “finish” to speak of. One of the best parts about a rich wine is when it stays on your tongue afterward, filling your head with fragrances (not odors) and flavors (not tastes) and memories of places you’ve never been and things you’ve never done. They call that the “finish.”

Alas, this wine just … vanishes. A flash of green pepper, utter smoothness, and then … nothing. Your mouth tastes like mouth.

Now that I’m a little deeper into the bottle, the Pinot grape is coming out strongly, which explains all of this. Pinot always reminds me a little of bubble-gum, which is at the stale end of the floral fragrance I started with. I watched the movie (or “film”) Sideways, and went through a brief Pinot phase. It didn’t last very long. I’m not a big fan of Pinots.

I saw Fleur de Lyeth all over the shelves at Wilbur’s so I’ll probably want to try some of their other grapes or blends at some point. But this one isn’t on my keeper list.