Mead 2009 — Varietal experiement

Ok, this post outlines the meads I made in 2009.  I made them in August of that year, and just opened some for a side by side tasting today. I have already outlined my thoughts on mead in general in this post, so we will get down to what I did in 2009.

I found a company close to me that is the largest producer of honey in the state of Maine.  Called Swans,  they are located on a farm in Albion, Maine.  Swans sells raw honey.  This is honey that is basically just run through a filter to get out the big chunks of stuff, and right into a jar/bucket with no further treatment.  They sell it in little jars, and they sell it in 5 gallon buckets.  But most importantly, they sell it by is various varieties.  Wildflower is their least expensive, honey made from what ever the bees can find.  Here, I find it has a strong perfume of lilac, probably because of the ubiquitous nature of those trees in Maine.  But they also have orange blossom (they send their hives to Florida in the winter), raspberry, blueberry, cranberry, buckwheat, and tupelo (from someone they know in southern Georgia).   So, I decided to look at the honey, and specifically the impact the varietals have on flavor.

I purchased The Complete Meadmaker by Ken Schramm, and highly recommend it to anyone looking to make mead.   In his book, he has a very nice list, showing the varietals of honey, and some information about the general chemical composition and their different tastes.  I should note, the varietal honeys don’t taste like the fruit those plants give, but each has a different taste, color, and chemical content due to the unique nectar that each plant produces.  Straight, each is a distinctly different honey, but still tastes like…honey.   However, I did not want 5 gallons of each variety, just too much, so I decided to make 1.25 gallon batches of each.  I combined 2.5# of each variety with enough de-chlorinated water to make the 1.25 gallons.  I then sulfited each one with campden tablets, and mixed in yeast nutrient.  I let it sit overnight for the sulfites to do their thing, then I added Red Star dried champagne yeast to each batch, and fermented them out.  The basic recipe was this:
2.50 lb       Honey  (3.0 SRM)
0.50 tsp      Yeast Energizer
1.00 items    Campden Tablets
1.00 tsp      Yeast Nutrient
1 Pkgs        Pasteur Champagne (Red Star #-)

No boiling, just mixed, stirred with a sanitized spoon, mixed in the crushed tablet, and then pitched the dried yeast, right on top the next day.  I don’t really care for sweet drinks, so these were intended to be light, dry meads.  Each mead was fermented at ambient cellar temps, which around here is in the low 70’s in August, for 2 weeks in primary.  Then they were racked over to glass 1 gallon jugs with airlocks.  These then were allowed to age for 1 year in secondary, then were bottled in August of 2010.  I used 6 varietals for this experiment.  The starting and final gravities are below.

Varietal                              Original Gravity                 Final Gravity                  %ABV

Blueberry                           1.074                                    1.000                              9.68

Cranberry                           1.074                                    1.000                              9.68

Orange Blossom               1.072                                    0.996                             9.94

Raspberry                           1.070                                   0.998                              9.41

Tupelo                                  1.072                                    0.998                             9.67

Wildflower                          1.074                                    0.996                             10.20

And here is what they look like:

Left to right: Blueberry, Cranberry, Orange Blossom, Raspberry, Tupelo, Wildflower

These mead are petulant.  I never degassed them, and even being bone dry when going into the bottles, they picked up a very slight carbonation.

Tasting:

Blueberry:  About middle of the pack in color.  It has a musty/woody smell to it.  It was very dry and thin, with a noticable acidic bite.

Cranberry:  The darkest of the meads, this has a much more neutral nose, you get honey, but that is about it.  It was fairly full and round in the mouth, with a pretty nice balance between a sweet taste and acidity

Orange Blossom:  One of the lighter meads, it has an intense, perfumed aroma.  You can get some citrus, and some acidity in it, but the floral notes kind of overpower everything else, and it carries through on the taste.  Middle of the road in body.

Raspberry:  Lightest in color.  It had a light honey aroma with a slight spiciness to it.  Very light on the palate, almost insipid.  The least character of all the meads.

Tupelo:  Honey with very distinct mulling spice notes, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg.  The mulled spice flavor carries through to the taste.

Wildflower:  2nd lightest in color, but it has a very strong, minty, herbal aroma, followed by very floral notes.  Honeysuckle and Lilac.  The flavor was likewise very intense

Critique:

Ok, I tasted these, as did my parents and my wife.  3 of us picked the Cranberry as our favorite as is.  It has the most body, the roundest mouthfeel, and seems the most balanced, having a sweeter taste then the others.  It also did not have as strong flavor notes, making it more drinkable.  The lone dissenter picked this out as its major drawback.  “If I am going to drink something like this, I want to know I am drinking something” was the comment.  Their first choice was the orange blossom.  Next was a toss up between the orange blossom, tupelo, and the wildflower.  Just to drink as is, I would pick the wildflower or the orange blossom, but they were quite different, and I think one glass of each would be plenty.  The flavors are not bad, but are quite pronounced, and I would not want to drink much of it.   The tupelo was a very interesting honey because of the very distinct spiciness to it.  I did not care for it as is, but I did mix it with some cider, and it worked wonderfully.  I think this maybe the honey I would go for in my next cyser.  Next, I liked the raspberry.  It is a bit insipid as is, which was the biggest complaint about it.  However, if I was going to make a semi-dry or sweet mead, I think this would be my choice.  It has good flavor, just more muted, which would come out more with higher amounts of honey.  I think the other honeys would be too strong at higher concentrations, and I think the raspberry would settle in nicely.  The least favorite was the blueberry.  The woody/musty notes were just not all the pleasant, and I would not use that honey again.

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Mead — My Muse and Nemesis

6th Century Anglo Saxon Drinking horn, British Museum

I love the idea of mead.  The oldest alcoholic drink known to man, it predates farming.  Mead surfaces again and again in historical texts.  It is found in the Rigveda, the ancient texts of India, written in Sanskrit.  It can be found throughout Greek and Roman literature.  Beowulf, the oldest surviving piece of English literature, shows mead being consumed in quantity by its hero.  Mead is the history of civilization, in a glass.

The problem is, I like the idea of mead more then the actual product.    The first mead I ever drank was one I made.  The Complete Joy of Homebrewing had a sizable section on mead, Charlie Papazian was obviously a fan, so I decided to give it a try.  In 1994, I combined honey I got from the grocery store with some tap water, boiled it for about 10 minutes, mixed it with cold water, tossed in about 2-3 bags of frozen raspberries, added dried yeast, and let it go.  About a month later, I bottled it.  It was pink, kind of sweet, about 9% alcohol…and what can I say, the ladies seemed to enjoy it.  I had basically home brewed a winecooler, but the proper term would be a melomel, a mead infused with fruit.   Flush with the success of finding a homebrewed beverage that seemed to draw attention from the coeds, I brewed a second batch.  This time, I used a smaller amount of honey, and more raspberries.  I let it sit longer, and then bottled it with priming sugar.  What I created was a sparkling melomel, dry, tart, and very raspberry.  I enjoyed it.  I am happy to say that I kept one bottle from the batch, and it traveled with me for over 15 years, until I had dinner with one of my college roommates last year around Thanksgiving.  He could not believe I had kept a bottle that long, and he, his girlfriend, my wife and I shared the last bottle over dinner.  It had none of the original color, and had oxidized.  It tasted more like sherry then mead, but I still enjoyed it, probably more for the novelty and the company then for the actual beverage.

The first commercial mead I ever tried was brought back from England by my wife.  She was studying in London, and brought back 2 bottles.  Both were sickly sweet, and despite being poor college kids, we could not choke them down even if they were 14% alcohol.

Life continued on, and I often took long breaks from brewing due to school, life, job, etc.  Mead takes a long time to really get good, and I just did not have the patience or the proper living situation to make it.  I tried a few more meads commercially made, and they were usually too sweet for my palate, or insipid.  However, I kept coming back to the idea of making mead, to see if I could make one that I truly love.  So, I decided to purchase  The Complete Meadmaker by Ken Schramm.  Considered the bible on meadmaking, it took a much more technical approach to the topic.  Much more like wine making the brewing, I was outside of my comfort zone, but the appeal of making mead pushed me forward into experimenting with it again, which I started doing again in 2009.

In subsequent posts, I will outline what I have done and why.  I have decided to do small batches, or to split one large one into different types of mead, to try to find that right combination for me.  I also decided to do one batch a year, as I find that while I enjoy making mead, I have yet to find one that really has knocked my socks off.  As such, it is more of an occasional libation for me, a work in progress, but I am willing to keep experimenting and trying until I get one right for me.  After all, 9000 years of Wassailing can’t be all wrong.