Monday, December 28, 2009

The end justifies the mead

Well, I *finally* got around to making that batch of champagne mead.

First, you need one humongous pot:


This one's about 16 litres, a decently heavy gauge of stainless steel, and has a nice, heavy bottom.

Then, you need water:


Já, that'll do. I prefer spring water to reverse-osmosis filtered water. Don't use regular tap water, because it doesn't generally taste good and yeast doesn't do well in it because of chlorine and other chemicals. Feel free to use well water, or glacial water if you happen to have a glacier encroaching on your back yard. I usually buy extra water for hydrating the yeast, and in case I need to top-up the carboy.

Wash and sterilize the pot, using standard brewing methods, then pour in the H2O and start heating it up. While you're waiting for the water to boil, you can get the rest of the tools ready:


Here we have an S-trap (best kind for meadmaking, IMNSHO) and bung; a thermometer; and a hydrometer. All have been washed and sanitized, and set out on a clean paper towel. I also covered them with another piece of toweling to keep them clean until needed.

I also prepared a 3-gallon glass carboy, washing and sanitizing it, and then covering the mouth of the bottle with a sandwich bag to keep it clean, too:


Plus a spoon or two (metal or plastic; not wood), and a siphon hose. I somehow managed to bust the outer tube of My siphon-starter device when cleaning up from the last brewing session, so today I had to resort to manual siphon starting. Thanks to My fish tank, I have lots of experience with this and was not unduly worried.

Okay, right about now the water on the stove has started to boil. To the nearly 10 litres of water, add All the Honey There Is. I usually use 3 kg (just over 6½ pounds), but last time I was at My honey supplier I picked up a 7 kg pail and used half of it today... Closer to 8 pounds of honey.

(pauses to lick some of the sticky stuff off the back of Her hand, then toddles over to the sink to wash up before continuing)

Stir the honey into the hot water until it's well-dissolved. Continue to heat it until it's not quite boiling. You can also add two tablespoons of "acid mix", a blend of edible acidifying agents which can be obtained from your local brewing emporium. This is not 100% necessary, but I've always used it; it lends a bit of character to the finished product.

Now the hard part:
  • Make sure the sink is empty; put in the plug; and partially fill it with cold water.
  • Turn off the burner.
  • Put the lid on the pot, and airlift it from the stove to the sink. Be careful. If you have any doubts about your ability to carry approximately 35 pounds of cooking pot and extremely hot and sticky liquid over to the sink, get someone to help you.
Once the pot is safely ensconced in the sink, keep the lid on while you fill the sink. This is to keep tap water from contaminating the honey-water mixture. Swing the tap safely away from the pot, and toss in the brewing thermometer. Put the lid back on, ever-so-slightly ajar to let steam escape.

And now, you wait. You can't do anything more until the mixture has cooled to nearly room temperature, or else you'll kill the yeast. It usually takes well over an hour to cool down, so set a timer and go off to do something else. Don't worry about it cooling too much. Read a book; do some laundry; head out to the store.

When the mixture is 30℃ (86℉) or lower, it's safe to get the yeast ready. I've always used Lalvin EC-1118 Champagne yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) for My mead because it's extremely alcohol-tolerant and causes the mead to turn effervescent a couple weeks after bottling. Unless you want a sweet and not overly potent mead, stick with a yeast that can handle at least 12% alcohol.

So, what do you do with said yeast? Well, put some more spring water into a clean bowl, and warm it to lukewarm. Sprinkle the yeast on top of the tepid water, and wait another 15 minutes until it's hydrated and foamy; then funnel it into the carboy.

Assuming that the honey-water mixture is now reasonably cool, you can now siphon it into the carboy. If you're going to work directly out of the sink, drain the water away first and put the carboy on the floor right below it. Use a siphon starter if desired.

If you don't have a siphon starter (or broke yours), coil up the siphon hose and hold the whole thing under the surface of the liquid... Especially both the ends. Let the air bubble out, and liquid flow in. (I occasionally lift one end to let air rise and liquid flow to the bottom.) When the hose is full and the large air bubbles are gone, hold one end down at the bottom of the pot and put your thumb over the other end while you lift it out and stick it into the top of the carboy. Remove your thumb, and liquid should start to splash into the bottle. Splashing is good, because it aerates the mixture.

Fill to the bottom of the neck of the carboy, no higher and not much lower. If the carboy isn't quite full enough, feel free to add a bit more spring water. (For today's batch, I didn't need to add water because of the volume provided by the extra pound or so of honey.)

This is a good time to toss in the hydrometer, to get the initial reading for your soon-to-be-alcohol. Put it into the top of the carboy and give it a spin to shake the bubbles off; then record the "potential alcohol" number at the waterline. This batch is showing 11% potential alcohol, assuming that the "end" reading drops all the way to 0%. (Subtract "after" from "before" to get the percentage of alcohol in the finished brew.) I don't usually leave the hydrometer in the mixture, and won't bother reading it again until bottling day.

Just about done now... Insert the S-trap into the bung; insert the bung in the top of the carboy; and pour a small amount of sterilizing solution into the top of the trap. This will allow the mead to bubble out excess gases over the next few months or so, but keep out dust and other undesirable substances.

Carefully move the carboy to any out-of-the-way place where it can sit undisturbed for several months. Mine is currently sitting under a desk, resting on a dish towel, surrounded by a loosely-fitting cardboard box with a hole for the S-trap to stick through. The cats look at it funny, but they leave it alone.

In anywhere from 8 to 36 hours, the yeast will start to ferment the honey water, and you'll hear a satisfying "BLOOP!" as gases percolate out through the S-trap.

And when the blooping finally stops, in anywhere from 3 to 5 months... You'll have mead.

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