Sniff the Cap
The moon lights the way to my cottage. A lantern glows inside. Friends knock and enter, bringing veggies and bread. I pour sweet golden mead into clay mugs. I’ve been busy fermenting honey here in my hobbit hole. Folks pull out hand-crafted instruments. We build a bonfire under the stars, dancing and feasting until dawn.
That’s my vision of life after the apocalypse, an existence without indoor plumbing and electricity and WiFi. In my hippie fantasy, human society may fall into ruin, but it won’t look like the murderous anarchy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Instead, we’ll work together to survive and thrive. We’ll make music and drink mead—one of the most ancient and sustainable alcoholic beverages.
It’s going to be good.
OK, back to reality. I wasn’t thinking about surviving civilization’s collapse when I checked the progress of my bubbling liquid sunshine, aka a 6.5-gallon glass jug of honey wine.
For two weeks, my mead had been fermenting feistily. Then not so much. After a couple of weeks, the bubbling business slowed and seemed to stop.
“You need to buy a hydrometer,” said one advisee.
“Have you been using it?”
Yup. I reported that the specific gravity measured 1.040 a couple days ago.
“That’s pretty sweet, like a dessert mead,” he said. “But you have a lot of time.”
He suggested I give my yeast a snack.
Does the above exchange make me sound like I know what I’m talking about? Thank you, Internet, for giving me chem lessons so I can break bad in my home lab.
Here’s what I’ve learned: A hydrometer (glass tube that floats atop the booze) measures the density of the liquid in my jar. The specific gravity of water is 1.000. Pure alcohol is 0.792. My mead, as you can see, is quite dense.
Fermentation slows and stops eventually. But my mead is still too sweet and only boasts about 5.25 percent alcohol. I’m hoping for 11 or 12 percent. If I give my yeast a snack, it’ll kick back into fermentation mode. While honey contains all the nutrients required by bees (and humans), yeast is needier. As the sugar transforms into alcohol, my yeast needs another shot of nutrients—a concoction containing amino and unsaturated fatty acids and the kinds of stuff that I could probably get from crushing up a multi-vitamin.
Rather than mash up my Geritol, though, I obtain a packet of tan powder called yeast nutrient, and unscrew the wide-mouth air-lock cap on the mead. I place my hydrometer in the mead and give it a gentle spin. When it stops moving, I take a reading. Still 1.040. I taste it. Not too syrupy, a bit effervescent. Nice. But I’d prefer it to be drier.
So in goes the nutrients, and the concoction bubbles like madness. Happy yeast makes tasty mead.
Two weeks or so ago, my husband, Dave, and I started our first batch of mead. Making mead is easy, we’d heard. You can make mistakes, and the mead will most likely survive.
We’d obtained 18 pounds of orange-blossom honey for the project. After equipment, buying honey is the priciest aspect of mead-making.
Why are we buying honey when Dave keeps bees in his backyard, where they feast on red raspberries, roses and lavender? Fair question. Dave’s honey is simply too precious for experimentation. First, we’ll get good at this.
Of course, Dave can be a little finicky. “Does this honey smell OK to you?” Dave asked.
“It does not smell as good as your honey, honey,” I replied.
For references, we had Ken Schramm’s book The Compleat Meadmaker, and a recipe in the back of a catalog for home-brewing supplies. I searched for “making mead” online, and Google reported 31.7 million results.
We also had six gallons of filtered water, a thermometer, a hydrometer and a 6.5 gallon glass carboy (jug). We had sanitizer to clean a long stirring spoon, cups and measuring utensils. We had Prise de Mousse wine yeast, nutrients, tartaric acid and Irish moss for clarity.
We were ready. Gobbing honey out of jars was sticky business. Then we heated the must, aka watered-down honey, aka proto-wine. The proportions of honey to water differ depending on the recipe. One online recipe suggested two pounds of honey per gallon of water. Schramm’s recipe included twice that—15 pounds of honey and four gallons of water. We landed right in the middle—18 pounds of honey and six gallons of water, or three pounds of honey per gallon.
We boiled water and added honey along with nutrients and energizer. Adding honey cooled the water, but then we took the liquid back up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. I fiddled with the burner for 10 minutes or so, trying to keep it hot without letting it boil. Another recipe calls for boiling. Go figure.
Heat then cool. Heat then cool. The must had to cool down again before we could add yeast.
So we waited. And waited. We got impatient. We were ready to sit down to crab appetizers and wine.
When the liquid was finally cool, we added yeast and stirred like maniacs to get plenty of oxygen into the must. I twirled a spoon until my arms hurt, then Dave gave it a go, creating a cyclone in the bottle.
We put a lid on it, fantasizing about the three cases of golden mead we’d be enjoying in six months or so. There’ll be a party with DIY music and a bonfire. We’ll drink mead from clay mugs. Sound like a good plan for a Friday night?
We thought so, too. Our work done, Dave and I opened a lovely bottle of Anderson Valley pinot noir for which we paid some serious dough.
The wine was excellent, and I’m thinking now it might be time to make wine-wine next time. Red wine. From grapes. This fall, in fact, I’d like to try my hand at, say, six gallons of zinfandel. I’m soliciting advice on this. Can I buy a smallish quantity of grapes and crush ’em in my kitchen? Yes, said one wine-making friend, no problem.
“But you’ll be sorry,” he warned.
“If it’s good, you’ll be sorry you didn’t make more.”