New year means new brew. The brew kettle is all sanitized and ready to boil here at Gray Breweries, and it is just a matter of what is going into my big ol’ white buckets first.
Last year I had several dreams that coalesced into waking recipes: a traditional British Pale Ale with caramel as a finishing sugar, a first attempt at a noble hopped Pilsner, and several fruit and spice variations of sweet mead. I bought 10 pounds of Vienna Pilsner malt, all five noble hops, and some Budejovice lager yeast in support of my first ever all-grain beer. I’ve also had 15 pounds of white clover honey taking up precious shelf space in my brewing cabinet.
Personal laziness dictated which to brew first. I can’t do an all-grain beer yet, as I haven’t completed my home made mash tun (stayed tuned for that adventure in a future post). Sparging is pretty difficult without a mash tun, so merry mead making it is for me!
I guess 2013 is to be the year of sweet, sweet honey wine.
Things you’ll need:
- Honey (lots of it – 15-20 pounds of white clover, but orange blossom is permissable)
- Water (4-5 gallons of spring water)
- Fresh vanilla beans (3-4 bourbon, Mexican, or Madagascar beans, depending on taste)
- Good vodka (I used Stoli, but anything not in a plastic bottle should work)
- Sweet wine yeast (I used WLP720 Sweet Mead/Wine, but something like Yeastlab Sweet Mead yeast M62 could work, too)
Step 1: Infuse!
Let’s do the easy part first. Using a good, sharp, elvish blade, slice your vanilla beans lengthwise, then chop them into three or four pieces (depending on length). Once they’re all nice and split, drop them into the vodka. It will take a while for the vanilla to seep into the vodka and create an infusion, so just seal your jar or bottle and set it aside. By the time you’re ready to rack your mead, you should also have some delicious home made vanilla extract, too!
Do not be tempted to take the shortcut down the well-worn path of store-bought vanilla extract. The preservatives in the baking stuff can completely ruin the flavors of your honey, which might result in five gallons of something tragically unpalatable.
Word to the wise: no matter how good the beans smell while you’re cutting them, do not eat them. They do not taste like you’d think (or hope) they would. They’re actually sort of sour. Weird.
Step 2: Stir and Sanitize!
Traditional sweet mead is incredibly simple. Honey, water, yeast. Nothing else. Nothing fancy.
But with great simplicity comes great responsibility. You need to be attentive when adding your honey and sanitizing your must, as it is the most crucial step to making good mead. Anything that touches your water or your honey needs to be sterilized (seriously, everything). You have to keep stirring to make sure no honey settles on the bottom of your pot and scorches.
Every time honey gets scorched, a viking in Valhalla sobers up.
Note: Honey takes up a deceptively large amount of volume. Roughly 10.67 fluid ounces per pound, for anyone trying to do math and stuff. Be sure to leave enough room in your boil pot to allow for all that yellow sugary joy. I started with three gallons, just to be safe. You can always add more water after the must is sanitized to make up the difference.
Once the water has reached ~130 degrees or hotter, you can start to add your honey. You don’t want to add it much earlier, or it will pool on the bottom like a lazy salamander. Or something. You’ll want to add all the honey and then let the entire must get up to at least 160-170 degrees for 15 minutes to make sure it is free from any unwanted yeasts or sneaky mead-ruining bacteria.
Step 3: Keep stirring!
You need to make sure the mixture homogenizes, so keep stirring aggressively. The pre-mead will develop a thick, white froth. This is normal. And awesome.
The mixture should turn a dandelion yellow and smell intoxicatingly decadent. Honey is probably the best thing ever. Probably.
Don’t forget to re-sterilize your stirring spoon if you leave it out for too long, or if it touches those gross kitchen counters of yours.
Step 4: Cool and Pitch!
After its relaxing, stress-relieving hot tub, you’ll need to cool the must down before you pitch any yeast. Too hot and the yeast will burn to death and die horribly, too cold and they’ll go into hypothermic hibernation.
I’m in the process of making a brass coil wort/must cooler (apparently I have a lot of half-finished projects), but until it’s done, I’m using the classic “fill the kitchen sink with a crap load of ice and promise your wife it will only be in there for an hour, tops.”
Four hours later, your must will probably be the appropriate 70-75 degrees needed to pitch the yeast.
I highly recommend investing in an infrared thermometer if you plan to brew often. It saves having to sterilize a normal thermometer over and over again to take readings, and is fun to shoot around the house like you’re an Imperial Stormtrooper.
I use liquid yeast as it saves having to rehydrate dry yeast and create a starter, which I’ve never had much success with. It’s a little pricier, but I’d rather have something that works on the first try, to prevent the headaches of the second, third, and fourth tries.
Use a large spoon (sterilized!) to create a maelstrom in the middle of your mead and then pour the liquid yeast into the center of the honey storm. Stir once again in the opposite direction to fully aerate your yellow brew.
Step 5: Wait!
So you’re all like, “OK great, but you promised me vanilla!”
I know. Patience is a virtue and all that.
From my research, adding vanilla beans directly to the fermenting must can lead to all sorts of problems including stuck fermentation and off-flavors. It is also possible to over vanilla your mead(I know, I didn’t think that was even possible either), and by chucking some beans in you lose all control over how much flavor you have in the final product.
When fermentation slows and you are ready to rack the mead into the secondary vessel (probably after a few weeks in primary), then you can add your home made extract. Go slow and only add a little bit of a time, sampling every week until you reach the desired balance of honey and vanilla.
In four to six months, you should have a very sweet, very smooth mead ready for drinking, sharing, and toasting! Cheers!