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In my experience, children seldom embrace vows made by parents on their behalf. For myself, that was certainly the case. It is in the nature of children to rebel against authority, even when that authority has their best interests at heart. And sobriety is certainly a virtue that should be cultivated, for drunkenness has ruined the lives of more men and women than even promiscuity. Nevertheless, I believe that knowledge is always better than ignorance, and so I will speak of home-brewing even though it may be controversial.
The law in the United States at the dawn of the twenty-first century is that people over the age of twenty-one are allowed to brew up to 100 gallons of beer or wine for their own personal use. This means that you can drink it, share it, or give it away, but not sell it. While it is childishly simple to brew mead, that does not make it legal for children to do so. The home-brewing allowance applies only to adults, not children. Even so, I believe that it would not be a bad thing for more parents to guide their children into responsible alcohol use rather than presuming that they will attain instant maturity at the age of twenty-one.
While mead is, technically, simpler to brew than either beer or wine, it is by no means a beverage to be sneered at. Mead brewing can be taken to as high an art form as any other and the choice of honey, yeast, concentration, and spice may be made well by some and poorly by others. It is my intention to get you started with a simple, but drinkable mead, leaving the perfection of the art to your own explorations. Our requirements are quite simple. We require a bottle which can be sealed, yeast, honey, and water. For this first mead, I will suggest materials which are most easy to find.
The choice of container is not particularly critical. It could be of glass, metal, skin, or plastic. One of the most ubiquitous of containers is the 2-liter soft-drink bottle, which is ideally suited to our purposes. It is easy to clean, it is not easily broken, it is designed to hold a certain pressure, and the cap can be tightly sealed. It is important that the container be clean and sterile or unwanted bacteria may turn our mead into vinegar. The easiest way to do this is to wash it with soap, which we will learn to make in Chapter 19. Once your container is clean, you are ready for the honey and water.
As I have said, the concentration of honey determines whether it will turn out sweet or dry. Now honey is not a pure substance, it is a complex mixture whose composition and concentration varies from one honey to the next. So it is not possible for me to tell you exactly where the cutoff is between sweet and dry. But for a first mead, I have found that 12-16 ounces of honey is about right for 2 liters of mead. The choice of honey is yours; there is no right or wrong answer in the honey department. To begin with, add your honey to an equal volume of water and stir until it is dissolved.
Technically speaking, only honey, water, and yeast are used to brew mead, but some additional additives may assist the fermentation and modify the flavor. A cup of tea will add nutrients needed by the yeasts for robust fermentation. The juice of one lemon will add additional nutrients as well as flavors. Pour any additives into the honey water, that is, into the wort.
Now, some people insist that the wort should be cooked. Cooking will kill unwanted microorganisms and remove protein from the honey. Others swear with equal conviction that cooking is not only unnecessary, but undesirable, for it drives off aromas from the honey. If you decide to cook your honey, place your wort into a pot, heat it on a stove until it boils, and keep it boiling for 5 minutes. A froth will form on the top. Watch that it does not boil over or you will have a bit of a mess on your hands. Turn off the stove and carefully remove as much of the froth as you can with a spoon. Whether cooked or not, add the wort to your bottle, hereafter called the fermenter, and fill it to the shoulder with cold water.
The choice of yeast is also a matter of taste. Wine yeasts, champagne yeasts, beer yeasts, there are even yeasts specifically tailored to sweet or dry meads. Home-brewing suppliers will stock a large variety of yeasts, but do not get hung up on the choice of yeast. For a first mead, even ordinary baker's yeast from the grocery store will make a perfectly drinkable mead. I should warn you that brewer's yeast is frequently sold with vitamins in grocery and drug stores, but this yeast has been killed and is intended only as a nutritional supplement. What you need is active yeast, which may come in either powdered or liquid form. Follow the package directions, generally something on the order of "Add contents of packet to one quarter cup of water and 1 tsp of sugar." You may substitute wort for the sugar. Wait 10 minutes. If the yeast is active, it will have at least doubled its volume with a frothy head. Otherwise, it's get up and go has got up and went. Add the yeast solution (not the frothy head) to your fermenter and cap it tightly. There should be 2 inches or so of head-space at the top. Yeasts like moderate temperatures (65-70°F, 18- 21°C), so put your fermenter in a place where you would find the temperature comfortable.
There are three stages to the fermentation. In the first, aerobic stage, the yeasts are multiplying and oxygen will speed up this process. Shake the fermenter to get air into the wort. Once a day, feel the fermenter to see whether gas is building up inside. If it is not, unscrew the cap, squeeze the fermenter to expel the stale air and let in fresh air. Replace the cap and shake up the fermenter and leave it for the next day. Within a few days, you will find that pressure has built up inside the fermenter, and you are ready for the next stage.
No alcohol is produced in the aerobic stage, only carbon dioxide and water. To get alcohol, we need to cut off the supply of oxygen. You will not shake the fermenter any longer because you want to avoid adding air to the wort. To let gas out without letting air in, we shall construct a simple fermentation lock, shown in Figure 4-3. It consists of a balloon and a bottle cap. Drill a hole in the bottle cap to let the gas out. The size of the hole does not matter; half an inch will do. Then stretch the neck of a balloon over the cap, as shown. Most soft-drink caps are ridged, which might allow gas to escape from the balloon. To prevent this, roll the mouth of the balloon back a bit, apply a generous amount of rubber cement, and roll the mouth back into place. You will have created a layer of rubber cement to seal the balloon to the cap. You may apply some extra cement to the outside of the balloon to make the seal complete. After a few hours or even a day, the balloon will fill with gas as the fermentation gets going. If it does not, either your balloon has sprung a leak or your yeasts are dead in the water. Make sure your cap is screwed tightly to the bottle. Squirt a little soapy water around the neck of the balloon and look for leaks, which may be sealed with a little rubber cement. If there are no leaks you probably did not allow your yeasts to get going before you added them to your wort. Make up another batch and this time follow the directions; the yeasts are not ready until there is a good head of foam.
In addition to keeping air out of your wort, this fermentation lock can collect carbon dioxide for use in Chapter 24. When your balloon fills with gas, pinch its neck shut, unscrew it from the bottle, wrap the neck around a pencil, and secure it with a twist tie. Make a new fermentation lock and put it on your fermenting mead. You may collect several of these balloons from a single fermentation.
If you do not need to collect carbon dioxide, you may simply burp your mead each day; unscrew the cap to let the gas escape, then screw it down again. Eventually, the production of gas will slow and you will observe a growing sediment at the bottom of the fermenter, the dregs, which consist of dead yeasts. The wort, which has been cloudy, will begin to clear, that is, the heterogeneous mixture becomes a homogeneous solution. If you suspect that the fermentation is finished, pour yourself a little taste; a dry mead should no longer be sweet. If you are serious, you should get a hydrometer from a home-brew shop, which will tell you how much fermentable sugar remains. A dry mead can be bottled when either your taste buds or the hydrometer indicate that the sugar has all been used up. If you want it to be carbonated, burp it only enough so that when you squeeze your fermenter, it feels pressurized, like an unopened soft drink.
Bottling a sweet mead is trickier because of the risk of having the thing blow up if the fermentation is not complete. For this reason, continue burping a sweet mead until the fermenter is no longer under pressure and check to see that no pressure builds up when it is sealed for a week. Whether dry or sweet, you should now be certain that the fermentation is finished and your mead is ready for bottling.
Since plastic is slightly permeable to oxygen, you will probably want to bottle your mead in brown glass. You may use wine bottles with corks, beer bottles with screw-on caps, or you may buy a bottle capper from a home-brewing supply. Chilling your mead in the refrigerator for a day and bottling it cold will allow you to preserve most of the carbonation, if you are into that sort of thing. Using a funnel, slowly and carefully pour your mead into the bottles, seal them, and label them. You may wish to drink some mead soon after bottling, but save one bottle for a few months to see the effect of aging. If your mead is carbonated, it is a good idea to wrap your bottles in paper and store them in a place where, if they should burst, they will not make too much mess.
You have gone to a good bit of trouble for about a half gallon of mead. Once you get the hang of it, you may scale up your production, using, perhaps, Unit Factor Analysis to keep the proportions the same. I should warn you that your mead is in no sense a wimpy beverage. Depending on your honey, it may be 10-15% alcohol and so is more akin to wine than beer. Whether you are an experienced or novice drinker, it is a good idea to begin the exploration of any new drink with small portions until you get a feel for its strength. If you do not, you may find yourself, as I did, shooting off your big mouth to the wrong person, getting an unintended haircut, losing your eyesight, and becoming a laughingstock to your enemies.
You are probably wondering how you should evaluate a mead. I will tell you. First of all, it should have a pleasing bouquet. Second, it should have a pleasant flavor, neither sour nor overly sweet. Finally, of course, it should contain at least 5% alcohol or your bees will have wasted their buzz.
Be sure to list in your notebook the actual amounts of materials used in your mead so that if it turns out well, you will be able to make another bottle. If you have access to a hydrometer, record the actual percentage of alcohol as well.
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