Bottling day - my first shot at brewing mead
A few days ago it was time to bottle up my first batch of mead. I have a fair amount of experience brewing all-grain beer with a friend who has all the equipment and making partial extract/grain batches at home on the stove. Brewing takes time and commitment. You have to block time out of your schedule around when the brew needs your attention. Each beer is truly yours, birthed through dedication and care.
Last year I sold all my equipment for making partial grain brews, and although my friend lives less than 5 minutes away, our schedules just don't match up to make beer together currently. Since I've recently gotten into other methods of fermenting, like sauerkraut and kimchi, I thought I could experiment with some small batch beverage brews. I may attempt this with beer at some point, but having never brewed mead I decided to give that a try.
There are aspects of brewing that remain the same allowing you to apply past experience: sanitizing, racking, bottling. But I didn't think my beer experience would apply to mead. I'd have to learn from the start, so I went with a "fool proof" recipe: Joe's Ancient Orange Mead.
There are Joe's Ancient Orange Mead recipes aplenty online, but it's simply honey, a piece of clove, cinnamon stick, raisins, and an orange. Now the odd part is that it calls for baker's yeast. Yep, that little packet of yeast you use for making bread. This really didn't seem right to me since all my experience in brewing beer involved careful selection of what yeast to use. And brewing yeast is very specialized and specific. But, a lot of people online say this Joe recipe is good, even a fellow Steemian I've come to call friend (@tinypaleokitchen), so I followed the recipe and directions exactly.
I went against all my urges to do things an experienced beer brewer might want to do. "Don't rack into a secondary" and "you know it's done when the fruit sinks to the bottom" and "use a packet of baker's yeast" were all things that just didn't feel right to me.
I also used a neat fermentation lid that I use for kimchi and sauerkraut that I thought could work well for mead as well. If I ever try small batch beer I'll use a traditional brewing airlock on a one gallon carboy.
The recipe said fermentation should take about two months. So I set it in a dark cabinet, checking on it occasionally to observe the churning fermentation process.
Well, since this post is called bottling day, I'll quit beating around the bush. You're probably wondering how it turned out. To put things simply... not very good.
I think the main issue is that I waited for the fruit to sink, as the recipe said, rather than bottling a couple days after signs of fermentation vanished. The mead clarified and the last of the fermentation bubbles went away at about the two month mark. It took another three weeks before the fruit sank, leaving the mead to sit on the spent yeast.
Now, I'm pretty sure it doesn't matter what you're brewing—beer, wine, mead—leaving the brew to sit on dead yeast cells is bound to pick up off flavors. That's why we rack into a secondary vessel for longer aging/fermentation periods. I think, in the case of this mead, this extended period also drew some bitterness from the orange peels, as that's the most prominent taste on first sip—just like biting into an orange peel.
The strange tangy characteristic of the yeast is very pervasive on the nose as well. I was hoping for something on the sweet and delicate side of the spectrum, but this is too strongly overtaken by the bitter orange peel and yeasty off flavors.
When I sold my brewing equipment that included my hydrometer, so I didn't take any readings to calculate specific gravity. I suppose the off flavors aren't to the level of making this mead unapproachable, considering I drank a whole glass while writing this article.
Since this was a small batch (requiring less than 2 pounds of honey) I don't consider it too much of a loss. I'll take what I've learned into my next batch, and likely try a more serious mead recipe... calling for a more specialized brewer's yeast. I don't doubt this recipe could have turned out favorable if I bottled it about three weeks sooner, I'd just like to attempt a different recipe for the sake of experimentation and learning.
Maybe if I let this one sit in the bottle for another month or two it will mellow out?