Monday, May 3, 2010


Testing the specific gravity of homemade raspberry mead (I really want to like mead.

When I was a kid, before I knew exactly what mead was, I associated it with vikings and long wooden tables and serving-wenches. Even then, I wanted to like it.

My associations were correct in that mead has been a popular drink in northern Europe since antiquity. The epic poem Beowulf, for instance, is about a dragon (Grendel) that terrorizes the mead-hall of a Danish king (Hrothgar) and that dragon's subsequent ass-kicking at the hands of a young warrior (Beowulf). So yes, vikings and mead go hand in hand, but the drink is part of cultures far beyond Scandinavia, in Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America.

These days I'm trying to like mead for different reasons. Alberta has a relative abundance of quality honey, an almost complete lack of grapes (despite valiant efforts), and most of the fruits that are commonly used in home wine-making, like crabapples, berries, and chokecherries, require tinkering to get the acid and sugar levels right. Brewing with honey appeals to my snobby keep-it-local sensibilities.

I do have some reservations, though. What little mead I have tried, whether commercially-produced or home-brewed, has been thin, insipid, and completely lacking complexity. Maybe that's just the nature of the beast. But I really want to like it, so I'm soldiering on with some home-brew.
This week I started two batches of mead. One is a mixture of honey and berries (called a "melomel" in mead-speak). Specifically, it is honey from a farm near Onoway, and raspberries frozen from last year's u-pick bounty. The second batch is honey and spices, a "metheglyn". The mixture is infused with whole cloves, thin slices of ginger, and tea.

I have been working with recipes and procedures from The Winemaker's Recipe Handbook by Raymond Massaccesi, which I got from Winning Wines Plus. The melomel happily sped through primary fermentation, but the metheglyn was a little more ornery.

Problems with Metheglyn Fermentation

The initial specific gravity of my metheglyn must was above 1.100, which is well into dessert-wine sugar levels. This didn't phase me, as I wanted my spiced mead to be sweet, reminiscent of mulled wine. Alarm bells should have been going off.

I used a Wyeast product specifically designed for sweet meads. I assumed it could handle the high sugar content, but a few days after pitching there were no signs of fermentation. I diluted the must to a specific gravity of 1.085, and twenty-four hours later, the must finally started to bubble.

I guess next time I'll try sauternes yeast.
To sweeten this batch I'll use the "süsse reserve" method, which is a fancy way of saying that I'll add a bit of honey to the mead after fermentation has finished. There is some danger that fermentation could restart with the introduction of more sugar. Then I'd have sparkling mead, which actually doesn't sound too bad. We'll see.


  1. Glad to see you posting about it, as mead is on my list of things to try in the coming year(s) for the same reasons as you. I also have the same reservations.

  2. Things I learned in microbiology lead me to say:

    1. you will likely get a second fermentation when adding more honey (this is based on an anecdote from someone else I know who made honey mead) and unfortunately, although it tasted okay -- the mead smelt like a hockey locker room with a side of grossly used gym socks.

    2. bacteria and yeast usually ferment until a particular threshold in which they produce too much 'waste' (in this case alcohol) which starts to kill them b/c it's too 'toxic' for them. So, you could always find out that particular threshold (I think through oxygen) to determine how much sugar you want to add (if you wanted to add it in staggered phases)?