Thursday, August 15, 2013

My First Batch

I've long wanted to brew my own beer, and especially mead. I've generally been either short on time or money and just never picked up a starter kit. In retrospect, I'm not sure what took me so long. Maybe the fear that it would be too difficult, time consuming or maybe take up too much space. I think all first time brewers go through these concerns. Surprisingly, it takes very little space and not even an afternoon of time, though you'll want to set aside more for your first batch. As per usual, there was a lot that I forgot, such as cleaning a stirring implement and I didn't buy enough filtered water for cleaning, so I had to boil some tap water.

Still, I think I did better than average for my first go at it. Except for dropping half of my honey in the driveway on accident. Let me tell you folks, never take more jars than you have hands. Cleaning honey and glass off of pavement is NOT how you want to spend your morning. Regrettable loss of honey aside, nothing overtly terrible happened during the must making process. Before I dive into my procedure, let me explain a few things.

A few days ago my friend Blair gave me a starter brewing kit for my birthday (Like this, but without the glass carboy: Gold Complete Beer Equipment Kit (K6) with 6 Gallon Glass Carboy ). Apparently he had taken up the sport of mead brewing and thought I might enjoy it too. It was a good kit, with all the basics that I needed except for the actually brewing materials (yeast, honey, etc). He mentioned unpasteurized brewing, which I originally took to mean using organic materials. Luckily he loaned me a book on fermenting (and brewing) by a guy named Katz called The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World. Of interest is the idea that you can do a "wild fermentation" which uses yeast that already exists within the honey and in the natural environment. The activator is the normal amount of water, and some ripe fruit supplies to food. Doing this requires a wide mouth container (such as a bucket) for the first stage of fermentation and 7 - 10 days of only loosely covering it with cloth.

The obvious ability for minors to make tankards of hooch with this process aside, it's interesting in that you are expected to only clean your equipment, and not sanitize it entirely. Even the honey needs to be raw and unheated, and the fruit unwashed. When making smaller quantities of mead, it's possible to use mason jars to make the must, then rack them into their serving container to finish up the process.

As much as I'd like to let nature take it's course, this is my first batch of home brewed alcohol ever, so I'm going to get a little help from science. My honey is local and raw from a bee farm about 15 minutes away (living in a cow town has its perks). He said he heats the honey to around 100 degrees to ease the filtering process, which is about the best I can hope for. The other places I called heat the honey to 120 degrees, which technically means its actually pasteurized, not raw. The proper term for this would be organic, though there really is no such thing as organic honey (come now, do you REALLY think they control where the bees eat? The neighbor could be dousing their flowers with pesticides, and that will end up in the honey).

So this honey is good enough for me. It's not separated by type and just mixed wild flower/blackberry because that's what's in season. He sells Quarts for $10, a gallon for $35 and 5 gallons for $125. I decided on 2 quarts, as I don't want to blow a lot of money on honey because I screwed up my first batch. better to learn with a smaller, cheaper batch.

I also picked p 4.5 gallons of purified drinking water and 2 packets of Red Star dry wine yeast that was rather sweet smelling from Larry's Brewing Supply in Kent, Wa (shameless plug). It wasn't until I set about preparing to clean my equipment that I realized I didn't have enough purified water to clean anything. The best suggestion on that topic is to boil tap water to evaporate any chlorine in it, so I promptly did so and spent the next 45 minutes trying to cool it off. Next time I'll just spend a few extra dollars I think. 

I also rounded up some of the available berries to use for yeast food. There are some fresh picked blackberries (no, they aren't from the fruit stand, just in the box for convenience). I also picked some blue berries from out front. Now, I did rinse off the blackberries briefly. Any time you pick something in the wild, you have no way of knowing where it's been, what's been on it or what's been done in it. Blackberries tend to grow near the side of the road, so can have exhaust fumes and pesticides from whoever happens to be spraying in the area. A quick rinse won't hurt anything. I know that the blue berries haven't been sprayed though, so I have no problem dumping them right in.

After everything was cleaned and prepped, I poured in the honey, water, and yeast then shook the bucket quite vigorously. The idea is to both mix up the honey and aerate the yeast. The berries went in next (I was tempted to add a banana, but I don't want to throw too much in before I see how it behaves). I had to use a spatula to thoroughly stir the honey into the water. This is actually where a carboy would be far more useful, as I couldn't really see how well the honey was mixing. I just had to use my best judgement to determine if the honey was mixed well enough.

A brief note on yeast preparation - If you're going to prepare a cultured yeast instead of attempting wild fermentation, put a pot of water on the stove, and then put your purified water in a cleaned (and sanitized) coffee mug with a thermometer. Heat the water in the pot and keep an eye on the thermometer. Remove it and add the yeast at 100 - 105 degrees (or whatever the packet says). This method heats the water much more slowly so you don't risk overheating the water.

My step father has also taken an interest in my mead making interest and gave me his old wine making set, which included some very old porcelain top bottles, 4 airlocks, 2 hydrometers, 6 cork bungs, a large bag of stoppers with wires, and some hoses. I promptly set out to clean the bottles in preparation for usage, but quickly discovered that they will require several stages of cleaning. Their rubber gaskets are the consistency of chewed bubblegum, and the 7th bottle I cleaned was full of wine. Thankfully it was the last bottle I cleaned, since it also had a dead mouse stuck firmly to the bottom. Considering it was last opened in the 70's, the mouse was rather well preserved. That bottle went into the garbage, though.

So now my bucket of hooch mead is sitting under my desk, and I'm eagerly awaiting the air bubbles that will tell me the yeast isn't dead and I didn't completely screw up. If I did, well, it means early scrubbing, more honey, and another packet of yeast. I'll certainly keep everyone updated. And for the charts:

1 Basket of Blackberries
1/2 cup of Blue Berries
3 lbs of honey
6:1 Water:Honey

I'll probably drink the mead at 1 month intervals to see what stage I like it the most at, with 6 - 9 months being the longest I'm likely to wait for an active batch. Though if I start making larger quantities, I'll certainly stash some to try the yearly flavor.

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