In which Ricky the Meadmaker celebrates National Mead Day with a toast and footage from the live home-meadmaking demo at the Mead Hall!
Having a stalled batch as a homebrewer is frustrating and irritating. Having a stalled batch as a commercial brewer - in addition to being frustrating and irritating - can also be embarrassing and financially disastrous.
Since we pride ourselves on being open-source, the brew-staff agreed that we couldn’t let our pride get in the way of sharing the story of our most frustrating month. It is also commonly agreed upon that more can be learned from a mistake than a success.
If you are unfamiliar with Valkyrie’s Choice, you should check out the recipe here as well as our general brewing practices.
Also, a spoiler alert: We did manage to rescue the batch, and we’re throwing a huge party to celebrate our success this weekend!
Here begins the saga of Valkyrie’s Choice.
Things that were the same as always:
Things that were different:
Observations of note:
Here’s where things start to go awry. After the normal period of active fermentation (about six days) the bubbling slowed as anticipated, the temperature in the tank began to drop due to lack of metabolic activity, and all seemed right with the world… until we tasted it.
The mead tasted fantastic! The only problem was that it was distinctly sweet. We took a gravity reading and found that it was at 1.024. At this point it should have been at 1.004 at the highest, ideally 1.002. We double-checked the reading with a refractometer with correction calculation and the reading was identical.
No big deal! We’ve dealt with this before. Besides, canning day was two weeks away.
Here’s what we tried, in order, with waiting period [and gravity in brackets next to it].
At this point, the batch was officially stalled, there was no way to meet our canning date, and the state was days from running out of Valkyrie’s Choice.
At this point, Kelly sat the brew team down to go step-by-step through the process (“Did you accidentally add Sorbate?” “No.” “Are you sure?” “Pretty sure.” “Pretty sure is not OK.” “I’ll go check… No. No we didn’t.” “That’s too bad; then I could have just blamed this on you being idiots.”)
The next question was: “Have you tried absolutely everything?” Or, in other words, “If you had unlimited resources what would you do?”
The answer was simple: “I need $160 and two extra weeks.”
Our friends over at Iron Heart jumped through hoops to get us a new canning day, bless their hearts. So there was the two weeks we needed. Now, for the magic bullet.
There are thousands of yeast strains out there, but most brewers only use a handful. One of the best things about being a homebrewer is the ability to experiment on each and every batch. This is why we advocate that our brewing staff keep homebrewing as a hobby, even after they start working for us.
One of the strains that Ricky had used in the past is DV10 by Lalvin. He describes it as the SpecOps of yeast: It goes in where no one else can get the job done, and it does its work quickly, cleanly, and - under the best circumstances - you don’t even know that it’s been there.
One hour after pitching a small amount (by commercial standards) of DV10, the bubbling had started again. Over the next week the fermentation followed a bell-curve of activity and after 8 days we were at our goal of 98% attenuation with a final gravity of 1.002.
The batch tastes amazing, the abv is spot-on, and carbonation is well under way!
Here are the big takeaways from our scary experience:
Let’s side-step – if we may – the question of whether or not bacon should be used in brewing.
Let us, instead, agree that bacon should be in as many things as possible, and if that includes mead, so be it.
Over the years, we’ve gotten a lot of questions about the best way to get bacon into a batch of mead. Many people wonder if they can just cook it up and throw it in like a handful of cinnamon sticks.
The answer to this is: No. Please don’t do that.
So, no beating around the bush here. There is a superior way to get bacon into a fermented beverage and this is it:
The Cooking Stage. The goal here is to get as much fat out as possible, as this won’t lend any flavor to your beverage, but to still get a good maillard reaction.
Preparing your tincture. There are two schools of thought here. The first group advocates for a good vodka to really let the bacon flavor shine through. The second group pushes for whiskey because then your mead has bacon and whiskey in it when you’re done. We are of the latter school.
Adding your tincture. This is where your goals and personal taste come into play.
Enjoy, Meadiacs! Send us photos of your favorite pint!
Blah blah blah, normal disclaimer about the fact that you just left meat sitting in a jug of whiskey at room temperature for a week.
There’s almost nothing that a professional meadmaker can do that a home meadmaker can’t do just as well.
Generally speaking, we have access to the same honeys, the same yeast, similar if not identical nutrients, and so on.
The one thing that professionals have that most home meadmakers can’t justify is laboratory analysis. If you want to spend the dough, you can certainly get analyses for abv, VOC, esters, residual sugars, yeast mutation, and so on, but it can be very expensive and, as we’ll see below, completely unnecessary.
A quick note: Some homebrewers develop their entire hobby around the scientific aspect of the brewing process, investing in everything from stir plates to high-powered microscopes to professional texts on the subject. If this is your thing, go for it! Seriously, that’s awesome. Just know that you’re a member of the select.
So, for the rest of us mere mortals who don’t want to become cell biologists and organic chemists, how can we go about improving our homebrewed meads, beers, wines, and ciders?
The trick is to develop a knack for qualitative rather than quantitative analysis. Even the biggest breweries in the world use both, but a lot of the smaller folk (Groennfell Meadery included) opt for qualitative analysis with very, very rare quantitative lab work to answer specific questions.
Here’s how we go about our quality control at Groennfell Meadery, and while we can’t speak for any other breweries, this represents a fairly good sketch of what is going on at small and medium-size brewhouses around the world. You don’t need to do every single step here, but this is the complete process for those who are interested.
This is all about preparing your palate to detect minor variations in your beverage. It can take days, weeks, or even years. The best tasters still follow this practice decades after beginning as professionals.
Step 1: Know enough of the science to know what you’re looking for. You don’t need to have a PhD in Bioactive Minerals to know that yeast needs a variety of nutrients for optimal fermentation. Checking out our Meadmaking Articles is a good place to start.
Step 2: Get examples of the style you’re analyzing and taste them side-by-side focusing on commonalities rather than differences. For example, what do all British Porters have in common? Use your words; writing down what you're tasting actually helps in identifying flavors and aromas.
Step 3: Taste the samples again, looking for differences. If there’s something you taste in one or more of the samples that doesn’t seem right, try to describe it then look it up to see if it belongs there.
Step 4: BONUS STEP. Take a class on flavor and off-flavor identification. They’re even available as home study kits now!
Quality Control in Action:
Once you know what you’re looking for (and hoping not to find), it’s time to subject your homebrew to scrutiny. We don’t follow every step below every time, but this is the full QC regimen we have at Groennfell.
Step 1: Simply taste a sample of the product listing outloud any pronounced flavors or aromas. For example, Nordic Farmhouse always goes through a stage of fermentation where it tastes like bubblegum. Even though this would be an off-flavor in the final product, it’s a good sign if it’s pronounced on day three of fermentation because it’s an indicator of consistency. If everything’s good, skip to step 4.
Step 2: If an unexpected flavor is encountered, have another brewer sample the product without priming them (in other words, don’t say, “I think this tastes like butter; what do you taste?”). Once you have a second opinion, voice your concern if the other brewer hasn’t already noticed it.
Step 3: If there’s an issue, do one of two things, A) Relying on your vast knowledge of brewing, take remedial steps to correct the problem. B) Freak out.
Step 4: Assuming no problems, check for consistency. We usually use the following trick, we pull samples of a product from three locations, usually a past batch and a current batch in both can and on draft.
Step 5: If no comparison samples are available, we all know the product pretty well. Actually, we all know it very well. We drink a lot. We try not to go by memory, but sometimes it’s the only option. This is where writing your tasting notes down comes in handy.
Step 6: If you want to go really nuts, go ahead and do a triangle tasting. This is where you taste three samples - two are the same and one is different - and you try to identify the two that are the same. It does require two people or having absolutely horrendous short-term memory.
Step 7: If there has been a change, document it and try to find the source. On more than one occasion, serendipity has stepped in to improve our meads. Being able to identify what “went wrong” is actually one of the ways our products continue to get better over the years.
That’s it! So simple, right?
While paying someone to do laboratory analysis is certainly an option, why would you ever turn down the opportunity to drink numerous beverages in the name of science?
We're calling a Snow Day tomorrow (March 15th, 2017) because there's a big storm on the way, and we don't want our beloved meadiacs or staff risking their necks for Nordic Pulled Pork.
If you're stuck at home, you might be wondering what you should do with all this free time. What else? Brew Mead!
It's been a while since we reminded you that mead is insanely simple to make at home. If you've got some honey in your pantry, running water, and yeast of any sort (yes, any sort) today would be a great day to make a mead.
If it's your first time, we recommended reading these articles:
Your First Batch of Mead
How We Brew Everything We Brew
All of Our Secrets
Our Recipe Page
An Argument for Homebrewing Big
And if you're worried that it's too cold to brew today, well, good news! We actually have an article called Too Cold to Brew? No Way!
So, stay safe, stay warm, and happy brewing!
In the last few weeks since we published all of our recipes online, we have gotten one question over and over again: Why are your fermentation temperatures so high?
This question has come in many forms:
Some people think it's a typo or that we can't convert from fahrenheit to centigrade.
Other people think that it's something magical about being a commercial brewer.
Still others (especially those who live in areas where they can't get our mead) assume that we're sacrificing quality for turn-around time.
The truth is that over the years we have been systematically increasing our fermentation temperatures because it has been making better and better mead. The science behind it is a little complicated, but we'd better start off with a simple question: What is an off flavor?
It seems simple, right? An off flavor is a flavor in your beverage that you don't want there.
Is a heavy phenolic component a good thing in a beer? Well, if it's the right type of phenol for the style, absolutely. Phenols are what give Hefeweizens their distinctive banana and clove characteristics.
Phenols are also responsible for band-aid-like and medicinal characteristics. These you do not want.
What about grassy aromas? Lemon? Douglas Fir? Moss? All appropriate for IPAs.
Caprylic (goat-like) smells? Yes, there are even a few saisons where these are appropriate.
Making Craft Mead means taking a step back and asking yourself without any preconceived notions: What am I trying to make here? The answer can be very simple and straightforward: I'm trying to brew a beverage that my friends enjoy drinking.
Early on, we followed the general rules for brewing: Low and Slow makes clean meads. We fermented at around 68°F, and we got a beverage that was, well, flavorless.
If you're brewing a hydromel (5% abv mead) with no adjuncts or other flavors and you're fermenting at the low-end of your yeast's tolerance, you are going to get something that a) takes forever to brew, b) tastes like slightly honey-flavored seltzer, and c) quite likely has a huge sulfur component.
Yes, you read that right. A slow fermentation may not be vigorous enough to purge the off-flavors from your mead. You can end up with residual hydrogen sulfide from a languid fermentation.
What about the off-flavors from fermenting so hot? First of all, 82°F is NOT that hot. It's only a tiny bit above the Lalvin recommended range. (We'll get to Psychopomp and Old Wayfarer in a minute.) Second, what do you mean by off flavors?
Many of the cool flavors from wildflower honey are similar to the aldehydes and phenols produced by D-47 and similar strains of yeast fermenting slightly above their traditional range. We specifically select our yeast strains in-house such that they will complement the honeys we use, not strip them of flavors or fight with them.
It should also be noted that many off-flavors are, in fact, secondary metabolites, which you can learn about in an article here, and they require certain compounds (primary constituents) to form which simply are not present in honey. Grain has lots and lots of different chemicals for yeast to play with, as does fruit, but honey is mostly sugar. This means that there are fewer potential off-flavors from hot fermentations. This leads us to Psychopomp and Old Wayfarer...
Since we're shooting for a robust, phenolic profile in both of these fine meads, we have to push the envelope when it comes to fermentation temperatures just to get secondary metabolites at all. Yes, we do get some "eggy" aromas during fermentation (we constantly apologize to our neighbors), but these are easily dealt with through CO2 purging and degassing. This is why the recipes specifically require this step before kegging or bottling.
Also, little known fact, these flavors and aromas age-out. This is what we do with Mannaz: a very long aging process (which is why it's not included in our craft mead recipes, although it is, technically, a craft mead).
Furthermore, unhealthy fermentations can happen anywhere on the thermometer. Pitching a sufficient amount of yeast and using adequate nutrient can be even more important than proper fermentation temperatures. You can learn about brewing when it's cold in one of our earliest articles.
Now, remember, we have the ability to temperature control our bataches. There is a possibility that if you try to ferment as high as we do without the ability to bring the temperature down, the metabolic activity of the yeast will keep pushing the temperature higher and higher and either kill itself or make the mead taste a little... gamey. This, however, is true of everything you've ever fermented, not just mead.
So, there you have it. Without getting too deep into the science (which is incompletely understood anyway), that is why we ferment at slightly higher temperatures than you might be used to. Stop freaking out and go try it for yourselves.You know the worst thing that can happen? You have five gallons of a mead that you have to wait a while to drink.
Starting next week, all of our recipes are going to be available in one place on our site so you can try your hand at making all of our meads at home.
No more bugging Ricky the Meadmaker to e-mail you his formulae!
That said, rather than having all of the steps for each batch of mead, we're going to focus on making sure you know the ingredients, the ratios, and a few specific pointers for each brew.
Generally speaking, all of our meads are brewed in a very similar fashion. So, we thought we'd give you our techniques all in one place before inundating you with recipes.
Big Disclaimer: These are our practices, we are not claiming that they are necessarily the best practices.
With that out of the way, here are all of our general principles in one place:
We know that's an awful lot, but we'll have reminders in each recipe. We hope this is helpful!
Head over here for our recipes!
Groennfell Meadery is Vermont’s premier craft meadery. Inspired by Old Norse legends, brewed with extraordinary ingredients, Groennfell’s meads are unlike anything you’ve had before. Crisp, clean, and astoundingly drinkable, the only way to explain any one of Groennfell’s meads is to try one yourself.