Sunday, July 14, 2013

Meads and meanings.........

Recently been trying to answer a few Q's over at Gotmead, Homebrewtalk, Winemakingtalk and even Jimsbeerkit - well the mead questions anyway.....

I've come to realise that there's a few problems, what with having no real standards, and even the language can be an issue.

I mean, what are the actual reasons that you make meads ? what're your motivations ?

Is it what I call the "airy fairy" shit ? That you like dressing up like some idiot extra from a historical drama ? Is it that there are not standards so you are pretty free to make what you want and how you want ? Is it the "sciencey" stuff and the route to making the "perfect" mead ? Or something else.

For example, mead makers from the US are far more likely to want to try making something with some relatively strange, almost "outlandish" ingredients. Well that's fine, it's their brews so obviously, their choice. Likewise, there also seems a greater number of the US based makers who want to use some sort of weird nomenclature for giving their brew a strange name (Thors bloody cauldron dregs ? or other foolish naming). Again, their brew etc etc......

Personally, I find it hard to understand my own motivations. While I understand that there shouldn't really be any set standards per se, maybe we should, as a mead making community, work out a "best practice" ?

After all, it's open to debate whether it was wines, beers, ciders or meads that were the first alcoholic drinks, but I do suspect it was more likely to be something that would ferment reasonably readily. Which would suggest wines and ciders, purely because honey doesn't ferment so readily as the juice of grape or apple does it. We have to water it down so that it has a sugars concentration that resembles fruit juice.......

I doubt it would be beers, because the process of making even the most basic of beer recipes is quite convoluted.......

Now equally, I don't "run" with the idea of giving too much credence to the mythical nonsense that some like to accredit to meads. I prefer to take the rather "bald" methods, techniques and ingredients, as it's easier to follow and get your head round what a certain ingredient might do.

For instance, the honey itself. The penchant for varietals that seems to emanate from the US, seems to have come from the reasonably modern "factory farming" methods preferred there, along with the more modern techniques used in apiary management and the very usage of the bees natural desire to collect the nectar for their hive while carrying out the incidental pollination of crops - especially crops that are grown in areas of relative mono-culture, which according to the quality of the land, local climate and crop type that best suits the first two requirements, a good example being Florida and oranges/orange blossom or a couple of different ones in California etc etc.

No one really knows how meads were originally made, the peoples famed for drinking meads didn't really record that in a way that we can follow. Sure there are some archaic documents that give us some idea, but a lot of those contain methods/technique that has been discredited as not being necessary.

Equally, modern business practices, mean that there has been a lot of blending of honey harvested from many locations, with a view to making it "consistent", so that it has the longest possible shelf life and stays in the form it's been processed into, to maximise the profit margins of the "producers" or sellers. With us ending up with a bland, characterless honey.

There seems to be little argument, that the "best quality" for a honey that is going to be fermented, is that it's raw and unprocessed, because that type will retain the greatest amount of "character", whether that be a certain flavour, colour or aroma. It doesn't even have to have been filtered to remove any hive or apiary debris, as that comes out during the making of the mead.

Then there's the yeast we use. Commonly, the yeast comes from the wine making world, though there's those who like to use a beer yeast for different reasons/justification. Fine, if it works then go with it. Hell, there's even the fabled JAO recipe, that uses bread yeast, which also works. The only yeast type I take issue with are so called "mead yeasts". Not because they don't work, generally they do, but because there is no way in hell that the companies that supply yeasts called that, can know exactly what kind of yeast were originally used to make mead. In fact, it's unlikely that there would have been a specific type, because the peoples weren't advanced enough to understand yeasts and yeast strains/isolations like we do now (and yes, that can also change i.e. we learn even more about yeasts......)

So I suggest that to label a couple of strains in such a way, is little more than marketing and the desire to sell more yeast.

Even if we only took the range of wine yeasts sold and focused solely on those, there's the difference of opinion as to what is best. An example of that, is that new mead makers often ask at a Home Brew Supplier, who in turn, don't really know much about mead making, but make many generalisations about mead and the making, and then just suggest a reasonably capable champagne type isolate.

The issue that I have with champagne yeasts, isn't that they're bad, they're not, but they do seem to have a habit of blowing a lot of the aromatics straight out of the airlock, along with some of the more volatile flavouring compounds. Champagne yeasts do, quite successfully, what they have been found capable of i.e. fermenting a reasonably bland white wine, dry. Then because they have the ability to ferment to a higher level of alcohol, than the grapes would be capable of producing, that they can then be used further, to make that wine into a sparkling wine. Hell it wasn't even the French who first discovered this ability, it was found here, but it was the legendary "Dom Perignon" who seems to have refined the process (or was it, as has often been found, that while the "West" claims to have invented something, only for it later to be found/proved, that it was first developed by the Chinese ?).

Either way, it does seem that the only reason for the high price of champagne, being market manipulation (certainly not any wonderful taste experience).

Personally, I prefer the yeasts that have been found to make good brews, by other mead makers. Like the late Brother Adam, of Buckfast Abbey and bee breeding (and mead making) fame.

Bro Adams writings on mead making are limited, when compared to his bee breeding works, yet there is enough information for us to benefit from his knowledge and experience.

Example ? Well, if you read some of the stuff available, he mentions using comb and capping "washings" to make his meads, likewise, he said about using "Maury" yeast to make his meads. He doesn't seem to have published much on his specific techniques other than that it was the washings and yeast, which were kept in barrels to ferment and age for something like 7 years or so. Whether that's entirely correct, I don't know. Were his meads just "show meads" ? or were other ingredients used ? The fabled "Maury" yeast ? Where did it really come from ?

As far as I can find out, the currently available "Maury" yeast is lalvins D21, but as that was isolated after Brother Adams death, there's no real way of knowing. When the Abbey replied to my query, they were very kind in pointing out that when Bro Adam could no longer obtain the Maury yeast he mentioned in his writings, he changed to using "Montpellier" strain yeast. So given that Buckfast is here in the UK, he most likely used the locally (UK) packaged version of the Montpellier strain, which would have been Gervins Varietal "E", which isn't now available from Gervin (part of the Muntons group now). Yet it is still available and it's available in home brew sized packs too.... it's the excellent Lalvin K1-V1116. Which IMO, is a far better yeast to recommend to the new mead maker than the champagne EC-1118 yeast.

I certainly find it makes a far better mead.......