hist-brewing: spontaneous ferment mead

Chuck meadmakr at enteract.com
Mon Jan 15 10:38:08 PST 2001

Well, I'm not a member of the SCA, but I have been making mead
for a few years. For the last two or three I've decided that
I don't want to put anything in my meads except honey,
water, and yeast. plus, of course fruit or spices, depending
on what I'm making. IOW, I do not use any yeast
nutrients/energizers. I do occasionally use natural enzymes 
like pectic enzymes with apple juice to achieve clarity. I
also do not heat my honey musts. I buy my honey only from 
beekeepers/companies who minimially handle their honey so 
that the natural enzymes and other goodies remain intact. 
Through all this I have never had an infected mead, or one 
of those "mead takes two years before it tastes good" 
fermentations. Most of my meads are finished fermenting 
in three weeks, and are bottled and ready to drink soon 
after that. And they've won the occasional ribbon or two.

But, historically speaking, I have wondered just how did
they do it back there in the mists of time? Where did they
get their yeast?  Did their mead spontaneously ferment, like
a lambic? so I did a couple of experiments.

First, I have read all the 'net tales of "you've gotta heat,
or boil your honey must and skim off the scum that rises to
the top." Baloney! That "scum" that is being skimmed off 
is also the nutrients needed for an active and healthy 
fermentation.  Why do they say it is necessary to heat the 
honey must? The answer is always, "to kill the wild yeasts 
and bacteria that are in the honey." 

So, I made up a OG 1.100 must, my usual original gravity, and
then I oxygenated the hell out of it. When I used to brew,
my oxygen bottle was my best friend because it enabled me to
easily grow huge starters and have rapid, infection-free
fermentations. I figured that by oxygenating the must, all 
those wild yeasts that everyone is so worried about would 
take hold, grow like crazy, and ferment out my mead.

After a week, all I had growing was mold and/or bacteria.
There was no airlock activity whatsoever. Down the drain went
that experiment. So, back to the drawing board.

Summer had come and gone, it was Fall, and the local cider mill
was cranking out the juice and I was cranking out the cider and
cyser. I ferment cider on the yeast in the juice following
Andrew Lea's excellent instructions, so I wondered, how to get
the yeast, without using the juice?

I took 8 pounds of dry pressed apple pommace from the cider
mill. To it, in a 7.5 gallon poly fermenter, I added about 12
pounds of a blend of honeys, and about 5 1/2 gallons of hard
water. I stirred it up, sealed it, and checked on it daily.

On the fourth day there was evidence of very active
fermentation. After a week I racked out from under the
pommace to a carboy and then squeezed the pommace in a nylon 
mesh bag. It fermented just like a normal mead fermentation. 
I had not added any pectic enzyme, so it was pretty cloudy. 
Eventially I had to sparkolloid it to get it to clear.

If memory serves me correctly, it finished about 1.015, and
I'd guess that the OG was probably 1.1100. How did it taste?
Even though there was no apple juice, it initially tasted like
a cyser, but with an acetic tang. It's not strong in vinegar,
but there is enough of the taste to be distracting. After
aging a year or so, the apple flavor declined.

I took the yeast dregs from the secondary and repitched in a
new show mead. That one did not exhibit any cloudiness or
apple flavor, but still had a little of the vinegar flavor
when it was young. That one finished at 1.005. Now about a
year and a half later, it tastes almost exactly like dry white
vermouth. Go figure.

BTW, I named the first mead, Take A Chance.

Chuck Wettergreen
meadmakr at enteract.com
Geneva, IL

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