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View Full Version : Natural Meadmaking, towards a definition



Dan McFeeley
01-16-2004, 12:58 PM
There's been some good conversation on this forum on the "natural" approach to meadmaking, avoiding the use of additives or other methods such as boiling or heating the honey must. This is more or less what has been categorized in mead competitions as a "show mead," a mead made with honey, water and yeast alone.

I'd like to add a little more to this, and outline the natural approach to meadmaking in this way. Natural meadmaking is making use of the biochemical properties of honey to aid the fermentation as much as possible, avoiding the stricter controls of technological approaches whenever possible, in order to best bring out the delicate flavor nuances and character of the honey. It's also recognizing the distinct properties of honey flavor, charactor and aroma, their causes and how they can be harmed, in order to better optimize specific choices in meadmaking techniques.

This is more or less similar to what has sometimes been called the noninterventionist approach in winemaking. Here, the winemaker feels that the best thing to do is to stand aside and let the fermentation take its own course. The advances of technology are not set aside, however, technology is not considered the sole means to the end.

This was a great part of the dramatic change in U.S.A. winemaking that pushed U.S. wines to world class status. Prior to the 1970's, U.S. wines were big and bold in flavor, but one dimensional in overall flavor profile. There was nothing subtle about these wines -- about as loud and dramatic as the tailfins on a 1950's Chevy. Criticism of these wines, especially when it was pointed out that they were not food wines, i.e., something meant to be paired with food in order to enhance the meal, woke up U.S. winemakers. At that point reliance on technology was scaled down, vitaculture was improved, and the basic flavor components of the grape were given greater attention. The result? U.S. wines improved to the point where they achieved world class status.

There's much more I can say here, but I don't want to make this post too long. Essentially, when we talk about using different varietal honeys in order to boost nutrient and anti-oxident levels while achieving a better flavor profile and acid/sweetness balance, we are relying on the natural properties of honey to make a good mead. Taking stock of the natural antiseptic properties of honey changes the range of options for proper sanitation methods in meadmaking.

JamesP
01-18-2004, 06:20 AM
Dan,

for clarification:

If I understood correctly, the addition of "natural" yeast nutrient like exploded yeast hulls is not included in the "natural mead-making" method, rather you use honey types that have sufficient yeast nutrient to support the fermentation (even if it means the fermentation is slower than otherwise possible - mind you this should produce less off-flavours ::))

Cheers,
James

Dan McFeeley
01-18-2004, 04:25 PM
Dan,

for clarification:

If I understood correctly, the addition of "natural" yeast nutrient like exploded yeast hulls is not included in the "natural mead-making" method, rather you use honey types that have sufficient yeast nutrient to support the fermentation (even if it means the fermentation is slower than otherwise possible - mind you this should produce less off-flavours ::))

Cheers,
James


Strictly speaking, I'd say yes but maybe it's not necessary to be that strict. Chuck is one of the strongest advocates of the all natural method, although he will use tannin as an additive to help clear the mead. I've been using yeast hulls on a regular basis and will probably continue to do so. Here's a brief description from the Lallemand web site:

---------------[snip!]--------------------------------------
Inactive Yeast Hulls
Yeast hulls are a dried preparation of the insoluble fraction of whole yeast cells (i.e. cell wall membrane). Yeast hulls added to the must supply survival factors such as sterols and unsaturated fatty acids, increase the surface area of over-clarified juice and adsorb toxic compounds.

ThistyViking
01-18-2004, 09:17 PM
I may have to look at yeast hulls more seriously, I haven't used them to date, but i'm still kinda new to all this.

Toxic compounds? hmmm

JoeM
01-19-2004, 08:37 AM
I always laugh when people talk about toxic compounds....every so often i run across someone who when i offer them a homemade mead or beer they FREAK out and tell me that they cant (or simply wont) drink it because the methanol in it is going to kill them. One time i offered a friend of a friend a homebrewed stout (which happens to be my specialty) and they proceeded to tell me that you "cannot" make beer in your kitchen and that anyone who does is "asking to go blind"....no problem, more mead for me!

ThistyViking
01-19-2004, 11:28 AM
hehe i wasn't considering it because of supposed toxic compounds.

Natural meadmaking is a very nebulous title.

I don't consider my melomels made along similar lines to be unnatural. After all Fruit juice occurs in nature, even though i freeze and crush my fruit... i don't find that to be outside the boundries of natural meadmaking....

Bentonite... a clay used to clarify for centuries.... where does that fall? Clay isn't exactly manmade, though i guess it could be.

Clarifying with eggwhites? I haven't done it mind you, but i've read about it. Even several things like isinglass is from a fish, or fish bladder if IIRC.

The issue seems to get clearer when you look at clearly manmade shortcuts like DAP, FERMAX, FERMAID.

But is cloudy when you get back to something like yeast hulls. Could i produce Yeast hulls from my lees with simple methods? Are yeast hulls any more unnatural than a 5gram packet of cultured dormant yeast?

Dan McFeeley
01-22-2004, 12:03 PM
I think the idea of natural meadmaking can get cloudy if you focus too closely on the specifics. That's why I was careful to include the words "whenever possible" in outlining an approach. And that's really all it is, an approach to meadmaking and not something that is meant to strictly define a style.

To maybe simplfy even more -- given a choice between making a choice between using the natural biochemical properties of honey to aid the fermentation, and using more strict technological methods, a natural approach would be to let the honey do its work and interfere as little as possible with the fermentation. The words "as little as possible" do not rule out outside controls altogether, it simply means reducing them when possible, so long as eliminating them does no harm to the finished mead.

Dan McFeeley
01-23-2004, 12:30 AM
A little more on this . . .

"Show mead" is a category in mead competitions that simply means a mead made with water, yeast, and honey alone. Nothing else. What I'm trying to reach toward in outlining a defintion of "natural" meadmaking is going past that to something close to oenology in winemaking. When I say that natural meadmaking is making use of the natural biochemical properties of honey rather than technological controls in helping and enhancing the fermentation, I'm trying to draw attention to a focus on honey, how it is different from the wine grape in yeast fermentation in many ways. The category "show mead" barely touches on this.

Hope this makes sense! :)

ThistyViking
01-23-2004, 10:39 PM
My speculations were primarily for JamesP.

In general given the choice between technology and a nearly equally lowwer technology alternative, i like to chose the lower tech. This means fruits and buckwheat honey instead of Fermax at the original recipe. That doesn't mean i might not decide to goose a recipe with some fermax down the line if I think it is going slow... I did that tonight, but i did it minimally. using about 1/6th the ammount recomended on the bottle.

ThistyViking
01-25-2004, 10:12 AM
After a little followup with LHBS personell and some web research the "Toxic compounds" absorbed by yeast hulls are compounds toxic to yeast that can build up when yeast is stressed by low nutirents and contribute to stuck fermentation. Absorbing these can aid in restarting the fermentation.

Live and learn.

JamesP
01-26-2004, 04:59 AM
'Tis good to get your thoughts outlined further on this, Dan.

I must admit, I was thinking along the lines of ThirstyViking in terms of "ingredients" - trying to stick to "natural" ingredients, so you have expanded my view.

Also, the use of different honeys to provide the nutrients for yeast was a new one for me (thanks to Chuck, et. al.)


This may be a little off-topic,
but the statement
something close to oenology in winemaking got me wondering if anyone has tried to "formalise" a honey tasting description, sort of like the UC Davis (?) wine tasting wheel.
I visit the "Super Bee", which is a tourist attraction that promotes Bee keeping/honey/products, and provides free sampling of up to about 20 different honeys (Australian).
It is beyond me to be able to describe the falvours of the honey, but it is just as difficult (or more difficult) for me to then describe the resultant flavour in a mead.

Does anyone know of any "tools" for self-improvement in this area?

Cheers,
James

Dan McFeeley
01-28-2004, 01:38 AM
This may be a little off-topic,
but the statement
got me wondering if anyone has tried to "formalise" a honey tasting description, sort of like the UC Davis (?) wine tasting wheel.
I visit the "Super Bee", which is a tourist attraction that promotes Bee keeping/honey/products, and provides free sampling of up to about 20 different honeys (Australian).
It is beyond me to be able to describe the falvours of the honey, but it is just as difficult (or more difficult) for me to then describe the resultant flavour in a mead.

Does anyone know of any "tools" for self-improvement in this area?

That's a good question -- off the bat I'd say no, at least, not in a formalized sense. I'll ask around and see if I can dig up anything.

Pewter_of_Deodar
09-28-2004, 09:07 PM
As I get ready to start my first batch this week, I believe I am going to start out as a Natural Mead Nazi. No flame wars... just what my initial tendancies will be at the start...

I think my definition of "Natural Mead" may vary from some that have been expressed here so I should likely define my perspective.

Pewter's Natural Meadmaking Definition -

Simple version - EVERYTHING (ingredient/component-wise) going into your mead needs to be something that occurs naturally.

Expanded version -

1. Tools/technology are not a condition of natural meadmaking.
It does not matter if you stir your must with a stick, a wooden spoon, a plastic spoon, or something more exotic powered by your electric drill. Stirring is stirring...

2. Containers are not a condition of natural meadmaking.
It does not matter if you work with stainless steel, plastic, glass, or wooden barrels. It also does not matter if you age in bulk or in bottles. Fermenting is fermenting... Aging is aging... storing is storing...

3. Temperature is not a condition of natural meadmaking.
It does not matter if you if you control the temperature of your must or the environment in which it starts, ferments, ages, or is stored.

4. Chemical additives/ingredients ARE a condition of natural meadmaking.
If you are adding a chemical to your must that does not occur naturally, it is no longer natural.

5. Additives/ingredients that are concentrated beyond what can occur naturally ARE a condition of natural meadmaking.
Examples would be flavor concentrates, powdered starters, nutrients, acids, tannins, preservatives, etc. Likewise, blowing pure O2 into the mixture would not be considered natural. A natural approach would use things like raisins, grape skins, oak chips, and so on to achieve the same result.

I have to chuckle... I started out thinking that this would be simple and the simple definition above was pretty easy to arrive at. However, each area I expound upon has a hundred different nuances...

Finally, I have no intentions of pushing anything onto anybody as far as this discussion. My primary belief is that EVERYTHING added to mead, especially in terms of chemicals, affects the taste and quality of the mead.

For now, I am going to choose to believe that the overall impact of chemical additives is negative and therefore lean heavily away from those additives until someone (or something like a spoiled batch or three) proves to me that the particular chemical is absolutely necessary. Most everything I have read (here and elsewhere) points to the fact that a lot of chemicals are added for convienience(sp?) sake. A teaspoon of starter is easier to deal with than a handful or raisins or some other suitable substitute. Adding preservatives and fining agents is easier than fermenting to completion and allowing alcohol and time to clear out the active yeast and prevent infection.

I suppose time will tell... and I welcome discussion and covet your opinions...

JamesP
09-29-2004, 04:26 AM
One aim of the "natural" approach is to get as much "original goodness" into the end product.

A complicating factor is patience and time. "Purely natural" tends to take longer but produce a better result (but it is also good to see the "natural" additives being found, that can assist in speeding things up).

For me, finding my own happy balance of short-cuts (natural & non-natural) that get a suitable result is part of the fun. I like experimenting. But the more "natural" the better.

If you took the "natural" approach to extremes, you would try and ferment with wild yeast - "those cultured yeasts just aren't natural" ;)

beeboy
09-29-2004, 06:49 AM
I am new to this forum and am just getting interested in the different aspects of mead brewing. I just noticed that no one seems to use pollen as an additive in thier mead. If I was planning to brew a natural mead then pollen would seem to be a good source of nutrients and flavor. Just a thought for everybody.

Jmattioli
09-29-2004, 09:03 AM
I am new to this forum and am just getting interested in the different aspects of mead brewing. I just noticed that no one seems to use pollen as an additive in thier mead. If I was planning to brew a natural mead then pollen would seem to be a good source of nutrients and flavor. Just a thought for everybody.
Hello Beeboy,
On the contrary, some do use pollen but many of the old posts are no longer here. Seemed to me the ones that did used quite a bit to provide the required nutrients they were looking for. A lot of posts were wiped out by hackers in the past. Also many of us use unprocessed honey which has not only pollen but extra protein (bee parts in it). :D There is a few informational studies on the internet concerning bee pollen for nutrients, though I am not aware of the flavor it adds. Maybe you can provide some data?
Joe

Talon
09-29-2004, 06:24 PM
To expand on Joe's post, I'm also thinking of using bee pollen as a yeast nutrient in a single 3 gallon batch. I've found through research that it would take approximately a table spoon of pollen per gallon for this to work effectively as a nutrient. I've even heard of people using propolis as an addative but am leery of this as it's pretty much a natural glue.

My recommendation to you is to find a bee keeper who will sell you pollen from the same hive you get their honey from. That should enhance the floral aromatics of the honey you're using.

Talon.

ScottS
09-29-2004, 06:50 PM
I doubt you are going to get much aromatics out of the pollen. But if you try it, I'm curious to hear the results. :)

I highly recommend against using propilis. Dang stuff is harder to remove from your hands than... well, anything I can think of. I can only imagine trying to remove this stuff from the interior of a carboy. :o I also noticed that it absorbs smoke from the smoker extremely well, so if you use it in any quantity I suspect you'll get smoky flavored mead.

MagickMead
09-30-2004, 04:19 AM
I often use pollen as a yeast nutrient, I use one tsp. to the gallon. I haven't noticed much if any flavor or aroma from the pollen.
As for natural mead making I don't use nutrient or finnings from the brew shop and try to go mostly natural but I do use sulfite and stabilize sweet meads with sorbate. Wine makers have been using sulfite for hundreds of years so maybe that makes it almoste natural. :)

beeboy
09-30-2004, 05:53 AM
Thanks for all the replies, as a hobby beekeeper I've read that pollen doesn't have much protein and was just wondering what, if any use it has with mead brewing. As to using propolis as an additive, well the stuff is used by the bees to make the hive water tight. I've even found some propolis in one of my hives that looked and smelled like chewing gum. The spearment smell was very noticable over the smoke from the smoker, don't think that it would help a mead at all. I wonder if it would be consitered a natural ingredient? It would be like feeding the hive sugar water and calling the extracted sugar syrup honey. Happy Brewing, Beeboy