Thursday, October 6, 2011

Mead and a story about urban foraging

Urban foraging seems like something only crazy people do.  Because of my interest in urban farming and sustainable gardening, I’ve read a number of books with titles like, “Lawn’s are for Satan”, or “Live on a chicken, some worms, and a Five Gallon Bucket” or “Apocalypse what now?”  Many of them have a chapter on urban foraging.  Most of them have a final chapter about how technology is going to collapse and the world will be taken over by immorality, human-machine hybrids, or maybe China.  We’ll all be forced to regress back to the lives of our primitive ancestors.   I glean all the interesting projects from these books and then sit back and smile at the rest. 
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term Urban Foraging, it’s a practice in which you wonder around your neighborhood or city and look for edibles that grow wild, are going to waste in vacant lots, or even pick fruit from a neglected tree in a neighbor’s yard.  Really, it’s not a bad idea, but I’ve heard terrible stories about the lines being blurred.  Being ballsy enough to walk into someone’s yard and ask for some tomatoes is one thing.  Just taking them because they’re growing within reach is another.  I know that isn’t the urban forager’s credo, but I’m just saying.  It happens.  

But, when my neighbor’s grapes started to grow what looked like it would be a bumper crop of amazing grapes, I started to wonder.  His garden is really quite incredible and by no means neglected.  (It was on the garden tour this year.)  I had no right to covet them.  Still, every time I drove through the ally I saw those grapes get plumper and the bees dance and buzz around them patting them with their little wings like they were gently coaxing the sweetness into them.   
 So when the time came to harvest them and I got an email from him saying, “Come pick whatever you want,”  I was delighted.  Urban foraging didn’t seem so crazy after all.    I grabbed my largest bowl, a galvanized bucket and a sharp knife.  I climbed up the retaining wall and started cutting.  I stopped to take a few pictures as I went.  When he drove up behind me on his bike and said, “Stop photographing and pick!”  I jumped.  My guilt over lusting after them all summer made it feel like I was doing something wrong.  Even with his unsolicited permission to harvest.  After my vessels tumbled over with grapes I hopped down and brought them home.  Now, what to do with them….

I’ve never been a big fan of Minnesota wines.  There.  I said it.  They just don’t stand up.  But, we do so many other things well.  Like mead. 
Brewing really isn’t difficult.  You just need to remember a few key rules.  Keep everything clean AND sterilized.   And, pay attention to the thermometer.  To get started with brewing mead, or beer and wine for that matter, you will need to take a trip to the brew shop.  Most major cities have one.  Or, you can order online.  I like to use . (Formerly Midwest Brewer)
You will need:
2 brewing vessels or fermenters- glass carboys are great, but 5 gal buckets with a spigot and a lid will do
An air lock
A carboy bung (if your using a carboy)
A very large pot
A good thermometer
A long stainless steal or plastic spoon- don’t use wood
Powdered Sterilizer- this can be purchased at the brew shop.  You can also use 1/4c bleach to 4 gal of water, but rinse well after sterilizing
A piece of 6 ft tubing
Bottles- I use Belgian style bottles with the flip tops, about 3 cases
 and a bottling wand
Midwest supply sells all sorts of starter kits.

I followed a recipe I took from (Aren’t the interwebs amazing?)  I adapted it some for what I had available.  It really is a pyment and not a true mead.  Pyments are meads fermented with grape or grape juice.  I used local honey I traded from a farmer, but you can get large quantities of honey from the co-op or the brew shop.
1 gal + 1 cup clover honey
5 gal bottles water- not tap (avoid any city water with chlorine)
12 lb grapes-I used white grapes
2 tsp yeast nutrient
Wyeast dry mead yeast
First thing, wash and rinse all your equipment well.  Then soak in the sterilizer for 30 min. (Or follow the directions on the package).  Keep some sterilizer handy for dipping spoons in between uses. 
Dissolve the honey in 2-3 gallons of water in a large pot.  Bring to a boil and skim any foam that rises.
Remove the grapes from the stem and wash.  Sort out the bad ones.  Only perfect grapes will do for your mead.  Crush them with your (clean) hands.  This can be done in an unsterilized bowl, but why risk it? Give the bowl a quick rinse in the sterilizer before you use it anyway.
When the honey-water mixture is hot, add yeast nutrient and grapes, and stir well.
Bring the temperature to 160 degrees F.  Hold at 160F for 30 min.
Remove from heat and let cool some.  Poor into the fermentor, grapes and all.   Top with the remaining water until the volume reaches 5 to 5 ½ gal.  Let cool to 80F.  (You can speed this process up some by adding a bag purchased ice to the pot before pouring it into the fermentor. )
Pitch in the yeast. (Follow the directions on the packet).  Top with the carboy bung and the airlock with a bit of water in it. 

Store in an out of the way place at about 60-70 degrees.  I use my kitchen floor or in an unused shower. Do not put it directly on a cement basement floor.  It will get too cold.   Wait 2 weeks.  

After a couple of days, the mixture will begin to ferment.  The airlock will bubble and release gasses.  My husband loves this part.  The gurgling sound coming from the kitchen always gives it a homey feel.

  After 2 weeks, you’ll need to rack off the mead into a second (sterilized) container for a secondary fermentation.  This will give the mead a clearer look and enrich the flavor some.
To rack off your mead:  Sterilize the tube and the second fermenter.   Move the full fermenter to a counter or higher position. Remove the carboy bung and the airlock.  Set the empty fermentor on the floor in front of it.  Put one end of the tube into the full fermenter.  Kneel down on the floor next to the empty formenter.  Suck on the end of the tube until the mead begins to flow.  Then, quickly put the tube into the empty fermentor.  Gravity will do the rest of the work.  Try not to suck up too many grapes.  At this stage you can taste a little of the mead as well.  Remember that the flavor will change as it sits.  I racked mine off today and it had a dry Riesling flavor.  When the second fermenter is mostly full, remove the tube and put the carboy bung and airlock on the fermentor.  Put the second fermenter back in its resting place and wait another 10 days.  Pitch what was left in the first fermentor.  
After 10 days it will be time for bottling.  More on that in a future blog.  (About 10 days from now.)

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