Mead Making Made Easy – Part I

We are pretty avid mead brewers here at Birchwood. We have been brewing mead in our own kitchen for almost 20 years, and have come to realize over that time that the process can be much simpler than most people think. I will let you in on a little secret.

Don’t tell anyone, but making mead is easy. So easy in fact, that just about anybody could do it. I mean really. If we can do it, anybody can.

We participate in several Mead groups on Facebook, and I never cease to be amazed at the gyrations that some folks go through to produce a simple bottle of mead. Electronic monitors, meters, and gadgets of all kinds seem to be popular with the kids today.

Bunk.

Mead making can be the simplest process in the world. It is made with simple recipes, and simple ingredients, and should NOT require a Phd. to accomplish. In fact the basic recipe for mead is so simple, I am going to lay it on you right now:

Water + Honey + Yeast = Mead

After that, there really are only two variable you need to worry about:

  1. The ratio of Honey to Water (more honey = sweeter, less honey = drier).
  2. What (or if) you add anything else to enhance the flavor of the finished mead.

At Birchwood we brew mead that we like to drink, so ours runs a bit sweet. We have settled on a ratio of “2 parts water, to 1 part honey” – but you can adjust that ratio to your own taste.

That is seriously just about it, except for a few things that get thrown in as well:

  1. We add a few organic vanilla beans to every batch, regardless of other flavors. (This adds a nice spicy finish to every batch)
  2. We add a few cut-up oranges (peel and all) again, regardless of other flavors. (This adds citric acid, aids with some chemistry and such, and enhances the flavor – but all you need to know is: add some oranges).

Beyond those basic guidelines, the only other factor to consider is what you want your finished mead to taste like, and what you therefore add for other flavorings. We are partial to fruit, and usually add some combinations of berries and such to our mead for

mead-types

flavor. This technically means that what we brew here at Birchwood is a “Melomel”.

Now that I have described the basic ingredients, here is a nice simple graphic that describes the different kinds of Mead. There are more, sort of nit-picky sub-species of mead (like a mead made with rose petals is called a Rhodomel, and a mead made with traditional malted grains (like barley) is called a Braggot). But these are all things you can learn about if you really want to get scientific about it. Simple is always better.

To start with, just remember the basics: Water + Honey (+ Fruit) + Yeast = MEAD.

Equipment you will need to get started:

Again, we like to keep things very simple. You will need:

  • One brewing bucket (any size, but it 5 gallons is most common, and it MUST be “Food Grade” plastic, with a lid that seals tightly.
    • We recommend just going to your local brewing store, and buying one. Yes, you can make your own out of any 5-gallon, Food Grade plastic bucket, but the pre-made ones already have the hole drilled in the top with a little rubber gasket to accept your bubbler, and they also usually have a large rubber gasket around where the lid seals to ensure a tight fit. Do yourself a favor, and just buy one.
  • One glass Carboy. Again, any size, but it needs to hold the liquid that will come out of your bucket, so… 5-gallons is good.
    • You also need one (1) rubber stopper for the carboy (with a hole in it for the bubbler to go in).
  • You also need one (1) “Bubbler”
    • There are a couple of different types of Bubblers, and it is up to you which kind you buy. They all work the same, and do the same job. Personal preference here.
    • The last thing you will need is wine bottles to pour your mead into, and corks to seal the bottles. The corks you will buy from your local brewing store (usually by the 50 count). For the bottles, you have two choices:
      • You can recycle used wine bottles. This involves soaking them, and then scrubbing them etc. to remove the original labels. When you are done you will have a bunch of bottles (some whose labels would not come all the way off, no matter how much you scrubbed) that are all different colors and slightly different sizes.
      • OR, you can buy a brand new box of clear wine bottles from your local brewing store. A case should only run you around $20, and you are there anyway to pick up your bubbler and your corks, so DO YOURSELF A FAVOR.
The golden color of our latest batch. It tastes even better than it looks!
The golden color of our latest batch. It tastes even better than it looks!

And that’s it. You now have all the equipment you will need to make your first batch of mead. Now comes the fun part.

Once you have rinsed out your new brewing bucket, you are ready to combine and add your ingredients.

Here is a crucial bit of wisdom you should pay attention to: You do not have to heat your mead! Well, at least not much. The ONLY reason to heat the liquid up at all before you pour it into your brewing bucket is to 1) ensure the honey dissolves completely into the water, and 2) warm the liquid up enough so that the yeast will be happy and procreate.

Most meaders WAY overheat their mead before adding it to the brewing bucket. You only need to warm it slightly, and should still be able to put your hand into the liquid without it feeling “too hot”. Put your water, your honey, some cut-up oranges, a few cinnamon sticks and your fruit-of-choice into a large pot, and place it over a VERY LOW heat. When all the honey is melted into the water, turn off the heat. You are almost done.

One important step gets completed before you pour your mead into your brewing bucket and add the yeast. You must first PROOF the yeast. This just means you want to make sure that the yeast is going to like your mead (that it is not too hot, for example) and will go forth and procreate merrily. You do this by taking a small amount of the liquid out of your pot (important to make sure you have not heated it too hot), and pour that liquid into a small bowl. Add your entire packet of yeast, and cover with plastic wrap. Now go away for 20-30 minutes.

When you come back, the liquid under the plastic wrap should be covered with a foamy, yeasty layer that smells vaguely of bread. If this has happened, your yeast is happy and you are good to go. DO NOT PROCEED UNTIL THIS HAS OCCURRED. If your yeast does not proof, go back and try again with another packet of yeast.

2015-08-23 18.02.00

Now just pour that mixture of water, honey and fruit into your brewing bucket. Add a few Black Tea bags (for some Tannic Acid chemistry I forgot to mention earlier), and add a few Green Tea bags (because they contribute some anti-oxidants to your mead, as well as tannic acid), then dump in your bowl of mead-and-yeast-foam, and you are good to go.

Seal the bucket firmly, put some water in your bubbler and insert it into the hole in the top. Now step away and do not touch it for at LEAST three months. Six months is even better. You will know your mead is brewing merrily along by the speed with which bubbles escape from your bubbler. As fast as once every second in the beginning, but tapering off after about a week to stopping all together after a few weeks. Do not worry, this is normal.

In Part II of this Mead Making Made Easy series, I will talk about how long to leave your mead in the brewing bucket (WAY longer than you think!) and we will discuss transferring from your bucket to your carboy, and then later racking and labeling your bottles. Stay tuned!

Going Solar – Lessons Learned, Part II: It’s a Generation thing

This is one of those things that we did not consider when we began our solar project. I mean, we figured some day we would invest in a decent generator – you know, when we ready to be truly severed from the Grid of course. But for now – as we began our solar project – that was a cost we had planned to defer until later.

Briefly, you can either have solar panels that feed their power to the utility grid, or you can have solar panels that feed their power through a converter to a battery bank, allowing you to draw your power from there and be severed completely from the grid.2018-07-06 11.06.09

We had examined the battery market, deciding what type (lead-acid, or lithium-ion) battery we wanted here at Birchwood, and in the end had decided that the battery market was completely whacked, and needed time to settle-out into a more reasonable price range. As a result, we intended to feed our solar power to the utility grid, using the grid itself as our “backup power source” for when the sun was not available.

Then one day, our first solar contractor (who we fired – read about that here), mentions to me in a casual, passing way, that whenever the grid goes down, our solar array will detect that fact, and automatically shut itself down.

What the actual fuck??

“No no no”, I said confidently. “When the grid is down, I want a big switch I can throw that diverts my solar array power directly to my house”.

Sounds simple, right?

Well it turns out, that is not so simple. In fact, it violates code. The utilities have rigged it so that if you are feeding solar power into their grid, and that grid goes down for any reason, your solar array has to have an automatic cut-off to shut itself down until the grid comes back online. They claim this is so that you are not feeding power into the grid during a disaster-recover scenario. I think it is to make it as inconvenient as possible for those customers moving towards solar power as an alternative. Lesson learned, fuckers.

Having quickly realized that we would not be able to draw power from our own array if the utility grid was down, we decided that if one of our stated goals was to not have to rely on the utility grid for power, (but to be self sufficient from it), we were going to have to buy a generator. And a little one just would not do.

One thing that made us different from most folks who invest in a generator, is that we wanted one that would simply run everything. Not a subset of our appliances, or a portion of our home. Every. Damn. Thing. I will talk more about that in another post. Suffice it to say that this meant we needed a generator that could produce enough power to run our entire house.2018-07-06 11.08.14

This was apparently a concept that was foreign to well, just about anybody we discussed it with. It seems most folks just settle for running a subset of their lives when the grid goes down. Not good enough for us.

And so, we started shopping. I am not going to go through a blow-by-blow of every feature comparison and price-point we examined as part of this project. Do your own damn research. But I will tell you in the end we settled on a Briggs & Stratton ‘Whole House’ stand-by generator – the kind that turns itself on automatically whenever the grid goes down. This was a necessary feature for us, as we travel sometimes for weeks at a time in the winter, and need to ensure that the house has power no matter what is going on with the grid.

Ordering the generator and having it delivered (it is the size of a standard chest freezer) was not the hard part. The real struggle was having our local electrician install it and connect it to our house. This turned out to be yet another struggle that we had not anticipated, and ended up taking most of the entire summer of 2018 to get accomplished.  More about that struggle in a future post.

One pleasant surprise came about from this process. Our new generator runs on standard LP gas. We already had a single 30-gallon tank attached to the house to run the gas stove in the kitchen. We had to call the propane company to coordinate them showing up to make the connection from that tank to the new generator.

However, when they heard that we were installing this big fancy generator, they did not 2018-07-06 11.08.01want to connect it to our existing 30-gallon tank. Instead, they wanted to come out and install TWO 60-gallon tanks instead. Enough LP gas to run our generator 24/7 for a month. At their expense.

Yes, please.

So without even knowing this part was going to happen, we ended up with enough fuel onsite to run our whole-house generator around-the-clock for a month. Bring it on winter ice storms!

The lesson learned here? Don’t let anybody tell you what you need or want for your own home. Just because ‘everyone else does it this way’ does not mean you have to follow the same path. Homesteading is what YOU want it to be. What it looks like to YOU is all that matters. At Birchwood, when the Grid goes down, we wait for 30 seconds, and the generator kicks on. Life goes on as if nothing had happened. The way life should be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going Solar – Lessons Learned, Part I

Last summer in 2018, we realized a dream that we had for years and converted the homestead to solar power. To say it that way over-simplifies what was in fact a journey that took us almost eight months to complete. While the process has at times been painful, we have learned a lot from the experience.

I am going to try and go through the process, (and what we learned from it) in the hopes that others might learn from the many, many mistakes that we made.

Lesson Learned #1: Selecting The Right Company

The first and biggest challenge we faced was selecting a local solar energy company that 2018-05-17 17.28.17could handle all the work of installing the solar array, installing and wiring all the equipment both inside and outside the house, including batteries and everything we would need to sever our tie to the Grid (capital “G” to denote an evil connotation).

In our case, we went blindly forward with a “how hard can it be?” mentality as we invited three of our local solar companies to come to Birchwood and work up proposals for us. Two of the companies that responded had very scientific approaches to sizing, capacity, and load – and went through voluminous calculations before proposing their respective systems. Remember that bit, I will get back to it in a moment.

2018-08-17 13.08.39The third company that bid on our job had a different approach. SunDog solar. Rather than showing up with the fancy calculator and proceeding to do math for us, showed up in the form of a kindly old gentleman in a plaid shirt. When he gets out of the car, he let’s out not one, but two golden retriever dogs he has brought with him.¬†This was our downfall. The dogs made themselves at home, and did what they were there to do. Win our hearts.

After some negotiation about the scope of the project we signed contracts with SunDog Solar (no link, because they do not deserve it).

And we were on our way. It did not take long however for us to realize we had made a terrible mistake. From scheduling, and the challenges we faced just to get them to arrive, to the disastrous day when they showed up to actually position the posts for the array.

Nothing seemed to go right. Finally, after more than 6 months of trying to get the job 2018-06-03 14.50.27done, we were left with just the solar array set up outside, but no equipment installed inside the house, no connections made, and no solar energy being generated.

After the multiple delays and frustrations we had had enough. We finally decided we weren’t giving SunDog Solar another penny. We called the 2nd choice bidder in our area that had come to the house originally.

Revision Energy to the rescue! (link proudly included). Like night and day. They came quickly, they came when they said they would be there, they finished our project for roughly half the money that SunDog Solar had wanted to finish the project. We could not be happier with Revision Energy. And they didn’t even pay me to say that.

2018-11-15 11.28.55In a matter of just a few weeks, they not only installed all the necessary equipment inside the house and out, but despite having to correct several shortcomings from the SunDog installation, (including the conduit that SunDog had installed between the array and the house, which was not even up to code), Revision still came in much cheaper.

And the quality of their work is exceptional. We could not recommend them highly enough. Only because of Revision Energy do we have a functional solar array producing enough power to run our entire household.

And so the moral of the story is, do not be seduced by a comforting manner, and a golden retriever. Harnessing solar energy and converting solar energy to electric power is no trivial exercise. It requires an understanding of not only the needs of the customer, but also the equipment and technologies that are used. They also need to have an ability to deliver what the customer wants. Be clear about what your expectations are. Make sure your contractor understands what you are expecting to have when the project is completed, and make sure they can deliver that. At the end of the day this one piece can be be the most critical component of your entire project.

So be very cautious. Listen to what these companies are promising you, and then do your 2018-05-17-17.28.46own math to make sure it all adds up. The more details they are asking of you up front, the more accurately they can size your system. Mostly, do your homework. Learn everything you can about the technology that is going to be at play in your home, and then hire a company that are experts in that technology.

In Lesson Learned #2, we’ll talk about finding the right electrical contractor. Not as easy as you might think!

~JTS

And Away We Go!

Welcome to our brand-spanking new website. Pardon the “new blog” smell. that should wear off in no time. This page is the evolution of an effort that began almost 20 years ago to bring photos and news of our children to doting relatives around the country.

Back in the day, I used to maintain our website manually – creating and updating web pages with photos, stories, and other tid-bits for the family.

Now it’s twenty years later, the kids are all grown and moved out, and Ginger and I are left here at Birchwood to do… well, anything we want to. I mean, there are no more grown-ups here after all…

And so we have decided to re-vitalize and update our website aspirations, and turn this into more of a blog that we can both contribute to. And Birchwood Homestead was born!

We will be posting various things about gardening, solar power, making mead, and bunches of other fun activities we engage in here at Birchwood.

Thanks very much for joining us. We are glad you have come along for the ride. Remember to click the “Follow” button over there on the right so you get all the updates from this page. ~ JTS

 

 

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