Making Elderberry Mead (Honey Wine)
Elderberries are highly nutritious when cooked and provide vitamin C and flavonoids. They may help fight influenza and even some types of cancers. Do not use berries from the dwarf elderberry as these are toxic. Elder branches, leaves, unripened berries, and stems, as well as the ripened elderberries, have cyanide-inducing glycoside. These can actually cause a toxic build up of arsenic. Cooking the elderberries makes them safe.
Eating a few raw berries is unlikely to make you ill, but people do occasionally get sick from raw elderberries. Cook your elderberries and you will never have a problem, and you will get the benefits of this delicious fruit.
Mead or honey-wine has an ancient history that dates back to at least 7000 BCE. Over the centuries, mead has been the drink of kings, warriors, and commoners. It has come back into favor with home brewers and craft meaderies. You can make your own mead quite easily. It only takes water, honey, and yeast.
Mead makers create different flavors of mead from a spiced mead (metheglin) to a mead with fruit (melomel), to mead made with apples (cyser) or grapes (pyment). One mead that gives an old fashion flavor is a type of mead made with elderberries. For this mead, I picked ripe elderberries from a local tree.
Preparing the Elderberries
You'll be using five or six cups of fresh elderberries, so be sure to get as much of the stems, leaves, branches, and other debris away from the elderberries. Wash them well and put them in a pot to cook with enough water to cover them. They turn reddish purple when cooked. Use a spoon or potato masher to squeeze the juice from the berries. Cook the elderberries until they're at least 165°F (the higher the better) for 10 minutes and continue to mash the berries.
Getting Everything Prepared to Make Mead
Now that you have your elderberries, I need to talk about the general steps to making mead. You'll need some basic equipment for fermenting your brew, so if you've never made wine or mead, it will probably cost some money. Luckily, the cost of brewing isn't that expensive and the equipment is reusable. You will need the following items:
- Primary fermenter: This is usually a food-grade bucket with a lid that has an airlock on it. The lid should be able to fit snugly. You can purchase one from brewing shops, or you can make your own. To make your own, scrub out a 5 gallon food-grade bucket and drill a hole in the center for a rubber gasket that will snugly fit an airlock. I was able to pick up a food-grade 5 gallon bucket from a bakery for free. The rubber gasket and airlock cost about $2 total. So, for $2 I have a primary fermenter. (Actually, I have two—I made two.)
- Secondary fermenter: This is a one, three, or five-gallon jug or carboy, preferably made of glass. If you can't find one gallon jugs, you can often go to the local wine or liquor store and pick up one gallon glass jugs of cheap wine for about the price of the jugs. There are cheaper plastic carboys out there, but plastic tends to scratch and hold bacteria, so going with a glass container is infinitely better than plastic. Technically you can use a secondary fermenter as the primary as well, if you have enough carboys or jugs, but they can get a bit difficult with the fruit and other larger items that go into the must. That's why most people use buckets as their primary fermenters. You'll need a rubber stopper with a hole in the middle (called a bung), and an airlock.
- Racking equipment: This must be a 5-foot or more food-grade tubing that can be used as a siphon to get the mead away from the stuff at the bottom.
- Food thermometer: To check the temperature of the must before you pitch the yeast.
- Sterilizing Solution:You'll need to clean everything with a sterilizing solution to avoid bacteria from getting in your mead.
- Quart or half-gallon jug: You'll need this to start your yeast.
- Stainless steel spoon: For stirring.
- Large stainless pot: For cooking/mixing ingredients.
- Yeast: I use D47 yeast. You may use a variety of different wine yeasts to try.
- Campden tablets: This is for killing off wild yeasts and other nasties when you add more ingredients.
- Yeast nutrient: This is to feed the yeast and get it started.
- Yeast energizer: Gets the yeast growing faster and will also help get a stuck fermentation unstuck.
- Corker: This is a tool to put the corks in the wine bottles. Spending the extra money is worth it. Getting a decent corker will save your arms.
- Corks: New corks only.
- Wine bottles: New or used, just make sure to clean them out and sterilize them.
- Bottle brushes: These tools will help clean out the bottles.
All of the listed equipment and ingredients can be purchased from winemaking shops locally or on the web. Some of the equipment you may already have on hand, or can make or buy. Alternatively, you can purchase a wine making kit that will have most of what you need to make wine. Buying a winemaking kit saves you having to second guess what you need, which is why I think in the end, it's a great deal.
Sterilizing Your Equipment
Before you start, you'll need to thoroughly sterilize and rinse your equipment. This helps prevent bacteria and wild yeasts from growing in your batch of mead. You can make a sterilizing solution with bleach and water of one part bleach to 11 parts water. Rinse thoroughly or you may get a bleach taste, or the bleach may kill your yeast.
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Ingredients for Elderberry Mead
- 5-6 cups elderberries
- 4 pounds honey, unfiltered, unpasteurized
- cinnamon sticks, to taste (optional)
- whole nutmeg, in pieces, to taste (optional)
- one package wine yeast, D47 or other wine yeast
- yeast nutrient, follow package for 3 gallons
- yeast energizer, follow package for 3 gallons
- campden tablets
- honey, to taste
- tea bag, optional
Have You Ever Made Mead Before?
Preparing the Must
The terminology for the stuff that gets fermented is called the must. In mead, this consists of the fruit, spices, and, of course, the honey. Once you have the berries as clean as you're going to get them, and cooked to the point where they're safe, put them in a big pot and pour water into it. Use the biggest pot you have because you're going to want to make about three gallons of mead with it. Add 4 pounds of the best honey you can find, any spices (I use cinnamon and nutmeg) and enough boiled water to mix it all together.
Heat the honey/elderberry/water mixture to 165°F. Don't boil it. Add the tea bag, if you wish. Allow it to cool to around 100°F and pour into your primary fermenter.
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Preparing and Pitching the Yeast
Fill your clean and sterilized yeast vessel (milk jug) with boiled water that has been cooled to 99°F. Add your yeast, yeast energizer, and yeast nutrient, then put the cap on the vessel and give it a good shake. Loosen the cap and give the yeast a half hour to an hour to get going. You'll get a yeasty smell as well as some expansion of the jug, even with a loose cap. Lastly, you'll see bubbles. When the must is ready, you'll need to pitch the yeast.
Pitching the yeast isn't special. You just need to pour it into the must and stir vigorously with an up-and-down motion when the must has cooled to 99°F. Add enough water that has been boiled and allowed to cool to room temperature to make up the rest of the three gallons. Close up your primary fermenter with an airlock attached (be sure to add cooled boiled water to the lock) and put your must in a warmish place to go through it's first fermentation.
Some people are sensitive to sulfites. Campden tablets provide sulfites that help remove wild yeasts and bacteria and provide much needed antioxidants to keep the mead from spoiling. If you're sensitive to sulfites, check out Wired's article "Wine Sulfites Are Fine, But Here’s How to Remove Them Anyway."
The Long Wait
Put your primary fermentation somewhere warm and dark. You're growing yeast which loves being left alone to grow and create alcohol. If you're a newbie at brewing, you're probably going to get antsy. Don't. The primary fermentation should be bubbling through the airlock merrily. If it is not, wait a bit. If it still isn't behaving, you can aerate it with a sterilized spoon and add some yeast energizer. Aerate it some more. To aerate, you stir it up and down vigorously for five minutes. If the fermentation gets completely stuck, you can pitch more yeast in.
One word of warning about stuck fermentations. I had one batch of mead that wouldn't bubble for anything. I used yeast energizer. I aerated. I pitched yeast in three times. I gave up and waited six months before doing anything with it. When I opened up the primary fermenter, I was greeted with a strong whiff of alcohol. I tasted it and, whoa howdy! Strong stuff. Seems I had a leak in the fermenter. I racked it into the secondary fermenter and ended up with a nice batch of mead in the end.
You need to wait until the airlock stops bubbling or slows to a very slow bubble (longer than a minute), and then rack the mead. This usually occurs in a month or better.
You'll need to rack your mead into a sterilized secondary fermentation jug such as a 3 gallon carboy as I mentioned above. You may need to have a separate sterilize one gallon jug that will take any overflow, if you have any. You shouldn't, but discovering this while racking can cause a headache. You'll need bungs with holes for the airlocks with water in them so you can fit them on the secondary fermentation jugs.
Sterilize the racking equipment and put the primary fermenter on a table with the secondary fermenter on the floor or chair that is lower than the primary fermenter. Use the racking equipment to siphon the clearer, liquid mead from the leas (leftovers). Leave the leas in the bucket. It's okay if it is cloudy; it usually takes time to clarify. If you don't have enough mead for three gallons, add some cooled boiled water.
You can take a taste of the mead at this point. Note any flavors that stand out and whether they're pleasant or not. The flavors will mellow with time, so if it is strong, you just need to sample it again later to see if it mellowed any. Some people will add extra spices at this stage if the spices weren't strong enough.
Add three campden tablets to the mixture and add the airlock. Put the secondary fermenter back where you left the first mead and let it sit. You may see some fermentation start up again because racking aerates the mead. This isn't a problem. Now the big wait.
When Is It Done?
Assuming you have waited a month or more for your secondary fermentation, chances are you're ready for bottling your mead. If it is not clear yet, you may need to add a sparkloid or clarifying agent to your secondary fermenter and wait until it clears. Likewise, you can rack the mead to another sterilized fermenter, add three campden tablets, and wait longer for it to clear.
You will want to bottle only when there is no more bubbling in the airlock. Alternatively, you can add a chemical that will stop fermentation.
The final stage requires bottling. Taste the mead and decide if it needs to be sweeter or needs different flavors. I usually add more honey and a fermentation stop ingredient. Add whatever you need to taste, and get your equipment ready for bottling.
Plan on five 750ml wine bottles per gallon. So, if you have three gallons, plan on 15 wine bottles. Put the corks in a pan of boiling water and let them sit. Rack the mead into the clean and sterilized bottles, cork them according to the corker's directions, and lay them on their sides for a week, turning them to be sure that the cork stays moist and any sediments get distributed evenly. The mead can be enjoyed with meals or by itself.
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