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2013 August 27

Blackberry jam

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The 4 cups of jam are not a very impressive showing for an afternoon's work.

The 4 cups of jam are not a very impressive showing for an afternoon’s work.

Last Sunday, I made blackberry jam for the first time in many years (most years my wife makes a small batch, but she has been very busy this summer moving the school library out of the trailer and back into the main building, now that all the construction work from last year’s fire has been completed). I spent a fair amount of time gathering 3 pounds of berries from the cames covering the driveway and choking my backyard, getting a few scratches in the process. My son helped a little (maybe half a pound of the berries are ones he picked), but he found it to be hot, tedious work. It didn’t help that we’re a little late in the season, and so had to avoid picking the over-ripe berries.

Actually cooking the jam was fairly easy. After washing the berries and letting them dry for half an hour on paper towels I mixed them with 3 cups of sugar and let them sit while I sterilized the canning jars and lids in boiling water. I then boiled down the berries and sugar for about half an hour, stirring in the juie of one lemon at the end.

I tried to determine when the jam was done by using a plate kept in the freezer to cool a small sample rapidly, but the jam goes from being juice to being nearly solid very quickly. I think I overcooked the jam by 2–3 minutes, ending up with a stiff, though still spreadable jam. The 3 pounds of fruit and 3 cups of sugar resulted in 4 cups of jam, a reduction to about 2/3 of the original.

It is very tasty, so I think it was worth the effort, though I doubt that I’ll go to the trouble of picking another 3 pounds of fruit this year.

I’ve always thought of the berries in our yard as olallieberries (probably because I was told that when we moved in), so I labeled the jars that way. But I now realize that it is unlikely that they are, as the cames have mostly grown from seed, and so are unlikely to be any specific, named hybrid. The Wikipedia article on olallieberries (which I looked up to figure out the spelling) gives a nice family tree of various berries. The olallieberry is a cross between loganberries and youngberries; loganberries are a cross between blackberries and raspberries; and youngberries are a cross between blackberries and dewberries. I wonder if there are any genetic tests available that can distinguish all the different hybrid species—not that I would bother doing them on plants that are essentially a weed species locally. (I think that the City gets prisoners to use chainsaws to clear out the cames on Bay Drive once a year.)

While poking around on Wikipedia, I found out something I hadn’t known—the loganberry was developed here in Santa Cruz by Judge J. H. Logan in 1883. (My wife already knew this, and even knew where Judge Logan’s house was, but I’m rather clueless about history, local or otherwise.) I found it surprising that loganberries were developed here, as I’ve never seen a loganberry in Santa Cruz.

2011 October 2

7.1 Wine Mead

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At the departmental wine tasting on 30 Sept 2011, we had the theme “alcohol made in Santa Cruz County”.  As this was the first tasting of the academic year, participation was high and we had many bottles of beer, wine, and fruit wine to taste.  Two of us brought home-brew: a postdoc brought a Hefeweizen he had brewed and I brought a mead that I had brewed in 1989 (the year of the Loma Prieta earthquake, so I named the brew 7.1).  Both the home brews did very well in the tasting—even I liked the Hefeweizen, and I usually detest wheat beers.  The only drink to do better in the scoring was Bargetto’s Ollallieberry wine, which they unfortunately are not making this year, because there were no commercially grown ollallieberries available.

I posted a generic mead recipe on the web a long time ago (I wrote it in 1982, giving examples of 2 of my early batches, with instructions for a quick mead that can be drunk in a few months), but here are the specifics for  my 7.1 mead (batch M20 in my notes):

  • 3 gallons water (filtered)
  • 16 pounds honey
  • 1/3 cup oolong tea leaves
  • 1/3 cup Darjeeling tea leaves
  • 0.6 oz (17g) cinnamon sticks (4 3″-long sticks)
  • 1 tsp (5ml) cardamom seeds
  • 30 allspice seeds
  • 0.4 oz (11g) dried ginger powder
  • 1 package Red Star Epernay 2 wine yeast (now labeled Côte de blancs)

The basic ingredients of mead are honey, water, and yeast. The proportions of the honey and water determine the final strength and sweetness of the drink, also how long it takes to make. The ratio ranges from 1 lb. honey per gallon of water for a very light “soft-drink” to 5 lbs. per gallon for a sweet dessert wine. The less honey, the lighter the mead, and the quicker it can be made.  Elizabethan recipes varied considerably in strength, but 3 or 4 pounds of honey per gallon was common. This recipe, at 16 pounds for 3 gallons of water, is as strong a mead as I have made.  Even when the yeast has died from the alcohol, there is still a lot of residual sugar.

The mead I make is spiced, so is sometimes referred to as “metheglin.” Elizabethan meads used large numbers of different spices and herbs, but not always in large quantities. Kenelm Digby, after giving the recipe obtained from “Master Webbe, who maketh the Kings Meathe,” has this to say: The Proportion of Herbs and Spices is this; That there be so much as to drown the luscious sweetness of the Honey; but not so much as to taste of herbs or spice, when you drink the Meathe. But that the sweetness of the honey may kill their taste: And so the Meathe have a pleasant taste, but not of herbs, nor spice, nor honey. And therefore you put more or less according to the time you will drink it in. For a great deal will be mellowed away in a year, that would be ungratefully strong in three months. And the honey that will make it keep a year or two, will require a triple proportion of spice and herbs. [The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened, 1669]

In my own brewing, I use mainly “sweet” spices (for the 7.1 mead, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and allspice). Be careful not to over-spice the mead! It is probably safer to use less of fewer spices, until you’ve had some experience.

The main herb I use is tea. Tea is an important addition to the mead, as it provides tannic acid, to give the drink a bit of bite. It is particularly important for sweet meads, which can otherwise have a rather syrupy taste (like Mogen David wines). Any sort of tea will do–I’ve used genmai cha (a very light Japanese green tea), lapsang souchong (a smokey Chinese tea, which was a bit of a failure), China Rose (a black tea with rose petals), jasmine, oolong, and others. If you want to use Lipton’s, that should work as well. I have not seen any Elizabethan recipes that use tea in mead, but all my batches that omitted tea were not as good.

Be careful not to over-spice the mead! It is probably safer to use less of fewer spices, until you’ve had some experience.

I use filtered tap water for brewing, but if your tap water has off-flavors that aren’t removed by filtering, then you might want to get a bottle of clear spring water.

The honey may be almost any cheap honey. Strongly flavored honeys (orange blossom, buckwheat, wild flower (in some areas)) generally work best. Clover honey works ok, but very light honeys (like alfalfa) generally lack flavor. If making a true mead (without spices), the flavor of the honey is more important, and only strongly flavored honeys should be used.  I did not record the type of honey I used in the 7.1 mead, but it was almost certainly the wildflower honey that was available in 5 lb. cans.

The yeast is important. Baking yeast is bred for fast carbon dioxide production, and is not at all suitable for brewing. Some home cider makers may be used to just letting the sweet cider stand a few days to ferment on its own. This technique relies on the wild yeasts present in the air, on the cider press, and on the skins of the apples. It doesn’t work for mead. The wild yeasts result in off-flavors, which the honey is not strong enough to mask. For strong, still meads (3 lbs honey/gallon or more) I use a white wine yeast, while for a lighter beverage I use ale yeast. A beer yeast should work as well as an ale yeast, but I find top-fermenting ale yeasts more fun to work with. Warning: the “brewer’s yeast” sold in health-food stores is dead yeast—it will not be usable for brewing.

The equipment you need is a large pot (I use a 20 quart canning pot), a 5 foot plastic tube to use as a siphon, and strong bottles (I use champagne bottles). In addition, a 5 gallon water bottle with a stopper and fermentation lock is a very useful piece of equipment. Everything you use should be sterilized to prevent the growth of vinegar-forming bacteria. There are chemical sterilizing agents available from wine-making supply stores, but I prefer to sterilize everything in boiling water. I’ll mention sterilizing over and over. It is the single most important part of brewing mead rather than vinegar.

If making a still, wine-type mead, any sort of bottle will do for the final bottling, but for a fizzy “ale-type” mead, strong bottles are essential. Champagne bottles and returnable pop bottles are usable, disposable bottles of any sort are not. I once had an apple juice bottle explode in my room, embedding shrapnel in my pillow from 9 feet away. Don’t make the same mistake—use strong bottles!!

Steps to making the mead:

  1. Boil the water, adding the tea and spices.
  2. Remove water from heat and stir in honey. (Note, the stirring implement should be sterilized!) Some mead brewers boil the honey in the water, skimming the scum as it forms. This removes some of the proteins from the honey, making it easier for the mead to clarify. However, I don’t mind a bit of cloudiness, and prefer the taste of unboiled honey. If you are making a wine mead, you can avoid the cloudiness simply by waiting an extra month or two for the mead to clarify. If you’re buying a clear honey from a supermarket, it may already have been cooked a bit to remove pollen and sugar crystals, in which case, a bit more cooking probably won’t change the flavor much. Digby’s recipes do call for boiling the honey.
  3. Cover the boiled water, and set it aside to cool (to blood temperature or cooler). This usually takes a long time, so I overlap it with the next step.
  4. Make a yeast starter solution by boiling a cup of water and a tablespoon of honey (or sugar). Let it cool to blood heat (or all the way to room temperature) and add the yeast. Cover it and let it ferment overnight. The yeast should form a “bloom” on the surface of the liquid. (Of course, the cooling and fermenting should be done in the pan or other sterilized vessel.)
  5. Add the yeast starter to the cooled liquid. Cover and let ferment. After a few days (24 days for the 7.1 mead, from 10 April 1989 to 6 May 1989),  it is useful to siphon the mead into another container, leaving the sediment behind. Here’s where the 5 gallon bottle comes in handy. A fermentation lock provides a way to close the bottle so carbon dioxide can get out, but vinegar-forming bacteria and oxygen cannot get in. Remember to sterilize the bottle and the siphon first!
  6. Ferment for a few weeks in a warm, dry place. When a lot of sediment has collected on the bottom of the bottle, siphon off the liquid (without disturbing the sediment). This process is known as “racking,” and helps produce a clear, sediment-free mead. Again, make sure all your equipment is sterilized. A wine mead may need to be racked three or four times before the final bottling.  The 7.1 mead was only racked once on 9 July 1989, but it would have benefited from another racking.
  7. Still meads should not be bottled until fermentation has completely stopped and the mead has cleared. I bottled the 7.1 mead on 29 October 1989, but I should probably have just racked it then and bottled it 6–9 months later, to reduce the amount of sediment in the bottles.  I had to decant the mead a day before serving it, so that the bicycle ride up to campus would not shake the sediment into the mead.
  8. Age the mead in a cool place. Note: ferment warm, and age cool. The 7.1 mead was probably at its peak after about 10 years of aging—the last bottle (after almost 22 years) was still good, but somewhat over-aged.
  9. Drink and Enjoy! The light quick meads should be served chilled (like beer), while the wine types are better at room temperature or only slightly chilled.

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