Dear Wine Wizard,
I have been making mead for a few years. I love the clover and honey accents in it. Most people who have tried it like the taste, but they all say the same thing — they don’t like the smell. I have heard everything from “it smells a little like a field of hay” to the more popular “it smells like a musty old book I found in the attic.” It is just the way mead smells. There are no off-flavors or wet cardboard scents that could have come from mead-maker’s error; even the commercial mead I have tried smells like that. Is it possible to mask the natural mead scent a little or at least tone it down a bit? I already use a sterile filter before bottling. Please share your “wiz-dom” with all of us who want to please the masses!
The Wine Wizard replies: If there is one overarching quality that wine, beer and mead-makers have in common, it is their desire to please their appreciative audiences as well as themselves. It seems like you and your friends and family aren’t big fans of the “mustiness” that you describe in mead. Personally, I don’t find it too big of a problem. I just consider it to be part of the charm, character and history of mead. You don’t like it, though, and the good news is that there are plenty of things a home mead-maker can do to play around with the aroma.
My first piece of advice would be to take a page out of mead’s long and glorious history and do what the ancients did when they wanted to mess with their meads — add herbs and other plants for flavor and aromas of interest. Feel free to dose up your mead with any herb, spice or floral mixture that might suit your fancy. For a “traditional” northern European flavor, I might go for a mix of mint, melissa and borage (with maybe a little thyme thrown in for fun). A summery floral mixture might be achieved by using chamomile flowers, lavender flowers, orange peel and a little sage or marjoram leaves for interest.
There are different ways one can introduce herbs, spices or flowers to mead, though some general rules apply for using plant material additives. Dried plants are usually more concentrated than fresh plants, so use less dried plant material than you would fresh. Stick with what you know. Don’t use any weird or wacky plants with which you are not familiar. Pick up an herb guide at your local bookstore, or go to a reputable source on the Internet, if you have any questions about which plants might or might not be safe to use.
Start conservatively. Just as with the over-use of oak, an over-use of any plant flavoring agent can not only completely mask that musty smell, but also can completely overpower everything else in your batch of mead.
The above being said, let’s get down to addition techniques. One of the easiest ways to get some fun flavors and aromas into your mead would be to simply drop a handful or two of fresh material (or a tablespoon or so of dried) into your five-gallon carboy during fermentation. The heat and the alcohol will help extract some of the herbs’ character and the mead will definitely be different for it. When fermentation is over and you’re going to be transferring the mead off of its gross lees for the first time, simply leave the organic matter behind in the fermentation vessel. You may need to rack through a strainer if the spices are floating in the mead. This separation is important, because by the end of a 10-day fermentation the plants should have given their all and may, as they continue to break down, actually start to rot (eeew!), which will detrimentally affect your mead.
You could also use the “tea bag” method, which is exactly what it sounds like. Tie up dried plant material in a small cheesecloth sack and suspend it in your finished mead. That way you don’t have to rack anything to separate the plant material from the mead and it’s very quick and easy to remove the herbs if you feel the mead is getting too strongly flavored. For anything past the stage of initial fermentation, I recommend using dried plants as they tend to be freer of molds, fungi, and wild yeast and bacteria than fresh plants. Also, they don’t tend to go down the path to rottenness and cloudiness like fresh plants can. You suspend your “tea bag” in your mead by hanging it from sanitized fishing line tied to your fermentation lock and adding sanitized marbles to weight the bag down so it doesn’t float.
You can also greatly add to your entire home beer, mead and winemaking repertoire by creating for yourself a battery of essences with which you can doctor up anything from a carboy to a bottle to a glass of your favorite brew. I start by procuring little “infusion jars” of about 1/4 cup capacity — cleaned, dried baby food jars or old glass spice jars with tightly-fitting lids are ideal. Fill each small jar with a few tablespoons of one dried herb or spice (or a mixture — get creative!), fill the jar with vodka or another neutral spirit and screw the lid on tightly. Leave the jars on a shelf and agitate between one to three times a week in order to help extract the aromatic goodies from the herbs. After about a month or so you’ll have a strongly-smelling spirit that is ready to add in small amounts to batches of beer, wine or mead. Again, you should be conservative when first adding these essences — they can be strong! Start with an ounce and add more to subsequent batches if the flavor is not strong enough.
A fun thing to do with these essences is to take one five-gallon batch of mead and doctor up a few of your bottles with a different essence in each and see how the flavor develops over time. My favorite essences to make and have on hand are: clove, cinnamon, lemon peel, orange peel, grapefruit peel, rose, star anise, rosemary, ginger, honeysuckle, apricot (from dried apricots) and peppermint. And don’t forget, they’re also really useful in cooking and in making creative cocktails! Rosemary, for example, makes a great martini.
Don’t forget that you can also get away from a purist’s style of mead and utilize fruit juice and honey mixes for your fermentations. Cranberry and honey go well together, as do raspberry, peach and apple. Simply use fruit juice or concentrate in place of a part of the honey called for in the recipe. Make sure the starting sugar concentration is correct according to the level called for in the recipe. Add some extra table sugar or use juice concentrate to bump up the sugar if it is lacking.
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