This post was originally from my Liberty.me blog, here.
Buddhism isn't the only thing I bring to the table at Liberty.me – I’m also a home brewer of mead and cider. As long as you don’t sell your “product,” it’s perfectly legal to make without a license – although, you may want to check local laws before you decide to transport your homemade brew – in mid-2009, I was informed that RCW 66.28.140 was changing. This law:
“prohibited transportation or sharing of homemade beer & wine outside of the house of production and limited the transfer to only competitions or exhibitions. At these events, only "judges" could sample the products. The largest volume that could be transported was 1 gallon.” ~Washington Homebrewer’s Association
I frequently transported my mead and cider to gatherings and parties - so I was breaking the law, and I didn't even know it! The revised law:
“ lines up closely with National regulations, and allows controlled sharing of homemade beer and wine with family, friends, relatives, and groups. The highlights of the new law are:
- Adults may remove homemade ("family") beer or wine from the household of production provided:
- It is not removed for sale
- Up to 20 gallons at a time
- It is used privately (including use at organized affairs, exhibitions, or competitions)”
Federal Law states (with respect to wine – mead is considered honey wine after all, despite the controversy over which came first):
§24.75 (b) Quantity. The aggregate amount of wine that may be produced exempt from tax with respect to any household may not exceed:
(1) 200 gallons per calendar year for a household in which two or more adults reside, or
(2) 100 gallons per calendar year if there is only one adult residing in the household.
~ US Government Printing Office Electronic Code of Federal Regulations
For a full list of home brewing regulations (as well as a pounding headache), feel free to visit the TTB website.
All laws – State and Federal aside – home brewing (whether beer, cider, wine, mead, sake – or other intoxicating brew) is a highly individualistic endeavor.
Let’s take the types of mead for example (or, at least the most popular variants):
- Melomel – A mead with fruit or fruit juice (other than grape or apple)
- Metheglin – A mead infused with herbs and/or spices
- Pyment – A mead with grape juice ( a mead/wine hybrid)
- Braggot – A mead with malt or ale (a mead/ale hybrid)
- Cyser – A mead with apple juice (a mead/cider hybrid)
The combinations are practically endless, and are limited only by the brewer’s imagination and palate. For example, a friend of mine shared a wonderful recipe with me for his Raspberry Habanero mead. I tweaked it a little, though – he likes his sweet, and I like mine dry. Which leads me to the different strengths of mead, based on sugar content:
- Sweet – has the most sugar
- Semi-sweet – not as sweet, has a nice dry finish
- Dry – similar to dry wine
There are any number of variables that can affect the sugar content. The most important thing (in my humble opinion) is yeast. Yeast, put simply, eats sugar and produces CO2 and ethyl alcohol (ethanol) as waste products. Wine and champagne yeasts are suitable for mead, and White Labs has mead yeast. As an aside, White Labs is also sequencing the DNA of different strains of yeast in an effort to understand what genes produce different flavors. The future of brewing may be more exciting than you think!
Temperature and additives (like fruit juice or whole fruit) can also affect sugar content.
If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of home brewing mead or cider, READ ON!
The tools of the trade are pretty simple:
- Honey – try to find the best quality.
- Water – filtered spring water is best. Don’t use distilled – the yeast needs those minerals!
- Yeast – always get brewing yeast – never bread yeast. Get the right tool for the job. Red Star makes a terrific Champagne yeast (yellow packet) for dry meads, as well as a nice Cuvee yeast (blue packet) for sweeter meads. These yeasts are available online, and are standard at any brewing store.
- Glass carboy or glass gallon jugs (at least two) – the glass apple juice jugs are perfect for this. You can make cider out of the apple juice, too! If you don’t want to spend time soaking or peeling off labels, you can order some at your local brewing store.
- Fermentation Lock with a small amount of distilled liquor – This allows the
- Funnel – to pour your brew into a fermentation vessel or bottles.
- Wine bottles – this goes without saying, really. If you’re going to brew, you might want to have something in which to store your finished product. If you don’t mind removing labels, you can reuse commercial wine bottles, if not, you can purchase wine bottles at your local craft brewing store. The swing-top lemonade or sparkling cider bottles can also be reused – and make beautiful gifts!
- Corks – If you get T-corks, you can insert them by hand. If you get traditional style ones, you’ll have to get a cork inserter (corker). Needless to say, I prefer T-corks, because my production is quite low, and they’re cheaper in the long run. I’m also a big fan of synthetic corks – you don’t run the risk of a “corky” flavor in your mead, and synthetic corks don’t break apart. Some people value tradition more than others.
Nice to have:
- Brewing siphon with plastic tubing – to siphon your brew out of the
- Wine bottle filler – preferably one with a spring valve (I upgraded this past year, and was very impressed with the performance of the spring-loaded one).
- Hydrometer – measures sugar content
- Wine thief – looks a lot like a siphon without the pump or hose attachment. It is used to take a sample or measure sugar content.
Additives* are also nice to have sometimes:
- Isinglass - (made from fish swim bladders) is added to help clear brew
- Pectic enzyme - used to break down the pectin that results in melomels being cloudy
- Yeast nutrient is used to boost fermentation.
*NOTE: These aren’t all the additives available – just the most popularly used ones.
A super fun thing to do is further personalizing your mead by creating your own labels, especially if you're giving your mead away as gifts. Some of my past labels:
The best thing of all about home brewing is that it’s almost impossible for the government to regulate. The Washington State law against transporting home-brewed beverages was (as evidenced my obliviousness of it) absolutely unenforceable. In fact, I doubt that most police officers would have known about this law at the time! The federal government can (and does) track people who buy stills, but would have a much harder time tracking people buying yeast, apple juice, honey, and funnels! Home brewed alcoholic beverages also make a good barter item, should our economy collapse. It wouldn't be the first time that alcohol was used as currency!
Despite being a home-brewer, I’m not much of a drinker. I do it for the enjoyment of my friends and family, as well as love for the craft itself. What most appeals to me about home brewing is that it marries science and art. The science of how yeast consumes sugar and produces ethyl alcohol is combined with the beauty of the unfettered artistic expression of the brewer – with fruits, grains, herbs, and spices, the home brewer can create a delicious, hand-crafted, home-made work of art that everyone of legal drinking age can appreciate.