Making honey mead for the first time

A few weeks back I was experimenting with rice wine (sake).  I’d call the end result a success, although I’m not sure anyone else would. It was definitely alcoholic, but also carbonated. It was good enough that I’m up for trying it again. I still have a bunch of yeast balls and sticky rice, too.

But first, honey mead! One of my favorite presentations during the Back to Basics Living Summit was Malcolm Saunders‘s video on making honey mead. It looked really easy, so I ordered a 1-gallon jug with airlock and stopper, and some champagne yeast.

I’m going to go ahead and say that, unless you have bees of your own, honey is the most expensive part of this project. You need about 2 pounds of honey per gallon of mead, and that ran about $10 where I live.  (update: that was at Target. My local grocery store had a 3 pound jar for a couple bucks more). The jug wasn’t very expensive, and the yeast isn’t either.

Malcolm’s favorite way to make mead is to incorporate herbs into it. I wanted to keep it simple on my first try, so I just grabbed 3 pieces of cinnamon bark I had lying around, and simmered up some spring water with those.

I mean really, that’s it. Now I’ve got this gallon jug of golden cloudy liquid sitting in the fermentation station next to my kombuchas. It’s going to take about a month before I know if this worked out, but I’m really excited!

Sake It to Me

It’s about a month or two into my fermentation journey, and I’m at a point where I feel pretty comfortable with brewing kombucha (4 batches with 0 mold so far), and the lacto-fermented dill pickles are looking good, too. So I found myself at that point where I was kind of thinking, OK, what do I do next? Sourdough?

Something whispered that I was ready for the dark side of fermenting. What? No! I brewed beer at IncrediBrew once, and it was definitely too complicated. My brother actually bought me a beer brewing kit many years ago, and I never even tried. The whole idea of the various stages and temperatures was very intimidating. Maybe now it wouldn’t be if I really looked into it. I mean, I have several friends who brew.

But for now, I thought, beer, no. But maybe wine. And then for some reason the idea of sake crossed my mind. I looked it up, and landed on this page. It sounded actually kind of easy to do. Just grind up this little rice wine bath bomb and sprinkle it in amongst some rice. I figured it was worth a try. So I ordered the yeast balls on amazon, and was lucky enough to locate a nice 5 pound bag of glutinous rice at my local grocery store.

I made a batch of sticky rice, and spread it out on a pan to cool off, as per the directions. I pounded up the sake ball into powder. Once the rice was cool, I took two wide-mouth jars and started layering in the rice and powder, as directed. The 3 cups of dry rice made enough cooked rice to nicely fill these two jars.

And that’s it? Could it be that simple?

It MIGHT be that simple. I say this a few days later, though I can’t remember exactly what day I started this (Power Tip: if you’re fermenting stuff, keep a journal or a label or a note on the calendar as to WHEN you kick off various ferments). I have my two jars of rice sitting around, and there’s definitely liquid in there. I’m having to burp those jars every day, because I can see the metal lids buckling up from the pressure. I opened one all the way today to make sure it wasn’t moldy, took a sniff, and…

it smells like sake! Exactly like sake. I think it IS sake. The rice is gradually disappearing and this clear liquid is gradually replacing it.

That’s just badass. But I do wonder. Every other set of directions I can find is LOTS more complicated. There’s a debate raging about the difference between rice wine and sake (not sure I actually care about this distinction). And is all the rice supposed to disappear and turn into sake? Unsure. I suppose I should try some of it.

The other thing is, if the apocalypse hits, I can’t be ordering sake balls on amazon. I feel like I need to find a more sustainable way to make alcohol, like maybe hard cider. And seriously, I do want to try making sourdough…

Learning How to Make Kombucha

I still remember the first time my husband, John Doe, had me try kombucha. Despite all the warnings he gave me about it being an acquired taste, and that it was going to be unusual, my first reaction was still a solid, “Honey… I think this has gone bad. No, seriously…”

In the years since, we’ve embraced the probiotic goodness that is kombucha. Even my daughter, Elizabeth Doe,  loves it. Which has actually become a problem, because as you may know, the stuff’s not cheap. We’re talking $3.50/bottle, and Elizabeth will gladly drink a bottle a day if we let her. So when John saw an ad for a free demonstration on how to make your own kombucha, we were there, dude. They even said there’d be starter cultures for everyone to bring home. That’s kind of a big deal, because you can’t brew without it, and you gotta “know a guy” to get one. 

And probiotics are going to be really important in the apocalypse. Because we won’t have anitbiotics kicking around for very long. We’re going to need strong digestive tracts to avoid dying of dysentery.

Even though there were far more attendees than expected, my daughter managed to score a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). There was one place we’d heard that term before prior to this demonstration (see below). We left with live demonstration knowledge (there’s nothing like hearing instructions first-hand, with visual demonstration and taste testing), a sheet of written directions, and our very own SCOBY culture. #WINNING

So the way it works is, you make a strong sweet black tea, let it cool to room temperature, and pop that SCOBY in to do its work for a couple weeks or so. The tea is its food, and the colony will transform that super sweet tea into a more vinegar-like healthy drink. Our first brew was very small, only a quart, because it was the biggest jar we had on hand and because My First SCOBY was a small colony. Because of this, there was only enough first brew kombucha for a single serving of second brew (2 weeks later).

The first ferment was tasty, if a bit too sweet, but sweetness is easily remedied in kombucha brewing, simply by waiting longer. Just needed to give them a little more time to eat up that sugar, see.

Our second first ferment had a bigger home; the recommended large pickle jar, covered with a kitchen towel and rubber band. That was a couple weeks ago. That batch made enough to fill 7 kombucha bottles. 5 of those were just old kombucha bottles we’d washed out, two were from a box of Brieftons bottles I’d ordered that were recommended for these purposes.

Many people just drink the kombucha at this point, but I’m very interested in the flavoring angle, which is done during the second ferment. For the second ferment, one adds some fruit and fruit juice (about 1/4 that and 3/4 first ferment). Then you cap the bottles, airtight this time, and wait a couple days.

We kept our jars in a big plastic bucket, because there’s a chance these bottles will burst under the pressure from the second ferment carbonation. None of ours has yet, but I’m vigilant about “burping” them (loosening and then re-tightening the cap to allow some gas to escape). I’ve read you’re supposed to do this 1 – 2 times/day, but even once per day, the hiss of the escaping gas doesn’t sound like it was on the verge of exploding. However, I have seen people post that their jars blew up, so better safe than sorry I guess.

Our first second ferment. Not to be confused with our second first ferment, or our second second ferment…

Anyway, I split a Dole pineapple fruit cup into two jars, and filled them the rest of the way with brew. I also did a couple with freshly sliced ginger, a couple with fresh cubes of watermelon, and one with frozen grapes. This is very much the experimentation phase right now, and I was just going with whatever I had on hand. Our instructor had recommended pineapple if we wanted carbonation.

Pineapple: Lightly carbonated after 2 days, and overall delicious.

Ginger: Definitely just cutting up slices of ginger root isn’t enough. It maybe had a taste of ginger, but it was very faint. No carbonation, but still delicious. More or less, I’d say this was just the first ferment.

Grape: From the start I expect I didn’t put enough grapes in this, because they were frozen grapes and I was worried about making things too cold for the cultures.

Watermelon: My initial assumption was that watermelon should result in as much carbonation as pineapple, since it seems equally sweet.

One thing that’s obvious now is that bottles of kombucha you buy in the store are artificially carbonated (so is beer, and of course, soda). So it’s going to be an adjustment, if you’re used to drinking kombucha with that level of carbonation. I’m hoping to increase the level of carbonation, but that’s an experiment for another day.