Sunday, April 7, 2013

Mead, Cyser, Acerglyn...and Melomel

As indicated in earlier posts, our key objective is to rebuild our land into a small fruit farm (the theme is sustainability with a Victorian flair). Since we will avoid modern and conventional industrial production techniques, we are hoping to rely on a broad based selection of fruit crops.

With this concept comes the need for pollinators  ie. bees. Although not planned for this year, our apiculture endeavours will take shape by next Spring. As a result of these plans, we have been toying with the idea of setting up a boutique "meadery". For those not familiar with mead, it is perhaps the most ancient of alcoholic beverages conceived over 4000 years ago. It is old and it is simple: a wine made of honey and water.

The reason for considering mead production is that mead can be the foundation for wonderful fruit wines. These would be a great way to showcase the very many (and odd) fruits we plan to grow.

So this week, Tristan and I decided to get started on "experimenting". Although I expected to do this later this fall, the push for this was our recent success in producing maple syrup. Maple syrup can be combined with honey and water to produce a distinctive wine called Acerglyn.

Our first experiments consisted of making a basic mead and then an Acerglyn. However, since we've never done this before, we had to equip ourselves. The basic tools are simple: a plastic bucket (our fermenter) with a sealed lid through which we drilled a hole for a plug (or bung); the bung itself has a hole through which we install an air trap (allowing gas from the fermenter to escape while not allowing air to get into the container). The whole kit was completed with a hydrometer to measure the specific gravity of our solution and therefore estimate the alcohol content and potential as we process our "must".

Our brewing equipment: fermenter and lid, bung,  air trap and hydrometer
For our basic mead, we took roughly 8 litres of distilled water and 2 1/2 kg of unpasteurized Ontario honey. We heated the water and diluted the honey. In the end, we had achieved a Specific Gravity (SG) of about 1.094 (the must was warm and we did not correct for temperature).

We sanitized all of our equipment using a diluted bleach solution. Once our must reached room temperature, we placed the must in our fermenter and we prepared our yeast. Although specific yeasts can be bought for the production of meads, we took the most available wine yeast at hand: a packet of Lalvin K1-1116 wine yeast. Once prepared, the whole thing was tossed into the fermenter and sealed.

Our first batch of mead
For our Acerglyn, we used about 2kg of honey, 10 litres of water and 1.5 litres of our light Maple syrup. Since I used syrup which had not gone through our final boil (before bottling), the density of the syrup was on the low side so our initial SG was 1.084.

Our Acerglyn must
Our air traps are  now bubbling away...so now it's a matter of waiting. Once fermentation is mostly complete, we hope to transfer the solutions to "secondary fermenters" (glass jugs). Here we will let the remaining yeast finish the process and hopefully have any sediments clear before bottling  We expect the process to take 6 to 8 weeks.

Once we complete these two batches, we expect to carry on with our experiments. In particular, we want to do a Cyser (using apple cider instead of water) and a Pyment (using grape juice instead of water). The reason for this is that these two drinks can form the basis of a good Melomel. Melomel is effectively a fruit wine that uses mead as its key building block. Fresh fruits are simply added to the secondary fermentation. We ultimately want to assess the differences between Melomels based on Cyser, Pyment or simple Mead.

On the farming front, Tristan and I also continued work on our drainage project. This proved rather difficult.

With the trenches dug, the concept was to build a "French drain". This basically consists of perforated tubing at the core, surrounded by gravel, then surrounded by landscaping cloth. In our case with used 4 inch drainage tubing with a layer of cloth or "sock" wrapped around its exterior, we also acquired 4 foot wide landscaping cloth hoping to "wrap" our pipe by at least 4 inch of gravel.

Covered drainage tile and landscaping cloth
You may wonder why all the fuss with cloth. Based on the problems, we have already faced on the septic tank drain, we were certain that all precautions were needed. In the case of the septic bed, the drainage tiles were simple perforated PVC pipes with a minimal amount of gravel. The result: major plugging due to sand filtering into the pipes.

We did not want to have to dig up this new installation any time soon.

The result was something Tristan referred to as a giant "taco". Working in a wet 12 foot trench with the landscaping cloth proved extremely difficult and all gravel needed to be shoveled by hand. This may be acceptable for small installations but would have taken us weeks to complete (well over 500 feet of pipe and some 20 tons of gravel to shovel). Furthermore, the longer this took, the more our trench walls were weakened by erosion (falling over in some places).


After some short discussion with our home building contractor, we decided one approach would be to simply lay some gravel in the trench, lay the pipe, cover it with gravel and then apply the landscaping cloth (since most of the sand filters from the top). With this concept we could easily use our tractor's front loader to handle the gravel.

We actually did this but since our cloth was 4 feet wide and our trench 12 inches, we deployed our cloth so we could have one half facing the trench wall where the water was presumably flowing from. We then folded the cloth over the final layer of gravel.

Drainage tile on gravel bed
Drainage tile covered with gravel
Landscaping cloth folded over drainage tile and gravel
On the growing front, our mini nursery continues to do well, but there again we had a set back. We decided to use a sprayer to water our plants. Our first attempt destroyed many of our seedlings since the spray was much too strong. For the more developed plants this is still a useful too as it allows us to water the roots much more accurately.

Our new watering tool: great for small plants, dangerous to seedlings
In the house, we had no better luck this week. In fact, after deciding to join the two cellars, we found we had uncovered a "can of worms". It turns out that there were two foundation walls (one presumably predating the current Victorian house). One of these goes down about 6 feet (as anticipated), but the other stops short around 3 feet. This means that to expose this wall, we now have to build a concrete foundation wall below it.

Two foundation walls: one shallow, one deep.
To make matters worse, when we exposed the crawl space of the house we noted some major buckling along two floor beams. These had been propped up with makeshift layers of wood and bricks. Since we now have to build a concrete structure between the two cellars we've decided to take the opportunity and provide a proper support for these beams.

Crawl space opened up to provide additional floor beam support.
We also found that one of the walls we were breaking through was supporting an interior brick wall. We ended up having to take this interior wall down. That was a shame, but at least this provided us with enough matching bricks to properly finish the outside of the house.

In fact, they have become essential to brick in two external doorways. Since being transformed into apartments over the years, the house had 7 main floor exits. The result is we had some rooms with an overabundance of external doors and internal access (ie. no free wall space).We decided to remove a doorway to what will be our dining room and to remove what was the entrance to the upstairs apartment.

When filling in these exits, we also decided to blend the brick laying pattern (ie. no seam will be seen). However, as a reference, we are keeping the decorative arches which were above the doorways.

Bricking in a doorway
Finally, Spring is officially here (Tristan and I are already sun burned) and the animals that frequent the farm are back in greater numbers. For once, I managed to capture a picture of the white-tailed deer that are often in our corn field. These beautiful animals were keeping and eye on Tristan and I as we were completing our current morning ritual: the collection of Maple sap.

White tailed deer at the edge of our corn field





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