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Lambic, Sour, and Funky Mead Making - Part 1

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I've began to compile the things I know on alternative fermentations in mead making. And by that, I mean meads infected with the likes of brettanomyces, lactobacillus, and pediococcus. I'll continue to add more parts as my findings and experiments continue.
Why make lambic meads? As many are aware, the commercial market for sour/ funky brews is at an all time high. Which is great, because they taste excellent! The bad thing is the price-point. These are typically the most expensive per fluid oz to buy. So the next time your on the forums of your choice and someone starts to say "home brewing don't save any money!", You can go right ahead and say "Home brewing don't save save money...Unless you're making sours." .
Meads tend to be more expensive than beer; So what happens when you take the priciest of both worlds and add both mead and sour styled brews together? You save money by home brewing that's what!
It's not just about your gross savings and bottom line though. Whenever I share some of my Lambic mead at home brew meetings or in brew swaps, I always get the highest regards, and you can too. I'm not talking about the general lip-service like "oh this is good" "mmmmm, good". I'm talking genuine excitement, and the next time I bring it, there's a crowd to get some before it runs out. Looking back to first home brew club meeting that I brought an original lambic style mead to, as I introduced it, oohs and murmurs spread around the ring of 20-30 people. The next few meetings, I was still getting compliments and one even came to me and said he took the bottle dreggs home with him to use in his saison.
In short, the magic of Lambic does carry over into the mead world, and I think we'll soon see a world where there's more than just one or two commercial examples of it.

The Basics
If you begin down the road of wild mead making, which you definitely should, there are some things to know right as you get started. Those being:
1. Know your bugs:
The knowledge is everywhere regarding the strains of bacteria and brettanomyces, so I won't go to far into it, but here is what you're looking at for a quick reference.
Brettanomyces - Brettanomyces (Brett for short), is an extremely versatile form of yeast. It can be used through all phases of fermentation. Brett's resilience can really aid a meadmaker in many ways on top of providing a unique mead for your cellar. Brettanomyces can ferment a wide array of sugars and fermentation byproducts that are not fermentable by saccharomyces (standard yeast). It can convert the more complicated sugars made from higher mashing temps (beer making), as well as maltodextrin, and lactose. The flavor profiles of each brett strain range from horsey and spicy to fruity and tropical. So strain selection is important batch to batch.
Pediococcus - Pediococcus bacteria converts sugars into lactic acid. As pediococcus doesn't like oxygen, it works hand in hand with the oxygen blocking pellicle formed by brettanomyces. During fermentation, pediococcus does produce diacetyl, which creates an overwhelming buttery flavor (flaw). It can also goes through a "sick" phase where the batch gains a slick mucus-like mouthfeel that is also frequently described as "ropey". Over time, brettanomyces will clean up the diacetyl and sickness. Without brett, those characteristics will not clean up and you will be stuck with a very unpleasing mead. Pediococcus produces a more heavy handed sourness than lactobacillus.
Lactobacillus - Lactobacillus (Lacto for short) is yet another bacteria that will contribute to sourness in your mead. It, like pediococcus converts sugar into lactic acid. It is one of the most common commercially used bacteria and is responsible for the sourness in yogurt, and for spoiling milk. However, most strains found in yogurt are very sensitive to alcohol and aren't prime subjects for fermentation. More tolerant strains can also be found living on malted grains (beer making), and those are used in sour mashing. It has a similar temperature range as pediococcus, but a higher maximum (65-139F). The higher the temp, the faster it works and reproduces. Lactobacillus produces less lactic acid than pedio, but will add a subdued sour complexity, but left alone (without alcoholic fermentation) can create a one dimensionally sour batch.
2. Know your mead making basics:
These meads, at the end of the day, are advanced and not recommended for a first time mead maker. Just like how a sour beer isn't for your first batch not using a Mr. Beer system. Get a few meads under your belt if you haven't already. Have your system / process down. Have your spare equipment to prevent the bugs from spreading to clean meads. However, they are not so far out of reach that they should only reside in your imagination. Take the leap, and pitch the funk. In fact I made my first lambic mead after just 5 or 6 regular ones. If you want to brush up on your basics ,this article Current Mead Making Techniques by Bray Denard PhD, has some excellent information for starting out as well as brushing up on technique.
3. Be Patient, Be Flexible, Be Creative:
3A. Be Patient: Out with the old, and in with the NOW NOW NOW! Mead recipes are being designed to have fast turn around times nowadays. People don't want to wait 6-12 months for a mead to be just okay. They want it competition ready in 3 months! With today's knowledge of nutrients and fermentation, this may be entirely possible; however, there is no shortcuts to have a wild mead finished that quickly. There are many steps to these fermentations where one thing will breakdown what another step made. That means there are levels of fermentation and before it's finished, it may not meet your expectations. This is where you exercise patience, and you let the bacteria work those bad flavors out of your mead. This is why it's important to have step 2 down. Patience comes with experience. And with that patience, come great lambic meads.
3B. Be Flexible: Things change and you need to be able to adapt to those changes. Your original recipe didn't call for something that will save the batch. It's not where you want it at 12 months despite what the recipe said. At the end of the day, you need to cater to your specific batches' needs and not a predetermined timeline. This is just another thing you learn from having a few batches of mead or beer under your belt. Once you have more of a pipeline going, you'll be able to blend your meads. This gives you incredible control over your flavor profiles.
3C. Be Creative: Feel free to experiment! It's how you're going to grow, and it's how you'll find out what works and be able to share that information with others. There's so much exploration in sour making with both beer as well as mead. Just look at a simple lambic mead. Brettanomyces character is a listed off flavor in wine! But here you are pitching it intentionally to create something special. This should be controlled as well. Think about what each piece of a recipe may add before throwing in every crazy ingredient under the sun.

Starting Out - A Traditional Lambic Style Mead.
Storm - Lambic Mead - Mead using ale yeast, brett, and bacteria
Ingredients
Units for 1 gallon:
Around 1.5 pounds of Orange Blossom Honey (Add enough to reach your target gravity)
1/4 Pound Maltodextrin
Yeast : Wyeast Lambic Blend
Starting Gravity: 1.065
10-15 Oak Chips (not really for flavor, but more of a bug colony)
Process
To begin, sanitize all your equipment. Although you are inoculating the must with "wild" bugs and bacteria; you still want to control what wild things may enter.You may see an ingredient there you aren't familiar with. Maltodextrin it's going to become an important ingredient when using blended lambic yeasts (like Roselare Blend, Wyeast Belgian Lambic, etc.). Those contain regular brewing yeast, which can eat your sugars long before the bacteria can get in and sour your mead. Since you can't create more complex sugars from a mash like you can in beer, you need to add those long sugars yourself. Maltodextrin is a clear flavorless sugar that brett and bacteria can eat, but standard yeast can not.
The Fermentation - How to Know When You're Done?
You can leave this batch in primary for an extended time. Rack it right around 6 months if its dropped clear. You don't need to worry about autolysis because brettanomyces will consume compounds released by Autolyzed yeast and create more complex flavors. Try to leave this mead be for as long as you can. You should aim to give it at least 10 months from pitch to develop. After this time, and has a taste that you find ready, and the gravity has remained stable for a month or more, you can bottle. You can prime it for a carbonated mead or bottle it straight for flat. It will then continue to age and develop further in the bottles. You should end up with a balanced mead that shows you a little funk and moderate tart.
This is a simple beginning recipe that will give you a solid foundation to build upon, whether it's fruit, new yeast blends etc. You want to keep the SG under 1.070 - 1.075 due to the alcohol limitations of what you're working with.
So this concludes part 1, and future articles will delve into more specific ends of wild mead making.
***
I can't wait for the continuation of this series! Pairing two of my personal favorites, mead and sours, I look forward to reading more from David Doucette, and hope you do too. For more from David please visit his blog, Hive Mind Mead,and follow him on Twitter.
-Austin
 
That's a really interesting read. I haven't thought of a sour mead. Might have to try to make one of these soon as a Kriek mead. Sour cherry lambic mead sounds pretty awesome.
 
OK, that's just cool! You've managed to cross over a sour beer yeast to a mead. And, make it taste great. Congrats.
This is the kind of thing advanced brewers should try. There is a commercial beer for every style and liking. Unlike the 70's where brewers were trying to make good beer, which was for the most part - unavailable. Now days, because good beer is available, I find myself gravitating towards beers that are unavailable or extinct Styles like Adams Bier, Seasonal Beers, Eisbock at 18% ABV and now...Sour Meads.
Expect a "Follow" request,
DLester
 
@DGibb I was thinking the same thing as I read the article. I've made a few successful sour batches to date, and why I haven't thought about my cyser that way is beyond me! I haven't made a batch yet this season... game on!
 
I was very excited to publish this article. I found it absurdly fascinating and expect great things from David.
I love seeing innovation. It makes me proud to be a brewer.
 
First of all, interesting reading!!
Second of all, and I know this maybe isn't for the newbies, as myself in the sour mead production, but I'm thinking what a bout take your oak cubes, soak in water for a couple of hours and then place them outside for some time? To catch some "real" wild yeast and bacteria?
Maybe under some fruit trees or like that (have heard some place that orchards should be a nice place to catch yeast and bugs for lambric)
 
Wow, great article. Just when you think you've tried everything...
I love wild beers, now will have to try wild mead.
Could you sour a previously fermented sweet mead (higher FG) by pitching wild yeast into it? Or add maltodextrin and wild yeast?
 
@The_Happy_Dachshund_Brewe - You certainly could! But before you do, you'll want to plate the cultures on agar to find the healthiest ones, grow them up, and remove mold spores from the equation.
@Cyclman - They may have a hard time getting going in high alcohol environments. If your around 10%, you could certainly give it a try. You can always throw a bunch of sour beer dregs at it, and see where you get.
If they were able to work at the remaining sugars, you wouldn't need to add maltodextrin as your Saccharomyces is already done, so there's no competition for the bugs.
 
This is a great idea. I have my first sour beer in secondary and put away in the closet; it was brewed last July. I'm getting ready to brew a couple more sour beers in the next month. I have my first mead sitting in secondary, it was made in January. Time to combine my love of both styles and make a lambic mead. Thanks for sharing your information!
 
Incorrect.
Here's a lovely one from an all Brett mead. http://hivemindmead.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/brett-cb-mead-pellicleF-Feat.jpg
If my visual evidence doesn't suit. Here's a quote from another reputable source (BYO): "Brettanomyces-influenced fermentation will usually show a pellicle, a coarse off-white mat that ..."
 
This is an old post I know...
I was hopeing to ask whether or not anyone had experimented with caramelizing part of the honey (similar to how one would make a bochet) to reduce some fermentablility? In an effort to replace the maltodextrin in the recipe. I appreciate any thoughts on this.
 
It should reduce some of the fermentability, but not too much.
In future tests / recipes, I found that Lactic acid bacteria (LAB) + bochet style mead ( / partially caramelized honey) makes a not very pleasing mead. The flavors didn't mix well. At All...
If you do go this route, use only brettanomyces, and no sour blends that contain LAB. Just brett or Brett + Yeast will produce a good bochet mead.
Hope this helps,
Dave
 
Thats really interesting! Good to know.
How would you see adding a little bit of flour to add some starch to feed the bugs play out? Also thinking about the idea of heating all or part of the honey (without caramelizing) and letting it cool slowly to add in a similar element that cooling wort in a coolship may bring?
 
The coolship method would be more of an attempt to collect wild yeast for fermentation.
Flour should work, but it's typically used as long term aging food than sugar competition reducing.
 
This is great! I found this thread with a google search for "kettle-soured mead" which is a thing I've been thinking about trying for a while. I was thinking of doing it just like a kettle-soured beer: dissolve the honey in water (and possibly some sour cherry juice) to ~ 1.050 SG, pitch a lacto culture, keep it at 110 for 24 hours, quick heat to kill the bacteria, chill, pitch yeast and ferment as normal. Anyone out there tried something like this? Another thought: would adding campden tablets after the bacterial fermentation be sufficient to kill the bacteria? It would be nice to avoid heating to retain as much honey character as possible.
 
Apologies for resurrecting what may be an old thread but @Mike, I wonder whether there is a real need to treat the honey like wort and so "kettle sour" (no kettle used in mead making, is there?). I don't have a good handle on why brewers kill off the LAB by boiling it unless their concern is that their kettles are not going to become homes for any lurking LAB that will spoil any "sweet" brews they intend to make. But I may be wrong about that.
If your concern is more that the LAB might compete with your yeast over the sugar leaving you with a lower ABV mead than you had planned (because the sugar was eaten by the LAB and converted to lactic acid rather than was fermented by the yeast and so converted to ethanol) then what you might do is monitor the pH and when it begins to come close to the pH you want this mead to have (the level of sourness) then prepare your yeast for pitching, and when it is a little less acidic than your target pH pitch the yeast. I don't know that any common or garden LAB can tolerate much alcohol (tho' I hear that there is now a yeast strain that will produce both ethanol and lactic acids) so I imagine that any change to the pH will now come from the work of the yeast.
 
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