Lambic, Sour, and Funky Mead Making

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.

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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.

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Starting Out – A Traditional Lambic Style Mead.

Storm – Lambic Mead – Mead using ale yeast, brett, and bacteria

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)

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, last time we left off with a traditional Lambic mead (just honey, water, and maltodextrin). It makes a great mead, but what happens when you want to add some more character by adding fruit to your lambic meads? Here we’ll go over adding fruits to wild meads and how to go about it. It does have similar rules of thumb as standard mead making, but has a few different nuances.

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Adding Fruit Early

Let’s assume you just racked at around 6 months and you want to add some fruit at this point. The fruit you add at this point will certainly be fermented and the sweetness from that fruit will be converted into alcohol, and probably some more lactic acid (by your bugs). You’ll get some good color out of it as well. You will still add fruit character to your mead, despite having the sugars fermented out of it. It will be a dry fruit character and will hit more of the sides of your palate instead of a sweet hit right on the tongue. This dry fruit character balances well with the acid from your fermentation and they both play off of each other well.

At this stage, you don’t need to go overboard with the fruit. Just – 1 pound per gallon will be enough to add some light color and those dry fruit characters. Any more at this point won’t hurt, but you’ll start to get diminishing returns. The good part about adding early is that your bugs will still be working and it won’t really add any extra time to a finished mead. But, you won’t get those dominant fruit characters that you may be looking or as well, at which point you’ll want to try…

Adding Fruit Late

You just racked at around 6 months and you want to add some fruit at this point. The fruit you add at this stage will still ferment, but have a fresher, brighter character. Here you’ll be adding fruit 1.5 – 2 months before you plan on bottling. Note: If you go this route, you’ll want to ensure a stable final gravity before adding the fruit so you can rest easy at bottling time.

You should aim to be adding around 2-3 pounds of fruit per gallon. Your mead will be very dry (despite the acidity adding a perceived sweetness), so you don’t need to add that typical 3-5 pounds per gallon for big fruit notes. You’ll also get a hit of color, and the fruit will ferment out again, but have a fresher sweeter quality to it.

If you want your fruit to be entirely for backsweetening (biggest fruit character), you can pasteurize your batch to kill the bugs and yeast to prevent any extra fermentation in the bottles. To do this, you need to heat your batch to between 165 and 170 (alcohol will start to evaporate at 173, so don’t go over that) and hold it there for 15 minutes. You’ll cook off some aromatics, but there will be plenty leftover. You’ll also create a pectin haze which can be left (traditional lambics have some cloudiness anyways), or it can be
corrected with pectic enzyme. To be extra sure about any continued fermentation in bottles, you should bottle these meads in capped beer bottles, as they will hold carbonation and further reduce the risk of bottle bombs.

Some other things to look for

When you add fruit, you may end up breaking the pellicle. While you shouldn’t aim to do this all the time, breaking it just to add fruit or to take the occasional gravity sample is OK, as a new one will form. Since fruit is fermenting and your batch is releasing CO2, you may notice the pellicle not come back for right away (as pellicles are a direct response to oxygen). Another thing is that the fruit can degrade pretty heavily while floating on the surface and sometimes growths that look like mold may appear. This isn’t a cause for alarm unless they are legitimately dark and fuzzy. Everything else is usually just a bit of pellicle. The alcohol in your batch will soak up into the fruit, so even fruit exposed to the surface is protected by the alcohol inside.

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If you’re very unlucky, you’ll get some kind of mold growth. In that case rack beneath the mold into a new, sanitized container, leaving the mold behind. I’ve only had one batch grow some mold (due to a long lag phase in the beginning), and racking it saved the batch from being dumped.

Adding fruit to both lambic and regular meads greatly increases your options for variety and experimentation. Some fruits that are common in sour making are:

  • Peaches
  • Cherries
  • Blackberries
  • Apples

But don’t limit yourself to those! There are dozens of different fruits you can use, so get out there and make more sour meads, and don’t forget to be patient and have fun.

from and comments: Part 1 and Part 2.

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