When university students Levi and Kade Bilton felt the woes of summer boredom creeping up on them, they decided to look beyond the liquor store to get a buzz.
Making mead in honey-rich Alberta
Levi, 25, and Kade, 20, grew up in Innisfail, Alta. before moving to Edmonton for school. Now Levi studies law at the University of Alberta while his little brother Kade studies engineering on the same campus.
Even though school is back in session for the men, the hobby that hooked them in the summer is still keeping them busy through the winter: Home-brew mead.
The appeals of home-brewing mead are many, Kade says.
“People have been making it for thousands of years. It’s an interesting drink that sort of is deeply rooted in humanity’s past, but it’s hard to find nowadays.” So when the two history buffs found themselves hankering for something to fill their free time, mead came to mind.
The startup cost is relatively low considering the price of alcohol and the regulations that stand in their path are slim, unless they decide to start selling the mead.
‘Since we’re making it for ourselves, for private consumption, and amongst our family and friends, there’s no regulation against it.’ — Levi Bilton
“Since we’re making it for ourselves, for private consumption, and amongst our family and friends, there’s no regulation against it,” Levi says. “I’ve kind of enjoyed letting people know it’s our hobby.
“When a batch turns out good and other people want it, it’s nice to be able to give it away.”
The Bilton brothers find mead brewing fulfilling, but it’s also economical.
“A bottle of cheap wine is 10 dollars,” Levi says. “We make fermented honey that’s the same alcohol content, and if all goes well, it should taste as good in my opinion. It’s $2.50.”
That was the cost per bottle of their first batch. Seven months later, a little wiser, and roughly $200 poorer after purchasing honey in bulk, the brothers are experimenting with mead for about a toonie per bottle.
Wiser doesn’t always mean cheaper, and cheaper isn’t always better. When it comes to honey used for mead, there’s a happy medium brewers must reach between quality and quantity, as honey tends to be the greatest expense of production. “We realized that if we could get our honey cheaper … our hobby could be a lot cheaper too,” Levi says. “So we source our ingredients from a local farmer now, which I like a lot more.”
The pair started with honey from Costco, but realized price wasn’t the only issue with the grocery store product.
“Grocery store honey is pasteurized, which I find actually kills a lot of the flavour,” Levi says. So they now source their honey and flavour ingredients, like saskatoon berries, from local suppliers.
Buying unpasteurized honey in bulk from farmers saves money, and adds to the overall taste of the mead. Those savings opened up their budget for some of the other non-negotiable expenses involved, like brewing equipment: 20 to 60-litre glass bottles called carboys. As well as siphons, filters, funnels, hydrometers and other odds and ends that might not be kicking around most homes.
Not for the foolhardy
Mead is easy to brew legally, thanks to the relatively safe fermentation process. Though this is not the case for other alcohols, like whiskey.
‘If you are using a still, the first batch that you create contains a lot of wood alcohol, which is methanol, which is poisonous and can make you go blind, and possibly kill you.’ — Levi Bilton
“That is illegal for health safety reasons,” Levi says. “If you are using a still, the first batch that you create contains a lot of wood alcohol, which is methanol, which is poisonous and can make you go blind, and possibly kill you.”
There are some other ingredients to be cautious of while home-brewing, too. Some mead brewers call for St. John’s wort in their recipes, but though the yellow-flowering plant looks harmless, it can cause dangerous medical complications for those who drink it.
“You need to be careful about who you give that to, because St. John’s wort interacts with a lot of medications,” Levi says.
Another small danger with mead brewing is the shattering hazard of a carboy’s glass when heated too quickly. Temperature shocked glass can be a problem when you are moving the mead into the carboys if the bottles are too cold and your mead mixture is too hot, so you’ll want to make sure you do your bottling at room temperature, Kade says.
Maintaining a stable temperature while your mead is fermenting is crucial as well. Yeast that’s too cold or hot will produce unwanted metabolites, altering the flavour of the mead. A little too hot creates a bitter flavour, Levi says, and if the mixture is over 25 degrees, the taste will be sour.
Too much and variable light will also negatively alter the flavour. It all comes back to creating a stable environment for the yeast.
“Genetic evolution actually goes on inside the carboy,” Levi says. A stable storage location ensures the yeast will reproduce and die off based on the alcohol and bacterial content of the mixture, rather than because of external factors. If you want your mead to succeed, it’s ideal to store it in darkness between 18-23 degrees.
What could go wrong?
Even while the brothers follow best practices, sometimes their experimentation leads to amusing mishaps.
“We overfilled a jug once,” Kade says. “At the top of the jug we put what is called a water lock that makes sure gas can only get out and it can’t get in, but because we filled it too full, when the yeast made carbon dioxide, it bubbled up into the water lock and sealed the water lock shut because it filled it up with fluid.
“So pressure built up and it eventually blew its top and mead went all over the place.” Another explosive goof beset the brothers when they tried to carbonate a batch of mead.
“When you open it, hopefully you’ve got mead-champagne, is the idea,” Levi says.
By rebottling the mead from the carboys, and reintroducing sugar and yeast before resealing them with corks and champagne cages, you can make the mead bubbly with a technique called bottle conditioning.
‘Our bottle conditioning worked too well. We created a batch of six bottles that are bombs … You could wiggle the cap just a little bit, and it would go BOOM!’ — Levi Bilton
“Our bottle conditioning worked too well,” Levi says. “We created a batch of six bottles that are bombs. Like, you would take wire cutters and cut the wire cage, and you could wiggle the cap just a little bit, and it would go BOOM and a huge jet of carbonated alcohol and sugar would just fly like six or seven feet in the air.
“When you’re dealing with carbon dioxide, and you’re purposely sealing it in, you are basically making a bomb.”
In the home-brewing community, accidentally over-carbonated beverages even have their own name. They’re lovingly called bottle bombs, Levi says, but that’s not the type of bomb they try to brew on the regular.
The brothers say the fun in mead making comes from the serendipitous opportunities to discover fermented honey flavour explosions that work.
“Part of what we really enjoy about making mead is that there is a lot of freedom in doing it,” Kade says. “You can just experiment with flavours that you never even thought you could use, and it’s really interesting – plus it’s fun just crafting something from scratch like that.”
Depending on how you flavour your mead, it can adopt one of more than 40 different names for its variant. For example, if you spice your mead with cinnamon or even hot peppers, it’s called a metheglin. A mead brewed with honey and fruit is called a melomel. Levi’s favourite batch so far? A rhodomel that came from a curious jaunt through his parents’ backyard one day.
He recalls pondering, “I wonder if I could use something from my Mom’s garden back in Innisfail to flavour the mead. I just went around and I started eating things in her garden, and her roses were — the flavour was fantastic, and I thought, ‘We should make a mead like this,’ and actually, it was probably one of the best.”
Finding surprise ingredients and nursing them into just the right proportions is one of the brothers’ favourite part of the hobby.
“It’s very much an art, and I find the art of tinkering with flavours as they mature in that fermentation chamber is really a lot of fun,” Levi says.
Next, he plans to use elderflower in a brew. “I think that would make a mead taste really good,” he says. “Those light, subtle floral favours are fantastic with mead, because they naturally complement the pollen that honey is made out of, and it adds a lot of flavour depth.”
Good things come to those who wait
You can’t taste that depth if you sample a batch too early, though. “You often find bottles of wine in the liquor store that have been aged for two or three years,” Levi says. “Because it sometimes takes that much time for the booziness to go away, and for the alcohol to be an undertone in the flavour instead of the overtone.”
Kade agrees. The longer, the better when it comes to getting the taste right. “I’d say just about any batch is really good within a month, but it gets that much better if you let it sit for a year,” he says. “What we normally do is set aside a portion of each batch to age for a long time.”
They make sure they taste at least a bit of each batch before setting them aside though, because not all of their experiments have panned out.
‘Instead of using real oranges and cranberries, we just tried to go the cheap route and used orange concentrate and cranberry juice, and it tasted awful — terrible!’ — Levi Bilton
“We tried to make one that was flavoured with orange juice but we made way too much and it was awful,” Levi says. “It was going to be an orange-cranberry flavour, but instead of using real oranges and cranberries, we just tried to go the cheap route and used orange concentrate and cranberry juice, and it tasted awful — terrible!”
The brothers make sure to learn from their failures, though. It’s part of the fun, too.
“I enjoy being able to come back and check on a batch and see like, ‘Oh this is kind of sour why does it taste sour,’ and then you look it up and read something about organic chemistry, and you’re like ‘oh— that’s why it’s sour.’ Maybe we can reproduce this in a way that tastes better. Maybe we can fix it so it’s not so sour.”
Levi and Kade keep pushing towards the next great tasting brew, because it’s fun. It’s inexpensive, and it’s fulfilling.