The Milkweed Diaries

Friday, October 24, 2008

Brewing Crabapples: Mead? Cyser? Scrumpy? Melomel?

Last week we harvested a bunch of crabapples from various trees on the campus of Warren Wilson College, and some from a tree on our land too.

The crabapples from the trees at the college are remarkably sweet, and the ones from the tree on our land have good flavor too. They are just so incredibly abundant and delicious that we wanted to put them to use somehow.

(Some of the crabapple haul is pictured above and below)

We decided to make a cider-ey fermented beverage from them.

We juiced the crabapples and used a basic mead recipe (see below).

I'm not sure what the resulting beverage should be called. There is apparently a lot of very highly specialized mead-making terminology. Meads made with fruit are known as melomel. But meads made with fruit juices are technically called metheglins. When the juice used in making a metheglin is from apples, the drink is called cyser. And scrumpy seems to be a catch-all term for strong and usually chunky fermented apple drinks. So who knows what to call this beverage that we are making. Do crabapples count as apples? Can it be simultaneously a mead, a melomel, a metheglin, and a cyser? All of those last three terms sound vaguely pharmaceutical to me, so I'm going with just plain Crabapple Mead, or maybe Scrumpy, which sounds sort of dirty and scrumptious at the same time.

Basic mead is very simple. Its ingredients are:
  • Water
  • Honey (we use 1 gallon for a 6 gallon carboy)
  • Fruit (optional), juiced, smushed, or sauced. A lot, or a little.
  • You can also add herbs and spices, and
  • Wild or storebought yeast
As you can gather, it's pretty flexible.

We had a lot of crabapples to juice, which was the most time-consuming part. A cider press would have helped.

We added some pears from a tree in our friend Sharon's yard, and an heirloom local apple I had leftover from my recent adventures in birthday cake. The pears and apples went into the mix after being turned to sauce in the food processor.

After the seemingly endless juicing process, we heated some water to dissolve the honey, whisked the honey in, added the crabapple juice, and poured it all into a big carboy with enough water to fill the jug up to its shoulders (where it begins to taper in to the neck).

For this batch, we added a pack of yeast (Lalvin K1-V1116 saccharomyces cerevisiae, $1 at Hops and Vines in West Asheville), but you don't have to. Wild yeasts will do the job. Either way, just throw everything in a jug and let it sit for a while, and see what happens.

Here's our 6 gallons of mead in the making. In a few days it should be bubbling mightily. After it's done with it's most fervent fermenting, we'll top off the carboy with water and let it go a while longer until the flavor's just right, and then we'll bottle it up.

Over the summer we made our first meads --one with wild blackberries and another with pears, and we've since made a very strong batch of pear-ginger mead. It's so easy, and so good, and so cheap! This batch will have cost $24 to make ($23 for a gallon of local honey and $1 for a yeast packet), but if you have your own bees or access to honey and use wild yeast, it could easily be free. We estimate that it will end up costing about $1 for a wine bottle-sized bottlefull of this mead. Beats the heck out of the price of a bottle of wine. And it's organic, local, and homemade with very simple, nutritious ingredients.

While we were stirring everything together, I was reflecting on how these fruit fermenting traditions must have evolved - what a great way to take fruit and honey, which are hard to come by in the winter, and preserve their goodness in a warming drink for the cold months.

I have a good feeling about this one, because the flavor of the crabapple juice was so very fine, and the edge of tartness from the crabs goes so well with the honey flavor. But only time will tell...


Heather said...

Oh this looks wonderful. I really want to add fermented drinks to my repertoire. I have made flavored vodka by infusing herbs, spices, fruits or veggies. But this, this looks delicious beyond compare! I love Hard Apple Cider and I bet this is close.

I'm making this mental list of things to grow when I live on my dream farm - recently I added Elderberries and Chestnuts. I think I need to add crabapples too. Don't they make pretty spring flowers?

Milkweed said...

Yes! Crabapple trees can be really beautiful in the spring. It seems like there must be heirloom varieties that were used more for food than the more ornamental ones that you see for sale at nurseries and bigbox garden centers these days. The ones that are all over the place here are gorgeous in flower. I posted a picture of them flowering last spring:

Milkweed said...

Thanks for reading, Heather...And hurrah for elderberries, too! I'm imagining your dream farm full of fruit and flowers....

Heather said...

Fruit, flowers, nuts, berries, herbs galore! I have this mental picture of the "woods" that I would plant. My baby would grow up as the trees grew. And hopefully he or his brothers would stay on and use the sustainable woods that their parents had grown for them.

I'd like to calculate just how many things I would need to grow to be (mostly) self sufficient. Obviously I would have to buy grains, sugars, coffee, and rice - but how much else could I grow myself!! How amazing!! :)

Dana said...

Pretty pretty please call it scrumpy. And pretty pretty please invite me over to drink some. Maybe it's full name could be "Crabapple Scrumpy Fielden-Trigg."

jack-of-all-thumbs said...

Thanks for the tip. I used to brew beer but something in the wellwater left an after-taste that I could not eliminate. Now that we have switched over to rainwater, I've been considering brewing again. But your post started me to thinking about using the honey from our bees, along with the various fruits from our still-young orchard/vineyard.

Anonymous said...

Metheglin is generally thought of as meads in which herbs have been steeped for flavour or (originally) medicinal uses.

If you're using fruit juices, or fruit, it comes to the same thing; you're making a melomel.

Some melomels have their own names, such as cyser for apple melomels.

Scrumpy is a name generally used for (often) low grade ciders. There's some dispute about this, since some people associate it with the word scrumping, which means stealing (often stealing fruit specifically) and don't like the association.

In general terms, what you're making is a crabapple cyser. Oddly enough, I'm doing one as well, but my proportions are different. I use about 1/4 by volume of honey, and the rest is pressed crabapple juice. Once the yeast chews up the apple sugars, by itself the result can be very tart, and even aggressively sour (although this can be ameliorated by using a malolactic fermentation step). The sweetness of the honey balances the sour of the apples, and the result is a very pleasant drink.

One word of warning: depending on the sugars and the yeast used, this sort of thing can top 15% abv quite easily, even going over 20% abv. Drink with care, respect and enjoyment.

Zum Wohl!

Milkweed said...

Thank you for this very informative comment. I'm kind of attached to calling it scrumpy (despite the connotations), but it's nice to know the proper terminology.

I hope your cyser turns out well--let me know!

I had to look up "Zum Wohl" (thanks, wiki) so I learned even more from your post.

Sláinte L'chai-im!

Anonymous said...

You're very welcome.

I'm doing a number of different batches.

One formula which has worked well for me:

1 gallon honey
3 gallons water
5 limes (cut up, squeezed and tossed in to flavour it until first racking)
a fist of raisins.
fine ground cinnamon and cloves.

Rack after a while to get the solids out, rack a few times more as needed to clear off the lees, over the course of a few weeks.

Set aside to mature for a while. Two years works well.

This makes a good metheglin which is very potent, but has a nice smooth character in the end. For less sweetness, use 4 gallons of water instead of 3.

The peel of the limes releases citrus oils while it's in primary fermentation which noticeably affects the final aroma and flavour.

In case you have friends who are sensitive to sulphites, it makes sense to disinfect everything with ordinary bleach instead of sulphites, and to let the yeast ferment to completion in peace. This doesn't kill bacteria in the ingredients, but if you add a properly set up culture of yeast at first, you will find that the yeast outcompetes other cultures very well, to the point that taint is a very minor consideration. Remember that alcohol and carbon dioxide are yeast's defences against other organisms, and if you give it a fighting chance, they usually work very well.

The raisins and limes add nutrients and acidity so that you shouldn't need to add yeast nutrient specifically.
For meads and their family, I find that sherry and champagne yeasts both work quite well. Primary fermentation can take quite a while because there is so much sugar, especially in sack meads, to consume.

Anonymous said...

i just read a fb comment about scrumpy and when i googled it, i found your blog. i'm curious about this knowlegdgeable anonymous poster. who is she (she meaning all genders of course)? fermenting love, rev rivercane roundbelli ps let's make some natto! xoxo