Staghorn Mead

Its always fun to brew using things you find in your backyard, or in the nearby parks and forests. Last year I made a mead from some honey harvested from my hive…and some yeast harvested from my bees. This fall I put together something a little different – a mead made from Staghorn Sumac, which is an abundant tree on my farm.

For those of you unfamiliar with sumac, it is a commonly used spice in African, Middle-Eastern and South-East Asian cooking. It is a vibrant red spice made from the “hairs” coating the sumac berries. Its character is a bright acidity, created by the large amounts of malic acid present on the hairs. While in Asia it is used as a spice, those in North America may be more familiar with its use in making a lemonade-like beverage.

Harvesting Sumac

Staghorn Sumac
Staghorn sumac, a few days before its ready to harvest

To make a sumac mead we first need sumac. There are a lot of types of sumac that you can use, with more areas of the northern hemisphere having one of more native species. Edible forms all have red-to-burgundy berries (poison sumac has white berries…don’t brew with that one in case the name didn’t make it obvious), but getting them at their peak is a challenge.

There are two things we need to address – the first is getting the berries when they are ripe. I can only speak to my local species of sumac (Staghorn sumac), which appears as a mix of red & green just before they are ready, with most of the berries going bright red when they are ready to harvest.

The second thing we need to consider is that most of the flavour is on the outside of the “berries”, and can be washed off by rain. So make sure you are collecting berries at least 3 days after the last rain. You’ll know they are ready as they will feel slightly tacky to the touch, and if you lick your finger after touching a sumac cluster, your fingers will be intensely sour.

I harvested a 5 gallon pail of sumac bobs; most I harvested the spice from by knocking the hairs off in a blender (the hairs are the spice). But I kept a dozen or so of the better bobs for the mead.

Brewday & Fermentation

The brewing of this mead was very simple and straight forward. I only made 4 L (~1 gallon) as this was an experimental batch.

sumac infusion
Making the infusion

I first created a sumac infusion by placing several large sumac bobs into 4L of dechlorinated water. I let this sit overnight in the fridge, created a yellow-orange coloured infusion with a slightly tart character.

I then poured 800 g of honey into a sanitized 4L fermenter and warmed the honey by placing the fermenter into hot water in my kitchen sink. To this I added the sumac infusion until I had 3 L total volume. I then vigorously shook the fermenter until all the honey was incorporated, and then added more of the infusion until the final (4L) volume was reached. This produced a must with a gravity of 1.067.

To this I added 1 g of Lalvin QA23, rehydrated in a small volume of distilled water. I chose this yeast as sumac is known to contain a lot of glycosides, which a glycosidase-positive yeast like QA23 can convert into flavourful components.

I followed a TONSA-like approach, but using White Labs W1000 nutrient in place of Fermain-O. I added 0.6 g of nutrient at 24, 48 and 72 hours post yeast-pitch, as well as a final 0.6 g on day 6.

staghorn mead, bottled

56 days later (it should have been 30, but life got in the way) I transferred the mead – now at a gravity of 0.997 (9.4% ABV) to a clean fermenter, to which I added 125 g of honey, 0.2 g of potassium metabisulfate and 0.9 g of potassium sorbate. I put the mead into a fridge to clear…and after a month added some sparkeloid to try and clear it faster. Another month later and it was ready – but a tasting showed it wasn’t sweet enough. So I transferred it to a clean fermenter, along with 125 g of additional honey. The mead was then bottled as a still mead, using half-sized (325 ml) wine bottles sealed with corks.

Tasting Notes – Staghorn Mead

Appearance: A light peach colour in appearance.

Aroma: Honey, with hits of rosewater.

Flavour: Up front is a honey character, slight tartness, and a rosewater or floral-like character. The strong malic acid bite I was expecting is absent, but the mead is still slightly tart. I over-sweetened this slightly, giving the mead fair bit of sweetness in the mid-body. The after taste is a lingering honey sweetness and rosewater character.

Mouthfeel: The higher sweetening rate has given this mead a rather heavy body, similar to what you may find in a bolder red wine. This is a little odd, given the pale colour of the mead. Its not unpleasant, but it is unexpected.

Overall: This mead is not quite as I expected. The yeast must have done some malo-lactic fermentation, making it much less sour than the initial infusion. I also back-sweetened it more than planned, making it more of a dessert mead than a day-to-day sipper. Likewise, the glycosidase activity brought out an unexpected floral character. Personally, I’m not a big fan of rosewater, but even so, I do find this mead enjoyable. SWMBO’d is a much bigger fan of a floral palate, and I think I may be lucky to have any of this mead left come Christmas. Overall I enjoy this mead, my wife is a big fan, but there is a lot of room for improvement.

Changes for Next Time: I’d make a few changes when I next make this mead – likely the summer of 2020. First, I’d use a lot more sumac (perhaps even the purified spice) to get a much more intense flavour. Secondly, I’d pick a glycosidase-negative yeast (and one incapable of malo-lactic fermentation if possible) to limit the floral flavours. Finally, I’d back-sweeten slightly less aggressively, to make a dryer mead.

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