T'ej in the Upper Midwest
March 17, 2010 7:18 PM   Subscribe

How can I get my T'ej (mead) to ferment in a cool climate?

I've been homebrewing beer for a while, with mostly good results. This time around I thought I would try out a very simple recipe for t'ej that I got from a book (Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz) that has given me sage advice for making kim chee, sauerkraut, and pickles. The major difference between this process and what I've done with beer seems to be that I'm supposed to be cultivating wild local yeast by letting my honey-water mixture sit out for a few days. The problem, I suspect, is that it's early spring in Minnesota and when he says 'set aside in a warm room', I suspect he means a room warmer than the 68 degrees that my thermostat never goes beyond.

So, it's been 4 days and I'm not getting any frothing or bubbling. Nothing. It's just sitting there smelling like honey water. I wonder should I a) go ahead and move it to the carboy and see what happens, b) pitch some packaged yeast (how much?), or c) just be patient because it's so much cooler here than it is in Ethiopia? Putting it in an actually warm room just isn't an option for a couple of months yet.
posted by milkman to Food & Drink (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Most brewing places sell electric powered "belts" you can put around your fermenter. Also if any fermentation is already occuring, piling blankets around it can help - fermenting creates some heat and insulating hte container will help keep it in.

Here's an example:

Regarding whether you should pitch your own yeast, I dunno, maybe. The actual amount doesn't really matter that much, yeast will grow to capacity on it's own no matter how little or much you pitch, for the most part, so how much you use mostly corresponds to how long it takes to start going. Using a starter will usually help the process along (take some of the mixture from your fermenter, add the yeast to it, and once it starts going throw it into your fermenter. Stirring it up well will help get things going, because it'll need oxygen to start.

A lot of mead recipes I've seen call for regular ale yeast. I've seen people making cider with almost any kind of yeast imaginable including bread yeast, so I don't know how much it matters. Hefeweizen yeast might be nice since it ends up making banana and cinnamony flavors.
posted by RustyBrooks at 7:40 PM on March 17, 2010

Using winemaker's yeast is pretty standard for making mead, plus the type of yeast you choose can give you a lot of control over how the final product will taste. Here's a pretty straightforward ratio to help you determine how much to use.

I'm not sure if you need to reheat the mixture to kill off whatever's in there right now before you add the yeast, but I think I'd probably be inclined to do it if I were in your shoes.
posted by adiabat at 7:40 PM on March 17, 2010

Cross-post your question over at the Northern Brewer forums (forum.northernbrewer.com) if you haven't already. There's a wealth of mead and brewing knowledge on the site, not to mention a bunch of Minnesotans on the forum.

This bit of info sounds interesting:
A suggestion for your future attempts - I have found that about one out of every three yeast starters that I culture from wild yeast will mold before fermentation starts. So when I want to use a wild yeast, I will make a starter -- a small volume of honey, apple juice and water at about SG 1.050 in a pint jar to which I'll add fruit or leaves picked off of plants from the yard. I'll aerate the heck out of this by vigorously shaking the jar, then I'll let it set on top of the fridge and see what develops. I pasteurize the honey/water/juice mix, and let it cool to room temp, before adding the fruit skins and/or leaves. If a good fermentation starts in there, I'll let it develop for a day or two, then pitch that into a larger volume of honey & water (about a quart) that is at the planned initial gravity of my main batch of must. I'll also add a little fermaid-K to the intermediate starter medium and aerate it, which the yeast will appreciate as they continue to reproduce. After another day or two, when I have signs of vigorous fermentation in there, I'll pitch that into the main batch. "
posted by bucko at 8:19 PM on March 17, 2010

Sometime honeywine maker here: there's plenty of romantic appeal for me in letting wild yeasts just drift in - this was apparently exactly how our ancient ancestors made the first alcohol known to mankind: just leave a pot of honeywater out for a bit & return in a few days.

However, I've never followed that wild yeast route, for a few reasons:

- There's just too much contaminating crap in the air. It might have been different a few millennia ago. Spring is probably a particularly bad time for airborne contaminants, what with all the pollens & shit floating around.

- It presupposes a really quick fermentation time, like leave it out one day, drink it the next. I understand that this is exactly how the Ethiopians do it. (I've had tej in Ethiopia, by the way, and tried to find out whatever i could about the process). During initial fermentation, your yeasties can usually pretty much crowd out any contaminants, but as the sugar content gets converted & the yeast starts to die out, that's when the other nasties can really get a foothold & multiply.

- As a corollary to the above, you'd be wanting to end your fermentation quite sweet, at a beer-like strength of approx 5%. I prefer to go for a much drier, stronger, wine-like strength of approx 14%.

- From experience (in the relatively warm Sydney climate) honeywine is very slow to ferment, typically taking me up to 2 months to eventually taper off at around 14% alcohol. I understand that the reason mead / honeywine is almost impossible to buy is because the time taken makes it economically non-viable. Either that, or they sell you some sludge that has commenced fermentation, then they add a bunch of alcohol & some honey for flavouring - all smoke & mirrors to please medieval recreationists, but a far cry from the true thing. In contrast, most commercial beers are produced in a continuous industrial process that's less than 24 hours from go to whoa.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:29 PM on March 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

You could also try a lager yeast, which will ferment at lower temps quite nicely.
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:20 AM on March 18, 2010

To increase the temperature, you can sterlise a length of flexible pipe, immerse it in the brew and run hot water through it. Lag your brew container with fibreglass insulation (or just wrap it in lots of blankets). Do that somewhat frequently to keep the temperature somewhat stable and as high as you need for fermentation to take place. I've used this method successfully when brewing beer in a cold country (albeit with a yeast starter). Monitor the process v. carefully with a thermometer - you don't want to overheat, or it will kill the yeast.

If you do add yeast, then the quantity doesn't really matter that much. I'd be inclined to try to make a yeast starter from the sediment of a bottle of unfiltered mead if you can find it, packaged yeast is normally bakers' yeast and tastes nasty in a brew IMO. Even if you had to make a yeast starter from the packaged yeast, it's worth doing IMO to ensure that it's good and active when you add it. Do this by mixing yeast (sediment from a brew, or packaged) in a sterile bottle with some sugar water. Stuff the cap with cotton wool (to let fermentation gases out, and keep pollutants out). Put it somewhere warm (airing cupboard? next to a radiator?) for a couple of days until it's bubbling visibly, then add it to the brew.
posted by bifter at 2:38 AM on March 18, 2010

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