Sunday, June 28, 2009


So today (and by today I actually mean Monday, June 22nd) I headed off to the local brewshop. I bought bottle brushes, yeasts and a automatic siphon.

But I suppose I should take about my meadmaking history, my credentials, so to speak. I was first introduced to mead about 10 years ago by a gaming buddy of mine, John. He brought a bottle over that was just heavenly. As I’ve already mentioned, I have a very sweet tooth, and his mead was the first alcohol that had really tasted good to me, without being mixed with syrup or hidden by soda.

The next time he made a batch he invited me over to help and most of what I remember of that day was watching a gigantic pot of honey water boil while we scrapped scum off the top. Once it cooled we mixed in some freshly squeezed orange juice, making it actually not a mead, but a melomel.

John later moved across the country and when he left he gave to me all of his brewing supplies, since they were so large to try and ship. I gave it a try on two occasions. The first time I made very young mead (I was impatient in my youth) that tasted strongly of yeast and was pretty harsh. The second batch I decided to let age longer, but I think I let the vapor lock dry out and the must went bad.

So today, armed with a new and quite wonderful book, The Compleat Meadmaker, by Ken Schramm, I decided that I wanted to give it another try. The summer has been very busy, but I felt like I needed to get the mead going over the summer, since we don’t heat our kitchen/laundry room over the winter, and the yeasts need the room temperature to be in the 60s.

So I’ve been looking around for good prices on honey. WinCo had orange blossom honey for $3.24 / pound, but could only sell them in little 2 cup jars or in the industrial 40 lb. buckets that they got them in. I only need 18 lbs. for this recipe, so it was a bit of a conundrum, but eventually I decided to get the big bucket and have enough honey for two batches.

The recipe I’m going to try in the Sweet Show Mead on page 164 of The Compleat Meadmaker. 18 lbs. of honey, 4 gallons of water (bottled spring water), and some modern yeast energizer and nutrient. The yeast I used was two packages of dry Lalvin D-47 yeast.

I heated one gallon of water to boiling in a large stock pot. I then added the 18-20 lbs. of honey (using a sterilized soup ladle). This took a lot longer than I expected and by the time it was all in the temperature in the pot was 110°, while it was supposed to be about 150°. The recipe wanted the honey water to sit at 150° for a while to kill any bugs in the honey. So I heated it up on the stove to 150°. No problem.

The next step, was to pour the hot honey water into the rest of the water. There were two important sub-step to this:
Don’t pour the 150° honey water on yourself (which I managed to succeed at).
Use refrigerated water so that it would reduce the overall temperature of the honey water to 80° so that the yeast could be added at a happy temperature for them.

Well, I had forgotten to buy the water until just a few hours before starting, so it wasn’t very cold and only dropped the overall temperature of the must to about 125° -- way too hot for the yeast. But, not anticipating this, I had already proofed the yeast -- poured it into some warm water to re-hydrate it and get it going. The instructions on the package had been very adamant that the yeast should bloom for 15 minutes and no longer.

It took something like three hours for the honey water to cool down to 85°. I was worried that the yeast might not be good anymore. Maybe they had woken up, found nothing to eat and starved to death. But I pitched them in anyway, and the stirred the heck out of it, to aerate the stuff as much as possible. Then I sealed it up, attached the vapor lock (a water-filled valve that lets CO² exit the airtight container, but doesn’t let bacteria-filled air in) and waited.

By bedtime it wasn’t doing anything but in the morning it was bubbling away.

It started fermenting with a Specific Gravity of 1.140. That’s a little higher than expected, so I probably put in more that 18 lbs. of honey. I want a sweet mead anyway, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

More details as things develop.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sorry for the delay

Life has come to a head and I haven't been able to post about the meadmaking on Monday. Nothing bad is happening, just a lot of projects coming due at once. My roleplaying game, Ellis: Kingdom in Turmoil, which I try not to talk very much about here, is coming along _very_ well and I am doing a lot of playtesting and final refining. But it has taken me away from writing about mead and wheat.

The short of it is: the mead did get started and it is bubbling away in the kitchen right now. Due to a few small errors it took much longer than planned and I did worry that I had bloomed the yeast too soon. But I had no reason to fear. By morning those little guys were eating their way through the honey maying wonderul CO2 and ethanol.

More tonight or tomorrow as things calm down.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hi honey! I'm Home!

I just got back from WinCo, a local chain of discount supermarkets. I have a 40 pound bucket full of honey. That's $123.50 of honey.

The meadmaking will start tomorrow!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Working the Fields

So if the heavy plow is turning over the ground, all of those weeds and grasses are being flipped under 4-8 inches or soil. That’s a lot deeper than my inch of topsoil and newspaper.

Just as a quick experiment, I recently broke out the shovel and dug down 6 inches or so and flipped over the turf. It’s been 10 days now and nothing has grown up there, whereas with the newspaper I had dandelions poking through within a few days.

Quoting from The Carolingian Economy which is in turn quoting from a capitulary from the year 800 from the town of Le Mans in Western France:

Every man holding a quarter of a _factus_, must be plowing his lord’s land a whole day with his beasts and thereafter his lord may not ask him to do handiwork service [such as carpentry or weaving] during the same week. And he who has not enough beasts to do this in one day shall complete the work in two days; and he who has only four infirm beasts, incapable of plowing by themselves, has to join other beasts in order to plow the lord’s land in one day and thereafter shall do one day of handiwork services in that week. And he who cannot do anything of these and has no draft-animals shall work three days (in a week) with his hands for his lord from dawn until sunset and his lord shall not ask more from him.

The emphasis is mine and shows that even with the heavy plow some people were still working the fields by hand. It implies that a day’s worth of plowing was equal to 3 days of hand turning the soil, though plowing could be much more efficient and this may be simply as much work as a lord could get out of a peasant and still allow him to take care of his own fields (especially since how much of the day is not specified for the plowmen).

So I think I have to call my first field a failure. I mean it’s been a lot of fun and I am very happy with it. But the experience isn’t medieval enough. I’ll keep posting about it and continue talking about the experience.

The important question though, is what do I do to fix it next time? What can I do to make my experience more medieval? I could plow, but I don’t have access to a team of oxen, horses or even a tractor. And the space I have is really too small for that anyway.

I could use a sod cutter. A sod cutter is a modern piece of equipment used to remove grass in those strips that you can buy from landscaping stores. They work essentially like a plow except that they have a moving blade that cuts horizontally under the level of the ground. Here’s a video showing how they work:

The problem with a sod cutter is that they all have a pre-set cutting depth -- which is 2.5 inches. While that is great for grass and gets the majority of the grass roots, it won’t get some weeds and if you just flipped that over you’d have a dense web of roots pointing up. I don’t think that would work.

So, I have bought myself a very nice spade and will do it, like in the quotation above, by hand. I have marked out a 600 square foot section of the lawn and I have plans to make a sowing tool. I’ll plant that section this fall with winter wheat and see how it goes.

You can trust that I will post all about it (and what it does to my poor old back) when the time comes.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Plowing Videos

A quick one of a hand plow pulled by two draft horses.

Here’s a three-horse team tearing up a field. There are some good shots of the sod being turned over and of the smooth, flat path the plow has left behind.

A close up of what is happening to the soil during plowing. It’s done with modern equipment, but shows very well what is happening to the ground.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Truth About Plows

OK, so the simplest plows are nothing more than a blade attached to a frame that can be pulled by people or animals. They have been around since pre-historic times and function like I mentioned yesterday -- they carve a shallow scratch or furrow and leave an undisturbed strip of ground between the furrows. So several passes over the field, usually at right angles to each other, were necessary to fully ‘till’ the land.

The heavy plow is more complicated and does much more. It consists of four main parts, the coulter, the plowshare, the moldboard and one or more wheels at the front of the plow.

The coulter is a vertical blade that cuts into the turf. It creates a slit in the ground that the plowshare can get into to do its work.

The plowshare is an iron or steel piece of the plow that dips under the sod and has a horizontal blade that cuts the earth parallel to the top of the soil. It essentially cuts out the top layer of the ground in one long strip and feeds it up to the moldboard.

The moldboard is a curved board that takes the turf cut by the plowshare and pushes it to the side, at the same time flipping it over. This takes that strip of sod and inverts it, dirt-side up off to the right side of path of the plow. All of the grass and weeds are now root-side up and are effectively buried under inches of earth.

The last important piece of the heavy plow is a wheel or set of wheels, whose height can be adjusted, which allows the farmer to set the depth at which the plowshare is cutting.

This is obviously much more work for the animals pulling the plow than the scratch plow. The horizontal blade of the plowshare is dragging through the ground 4-8 inches under and encountering a lot of resistance. In his book, Medieval Technology and Social Change, Lynn White Jr. talks a lot about the ramifications of the adoption of the heavy plow, making these important points:

  • That the plow required the pulling force of 8 oxen
  • That these large teams of oxen required a lot of effort and coordination to turn around, which changed the shape of fields to long strips
  • That few farmers could afford 8 oxen of their own, so peasants had to form alliances in order to come up with enough animals to pull the new plows
  • And that with this change came an essential change in philosophy: whereas peasants had once held an amount of land theoretically able to produce enough food to feed themselves, they now held land in proportion to how much they could contribute to the plow-team. Man was now no longer part of a natural cycle, he was now part of a ‘machine’ that exploited that cycle.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Unthinkingly Plowing Through Life

You know, it’s amazing how when you think you know how something works, you stop paying attention. Whenever the subject comes up in a book or whatever, the brain just turns off and says, “I already know this, I don’t have to pay attention any more.”

An example of this has come up this week in regards to the wheat project. I’ve been thinking a lot about my little 115 square foot plot and all the weeding I’ve had to do. If it took me 2 hours to weed 115 sq. ft., that would mean it would take me 758 hours (63 12-hour days) to weed an acre.

I’ll admit that I’m slow and that this is the first time in my life that I’ve really done this, so with the sort of practice makes perfect that you get from doing a job all your life let’s say that you could cut that time down by a factor of five (which is probably generous). Even then it’s taking you two weeks to weed an acre that will then need to be re-weeded after a one or two week’s worth of time. That means that one person would be continually weeding a half or a full acre.

So during the season, a family of four (ages 10+) would be doing little all day but weeding 3 acres. That does not pass a reality check. Or it just barely does if you take the few acreage figures in the polyptychs, and cut them in half, figuring them to be fallow. But only barely. And even though it may have been possible, that doesn’t mean it was done or that it even needed to be done.

I could also be doing things wrong. In an effort to save the wheat and the newspaper’s integrity, I have not been using a trowel or other tool to try and get out the weeds’ roots. This is certainly making me weed more often, but since the newspaper technique isn’t historically accurate, the problem remains, probably on a larger scale since the newspaper is actually working in large areas.

Let’s go back to my initial paragraph. I’m not a farmer, nor have I ever spent any time on a farm. I have always known that fields get plowed. I know that the scratch plow used in the Mediterranean world was unsuitable for the heavy soils of northern Europe. I know that in the second-half of the first millennium AD a newer, iron-shod or iron-constructed plow was invented and revolutionized farming in the north. But I never really thought about what that meant to the ground.

It’s particularly funny/odd/disconcerting because I’ve just finished re-reading Medieval Technology and Social Change and it has my highlights in the section on plowing, so I really have no excuse for not having internalized this information.

I know that seeds need to go in the ground to grow. So I figured that was what a plow did -- made furrows in the ground for seeds to go in. But, as I am discovering in my own back yard, it’s not that easy. What about the wild grasses and weeds that are already there? Surely you’re not pulling those out by hand?

After a little bit of research, I have been educated as to what a heavy plow with a moldboard really does. And I will discuss that, tomorrow.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Planting Wheat -- 9 weeks in

I have my first ear of seeds in the Red Wheat!

The close-up is a bit blurry, but hopefully you can see the grains there. I examined them just the day before and I swear there was nothing there. I really think that those all grew in 24 hours (48 tops!).

Here’s a look at the whole plot:

Some small few have grown tall while most of them are still just grass-like little clumps.

My bucket of winter wheat had been stagnant for a while. Nothing had changed, no new ears of grain had appeared. Then in the middle of last week I watered the bucket on a whim and now there has been quite a bit of growth. Every single stalk has seeds now, even one stalk that had fallen over and was laying down flat.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Roman _Libum_

So I made the Libum last week. The recipe that was in Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome was pretty weak, but I was able to play with it and fill it out. Here’s what I did:

  • 1 2 lb. container of Ricotta Cheese ($4 at my local mega-mart)
  • 2 pounds of whole wheat flour (I weighed it out and then forgot to measure that in cups) I only wound up using about 1 1/3 lbs. of it.
  • 1 egg
  • 1.5 teaspoons of salt
  • 2 tablespoons of melted butter

Dump the Ricotta into a large mixing bowl. Add the salt and the egg. Stir in as much of the flour as you can before your arm gets tired (or be smart and use a mixer -- I didn’t think it would get that stiff). Pour the mixture into a greased bread pan. Smooth the top with a spatula and perforate the top many times with a fork. Brush on the melted butter. Cook in a 350 degree oven for 1 hour. The dough will rise a small amount and brown on the top.

The family had a few slices that night and were quite pleased. The taste is subtle and mild, and it has a dense cheesecake-like texture. The next day I took the leftovers to a small party and everyone enjoyed it. Many thought it needed something to spice it up -- strawberries, cheesecake and chocolate were suggested. Another friend commented that he thought it would be good to slice up and deep fry.