A Prickly Experiment

(Note* A video sharing some of the mead making process is available down at the bottom)

So I was sitting on Homebrew Talk, one of my favorite forums, a couple of weeks ago and came across a post where a guy in Arizona was talking about the surplus of prickly pear fruit he had from his yard.

Now I’m always looking for a new challenge or experiment, and I started thinking about what I could do with this particular fruit in relation to the world of beer and wine.  I considered a prickly pear hefeweizen, (which still sounds intriguing) but the idea of a prickly pear mead really stood out to me.

First and foremost, since we haven’t talked about it in a previous post, I think it is important  to talk about what exactly “mead” is.  We’ve all heard about it, whether in literature, at the liquor store, or perhaps even in a video game.  But, how many people really now what it is, or have ever tried drinking mead?

The history of mead is somewhat ambigious although history traces it back to several ancient civilizations, first appearing in Northern China and also found through the history of the Vikings, Ancient Greeks etc.  The origin of the word traces all the way back to Proto-Indo European (med”u) which leads us to believe its ultimate origin may be somewhere in what we consider Eastern Europe.

Often called the nectar of the gods mead is made through the fermentation of water and honey.  Thus, we often refer to it is honey wine.  While traditional mead is simply these two ingredients, like everything else the world of mead has transformed over the years as different styles and twists on the ancient beverage have been born.  Fruit, spices, hops and a variety of other ingredients have been infused into the basic recipe in order to create a variety of mead styles including, melomels, metheglins, pyments and many more.

A variety of meads fermenting

As previously mentioned “melomel” is a style of mead that is infused with fruit.  One of my favorite meads I ever made, with the help of my good friend Nate was a cranberry blackberry mead aptly named “Bogged Down”.  This particular mead tasted like an alcoholic version of ocean spray.

Bogged Down Melomel

Choosing to make my next melomel using prickly pears presented a few challenges.  The biggest challenge was the fact that I had never even tasted this particular fruit.  Prickly pears are the fruit from cacti, hence why it is also called cactus fruit.  Since New England isn’t known for its cacti, this fruit is very uncommon in this area.  After ordering 10 pounds of the fruit from Arizona, I took a little time to acquaint myself with the fruit.  The fruit which is slightly larger than a golf ball, has meat that is a vibrant purple and very soft.  There is no pit, but the center of the fruit is filled with a cluster of very small hard seeds.  Flavor wise the raw meat reminded me of a blend between pears and plums, but slightly sweeter and much more mild.  Once boiled however, the flavor reminded more of watermelon.

A look at the inside of a prickly pear

Cacti with prickly pears

Normally when I choose to make mead, I like to do a 5 or 6 gallon batch.  However, due to the mild flavor of the cactus fruit and the limited quantity (about 5.5 lbs after peeling and de-seeding) I chose to only make about 4 gallons worth of prickly pear melomel.

After I finished prepping the fruit it was time to choose my honey.  Personally I like to use multiple varieties of honey in each of my meads.  Different honey made from different types of blossoms all have slightly different characteristics both in taste and color.  I believe that by using a couple of varieties a more well-rounded flavor profile can be created.  Obviously there are times when only one variety may be preferred, but for this mead I decided to use three types.  I decided on using 16 pounds of honey for this batch.  Since the honey is going to be where I get the majority of my fermentable sugars I wanted to make sure I used enough to at least reach 8% ABV.  I settled on 2 lbs of Alfalfa blossom honey, 5 lbs of orange blossom honey and 9 pounds of clover honey.

With the fruit prepped and the honey selected it was time to begin making the mead.  The first step was boiling the prickly pears.  To do this I brought about 2 gallons of water to a boil and then added the fruit.  Most of the time I only boil fruit or honey (or anything going into mead) for about 15 minutes, giving it enough time to sanitize and pasteurize.  However through my research I learned that prickly pears due to being very viscous require a much longer boil.  By boiling the fruit for 2 full hours I was able to break down a lot of proteins and in a sense “thin” out the fruit concentrate I made.  Without the long boil the fruit concentrate would have been so thick and syrupy that the finished product would have had a very undesirable mouthfeel.

During the boil a thick slightly astringent green foam began to form on the surface.  This albumen material is a foam-like substance containing the proteins that were breaking down from the seeds and fruit during the boil.  This foam, if left in suspension, would create a haze in the finished mead which is very undesirable.  The best way to describe albumen is to think of the egg-white of an egg.  when the egg is initially poached into boiling water, the egg white appears as a thick syrupy foam-like mixture.  In order to preserve the overall clarity of my mead I constantly skimmed off the albumen every time it formed on the surface.

Boiling the prickly pears. Notice the green foam “albumen” forming around the sides of the boil pot.

As I closed in on the end of the two hour boil which had netted me about 1.5 gallons of juice concentrate, I brought an additional 30 litres of water up to a boil and added my 16 pounds of honey.  THIS IS WHERE I MADE MY MISTAKE!

I only meant to bring 15 litres of water up to a boil since I was only making a four gallon batch.  With 30 litres boiling with the honey mixture, I had way to much volume and if I used it all I would greatly over power the juice concentrate.  At this point I had a decision to make.  I could either weaken the potency of the prickly pear OR I could add several more pounds of honey, split the batch and also make a traditional mead. (just honey and water)  Since I am never opposed to making MORE mead, I chose the later option and added an additional 7 pounds of honey to the already boiling mixture.  After boiling the honey for 15 minutes in order to pasteurize it, it was finally time to finish what had now turned into two completely different meads.

First in order to make sure I completed the prickly pear melomel correctly, since that was my priority, I filtered out the the juice concentrate into a carboy leaving the fruit pulp behind.  I ended with a little short of 2 gallons of juice concentrate, and continued to add the honey mixture to the carboy until I was at 4 total gallons.  Again, my thought process was that a 4 gallon batch would be small enough where the flavor from the prickly pears would still be strong enough given how mild the flavors are.  After finishing up the prickly pear melomel, I santized a separate carboy and put the remaining honey solution into it.  I ended up with just over 5 additional gallons of mead.

With the help of my friend Pat, I have posted a video that shows the process of filtering out the juice concentrate and adding the honey to the juice.  While I did make a mistake during the process, I was happy to see that in the end I turned out with two very different mead styles to ferment.

Traditional Mead on the left and the Prickly Pear Melomel on the right

To wrap up this mead experiment I added a few cinnamon sticks to the traditional mead and pitched Lalvin D-47 yeast along with pectic enzyme and a little yeast nutrient.  For the melomel I pitched two completely different yeasts, a sherry yeast from White Labs and a dry champagne yeast.  I also added both pectic enzyme and yeast nutrient to the melomel.

Currently both meads are fermenting away and I will keep everyone up to date over the next several months as these things work to completion.

My fermentation forest. From Furthest back to the closest. Traditional Mead, Witching Hour Black IPA, Olde St. Skellington Holiday Ale, Prickly Pear Melomel, The Green Knight Belgian Style Holiday Ale, Wide-Eyed Coffee Porter

Here is our video…enjoy


Categories: The Mead Corner

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