Let’s Make a Stirplate

The last two weeks, I have been working on completing a home-built stirplate.  A stirplate allows a meadmaker (or homebrewer) to culture a larger yeast colony than what comes in the yeast packets or vials prior to pitching.  A yeast starter better acclimates the yeast to the must, and improves fermentation rates due to the healthier yeast and larger starting colony size.

My design for the stirplate is based on the one available at stirstarters.com, with a minor modification to the resistor and potentiometer.  The smallest potentiometer available at Radio Shack was 5k-Ohm, so I was forced to increase the resistor size accordingly to ensure a proper voltage drop across the fan.

The supplies (all prices at Radio Shack unless otherwise listed):

  • 1 SPST Sub-Mini Switch ($3.49)
  • 1 micro-F Capacitor, 2 pack ($1.99, $1 each)
  • 5 k-Ohm Linear Potentiometer ($3.49)
  • 680 Ohm Resistor, 5 pack ($1.49, $0.30 each)
  • LM317T Voltage Regulator ($3.49)
  • Breadboard ($3.49)
  • 8″x6″x3″ Project Box ($8.99)
  • Four 3″ machine screws ($1.26 x2, extra needed for additional nuts to mount fan)
  • 12 V computer fan (free, salvaged from an old computer build)
  • D83 Neodymium Magnets (free, leftover from another project, usually $1.33 each)
  • 12 V 1 Amp power adapter (free, harvested from old Verizon router)
  • 22 AWG wire, soldering iron, lead free solder, electrical tape, hot glue gun (price not included)

Total price, tax included: $28.38 ($34.02 with magnets included, fan likely less than $10 additional)

Following the schematic from stirstarters, I laid out all the components and got to work building.  I highly suggest that anyone working with electronics have the appropriate multimeter, and measure the system components before soldering into place.  I should also warn you that the potentiometer will catch on fire, I repeat, it WILL catch on FIRE, if you short the voltage regulator.  Just be careful; I will not be held responsible for any accidents that occur.

Not knowing the pin layout for the LM317T and the potentiometer, I sought some help from a friend working on the same build.  You can find information on the pin layout for the LM317T here.  The potentiometer layout can be found here.  Note that you can reverse terminals on the potentiometer to control the clockwise/counterclockwise rotation of the potentiometer corresponding with an increase in power to the stirplate.  My design used the middle terminal for input, and the ground terminal as the output.  I only wired to two of the pins.  Test it out with a multimeter, and see what you prefer.

It had been years since the last time I put together an electronics project, but the build was easy enough.  First-timers shouldn’t have any problem securing all the wires together.  And if soldering doesn’t appeal to you, you can add some connectors to the supply list to complete the build.


             The Work Area                  Finalized wiring, Fan removed


All Screwed Together

Once finished, I put it through a test using a 1 gallon carboy filled 3/4 to the top.  Sure enough it created a steady vortex, more than enough for building a good yeast starter.  I still need to trim the potentiometer and add a knob, but looks weren’t what I was going for.  It is functional, and more than capable for my needs.  Success!

Completed Project with Steady Vortex


Brewing Season is Upon Us

Now that the Maryland weather is cooling down, I can return my focus back to making meads again.  During much of the summer, the 84 degree temperature inside doesn’t bode well for fermentation.  Most yeasts prefer temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees.  Lacking a way to control this, I tend to shelve the idea of making meads (unless they prefer high temperatures) and wait for the fall.

With the changing leaves, I have plans to start experimenting with local yeast capture.  We have a few eastern red cedars on our property with mature berries covered in yeast blooms.  I’m currently working to build a stir plate (plans at http://www.stirstarters.com/), with the intention to focus all winter on meadmaking with a local yeast.  At the same time, inspired by places like Blue Dog Mead and Leaky Roof Meadery, I will focus on low alcohol by volume meads, ideally in the 5-8% abv range.  I also want to try my hand at bochets, or caramelized honey meads.

I will spend part of the time updating you on my plans to turn my backyard into a local fruit paradise.  Right now, we have blueberry, blackberry, chokeberry and huckleberry bushes, with two very young persimmon trees.  Unfortunately none of these are old enough for any serious production.  Combined with the wild raspberries growing in our creek, over time I hope to make meads from these fruits.  I’ll have to fight my wife for who gets to use the fruit (she does love to bake), but hopefully in time I’ll have enough for us both to share.

I leave you with this recent article on the mead industry.  If mead is a canvas, what would you like to paint with?

New AMMA Publication

Thought I’d take this time to reference to the latest American Mead Maker’s Association’s (AMMA) newsletter.  Has some interesting articles on mead-food pairings, mead recipe design, an historical reference to mead (Pliny the Elder), and a recap of the 2013 Mazer Cup: AMMA Summer 2013.  If you missed the first two newsletters, they are worth a read as well.

For those who don’t know, the AMMA is a relatively newly formed body with the following long-term goals:

  • Establish relationship with government officials
  • Member discounts at participating wineries
  • Reduced entry fees at mead events
  • Establish Mead Style Guidelines for legislation and competitions
  • Create Mead Judge Certification program
  • Clinics taught by industry leaders and subject matter experts
  • Mead science research

The organization is extremely young, only founded in May 2012.  I encourage all to support their local meadery, and in turn support the AMMA.  They may not seem like much yet, but show promise in promoting mead related causes in the coming years.

And while you’re at it, you should help promote fair regulations for the mead industry, brought to you by the one and only Ken Schramm, author of The Compleat Meadmakerhttp://petitions.moveon.org/sign/revise-ttb-regulations.fb31?source=s.icn.fb&r_by=2503511

Wedding Meads

It was a beautiful day in April, as the love of my life prepped to walk down the isle.  My niece and first cousin once removed (what an annoying way to refer to a cousin’s child) were clogging up the aisle.  Just moments before they were so happy to play with the rose petals, and now that they had to actually do it, they froze and threw off the timing.  But you aren’t here to read about my wedding and romance, this is about mead!

Terrapin Bluffs Mead made its first public appearance at my wedding (well, larger than serving to only a few people at a time).  I served the basic JAO recipe and a modified JAO made with blackberries and blueberries, each scaled to 5 gallons so there was enough to go around.  We served both as parts of the toast, to rave reviews from all of our guests.

As part of the process, I developed a special mead label to signify the occasion.  We used a sunset paper cutout as the central design element for the wedding, so I thought it fitting to place it smack dab in the middle of the logo.  I still kept the TBM logo around, but rotated it and shrunk it to take second place behind the importance of the day.  We used appropriately colored ribbons to glue the logo to the bottles, giving it the final professional appearance.


From the tasting notes, most of the wine-drinkers preferred the blackberry variety, although as a general rule the majority of the wedding preferred the traditional, unmodified JAO.  We were just happy to serve the mead, and have everyone with us for our wonderful wedding.  It was so great having all of you involved, and hopefully there will be more mead for all the guests come Christmas!

Designing a Label

With Terrapin Bluffs as the name, I set out designing a logo.  I had defined a few requirements…  I wanted 7 scutes (the plates on a turtles shell) to coincide with the number of diamondback terrapin subspecies.  I needed a reference to bees, since everything I make includes honey.  And that was it.  A pretty large box to work in.

At one point, I even envisioned a turtle whose shell was built of honeycomb, and whose body was dripping with honey as it stepped from location to location, leaving little drops everywhere along the way.  It’s eyes, nose and mouth were the opening to this moving hive. This fully ambulatory honey hive was pretty cool in my head.  However, my art skills aren’t that great, and I wanted something simpler anyway.  The honey turtle may still be a mascot one day, but it wasn’t good for the label.

I eventually decided on a turtle shell with a hexagon border (honeycomb), with the Terrapin Bluffs name wrapping around the shell.

Here are a few of the early label designs, with 7 scutes in entirety.

The first design iterations, from winter 2012.


Early drawings of the turtle shell for the logo (summer 2012)

Now we’re getting closer.  My carved pumpkin for last Halloween (Oct 2012).

Finally I realized I should include the namesake for the brand in the design, and decided to outline the shell in the image based on the shell on a real turtle.  I took the 7 scute idea from the pumpkin carving (1 large central scute outlining the typical 5 scutes down the middle, with 3 scutes on each side depicting where the 4 would normally be).  I started with a photo, and outlined the shell portions I wanted.

Last, it was just adding a layered hexagon, changing some colors, and there you have it, the TBM logo.  Thanks for reading!


Why Terrapin Bluffs Meadery?

I contemplated long and hard what kind of name I would want for a meadery.  Did I want to evoke an image of something, choose a family name of heraldry (Jones wasn’t that interesting…), or even name it after a legend?  I was initially leaning towards the legend idea, as it would be fun to play on the history of mead with each of the new recipes.  However, finding a suitable legend proved difficult.

At first, I researched the story of the Red and White Dragons of Welsh mythology, where it required a cauldron of mead to quaff their thirsts such that they no longer fought and shook the castle walls.  The name was to be Lludd’s Tavern, after Lludd Llaw Eraint, the hero who eventually captured the dragons.  If he could create a mead (well, purchase really) that could entice dragons, it certainly would be fit for friends and family.  I am also predominantly Welsh on my father’s side, so it would have made sense from a historical perspective. Needless to say, I found out that a pub by the name of King Lud used to exist in England, and scrapped the idea.

Then I thought about Norse mythology.  Most people revert to knowledge of Beowulf when discussing mead’s origins, so I thought, why not play on the already popular ideas of Vikings drinking mead.  I thought of using Loki’s Tavern as the meadery name, where I could name all my meads about his deeds or those of other trickster gods from cultures around the world.  Unfortunately, I don’t really fancy myself being a trickster or prankster of sorts, so it didn’t really gel with my personality or ideals.  Back to the drawing board I went.

Finally, it dawned on my that I should really use something personal to me.  Since I was about 5 years old, I’ve kept turtles as pets.  I even went to the University of Maryland, despite being from Florida.  I really liked the idea of using the terrapin as the namesake for the meadery.  However, there already exists a Terrapin Beer Company in Athens, GA and a Terrapin Station Winery in Maryland.  How could I differentiate myself from these two companies and not run the risk of infringing on trademarked products?  After all, both already produce alcohol (albeit beer and wine are regulated differently, and neither of these two companies could sell eachother’s product, but that’s a topic for another blog!).  Terrapin Meadery was too simple, and I didn’t think it would fly with the two companies in existence.

Then I remembered all those times I’ve seen lots of turtles basking on the banks of rivers, streams, and lakes.  If I stretched the idea of these banks, I figured I could call them bluffs.  It also worked since I’m bluffing that I own a meadery (who knows, maybe I one day will).  After I thought more and more about it, the name just stuck.  Terrapin Bluffs Meadery.  It just fit, but then it came time to design a label…

The Beginning

A few years back, September 2009 to be precise, I fermented my first batch of mead.  I was 23, fresh out of college with a little bit of spending money, and thought why not try my hand at making some homemade alcohol.  It can’t be that hard.  I had never tried mead before, but thought beer was overdone and wasn’t a huge wine fan at the time (how many guys are in their 20s?), and why not start with the drink of the Vikings?  If it was good enough for Beowulf, it must be good enough for me!

Three and a half years later, I’m still making mead, although not as much as I want to.  I currently have 13.5 gallons under airlock, but I could always use some more.

For those who don’t know what mead is, you aren’t alone.  And when I say I make mead, most people ask, “How you make meat?” thinking I’m a farmer of sort.  Mead is simply fermented water and honey.  Many ingredients can be added to make variants of mead, including fruits (melomel) and spices (methyglyn).  For those interested in more about mead, stay tuned.  Or if you aren’t patient, check here: www.gotmead.com.  It’s the best repository of mead knowledge I’ve found, and the folks are friendly too!

I recently decided on a name for my fictitious closet meadery, Terrapin Bluffs, and a logo (things I’ll explain in later posts).  So, I figured the next step might as well be to document all my merry adventures making the world’s oldest (arguably) fermented beverage.  So this is my journey, or more appropriately, will be.