For those who haven't been exposed to meads before, they are a wine made of honey as the fermentable instead of grapes. Interestingly mead has been grouped with homebrewing for ages, and only more recently has it been included in more wine oriented media. We homebrewers will take the orphaned and obscure fermented beverages without complaints! The first mead I ever had was the old super sweet mead that had a knight on the label and came with a packet of spices to mull with the warmed drink. It was less than impressive and I subsequently ignored meads for about 10 years. Upon getting involved in the burgeoning homebrew community in Minnesota I discovered that several of the AHA Meadmaker Of The Year winners were from the area. We had Curt Stock out to my house around that time to give a presentation on making fruit meads and this really started me off on wanting to try this for myself.
Making a mead is easy, but making a great mead is difficult. I'm going to go over a basic recipe here for starters. I have won a few medals for meads at smaller competitions like Byggvir's Big Beer Cup, but by no means am I a famous mead maker. Consider this a beginner's essay. Following these directions, making a mead will take under an hour of hands-on time--much quicker than even a stove-top extract homebrew. Make sure to still follow good rules of cleaning and sanitation, though the honey and the high alcohol content of meads are a bit more forgiving than with beer.
1) Find yourself some honey.
This is honestly the toughest part of mead making. A 5 gallon batch of mead will require 12-18 pounds of honey, and it can be hard to find in bulk like that. With the recent colony collapse disorder honey prices have risen somewhat steeply as well, so a gallon (12#) jug of honey is likely to cost over $40. When you compare this the cost of a wine kit at the local homebrew shop it isn't that crazy. The quality of the honey can have a big impact on the resulting mead as well, so ideally try to learn where your honey is from and what flowers the bees were using. Most commercial mass produced honey is blended from multiple sources and as a result is fairly plain/generic in flavor. The most sought after honeys for mead making are tupelo and orange blossom (good luck finding them in Minnesota). Each single source honey has a unique flavor, and some are better for meads than others...experiment! Northern Brewer and Midwest both have some honey available in a pinch, but your best bet is finding someone who raises bees and make a deal with them. I was lucky enough this year to find one of my work-mates who is raising bees and he brought me 12 pounds of his fresh honey. I'm assuming it is wildflower (a mix of various sources of nectar for the bees).
|12 pounds of honey awaiting the magic of fermentation|
2) To heat or not to heat.
Most old recipes call for either boiling or at least pasteurizing honey for making mead. Based on years of experience (and more from all those great local meadmakers) this is not worth doing and actually results in a loss of flavor and aroma particles. Honey is essentially sterile, so there is really no need to boil it. You may need to heat it if there has been crystallization, either by direct heat or adding a small amount of near-boiling water. Crystallized honey is just fine, but does make this step more involved. In fact most sellers of honey will be unable to sell their crystallized honey for as much and will often give you a deal on buying this from them.
3) Just add water.
You can use any water for this, but there are some caveats. If you don't like the taste of your tap water, don't us it. Mine tastes like a swimming pool due to added chloramines, so I use bottled spring water. I wouldn't use distilled, as the yeast will need some calcium and other ions to grow and function correctly. I usually add my honey (room temp or warmed if needed) to a 5 gallon brewing pail, mainly to use the estimated volume measurements on the side. For 12 pounds of honey I will usually add water to get up to a total of 4 gallons. This will leave you with a sweet to semi-sweet mead depending on your yeast and fermentation. The typical store bought kits will recommend 12 pounds for a 5 gallon batch, but this nearly always finishes very dry and not as honey-like as most people expect--think honey champagne.
Doing this with a spoon is a pain, especially if your honey is pretty firm. I use a paint mixer attachment for my drill. My wife likes to tease me that the only reason I bought a drill at all was to mix mead and grind grain. She is correct. With this method of stirring you can make sure the honey is completely dissolved in the water, rather than clumped up on the bottom of your bucket. This also adds enough oxygen to the mixture (or must) for good yeast health.
5) Take your vitamins.
One of the biggest advancements in mead making over the last several years has been an increased understanding of yeast health. Honey has tons of sugars for the yeast to break down and turn into alcohol, but lacks a lot of the micronutrients and free amino nitrogen (FAN) that are supplied by beer wort and most fruit juices. As a result, adding nutrients for proper yeast health and energy is the way to go. I use a mix of 2/3 DAP and 1/3 Fermaid K, mixed to that ratio and stored in a spice jar. This mix supplies the needed nitrogen as well as other minerals and nutrients needed. I use 3/4 tsp of this mixture at the initial stirring step. I do another 24 hours after the fermentation begins. Another at 48 hours. And one final dose at about 2 weeks, or when fermentation is slowing down. This stepped addition will keep supplying nutrients to yeast when it needs it the most--during active fermentation. The stirring process at these times will also add more needed oxygen and whip out the accumulating CO2. Mead is not as sensitive to oxygen as beer, so you can feel safe about doing this. Prior to using this method meads often stopped fermenting early resulting in overly sweet product, as well as resulting in stressed out yeast that led to more off-flavors in the final mead.
6) Take your temperature.
I use one of those temperature strips stuck on the outside of the bucket to keep a basic measurement of the fermenting must. This isn't incredibly accurate, but prevents extra opening of the lid risks of letting infection in. Keep the fermentation temperature on the lower side, as higher tends to give you more of those rocket-fuel or paint-thinner flavors. I aim for mid-60's.
I use 2 packets of Lalvin 71b-1122 (Narbonne Strain.) Rehydrate your yeast per packet instructions in warm water. This prevents shock to the yeast if added directly to the sugary must. Some people add Go-Ferm at this step to give those yeast a little nutrient kick. I do that when I remember to. After about 15 minutes add the yeast to your must and you are good to go. You can experiment with different yeasts, but many beer yeasts will not fully attenuate a higher gravity mead.
|Rehydrating yeast getting ready to ferment some honey|
8) Transfer to secondary.
I usually leave the fermenting mead in the bucket for 2-4 weeks before transfer to a glass secondary. By then the majority of fermentation will be done, but if there is still a fair amount of active bubbling in the airlock--leave it for a bit longer. I use a glass secondary mainly so I can see how clear the mead is getting, and I'll leave it in there for a few months to finish fermenting and to clear. I find that young mead often has a sulfur-like note that fades with some time in a secondary.
Most meads done this way will be drinkable, but not all will turn out exactly as you want. The magic and the skill in mead making lies in what you do after fermentation and clearing has occurred. Back sweetening, blending, adding flavorings, tinkering with acid levels, are all options at this point. I'm not going into that advanced stuff here, but know that there is plenty more you can do after the fact to make your mead into something better.
10) Bottle or keg.
I put mine in beer bottles and keep them in a Tupperware container. Meads have a propensity to start refermenting in the bottle, resulting in popped corks and exploding bottles. Following specific gravities from start to finish may help prevent this, but since many still have residual sugar it could be an issue if warmed. Kegs don't run this risk, but I don't pour meads by the pint so I rarely serve them this way. If you want carbonation, the keg is the way to go.
Beyond that, the sky is the limit. Add fruit and you have melomel. Add grape juice and you have pyment. Add malt and you have braggot. Add herbs and you get metheglin. Add cider and you get cyser. Not to mention experimenting with dry, semi-sweet, and sweet meads of differing alcohol content! And then trying different types of honey to mix things up! Also if the honey cost is prohibitive to do such large quantities, try a one gallon batch with about 3 pounds of honey for starters. Meads are not just for Renaissance Festivals anymore!