The Ancient Art of Mead Making
It is fascinating to watch a person’s face as they drink honey mead for the very first time. It is as though some part of their brain has been unplugged – all worries and anxieties and daily activities have been temporarily removed and put into the proper place in order to enjoy the sweet nectar. It is not surprising that there is such a surge in popularity and demand in mead today.
So what the heck is Mead, anyway?
Simply stated, mead is honey wine: fermented honey. Mead making has been perfected over several hundred (maybe even thousand) years, but for the most part, it is a simple proposition of mixing water, honey, good yeast and exposing the mixture to the right environment until the sugar has been converted to alcohol. As we will soon see, there are hundreds of recipes for making mead or other types of honey wine, and this is usually done by adding fruit, spices and herbs to the mixture during various phases of the brewing process, but for our purposes we will concentrate on my fool-proof recipe. It is so easy that anyone can do it. Once you have made your first successful batch you are on your way to creating one of the most pleasant drinks you can share with your friends and family.
Are there different types of mead?
There are hundreds of forms of honey wine, but the name “mead” is the simplest and most ancient of them all, and it is reserved for honey wine made from honey and water. If you add additional honey to make your wine super sweet it is called “sack mead.” If you add fruit it is called a Melomel. If spices are used it is referred to as a “metheglin.” If you add grapes and/or raisins it is a “Pyment.” Ethiopia’s national drink, called a T’ej is a mixture of honey, water and hops. My favorite is called a “cyser” which is done by replacing the water with the juice of apples, pears, cherries or peaches.
Where does it come from?
Honey wine is perhaps, the oldest of all wines. It is said that mead began with the Vikings, but it is seen everywhere from Egypt where samples containing honey, water and hops were discovered in tombs, to Ethiopia where it has been enjoyed since about 400 B.C. and is still brewed, sold and drank today. Every culture seems to be familiar with it in one form or another. Did you know that the word “honeymoon” is a reference to honey mead? Yes, it is true. In ancient Babylonia it was customary for the bride’s father to provide the groom with enough honey mead to last him a lunar cycle. Obviously, the Babylonians thought of honey wine as an aphrodisiac that could be used to ensure enough hanky-panky to produce offspring.
Different honey, different mead
I have made really tasty mead batches from store bought clover honey and baker’s yeast, but I don’t recommend that you try that until you have become familiar with the nature of the brewing process. The thing to remember is that the best ingredients yield the best results. I am rather partial to using an orange blossom honey with a champagne yeast. If done right, one can even smell the oranges while drinking the wine. It is a truly remarkable experience.
This is your most important ingredient. If there is no honey in it, it cannot be called mead. Think of honey the same way a wine maker thinks of grapes. The flavor of your honey will depend on location, temperature and altitude. This will determine its sugar content, viscosity, and most importantly, its flavor. For orange blossom honey the bees are kept in the orange orchards, and these little blossoms is what imparts that particular aroma. Wild flower honey can make a wonderful wine, but it will depend on the location. Experienced mead makers will blend different honeys together to impart a flavor or aroma that is uniquely theirs. Alfalfa, orange and clover are popular readily available honeys. Blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, sage and eucalyptus are delicious, but you may have to call around for these. Buckwheat honey is a very dark and thick honey with a strong bouquet. As you experiment you will learn to identify your favorites and will get a sixth sense for what the mead will taste like before you even begin to brew it.
All right, already. How do you make the stuff?
When I first started brewing mead there was precious little information available. I went to my public library and checked out a couple of books on the process, which were put together by some science professors and contained just enough information to take the joy out of doing it. Don’t get me wrong, if you are going to make mead you will need to understand the science that goes with it, but I believe that learning should take place as one is actually doing it. Rather than bore you to tears with technical information I am going to give you a recipe for my foolproof mead and trust that you will follow these instructions carefully and take notes like a good scientist.
NEVER use distilled water for brewing. Yeast needs oxygen to survive and convert the sugar into alcohol. Distilled water carries a much smaller percentage of oxygen than regular tap water. Also, the yeast will require some of the minerals that the distillation process removes resulting in a weak fermentation phase. In the brewing world this is referred to as “stuck fermentation.” If this occurs, it isn’t hopeless, but you are much better off avoiding it all together by making sure to cover all your bases. I use filtered tap water and the end result is indistinguishable from the same mead made with bottled “spring water.”
As I said earlier, you can use any yeast – even bread yeast, but I don’t recommend that for your first batch. I prefer champagne yeast made by Lalvin since these tend to get just the right amount of alcohol from the honey. Their EC-1118 yeast has a high tolerance to alcohol, which makes it perfect for fermenting honey.
The ideal temperature for yeast reproduction is 72 degrees. Anything above 85 degrees for longer than about 10 minutes will kill off most yeast and encourage unwanted bacterial growth. Anything below 65 degrees will result in a stuck fermentation, allowing unfriendly yeast to overpower your champagne yeast resulting in a bad, maybe even undrinkable batch. I usually float a thermometer in the carboy, and it stays there the entire time. This way I can get a reading of temperature without opening the bottle. In the winter months, I wrap the carboy with a heating pad and a couple of blankets. Be careful not to get the heating pad wet or you could electrocute yourself. Also, make sure the contents do not get too warm or you could kill off your yeast.
You will need two 5-gallon carboys. In the old days they were called Sparklet’s bottles, after the company that developed them. You have seen these all over the place at the doctor’s office or maybe even your own work place. They are those 5 gallon bottles that you see sitting on the water coolers, with one notable difference: If you are going to brew, you will need to get glass ones. They can be had at any brew shop for under $20, and if you are lucky you might even find one at a garage sale for a couple of bucks. These will serve as your fermentation vessels.
A 1-gallon carboy. You ever buy apple juice or cider in those one-gallon glass bottles? Those will do perfectly. You will use this bottle to measure one gallon of honey. You could use anything, like a bucket or some other one-gallon container, but if you use a 1-gallon carboy you can use it later to brew small amounts in experimental batches.
A siphoning hose. The brew shops sell them just the right size for your 5-gallon carboys. The end that goes into the bottle is made of hard plastic, saving you much grief by making the hose much more manageable.
One cork for your 5-gallon carboy with a hole in the center for your airlock. I use rubber for two reasons: there is a shortage of real cork. The trees that produce cork are being decimated and I simply do not wish to be a part of the problem. Also, because cork is porous it is susceptible to bacterial growth. Rubber can be used many times over and it is easily disinfected in bleach.
One airlock. This will keep air out of your bottle while the honey is fermenting while letting out the carbon dioxide, preventing unwanted airborne bacteria and yeast from getting inside and ruining your honey wine.
Bleach. Everything must be washed with bleach before using. Don’t skip this step or you’ll end up with vinegar or worse.
1 gallon of honey. I recommend orange blossom or clover for the first batch. Both are light, have a delightful fragrance and they are easy to work with.
1 packet of brewing yeast.
1 packet of yeast nutrient or yeast energizer. This supplements the sugar already present in the mead.
1 packet of bentonite
1 small glass bottle (around 16 oz)
1 cotton ball
1 large funnel
The method to the madness
As I have already said, the process is relatively simple. The theory is that if you add 1 gallon of good honey to good quality water (I use filtered tap water) to a 5-gallon carboy with some yeast, plug the thing up with a cork and airlock – AND you have the patience to let Mother Nature do her thing, there is a 50-50 chance that you’ll end up with 4 Ã?Â½ gallons of really good mead in a few weeks. But I don’t like those odds, do you? If you follow these instructions to the letter you can increase your chances exponentially.
With brewing there is always a risk in contamination. For this reason, some brewers use Campdem tablets (sulfites) to kill off any active yeast or bacteria which may be in the grape or hops before adding their chosen beer or wine yeast. Some mead makers will bring their honey to a boil in a stainless steel pot and scooping out all the wax and particulates that float to the top before fermenting. There is one huge problem with this: the process of boiling the honey will destroy much of the bouquet that you want in your finished product, and if it is overdone the honey will smell bad, producing a really bad mead.
I hold the opinion that this fear of contamination outweighs the effects of destroying the subtle fragrance of the flowers in the honey. Honey possesses various qualities that inhibit the growth of bacteria. This means that if the mead maker takes care to ensure that the fermentation activity is enthusiastic by preparing a good starter, the chances for contamination are negligible. I have never lost a batch of mead due to contamination, and I never boil or use sulfites in my process. The choice to boil, of course, is all yours. Just know what you are giving up in doing so.
If you decide to use sulfites (potassium metabisulfite), remember to use an open top container, this way the gasses can escape within 24 hours. Do not use sulfites in your carboy – the opening is too small to allow the sulfite to dissipate. If there are any traces of sulfites left when you add your yeast they will die.
Step by step
There are more complex methods for mead making. Once the brewing bug bites you, I recommend getting yourself a hydrometer so you can determine the water to mead exactly. Believe it or not, too much sugar is just as detrimental as not enough, but the following formula will give you good results for your first time.
1. Wash your small glass bottle, 5-gallon and 1-gallon glass carboys and funnel with bleach – rinse, really, really well.
2. Put enough honey into your 1-gallon carboy to fill it to the top.
3. Pour the honey from the 1-gallon carboy into the 5-gallon carboy.
4. Use your 1-gallon carboy to pour 4 gallons of clean water into your 5-gallon carboy until it is almost full. The reason we use the 1-gallon for measuring the water is that this will help release any honey remaining from step #3.
5. Add your yeast energizer. Follow the instructions in the packet.
6. Cork and seal with an airlock and shake lightly. Place the carboy in a room where the temperature does not fluctuate too much.
7. Put 1 cup of warm water (90 degrees – no hotter) into your small glass bottle and pitch your yeast into the bottle. Shake well and cork loosely with your cotton ball. Set aside and allow sitting undisturbed for no longer than 10 minutes and pouring it into the carboy. Cork and airlock. This step causes the yeast to begin multiplying very quickly so that when it is poured into your mixture it will take over the fermentation, overpowering any unwanted yeast present in the honey. This is called “a yeast starter.”
And now we wait.
Now it is simply a waiting game while the yeast converts all that sugar into alcohol. Usually by the third day you will begin to see a lot of activity in the form of bubbles, your house will begin to smell like honey, and this is usually when beginners ruin the batch by opening up the bottle to “get a taste.” Resist the temptation to prematurely open that bottle. Your patience will be well rewarded. I promise.
During the following few weeks you will begin to see color of the mixture (called “the must”) lighten considerably, revealing a beautiful, transparent golden hue as the sugar is converted. You’ll also notice that the impurities (dead yeast, wax, etc) will begin settling at the bottom of your carboy. When the activity has dramatically decreased, and the bubbling in the airlock has slowed down to about 2 or 3 bubbles per minute it is time to rack the must. This can occur any time between 4 weeks from the beginning to 6 months. How long this takes depends largely on the temperature, the sugar content in the honey and the yeast that was used.
Racking your mead
Racking is the process of siphoning the must from one carboy to another in order to separate it from its impurities while providing enough oxygen to complete the fermentation.
8. Lift your carboy containing the must and carefully place it on a counter or tabletop. Let it sit over night so that any sediment that may have been stirred up during this move gets to settle again.
9. Wash you second 5-gallon carboy and siphon in bleach. Make sure to rinse them really well.
10. Put your empty carboy on the floor beneath the original carboy containing your mead.
11. Remove the cork from the original carboy and insert your siphon so that it is about halfway into the bottle. You don’t want to disturb the sediment. It helps if you have a helper in this step to hold the siphon in place.
12. Suck on the hose until the mead begins to flow via gravity into the empty bottle. This is your chance to “accidentally” get your first taste. This racking process accomplishes a couple of things. First, it separates the mead from the sediment, which could impart an off-flavor or bouquet to the mead. Secondly, it aerates the must, thereby reactivating the yeast so that they can continue converting any leftover sugars. The person holding the siphon should slowly lower the siphon as the level in the carboy drops. As soon as you see that you cannot siphon any more without sucking in sediment, stop. The original carboy can now be washed with bleach.
13. Cork and airlock the newly filled carboy. If you lost a lot of mead with the racking, you can mix some more honey and water and add it to the carboy until it is once again full.
Now we wait some more, this time until there is no activity in the airlock at all. Now you are ready to clarify your mead.
Bentonite is volcanic clay. It is easy to use; works really well, and doesn’t impart a taste to the mead. It is a perfect clarifier. Boil 4 cups water, mix in 5 teaspoon of bentonite (1 teaspoon per gallon) and add it to your mead. Cork, airlock and shake thoroughly. Let it sit for a couple of days and watch all the remaining sediment fall to the bottom of the carboy, leaving the mead sparkly clear. What a sight that is!
Rack again like before, wait a day or two and, and if you haven’t observed any activity in the airlock for at least 5 days, you are ready to bottle your mead and share it with your family and friends. There is nothing quite as satisfying as “making your own.” Nothing quite like tasting such a wonderful drink that you made with your own hands and know how. You are now a mead maker, and you will never look at alcoholic beverages the same way again.