by Adam Crockett
Mead is an amazing beverage, it’s neither beer nor wine, but somehow falls in the middle of both. It’s an ancient beverage too, in fact, some people believe it’s actually the oldest fermented alcoholic beverage on Earth. Fermented honey dates back as early as 2000 BC based on chemical signatures found in Asian pottery. The ancient Greeks also drank ambrosia, a delicacy made of honey and believed to be the drink of the gods.
So what is mead exactly? All alcohol is derived from the conversion of sugar by yeast. Whereas beer derives its alcohol from malted barley, and wine derives its alcohol from grape juice, mead is primarily made up of fermented honey. Although mead hasn’t enjoyed the popularity that beer and cider have in the craft revolution, it finally seems to be getting some rightful attention, showing up in homebrew circles, as well as being commercially produced. The best part about this resurgence is the quality of the mead being made, no longer is it a cloyingly sweet beverage that takes years to mature. A drinkable mead can be made in under two months with only a minimal amount of time, effort, and money.
Mead making is a bit different then homebrewing. There is no boil involved and the attention and activity needed is spread out over a few weeks rather than a six hour brew day. There is also less equipment necessary, which means less to buy and less to clean.
The first thing you need to locate is honey; the better quality honey, the better your final product will be, but really any honey will do. I prefer to use honey from an apiary in my area, these can be found by searching internet sites like honeylocator.com. Farmers’ markets are also great places to meet beekeepers from your area to score some local honey.
As for equipment, the good news is if you have homebrewed before then no extra equipment is necessary. However, if this will be your first time making mead, then I would suggest speaking with your local homebrew shop about what you’ll need to get.
Once you have your honey and equipment, it’s time to get started. To begin, combine the honey and the water. I prefer not to boil my must. I use this method because I believe it better preserves the delicate honey character in the final product. Also, honey has anti-septic properties which will keep your mead from any bacterial or wild yeast infection. Mix your honey with enough 80-90°F water to bring your total volume to 5 gallons, you can use a wine whip or a large spoon for this. Next, take a gravity reading. If you are happy with your gravity, then it’s time to add your yeast nutrient. Yeast nutrients are necessary because unlike beer, honey doesn’t have enough nutrients on its own for a healthy fermentation. For nutrients, I prefer Fermaid K, but any wine yeast nutrient will work. Sprinkle 4 grams of Fermaid K into your solution and stir it into your must, whether you are using a wine whip or spoon, you want to introduce oxygen into your mead by splashing the must. The only thing left to do is add your yeast—rehydrate it or sprinkle it on top, then close up your fermenter.
Like beer yeast, mead yeast likes and needs oxygen during the adaptation and growth stages of fermentation, but unlike beer, for the first 3 days you want to open up your fermenter and stir out the C02 and introduce more oxygen. This is because C02 is toxic to yeast and can impart undesired flavors that take a while to age out. Degassing the C02 will lead to a mead that is drinkable, faster. To degas, simply take your spoon or stir whip and agitate the must. Be careful and make sure everything is cleaned properly and be careful to avoid a volcano effect overflow when you are stirring out the C02.
By day 3, you should have a good fermentation going and it’s now time to add the second addition of your yeast nutrients; again sprinkle 4 grams of Fermaid K into your mead and stir. Once you have made this second nutrient addition, stirred out the C02, and introduced oxygen, it’s time to leave your mead alone until it’s done fermenting. Fermentation time can vary depending on honey variety, fermentation temperature, and the original gravity, however, a good average is about one month.
After a month, take a gravity reading, then wait three days and take another gravity reading. If the gravity is the same, you’re done fermenting. Once fermentation is complete, you want to remove your mead from the inactive yeast, proteins, and heavy fats on the bottom of the fermenter and rack it into a new carboy. This will help you start the clearing process of your mead and start the bulk aging process as well. This is a great time to do a few minor adjustments to your fermented mead, like adjust the acid levels with acid blend, back sweeten if your mead is not sweet enough with more honey (be sure to add potassium sorbate so fermentation doesn’t restart) or add more spice or oak. I prefer to age my mead in a 5-gallon carboy rather than bottle right away, I believe this gives the final product a more complete and rounded flavor. During the bulk aging process, you will want to rack your mead at least one more time after about 2 months. If your mead cleared on its own after bulk aging, consider yourself lucky, if not, you will want to pick up a clarifying agent like Super-Kleer. Follow the directions and after it has cleared, rack it again into a clean carboy or your bottling bucket. Your mead is now ready to bottle. A 5-gallon batch will give you around 24 bottles (750ml) or two cases of mead.
Thinking outside the box
Meads can be as simple as honey, water, yeast, and nutrients, or as complicated as you can imagine. Don’t be afraid to try something new like barrel aging, adding a funky or sour yeast, using the whey after making cheese instead of water, or even using an unconventional ingredient like peanuts. Also, meads don’t always have to be 12% or more, I enjoy making low gravity meads in the 8% range. This way, you can enjoy a few glasses with friends and not have to age your product for extended periods of time. Anything you can imagine for a beer is just as capable for mead, so go out there and get creative!
Traditional MeaD RECIPE
(Follow directions given in article)
• 15# Orange Blossom honey
(or any variety you want to use)
• Add water to achieve 5-gallons
• Lalvin 71b yeast
• 8 grams Fermaid K yeast nutrient
My recipe that recently won a first place ribbon at this year’s War of the Worts:
Petite Sirah Pyment
• 36# Petite Sirah Grapes
• 9# Wildflower honey
• Add water to achieve 5-gallons
• Lalvin D47 yeast
• 8 grams Fermaid K yeast nutrient
Have your local homebrew shop crush the grapes for you, add this must to your honey water solution. Stir and introduce oxygen for the first three days, after that, punch down the grape skins every day for a week. After a week, remove the grape skins and matter from your mead and let fermentation complete. a