The Art of Mead Making
or How To Drink Like a Viking
It is fascinating to watch a person’s face as they drink honey mead for the very first time. They seem as though some part of their brain has been unplugged. All worries, anxieties, and daily activities have been temporarily lifted off their shoulders and put into the proper place to enjoy the sweet nectar. It is not surprising that there is such a surge in popularity and demand today.
So what the heck is mead, anyway?
Simply stated, mead is honey wine: fermented honey. As we will soon see, there are hundreds of recipes for making mead or other types of honey wine. Mead-making has been perfected over several thousand years. For the most part, it is a simple proposition of mixing water, honey, and good yeast and exposing the mixture to the right environment until the sugar has been converted to alcohol. This is usually done by adding fruit, spices, and herbs to the mix during various phases of the brewing process. Still, 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 a hundred 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. Adding additional honey to make your wine super sweet 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 replaces 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. Every culture seems to be familiar with it in one form or another. It is said that mead began with the Vikings, but we see it 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 consumed today. Did you know that the word “honeymoon” refers 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 ensure enough hanky-panky to produce offspring.
Different honey, different mead.
I have made delicious 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 orange blossom honey with Lalvin D-47. 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, it cannot be called mead. Think of honey the same way a winemaker thinks of grapes. Your honey’s flavor will depend on location, temperature, and altitude. This will determine its sugar content, viscosity, and, most importantly, its taste. Experienced mead makers will blend different kinds of honey together to impart a flavor or aroma that is uniquely theirs. For orange blossom honey, the bees are kept in the orange orchards, which imparts that particular aroma. Wildflower honey can make outstanding wine, but it will depend on the location. Alfalfa, orange, and clover are popular readily available kinds of honey. 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 an intense bouquet. As you experiment, you will learn to identify your favorites and get a sixth sense of 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 will give you a recipe for my fool-proof 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 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. Still, you are much better off avoiding it altogether by covering 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. Some beginners started by making cider from apple juice. They will attempt to make mead by using the same yeast, typically a champagne yeast. This creates a poor mead. Champagne yeast will convert so much sugar to alcohol that it completely removes the sweetness from the drink, resulting in a very dry beverage. I prefer Lalvin D-47 since these tend to get the right amount of alcohol from the 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, resulting in a bad, maybe even undrinkable, batch. I usually float a thermometer in the carboy, and it stays there. This way, I can read the 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 electrocute yourself. Also, make sure the contents do not get too warm or kill off your yeast.
You will need two 5-gallon carboys. They were called Sparklet’s bottles in the old days, after the company that developed them. You have perhaps seen these all over the place, usually at a doctor’s office or maybe even your own workplace. They are those 5-gallon bottles that you see sitting on the water coolers, with one notable difference being that if you are going to brew, you will need to get glass ones. Never ferment in plastic containers. Carboys 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 one-gallon carboy. Have you ever bought 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. Still, 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 bottle end of the hose 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 natural 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 quickly 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 use. Don’t skip this step, or you’ll end up with vinegar. Remember, honey is not cheap.
1 gallon of honey. I recommend orange blossom or clover for the first batch. Both are light, have a delightful fragrance, and are easy to work with.
A word about honey sources: Much of what passes off as “honey” on today’s supermarket shelves are mixtures of honey with other sweeteners, such as high fructose corn syrup. Look at the label, and make sure your honey comes from a reputable source. If you use imported honey, it may be cheaper, but there is usually a reason.
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 (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 in a 5-gallon carboy with some yeast, plug the thing up with a cork and airlock, and have a good batch of mead. Provided that you have the patience to let Mother Nature do her thing, there is a 50–50 chance you’ll end up with 4 ½ gallons of excellent 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 of contamination. For this reason, some brewers use Campden tablets (sulfites) to kill off any active yeast or bacteria 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 scoop out all the wax and particulates that float before fermenting. There is one massive problem with this: 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 experience.
I believe 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 ensures 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. 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 so that the gasses can escape rapidly. Do not use sulfites in your carboy — the opening is too small to allow the sulfite to dissipate rapidly. 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 to determine precisely the water to mead ratio. Believe it or not, too much sugar is just as detrimental as not enough, but the following formula will give you good results for the 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.
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 complete. We use the 1-gallon for measuring the water because 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. Shake well and cork loosely with a cotton ball. Set aside and allow sitting undisturbed for 10 minutes, and pour it into the carboy. Cork and airlock. This step causes the yeast to begin multiplying very quickly. 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.
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 bubbles. Your house will start to smell like honey. This is usually when beginners ruin the batch by opening 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 the 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. How long this takes depends mainly on the temperature, the sugar content in the honey, and the yeast used. This can occur between 4 weeks to 6 months.
Racking your mead
Racking is siphoning the must from one carboy to another 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 overnight so that any sediment that may have been stirred up during this move gets to settle again.
9. Wash your second 5-gallon carboy and siphon hose in bleach. Rinse them really well.
10. Put your empty carboy on the floor beneath your mead’s original carboy.
11. Remove the cork from the original carboy and insert your siphon to be about halfway into the bottle. You don’t want to disturb the sediment. It helps if you have a helper to hold the siphon in place.
12. Suck on the hose until the mead flows 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. Secondly, it aerates the must, thereby reactivating the yeast to 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 cannot siphon anymore 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 whole again.
Now we wait some more 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 flavor the mead. It is a perfect clarifier. Boil 4 cups of water, mix in 5 teaspoons 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. If you haven’t observed any activity in the airlock for at least 5 days, you can 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 an excellent 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.
About the author
Gerald Enrique del Campo is a poet, Jungian, philosopher, hermetic magician, shaman, mythologist, author, musician, mead maker, herbalist, foodie, motorcyclist and, all around nice guy.