the art of making mead

mead aka honey wine.  if you have been reading this for any time you likely quite aware that ma and i are very much the enthusiasts for fermenting things.  the ability of molds, yeasts, and bacteria to change foods is absolutely fascinating to me.  as beekeepers and fermenters it is only logical that we make mead.

mead is generally considered to be the oldest of the fermented alcohol beverages devised by humans for their enjoyment.  it’s very easy to make, but a little harder to make well.  i would classify ma and i as decent mead makers – our mead is really suited to our taste, it tends to be pretty dry, with a lot of fruit in it.  i’ve posted on almost every aspect of making mead; bottling, adding fruit, transferring it, but never the actual making of mead – and with this post i finally do that.

mead is made with three things:  water, yeast, and honey.  technically you can make mead without yeast – relying on the natural yeast in the air to ferment it.  the most famous of these natural meads is the ethiopian form served young called tej.  i have had enjoyed tej before, as well as made it, but it is not shelf stable, and utilizing wild yeast is a recipe for exploding bottles of mead.

lets start with water.

sanitizing  is  a big debate – many people feel you have to boil the water in order to kill any bacteria.  you can buy bottled water if you want, you can boil it and let it sit overnight to let the chlorine evaporate, you can filter it if you want, or you can just not worry about it.  i usually heat it up to a boil, then allow it to cool covered over night – to get rid of the chlorine, if i had a filter i would use that and not bother with the boiling.  the next day i bring the water temperature up to 100 degrees.  this is warm enough to help the honey to mix with the water, but not so warm that it will over heat the honey and get rid of its delicate flavors and aromas.  some folks recommend boiling the honey to make sure it’s sanitary, i’d rather take a chance on a messed up fermentation than ruin the delicate flavors of the honey.  have a gallon of water in you pot for each gallon of mead you need.

ok lets move on to the honey

high quality honey makes high quality mead, low quality honey makes the lowest quality mead.  you can get all sorts of honey and if you are making a show mead (one without any flavorings) then the flavor profile is especially important.  honeys have all kinds of flavors, but since we almost never make show meads and use our own wildflower honey, it pretty much dictates what honey we are going to use and what flavor we will have.  having said that, i’ve made interesting show meads with buckwheat and orange blossom honey, and have plans for a dandelion honey show mead.  if i were to buy my own honey i would get wildflower honey in bulk from my local beekeeper, in five gallon pales – buying in the jars is just too expensive.  often you can get a reduced price by promising to bring back some samples of finished product.

how much honey you add to the mead dictates how strong the mead will be, and to a certain extent how dry or sweet it will be.  i tend to go with three pounds of honey per gallon of mead, this makes a mead of about 14% alcohol, and not too dry or thin, but not sweet either.   i’ve done some much stronger elderberry “port” which had four pounds of honey per gallon, it ended up being sweet and strong, and very good, just not something to have with dinner.

put your honey in a clean, sanitized fermenting bucket.  this is basically just a food grade bucket with a tight-fitting lid – with a hole drilled in it for an airlock.  you can buy one for something like 15 bucks, or you get a food grade bucket drill a hole and put a gasket around the hole to hold a airlock.

add the hot water up to make up enough liquid to make the number of gallons of mead you want to make  and mix well, we use a sanitized immersion blender – it does an amazing job.  make sure you don’t say to yourself i want five gallons of mead, so i better add five gallons of water – honey has a lot of liquid in it.  always add the honey first to the fermenter and then bring the water up to the gallon make you want it to be.

the immersion blender both mixes the honey with the hot water and adds oxygen, crucial for good fermentation.

on to the last ingredient – yeast

you can use all kinds of yeast, dry or liquid (which is gonna cost a lot more), wine, mead, or even beer yeast.  i’ve had good luck with high gravity beer yeast, and all kinds of wine yeast.  since we use the same water and essentially the same honey for each batch, yeast is one of the factors that really changes the profile of the mead.  some will make a very sweet mead, some a dry, some add lots of fruity flavors, and some are pretty neutral.  i try to match yeast to the mead i’m trying to get.  i highly recommend ken schram’s book if for no other reason than the yeast profiles, which i often consult before making batches of mead.

i almost always use dry yeast, it’s cheap, works well, comes in enough varieties to make me happy, and stores for a long time in the fridge, so i always have some on hand when the itch to ferment hits me.  i always peruse the yeast section of the homebrew section for new yeasts, and pick up any i find – looking for new favorites.

dry yeast should be rehydrated for about 15 minutes in a little warm water before being added to the honey water (the technical term for adding yeast to the honey water is pitching).

you can see how foamy the surface of the honey water is, that’s just from using the immersion blender.

ideally you should take a hydrometer reading to figure the potential alcohol so you can know when it’s ready to add fruit or bottle.  it’s really not necessary, but it’s certainly helpful – and you are gonna need to take a reading before you bottle to make sure it’s stable so you might as well do it now.  the basic idea is that if you start with a hydrometer reading of the potential alcohol, and then take a reading when it’s done to see what the potential alcohol is.  if you started with a potential alcohol of 14% and after six months you still have a potential alcohol reading of 11% you have a problem, likely a stuck fermentation and you should pitch more yeast.  but if after six months you have a reading of 3%, you know you are in good shape – great time to add fruit.

with all that done slap the lid on the bucket, and put the airlock on.  put a label on the side of the bucket – listing info you might want – type of honey, yeast, date started, and the hydrometer reading was.

the airlock should be bubbling in with in the next day or so.   if you are used to brewing beer know that mead is a much slower ferment, don’t expect the vigorous bubbling of beer.  the primary ferment takes about two to three months ( i take a hydrometer reading, and transfer when it reaches about 6% or less potential alcohol) , after that you can rack (transfer) it to a secondary fermenter to age, or add some fruit for flavor.

you do not want the mead to sit on the spent yeast for two long, so make sure you rack to another fermenter every few months, for small batches one gallon wine jugs with corks and airlocks work well, for bigger batches we utilize glass carboys.

it takes about a year from start to finish for it to be ready to bottle.  to see the rest of the process – adding fruit – and bottling – click here and here.

a few other notes

locally california wine grape is within the city and a great source for basic wine and mead making needs.  also for the, locals i’ve given serious thought to a couple of basic mead and country wine making classes, but unsure if there would be interest – would anyone attend?  what would you want to learn?

and finally, i’ve tried to keep this as simple as possible, and in the act i know i’ve likely forgotten a few things, as well as not gone into detail on some subjects as i’d like, feel free to ask questions and i’ll try to answer them.  for the more advanced fermenters, i plan an advanced mead post in the future.

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4 responses to “the art of making mead

  1. I would also attend, and I’d like to add I enjoyed the first ~7 months of UED this year. Let’s make it happen again next year+add more classes/not get so busy in the fall.

  2. I would also attend.

  3. Pingback: medicinal mead | little house on the urban prairie

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