If you have some extra honey and you are looking to try something new this winter, why not try making a batch of mead? Mead is a delicious wine made with honey. Depending on what recipe you use, it can be sweet, dry, sparkling, or flavored with fruit and spices.
Making Mead: The Ingredients You Need
Mead is really very simple – the main ingredients are honey, yeast, and water. But, the quality of the ingredients is very important! I prefer to use my own honey, as I know it is local, raw, and minimally processed. But, it is also fun to try different varieties of honey, and some mead recipes may specify certain types of honey. If you do purchase honey for mead, try to support local beekeepers by purchasing honey from them.
The water used is also important. You should avoid water that has been chlorinated – the chlorine in the water may affect the taste of the mead, and may also affect the yeast. Using well water or filtered water is best. You can also try making mead using unpasteurized apple cider – this type of mead made with cider is called “cyser”.
Finally, you want to use good quality yeast. Again, different recipes will specify what type of yeast should be used. In any case, you will want to make sure that the yeast you are using is fresh, and has not been over heated. I once tried to make a batch of mead using yeast I had stored for several years. That batch failed, as the yeast was no longer viable.
Adding other ingredients to mead can also enhance the flavor. For example, vanilla beans, fruit, and spices. I recently tried adding vanilla beans to a batch of mead and was really happy with the results.
Some equipment you may need includes a primary fermenter, glass carboy, airlocks, siphons, a hydrometer, a corking tool, bottles, and corks. You can purchase this equipment online, or through a local supply company.
Making Mead: The Process
Once you have assembled your all of your items for your mead, you will want to sanitize your equipment. This prevents wild strains of yeast or bacteria from contaminating your mead. It is very important to sanitize any equipment that will come into contact with the mead! I prefer using Star-san, which is a liquid rinse. My father successfully uses potassium metabisulfite, which comes in tablet form and can be dissolved in water.
In a primary fermenter (I use a food grade plastic bucket with a hole in the lid for the airlock), mix your honey and water, or cider if you are making cyser. The exact proportions will depend on the recipe you are using, but in general, it is between 12-16 pounds of honey for 5 gallons. I do not heat my honey – I just make sure it is warm enough to pour easily and mix it with the room temperature water. I then “pitch the yeast” – this means rehydrating the yeast with room temperature water. The yeast is then gently stirred into the honey and water mixture. I cover it with the lid and insert the airlock (filled with water or some sort of alcohol like vodka). This allows the gasses produced by fermentation to escape while preventing wild strains of yeast or bacteria to get into the mead. It is also a good idea to use the hydrometer to take an initial reading of the specific gravity of your mead. This can be used later to calculate the alcohol content of your mead.
Within 24-48 hours, you should start to see bubbling in the airlock – excellent! This means the yeast is busy converting the sugars in the honey to alcohol. At this point, I just leave it alone until the bubbling slows down considerably. The time for this can vary a lot depending on the recipe and the yeast but is usually within a month or so. When the bubbling has slowed down or completely stopped, I use a siphon to transfer the mead to a glass carboy to finish fermenting. The yeast and any sediments will also have time to settle to the bottom, giving you a more “clear” product. The amount of time for this step also varies greatly. Depending on the recipe, I have had it sit for less than a month, but have also let it go for almost a year. I check the mead periodically to see if it cleared and become less cloudy, and if it has “mellowed” – I don’t like a harsh alcohol taste, so I let it age in the carboy until it has a nice smooth flavor. You can also take a second reading with your hydrometer. I won’t get into the math here, but you can find charts online that let you compare the original reading with the final reading to determine the alcohol content of the mead. Also, if I feel that the mead does not have enough of a honey taste to it, I will add honey until I get the flavor I like.
When I am happy with the results, I clean and sanitize glass wine bottles that I save throughout the year. I siphon the mead into the bottles and use a hand corking tool to insert a cork into each bottle. It helps to have an extra pair of hands to help you out with this step. You now have your very own mead!
If you are interested in giving mead a try, there are many resources available. A book I used when getting started is The Compleat MeadMaker by Ken Schramm. There are also many online forums and websites on making mead. If there is a brewing supply store near you, they may also be able to help you get started.
It is so satisfying to be able to open a bottle of your very own home-brewed mead – I highly recommend you give it a try! Cheers!
Jennifer Ford owns and operates Bees of the Woods Apiary with her husband Keith. You can visit them at Bees of the Woods.