Ah, mead. Just as honey is one of nature's truly remarkable substances, so is its fermented product: mead. Mead is thought to be the oldest beverage fermented by humankind, and it makes sense; all honey needs to become mead is dilution with water and some yeast, which is literally everywhere. The consumption of some diluted honey by an early human, slightly foaming with the magic of fermentation, would have caused the now well-known "say, that's good!" Somewhat later, after some particularly enthusiastic dancing or storytelling, an enterprising soul decided that arranging to have this stuff around more often would definitely be a good thing!
Many human cultures learned to harvest honey, and as apiculture advanced, mead followed. Mead has been with us a long time, and is now enjoying a resurgence in production (both commercial and home-based) and in appreciation. From the dim past to the Greek gods on Olympus to Beowulf, mead has earned a special place in our imagination. Words such as "medicine" and "honeymoon" derive from mead. I hope that this introduction inspires you to explore this remarkable beverage and, in making your first or your hundredth batch, to participate in the history (and future!) of human's relationship with this wonderful honey product.
At its most basic, mead has three ingredients: honey, water, and yeast. Meadmaking has some similarities to winemaking or beer brewing, and some differences. We'll talk briefly about equipment, ingredients and techniques, and encourage you to use the discussion forum to get ideas and your questions answered.
Basic Equipment: Check your yellow pages for a local home winemaking or home brewing shop. Many good online sources exist as well for those who don't have access to a good shop, but a relationship with a shop is great because they are available to answer questions, and can provide last-minute equipment and ingredients. A basic meadmaking equipment kit (for five gallons) can usually be found for $75 to $125 (U.S.), and should include the following:
A plastic fermenting bucket of 6 to 8 gallons, with an airtight-fitting lid and a hole for the airlock (a 6.5-gallon carboy may be used as well, unless you plan on using whole fruit)
A five-gallon glass carboy with a stopper and airlock
Racking cane and siphon tubing
Hydrometer and sample jar
Floating thermometer (if you wish to pasteurize)
Bottle capper (beer bottles) or corker (wine bottles). Corkers are sometimes available for rent at shops or through winemaking clubs.
Also helpful are an angled brush for the carboy, a large stockpot, stirring spoon, and a large plastic funnel that fits in the neck of the carboy. A cool doodad if you'll be doing this much is a jet bottle washer for rinsing out bottles and the carboy quickly and easily.
Advanced equipment could include an acid titration kit, a siphon starter, carboy thermometer strips, sulfite titration ampoules, etc. It's definitely worth noting that good technique, quality ingredients and time are what make good mead, not fancy equipment!
We've come a long way since those first days of wild yeasts and bacteria. Contamination causes off-flavors, poor stability, aesthetic problems, and can totally ruin a mead. Good sanitation practice and the use of pure strains of yeast are key to quality mead. You'll sanitize ALL equipment that comes into contact with the must (unfermented mead) and the mead during its life, including the fermenters, siphon equipment, airlock, bottles and caps, spoon, everything. Two ounces of unscented bleach in five gallons of water is a cheap and very effective sanitizer, but should be rinsed thoroughly before using. Ten minutes contact time is sufficient. Don't let bleach solution soak too long on stainless steel! It will pit and eat it, potentially ruining a nice (and expensive) piece of equipment. Other preparations, such as Iodophor or Star-San, are also easy to use and effective, and don't require rinsing.
One important point regarding sanitation has to do with siphoning: don't use your mouth to start a siphon! Our mouths are full of nasty bugs that can contaminate a mead in no time flat. Sanitize the racking cane and put it in the vessel you're siphoning from. With clean hands, take your sanitized siphon tube and coil it in one hand. Fill the tube with water from the tap and plug the end with your thumb. Attach the other end to the cane, lower the thumbed end to the receiving vessel, and let go. The weight of the water will start a sanitary siphon! If you're siphoning a small batch, like a one-gallon jug, you can run off the water into a slop bucket and then divert the flow to the fermenter when the mead is flowing.
The sanitation of must is a subject of some discussion among meadmakers. The good news is that lots of folks do it different ways, or not at all, and lots of folks make great meads. The goal is to have only your yeast making alcohol and flavors and aromas in your mead and NOT the "bad guys". There are four main approaches:
Boiling the diluted must. This guarantees that the must is sterile, and helps the mead clear more quickly. It allows you to skim off protein scum that forms during the boil. The downside is that it drives off the most volatile, delicate aromas that give a good mead some of its complexity.
Pasteurizing the must. By holding the honey mixture to 145 F for 10 minutes you will kill most of the bad guys, while damaging the honey a lot less than boiling. Many meadmakers use this compromise.
Sulfiting. Sulfites, often in the form of Campden tablets, release gas when mixed in liquid. The dissolved gas kills bugs in the liquid, and then dissipates over twenty-four hours, leaving a sterile must to add your yeast to. Sulfites are used in the production of virtually all wines, both to sanitize the pulped grapes without having to boil them (ruining the wine) and as a potent antioxidant during racking and storage. Properly used, sulfites can be very effective. In many commercial wines, especially white wines, sulfites are enthusiastically overused which can cause problems. Some people, a few percent, are sensitive to sulfites. If you get headaches from red wines but not whites, you're likely reacting to another component and not to sulfites. Some people feel that sulfites are objectionable and wouldn't touch them with the end of a compost rake, and some use them judiciously: both paths can lead to wonderful mead.
Not sanitizing must at all. With good attention to sanitizing your equipment and adding a strong pitch of yeast to ferment, you can count on your yeast to out-compete the bad guys. Some strains of yeast actually have a "killer factor" that helps it dominate a must quickly. Healthy yeast, and lots of it, are keys to this method.
For most first-time meadmakers, it's usual to recommend the pasteurizing or the "nothing" methods for their simplicity; pasteurizing is probably the most common and consistent, until you're ready to experiment.
The topic of honeys for meadmaking is broad and, since many of the readers here are familiar with honeys, will not be delved into in great depth in this discussion. Generally speaking, stronger-flavored honeys will contribute their character more assertively to the mead, especially after sweetness ferments out. Eucalyptus honey, for example, can be challenging to make an enjoyable mead from. Honeys that have not been subjected to extensive filtering, heating, pasteurization and other processes tend to make higher-quality meads. Granulated honey is usually fine, unless it has begun to ferment because of the higher moisture content of the non-granulated aspects. Using a single variety of honey to make mead allows the meadmaker to understand what character that particular variety contributes to the mead, while blending varieties can allow one to include complementary flavors for interest or balance. Blending finished meads before bottling usually gives greater control over a finished mead's character.
The importance of water used in meadmaking has not been extensively described, but some commonsense guidelines apply. Most municipal water supplies are sanitary and fine for meadmaking, though the mead will certainly benefit from removal of chlorine and chloramines either through carbon filtration or the addition of tiny amounts of sulfite (one campden tablet in 20 gallons), changing the chlorine compounds to innocuous, even helpful, sulfates and chloride ions.
Another recommendation is to avoid using distilled water. Though its purity is touted loudly on the label, the total absence of minerals will make the yeast struggle to perform well. They, like we, depend on trace minerals and other compounds to be healthy; even very soft municipal waters will have helpful "impurities" the yeast need like magnesium. More subject to preference is the use of very hard waters. Hard water has a dry sensation, and can taste quite good on its own. In fact, many bottled waters are just distilled water with some salts, calcium sulfate or other "hardeners" added for taste. If you feel that hardness is complementary to your mead, go for it! Note that it's easy to add hardness to soft water but much harder to reduce hardness.
Basically, if your water tastes good to you, use it!
Most musts of just honey and water lack nutrients the yeast need. If fruits are added to the must, many of these deficits are ameliorated by the fruit, which contributes nitrogen. Most winemaking suppliers can provide a balanced nutrient in a powder form that is added when the yeast is added (called "pitching"). You'll also sometimes see "energizer" offered. The labeling of these products can be confusing, as there isn't a widely accepted standard for what they mean. Many nutrients are centrifuged yeast cells; some also contain minerals and B-vitamins and other components. Generally an energizer is a source of nitrogen, either in the form of DAP (diammonium phosphate) or other formulations. One could think of "nutrient" as a healthy breakfast, giving needed building blocks for the day's work. The "energizer" could then, to follow our analogy, be a strong cup of coffee to get you started or over a difficult hump. Be sure to use these products as directed by the manufacturer, not adding a set amount because the recipe calls for it. The person who made the recipe may have used a different source for nutrient or energizer that was twice (or half) the strength of yours!
Many meads will benefit from a modest addition of some form of nutrient, and "traditional" meads with just honey may benefit from both nutrient and energizer. High-gravity meads especially will get started more reliably with some help. The risk of not using them is a slow, sluggish fermentation that may not go to completion, even after a good start of healthy yeast. The risk of overusing them is off-flavors which can seriously detract from a mead. Energizer is also used to re-start a sluggish or stuck ferment, though it's a lot easier to start a mead off strong than to fix it later.
Like so many things in meadmaking, opinions vary on the importance (and the need for) of nutrients and energizers. It's pretty well accepted that the nutrients at least are usually beneficial unless those needs are otherwise met, usually by the addition of fruit.
Without yeast, it's just honey water. Yeast is single-celled remarkable organisms that eat sugars and excrete alcohol, CO2, and a lot of flavor compounds that make it into the mead. Selecting the yeast is at least as important as the other ingredients, since yeast control and influence the alcohol, flavor, and even color of the mead (pretty much everything). Pick a yeast to get the alcohol content you're looking for, which in turn determines how much sugar is left in the mead to taste as sweetness, and one whose flavors complement the mead you want.
Mead and wine recipes use to recommend champagne yeast no matter what you were making because it was readily available, hearty and alcohol tolerant. It will make a dry, alcoholic mead, but there are more choices today that allow more leeway in recipe development. Dry wine yeasts are of high quality and readily available from such manufacturers as Lalvin and Red Star. Liquid cultures (such as White Labs and Wyeast) are more expensive and must be kept refrigerated, but can offer even more variety. Bread yeast, occasionally seen in "country wine" recipes from great-grandparents, usually does not make great mead. It's possible, but bread yeasts have been selected for CO2 production and speed, not for flavor or flocculation (the ability of yeast to drop out of the mead after they've worked their magic).
See the Yeast Section (in progress) for some strains' descriptors.
Acids and Tannins.
Acid complements sweetness and prevents it from being too cloying, giving the taste a "zing". A sweet mead will often have more complexity and drinkability with some acid added. A dry mead, on the other hand, can easily get puckery with too much acid (not balanced by sweetness). Acid comes in different forms. The most widely used in mead (and wine) making are citric (from citrus fruits like lemon), malic (the principal acid in apples) and tartaric (the principal acid in grapes). Each has its own flavor. Usually meadmakers will use a blend of these acids in a convenient powder. Though many recipes call for adding a certain amount of acid from the start, many meadmakers find that fermentations progress more reliably if the acid is added later during the conditioning phase. This also allows the acid to be added to taste until the mead is balanced, rather than the "shotgun" approach.
Tannins can be used in a similar manner. They are astringent and add to the storage-ability and complexity of mead, and can also help balance sweetness. If you've ever sucked on a teabag or chewed a grape skin, that's tannin you tasted. When tasting mead, acids will be perceived on the sides (sour) and back (bitter) of the tongue, while tannins are felt on the roof of the mouth as a drying kind of roughness. Tannins are one of the reasons that red wines are aged more, to allow the tannins from the grape skins to mellow and join the wine more fully. They can thus add to a mead's aging potential and complexity, but can easily be overdone. Like acids, tannins can be added to taste but they do fade somewhat with (and benefit from) aging.
There are lots of good resources on the web for mead recipes, and lots of questionable ones too. Like everything else on the web (or anywhere for that matter), remember that just because it's written down doesn't mean the person who wrote it knew what they were talking about. Check around! Knowing some basics like those presented here will help you choose and adapt recipes so you'll enjoy your meads and create recipes you'll hopefully pass on to others.
Many meadmakers use pounds of honey per gallon of water as a starting point. Two pounds per gallon will be very dry, three can be more medium, four will be very sweet and alcoholic. The more honey the more potential alcohol (to a point). If there's more sugar than the yeast can convert to alcohol before giving up (determined by the strain you use and yeast health), there will be sweetness in the finished mead. Thus, designing a recipe can start with: how much alcohol do I want? Meads with less than about 9% alcohol may keep poorly, and really huge meads over 18% can take years to mellow out if they ever do. Many meads fall between about 10% and 13-14%, though there are a lot of meads outside that range!
The following chart describes the relation between gravity as measured by your hydrometer and potential alcohol:
One pound of honey, dissolved in water to make one gallon of must, will yield about 1.036 depending on moisture content. So let's say that you want a five-gallon, 11%, dry mead. From the chart above, you'll need a starting gravity of about 1.078. A little math: 78 "gravity points" (truncate the one-point part), times five gallons of must, means you'll need about 390 points of "total sugars" starting out. If honey gives 36 points per pound per gallon, take 390 divided by 36, and you'll need 10.75 lbs honey (rounding for convenience is a meadmaker's friend!) plus water to make five gallons. See how that works?
Let's try a three-gallon, 14% alcohol, semi-sweet mead. We'll choose a yeast that is alcohol tolerant to 14%, and start with enough sugars to leave (theoretically) about two percent's worth of unfermented sweetness. Several strains would be good for this; let's say we'll use Lalvin's D-47 Cotes-dú-Rhone for its aromatic and fruity notes. Again consulting the potential alcohol chart, finding 16% (minus the 14% the yeast should consume leaves 2% for us to taste, a semi-sweet level) means we'll need to start at 1.103 or so. Mazers, start your calculators! 104 (starting gravity minus the "1." part) times three gallons = 312 total gravity points. 312 divided by 36 p.p.g. for honey means we'll need eight and two-thirds pounds plus enough water to make three gallons. Slick!
This procedure will hold for any mead you'll want to make. Note that the yeast do not read the same books we do, and do not always perform the way we want. However, if they've been treated well we can usually count on them to get us near their published tolerance level. High-alcohol or high-gravity musts, or musts with a lot of acids, can inhibit them from reaching that level and they'll give up prematurely. Preparing a nutritious starter to propagate the yeast and providing adequate nutrients will help them do their best.
Following a recipe or making your own, the procedure will be pretty similar. You'll prepare and sanitize all equipment as described above. Dissolve your honey into the water, using the must preparation method of your choice (none, pasteurization, boiling, sulfiting). Add nutrient and energizer if you're using them. Pour this mixture into the sanitized fermenter and mix well. Take a hydrometer reading at this point. If you're using dry yeast, rehydrate it by sprinkling the yeast into a glass of warm (100-degree) water (not juice or must) and letting it sit covered for five minutes, then stir gently before adding to the room-temperature must. Aerate the must by splashing it around or stirring vigorously with a sanitized spoon. Affix the airlock, 1/3 full of water, to the fermenter and keep between 65 and 75 degrees F.
You should see signs of fermentation within two to three days, maybe a little longer of the must is cooler. The ferment should progress vigorously at first for several days to two or three weeks and then begin to slow noticeably. At this point, sanitize your siphoning equipment and carboy, and "rack" (siphon) into the carboy leaving most of the sediment behind. Try to avoid splashing or aerating the mead oxygen is now your mead's enemy for the rest of its life! Re-sanitize and affix the airlock to the carboy and finish fermenting. When you're sure it's done fermenting (the gravity as read by the hydrometer doesn't change over several weeks, and the alcohol level is what your yeast would tolerate is there's any sweetness left) and the mead is clear, you can bottle it. Sanitize your bottles, capping/corking and racking equipment and the primary fermenter, and re-rack the mead to leave the sediment behind. From the primary bucket, siphon into bottles and cap/cork. Now: forget you made it! Try to age your mead AT LEAST six months, more like a year. Boiled meads may mature somewhat more quickly, but age always benefits a well-made mead. You can't hurry love!
This introduction has hopefully been helpful in answering some basic questions about making mead at home. It is by no means comprehensive, and there are a lot more topics that could be explored in great depth such as yeast management, still vs. sparkling meads, mead appreciation, etc. Please direct your questions to the discussion group! The more participation, from beginner and veteran alike, the more we all benefit.
A good reference book for beginning to intermediate meadmakers is The Compleat Meadmaker by Ken Schramm (no affiliation).