The Magic of Mead
One of the oldest fermentations known to man is the fermentation of honey. From Chaucer and Shakespeare, the Vikings, and even the ancient Egyptians, mead, or honey wine, has been steeped throughout many different cultures and beliefs. Fast forward to today, where we have access to tons of different honey, yeast strains and nutrients, and few hundred extra years of fermentation science, we can take this romantic drink from the annals of history and easily enjoy it at home, a gallon at a time.
What Is Mead?
At its most basic level, all mead is is honey, mixed with water, and fermented. It really is that easy! There are different kinds of mead, depending on what kind of concoction you want to create. These are the accepted Mead Styles by the BJCP:
Traditional Mead - M1
- Dry Mead (M1A) - Subtle Honey Character and little to no residual sugar
- Semi-Sweet Mead (M1B) - Noticeable Honey Character and light sweetness
- Sweet Mead (M1C) - Dominating Honey Character and moderate to high levels or residual sweetness
Fruit Mead - M2
- Cyser (M2A) - Honey wine made with apples or apple juice
- Pyment (M2B) - Honey wine made with grapes or grape juice
- Berry Mead (M2C) - Honey wine made with berries
- Stone Fruit Mead (M2D) - Honey wine made with any stone fruit, like cherries or peaches
- Melomel (M2E) - Honey wine made with any fruit not listed above
Spice Mead - M3
- Fruit and Spice Mead (M3A) - A mead with one or more fruits and spices
- Spice, Herb or Vegetable Mead (M3B) - A mead with one or more spices, herbs or vegetables
Specialty Mead - M4
- Braggot (M4A) - A mead made with malt
- Historical Mead (M4B) - Indigenous mead that doesn’t fit another subcatory above
- Experimental Mead (M4C) - A honey wine that doesn’t fit into any of the other categories
By the book, the above styles are how you would classify your mead if you wanted to enter it into a competition. I find that they work well as a baseline when I’m trying to decide exactly what kind of mead I want to make, and what ingredients I plan on using. You can find the full BJCP Mead Guidelines on there website to read the full descriptions of each mead style.
Most honey is comprised of very simple sugars, mostly fructose, glucose and dextrose, with smaller percentages of maltose and other, more complex sugars present. While this is the average, you must remember when choosing honey that each type of honey can have very different sugar templates, and you don’t always know exactly what you’re getting. This is cool because each batch can have it’s own vintage, but you’ll have to account for the variation if you want to make anything consistent.
As a rule to live by, better honey will almost always make better honey wine. Just like in brewing or cooking, fresh, high quality ingredients will always yield a better end result. Does this mean that you can’t make mead out of bargain basement honey? Of course not! It’s all about choosing what you’re going to make with what you’ve got, and how much you want to spend.
Raw honey is arguably the best if you can get it. To preserve flavor and aroma, most raw honey isn’t heated above 110° F during collection and processing, leaving as many of the natural compounds as possible. In our mead process, we follow a similar rule of process, heating the water just warm enough to get the honey in solution without breaking up the amazing flavor and aroma compounds that we are trying to preserve. Most honey will say if it’s pasteurized or not, and some will even specify how it was pasteurized. If you can’t get it raw, honey pasteurized at low temperatures, 145° or less, will have the most preserved flavor.
When I first started making mead, I did small batches, usually half a gallon to a gallon. Let’s face it, honey is expensive, especially really good honey, so it seemed more pragmatic to me to use a more cost effective honey while I was trying out different yeasts, different fruits, and different types of fermentation and higher or lower ABV’s to see what I liked the most. At the end of the day, all mead is good with enough time to age! Some mead is simply better after the same amount of time.
For more traditional mead styles where I’m not using any fruit or herbs when I make the must, I like to use the best possible quality honey that I can find, like Orange Blossom. This helps the final product really shine, with that varietal character honey a very distinct character. I also do this when trying out a new type of honey because it really helps me gauge to flavor profile and how much it comes through in the finished product.
For meads with fruit and spice additions, I’ll admit that I sometimes skimp a little on honey quality, maybe moving to the more cost effective Wildflower Honey. The idea here is that I’m adding tons of flavor, be it hibiscus flower, peach puree or tons of vanilla, and the honey will be a base flavor, with the chosen fruit or spices as the driving force of flavor.
Enough Overview! Let’s Make Some Mead Already!
The real key to whatever kind of mead you’re making is patience. It’s hard to remember that, unlike beer, mead needs significant time for maturation, and can be pretty rough straight out of the carboy. We always approach mead in the same manner that we approach wine: plan on long term bulk aging and bottle aging, because it’s rarely awesome right out of the gate.
There seems to be a direct correlation between how high your ABV is to how long it needs to age. The higher the alcohol, the more time it needs for chemical reactions to happen, and therefore the more time it needs to spend in secondary, the bottles or kegs, or both. 16% - 18% meads can take as long as 3 years before they hit their peak flavor profile, while lighter alcohol meads, say 7% - 9%, can be delicious and ready to go in as little as 1 to 3 months.
First and foremost, we need to decide what kind of ABV we’re working with, and how much we plan on making. Rule of thumb for a 1 gallon batch is 1.032 gravity per pound of honey, and rule of thumb for making a 5 gallon batch is 1% ABV per pound of honey, or 1.007 per pound of honey. Using our basic mead recipe, Pink Honey Pot, as our example, let’s talk about herbal additions, choosing yeast, and nutrient additions.
Adding Herbs and Spices
Depending on your chosen herb or spice additions, your meadmaking process can change batch to batch. Check out our post on Brewing With Herbs and Spices for a more in depth look at using different herbs and how they extract. Pink Honey Pot got its name because of the use of Hibiscus in the original recipe. Hibiscus adds a sweet, floral flavor and aroma that pairs well with the residual sweetness of a high gravity honey fermentation. To do this, and a good place to start when using city water anyway, we start by boiling water and steeping the Hibiscus flower for 5 - 10 minutes. This also helps us boil out any chlorine in the water and sterilizes it.
Once your Hibiscus tea has cooled to 110° F, you can add in your honey. This temperature makes it easy to get the honey into solution, and this part of the process is the same no matter your chosen recipe.
Yeast always makes a huge difference in fermentation. Most yeast will happily eat any sugar, but it seems the best fermentations occur with wine, mead or cider strains. These strains are evolved for high gravity fermentations of simple sugars, and can enhances the varietal characteristics of the honey, add their own ester profiles, and can be very predictable, making it easier to make what you’re trying to make without crazy surprises like under attenuation.
When deciding on a mead recipe, we always look at how much residual sugar that we want to have left in our mead. For example, if I want about 2% residual sugar, and I’m using a yeast strain that can survive up to 14% ABV, then I’ll add enough honey for 16% ABV, counting on the yeast to stop fermentation right about where I want it, giving me a semi-sweet mead. This is an easy rule of thumb for recipe calculation.
Although we’ve used a ton of different strains, Lalvin 71B is definitely one of my favorites. Also known as the Narbonne strain, this strain produces a clean, fresh and fruity ester profile that helps bring out flavors in your finished mead. By the book, it tops out at 14% ABV, but we’ve pushed this strain to 18% with heavy nutrient additions.
Nutrient additions in meadmaking are a huge factor. Honey lacks many of the more common yeast nutrients that we find in beer, so no matter your chosen yeast strain, this is going to be a big part of your fermentation. The right nutrients can thicken cell walls, helping your yeast strain be more tolerant to higher alcohol meads, and can help ensure normal fermentation times. If you’re using 71B, or any dry strains, rehydrating your yeast with GO-Ferm Protect can make sure you pitch a big, healthy colony that’s ready for anything.
We have a standard nutrient regimen that we like use with every mead. We have had awesome luck and many a clean fermentation with Fermaid K and Diammonium Phosphate (DAP), and are doing some experimentation with Fermaid O, since it’s organic and produces less negative sulfur compounds.
What these nutrients are doing is giving the yeast back what they use in the first stages of fermentation. DAP gets added on day 2 of fermentation to replenish the nitrogen stores the yeast used up during all of the cell replication they did when they first hit the must, bolstered at the same time as Fermaid K, which replenishes the rest of the key nutrients used in that initial phase and helps thicken the cell walls, as well as helping them stay in solution and keep eating sugar. We follow this with another addition of Fermaid K on day 4, and again at day 6.
This schedule keeps our yeast happy, and helps ensure normal fermentation times. You hear and read about honey-based primary fermentations taking months, but this shouldn’t be the case. If you have a primary fermentation that is taking longer than 21 days to reach terminal gravity, something is wrong, and it’s usually a low pH issue. Yeast have trouble working under 3.0 pH, so if this is the case, and you’ve added proper nutrients and your mead still hasn’t reached terminal gravities, then it’s time to take a pH measurement, and maybe even add in some Potassium Carbonate to lower the acidity to a point that the yeast can work.
Bulk Aging and Bottle Aging
Bulk aging, or secondary, is hugely beneficial to honey wine. It gives the mead time to mellow out, absorb some of the more harsh alcohols, and lets the honey flavor come back through into the finished product. All mead needs some time to age, and higher ABV meads need more. Just like aging anything, though, oxygen is not our friend. If you are going to bulk age, first things first. Once your gravity has dropped to terminal gravity, and you’ve given the yeast enough time to absorb the more noxious flavor compounds they created during fermentation, get it off the yeast by transferring to a clean fermentation vessel that you can fill almost all the way to the top, leaving behind all of the lees and trub that were made during fermentation. Less head space is better, and we’ll even go as far as using a Handheld CO2 Charger to purge all of the excess O2 out of the vessel.
Oxidation during this stage can cause all kinds of bad things to happen, from making your mead taste like cardboard to letting acetobacter in and making really expensive vinegar. With the time commitment involved in making mead, being careful is the key! If you’re careful, and you transfer without too much splashing, this can all be avoided. You can even add Potassium Metabisulfite before you transfer to help stave off oxidation by adding free SO2 into the mead.
I’m a huge fan of bottle aging pretty much everything. Once a fermented product gets into the bottle, it’s safe, which is just how I like it! I don’t have to worry about airlocks drying out (although I prefer to use these awesome Silicone Stoppers for bulk aging) or someone accidentally knocking the airlock off of the carboy without realizing it.
We’ve done some experimentation with bottle aging, and as it turns out, size matters. Who knew? We made an 18% mead with Bitter Orange Peel and Hibiscus, then bottled it in 750 mL Clear Bottles, 375 mL Clear Bottles, and 187 mL Clear Bottles. This was a 5 gallon recipe, so there was plenty to go around. We opened them monthly and did side by side taste tests, and lo and behold, the smaller the bottle, the faster it aged! This is something to keep in mind if you plan on doing any bottle aging.
Key Factors to Successfully Making Mead
At the end of the day, meadmaking is fun and easy as long as you have the right mead equipment kit, some honey, some good yeast, yeast nutrients and some patience. Mead can be as versatile as you want it to be, and is a fun fermentation project no matter what you decide to do.
The main things to keep in mind as you make your mead are these:
- Always sanitize everything your mead will touch, including your fermentor, bulk aging vessels, transfer equipment and bottles or kegs
- Keep your honey at or below 110° F when you dissolve it into water to keep the honey flavors and aromatics as intact as possible
- Choose a yeast that will compliment your mead, and will perform under the conditions and ABV constraints of your chosen recipe
- If using dry yeast, rehydrate with GO-Ferm Protect and don’t be shy about adding Yeast Nutrients on days 2, 4 and 6 of fermentation.
- Take precautions to limit oxygen exposure during transfers and during aging.
- Taste often and have fun!
For a great place to start, try our Pink Honey Pot as your base recipe, as well as our step by step, simple to follow instructions on How To Make Mead. These are in plain English and very easy to follow, no matter if it’s your first batch or your 30th batch. Don’t be afraid to try different honey, different Fruit Purees, Fruit Flavors, and Herbs and Spices to make your mead delicious!
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References and Awesome Mead Articles and Publications
The Compleat Meadmaker, by Ken Schramm
History of Mead, by Sara Doersam