Mead 101

While I was out at the honey shop I like to frequent, I got to chatting, as I usually do, with the guy I’ve come to expect to see behind the counter when I visit. In addition to giving me the wonderful news that I’d filled up my buy-10-get-1-free card for three-kilogram buckets of honey, he let slip that he’d actually never considered making mead before. After a short but spirited conversation about how food chemistry should be approached — he prefers to find the linchpin technique and become an expert at it while I prefer to just dive in and refine my process as I go — I walked away thinking that maybe I should share the basics of what I know.  So, without further ado…

Introduction

Mead in its simplest form is an alcoholic drink consisting of a fermented mixture of honey and water. The alcohol is a result of yeast (preferably Saccharomyces cerevisiae) consuming sugars and producing (mostly) ethanol and carbon dioxide as byproducts of metabolism. Homebrewers like to talk about aerating the must (the honey and water mixture you intend to ferment) before adding yeast for a more complete fermentation, but now that I’ve actually looked into the process, it doesn’t look like yeast actually needs oxygen when it has a surplus of sugar to consume. If you’re interested, there’s a more in-depth discussion on MoreBeer.com here.

I’ve heard it said that mead the oldest fermented drink in human history, and while I personally haven’t fact-checked that assertion, I’m willing to bet that it’s more likely that some intrepid hominid several millennia ago stumbled upon honey that rain had diluted and wild yeast had fermented long before anyone wised up to the idea of boiling grain and letting yeast take up residence in it. There’s a possibility that this proto-human might have decided that fruit that had gone bad made a really tasty, or at least very interesting, snack, which would give fruit wine a chance for the title, but this is me losing track of the discussion…

Types of mead

You can call any fermented honey drink a mead without anyone getting too fussed with you, but quite a lot of jargon has come up to describe different types of mead (see this list from Storm the Castle for examples). The ones I see most often are:

  • Show mead: made with only honey, water, and yeast
  • Sack mead: is very sweet, roughly the same as a dessert wine
  • Hydromel: a weak or watered-down mead
  • Melomel: has fruit or fruit juice added
    • Pyment: made with grapes or grape juice
    • Cyser: made with apples or apple juice
  • Braggot: made with malted grain
  • Metheglin: made with spices
  • Bochet: made with caramelized or burnt honey

the basics of Making mead

The most basic process to make a mead is: combine yeast, water, and honey in a fermentation vessel like a jug or carboy, then fit an airlock to to let carbon dioxide out while preventing oxygen from getting in; oxygen in your must, after a certain point, is undesirable because it will feed the bacteria that cause off flavours, such as the acetobacter aceti bacterium responsible for vinegar, or other spores and bacteria.

You can manage a mead of your own with just a few supplies from your grocery store:

  • A gallon jug, like the ones spring water or pressed apple cider are sold in
  • Some plain store-brand honey
  • Bread yeast
  • Dried or fresh fruit for yeast nutrient
  • A balloon for a makeshift airlock

Just combine everything in your gallon jug, fit the balloon over the mouth, and wait for the little yeasties to start doing their job. The balloon will start to inflate once fermentation is under way, at which point you should probably pierce it with a pin to avoid it overinflating and flying away! Once your mead is clear, siphon it off the sediment into a clean jug (this is called “racking”), refit the airlock, and wait and see whether it drops any more sediment. Roughly speaking, you can consider the mead done when it no longer drops sediment and it tastes pleasant to you.

If you want to get a bit more serious about meadmaking, you should go for some better equipment:

  • One glass or plastic carboy per active brew, plus an extra for racking into
  • Food-grade plastic hose
  • One airlock and drilled stopper/bung for each active brew
  • Proper yeast
  • A hydrometer to measure the potential alcohol of your must and the finished alcohol of your brew

stabilizing

If you intend to bottle for long-term storage, you need to take care to make sure the yeast is inactive, otherwise you run the risk of dormant yeast waking up and fermenting further in the bottle, leading to unintentional carbonation and possibly the dreaded “bottle bombs.” Common ways of stabilizing mead for bottling include:

  • Chemically stabilizing with potassium metabisulphite (an antibacterial preservative that binds to free oxygen, thus suffocating aerobic bacteria) and potassium sorbate (an antifungal preservative that prevents still-living yeast from reproducing)
  • Physically stabilizing and clarifying using fining agents or cold temperatures
  • Filtering to remove as much yeast matter as possible using successively finer filter pads

If you can get away with not using potassium sorbate, try to do so. It’s only effective as yeast birth control when it’s in its sorbic acid form, which isn’t stable and will degrade in time into ethyl sorbate, which characteristically has a celery-like aroma. Also, if you don’t want to use sulphites, definitely avoid sorbate if there’s a chance malolactic fermentation bacteria are present. If this bacterium consumes sorbic acid, it produces geraniol, which is a compound that smells of geraniums and generally does not go well with your intended finished product.

Sweet or dry?

The sweetness or dryness of your finished mead is the result of a combination of factors: the concentration of honey you have used in your must; your yeast’s alcohol tolerance; and the temperature and nutrient needs of your yeast. In general, a mead that finishes sweeter will be drinkable sooner due to the sweetness masking the harshness of a young brew. If you want to be precise about what kind of sweetness to expect, get to know the specifics of the strain of yeast that you choose and learn how to use a hydrometer very well. Otherwise, as a general rule of thumb:

  • 3 pounds of honey in a gallon of must results in a dry mead
  • 4 pounds of honey per gallon makes a medium mead
  • 5 pounds of honey per gallon makes a sweet mead; at this concentration, you may need to make a yeast starter with a lower honey concentration to pour into your must once it’s gotten nice and foamy

Conclusion

That’s about it when it comes to the simplest overview of meadmaking I can come up with without scaring anyone off or leaving anything important out. No doubt I’ll wax eloquent on the topic again, but with any luck this enough of a starting point to help you figure out what your next steps will be.

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