Mead, or honey wine, is the oldest known alcoholic drink and has been called the “nectar of the gods.” There are ancient examples of fermented honey drinks throughout the world and mead (or variations of mead) are mentioned prominently in history and literature. Chinese pottery vessels dating from 7000 B.C. suggest evidence of mead fermentation that out-ages both wine and beer. My favourite story is the origin of the modern term “honeymoon.” It is reported that in the 5th century, it was common for newlyweds to be given a supply of mead as part of the dowry. The mead would be consumed over one moon cycle as an aphrodisiac to encourage baby making.
It was with my introduction to beekeeping that I also learned the magic of mead. As I entered my second year of beekeeping, I found myself in possession of more honey than I could possibly eat. The logical course of action was to turn it into booze!
Although traditional mead contains only water, honey and yeast, there are many variations each with its own name. The addition of extra ingredients determines the style of mead. Some examples include: methylglin (spices), melomel (fruit), cyser (apples), pyment (grapes), and braggot (malted barley). There are also a number of variations of honey wine or honey beer currently made throughout the world using local ingredients and techniques. A favourite of mine is an Ethiopian brew called Tej that uses wood from a shrub called gesho (Rhamnus prinoides).
Brewing mead is similar to brewing wine but with a few extra challenges. Honey is known for its antimicrobial properties, primarily due to the lack of moisture. Once diluted with water, honey will readily ferment although at a slower pace than grape juice or wort. Honey lacks the rich nutrient composition required for yeast to flourish. It is for this reason that a great deal of effort has been put into developing nutrient supplement materials and methods for mead making.
One can read endlessly on the topic but the general consensus is that staggered addition of a complete yeast nutrient (usually pulverized yeast cells) is sufficient to do the job. I typically add yeast nutrient at a total of 1 gram per liter divided into 4 additions which are made on day 2, 3, 5 and 7 after the yeast is pitched. This is done to ensure that the yeast have a steady supply of nutrients during their exponential growth phase rather than dumping all nutrients in the beginning and risking settling out.
Time and temperature are other important factors in the making of mead. Lower fermentation temperature is preferable as it helps protect the yeast from stress. Stressed yeast can result in nasty off-flavours (yeastykaka!) that are especially noticeable over the delicate honey taste that we are shooting for. Additionally, time is an essential addition to mead. Many people won`t consider drinking a mead unless it has aged at least a year. Indeed, a mead evolves greatly over time and something completely undrinkable at the end of fermentation can become wonderful after a year. It is not unusual to keep a mead in the carboy (protected from light if possible) for an extended period of bulk aging.
With these issues in mind, the best place to start is with a show mead which the term used for a basic mead with no additions.
Semi-Sweet Show Mead (~12% Alcohol)
Hydrometer + cylinder
Approximately 1.3kg honey
16g yeast nutrient
2.5g dry yeast (Lalvin D-47)
Original Gravity (OG) – 1.100
Final Gravity (FG) – 1.010
Alcohol % = OG – FG X 131.25
- Sanitize bucket, spoon, hydrometer and thermometer
- Mark 4L on bucket using water
- Add honey to bucket
- Add warm (20C) water to bucket up to 4L mark
- In a separate container, add yeast to about 125mL warm (about 35C) water nd set aside for 15 minutes – do not stir
- Mix honey into water until fully dissolved
- Measure specific gravity – If too high, add water, if too low add honey
- Re-measure specific gravity and repeat above until desired gravity (1.100) is reached
- Add ½ tsp yeast nutrient to honey and stir
- Swirl and pour entire yeast solution into the bucket
- Cover bucket with lid or plastic wrap taking care to NOT make an airtight seal
- After 24, 48 and 72 hours, add 4g yeast nutrient, mix vigorously and replace the cover
- Check daily – After about 10 days, when fermentation has greatly slowed (no frothing, just small gentle bubbles), syphon the mead to the carboy, taking care to not disturb the sediment
- Place sanitizer-filled airlock into carboy
- Do not disturb until all signs of fermentation have stopped (bubbling in airlock ceases)
- When fermentation appears to be complete, test the specific gravity
- Wait two days then test the specific gravity again. If it is unchanged and close to 1.010, syphon the mead to a clean carboy, taking care to avoid making bubbles
- Replace airlock and do not disturb until the mead is clear (1-2 months)
- Syphon mead into bottles taking care not to disturb the sediment
- Seal the bottles and store in a cool, dark place
- Mead improves greatly with aging, try to wait at least 6 months before drinking!