The author of the following Primer won the Bronze medal in the American Home Brewers Association's National Homebrew
Competition for his Apple Pie Metheglyn recipe. It was the first mead he ever bottled.
Mead According to Eric Drake
(A beginners guide to making mead)
At times, I really hate it when people tell me, "This beer you made is great!" It's not beer; it's mead! There are three basic categories for fermented beverages: wine, beer, and mead. Wine is made by fermenting fruits, beer is made by fermenting grains, and mead is made by fermenting honey. Of course, these ingredients can be mixed to produce some very interesting variations such as melomel from adding fruit to mead or braggot by adding grain to mead. Honey can also be added to beer and wines to give those beverages a sweeter character.
My brother introduced me to brewing by talking about how he could make this stuff called mead. It is tastier than beer, has a higher alcohol content (about that of wine), and it is the stuff legends are made of. My interest was immediately sparked, and I started researching it on the Internet. I found a news group called rec.crafts.brewing (RCB) and the people who frequented the group seemed very knowledgeable about brewing beer and mead. I asked a lot of questions, but received many contradictory answers. As is the nature of life, there is more than one way to do anything right. I had to extract from these answers what issues were involved in brewing mead, in order to determine how I wanted to do it right.
The first issue I encountered was how much honey to use. That depends on a number of factors. If you are using a yeast designated for wine or champagne, the yeast can tolerate higher alcohol levels than if you are using a yeast designated for beers. Using two pounds of honey per gallon of water with a champagne yeast, yields a dry mead. If you were to use three pounds of honey per gallon of water with a champagne yeast, you should get a nice sweet mead. With Beer yeast try two pounds per gallon for sweet, or one and a half pounds per gallon for dry mead.
Next, I needed to know how to eliminate the wild yeast that already exists in the honey. I could use potassium metabisulfite, commonly called, "Campden tablets," by crushing a few of them up, adding them to the un-boiled honey-water mixture, and letting it sit for a day or two. Otherwise, I could pasteurize the honey-water mixture by heating it to at least 170°F-180°F for 15-20 minutes. Either way the wild yeast will be killed, but I am hesitant to use chemicals, so I choose to heat the mixture. I may lose some of the honey character by heating it, but sulfites can irritate some peoples' stomachs and bowels.
The next issue I faced was a natural consequence of my choice for the previous one. When heating honey-water, foam will rise to the top and eventually fall back into the mix. Some people claim you should skim all this foam off, others suggest skimming off the dark tan foam, but not the light colored foam, and others yet suggest that if you skim the foam you will lose more honey flavor. In finding out that this foam was left over wax and bee parts, I chose to skim it off, being certain to get all the dark foam, but not worrying if I didn't get all the light foam.
The decision to use a glass or plastic fermenter was another issue I faced. This is a simple one. Although plastic is usually easier to clean (since it has a removable lid), it can also over time allow oxygen to leak through. Also, glass doesn't scratch as easily, and scratches can give microbes a place to hide. Therefore, I strongly suggest using glass carboys, especially when considering my next question, namely, how long does mead need to remain in the fermenter.
The quickest recipe for mead I have ever heard seems like an abomination. Add honey to Everclear© grain alcohol. No fermenter is necessary for this recipe. It is also not really mead. The longest suggestion I have heard is that you should let it sit on a shelf for 10 years. The quickest I have ever gotten mead out of the fermenter was two months, and the longest I have ever let it sit was eight months. After eight months I just bottled it and called it, "Never clear." However, there are a couple rules-of-thumb I follow that are both based on the clarity of the mead. If you shine a flashlight through the top to the fermenter, you should be able to see the light on the bottom, but you should not be able to see a hazy column as the light strikes on microscopic particles that are still in suspension. The second rule-of-thumb is that you should be able to read a newspaper through a glass fermenter containing the mead.
Many people like bubbles in their mead, as they like bubbles in their beer. You can carbonate mead and call it sparkling, or you can leave it flat, like wine, and call it still. To carbonate it, you just add ¾ cups corn sugar (boiled in about 2 cups water then cooled) into the mead right before you bottle. You also might want to wait a few minutes to allow the sugar to diffuse throughout the mead.
There are a couple points that most people agree upon. Sanitation is a must as in any brewing. The degree of sanitation varies though. Some people boil all their utensils, and some people use tap water to rinse their bottles. I tend to be more on the cautious side. Anything that comes into contact with my brew after the boil is very carefully sanitized. I use sanitizers that are based on oxygen or iodine. These products claim that you don't have to rinse your utensils, just let them dry. I also keep grain alcohol in my brewery to wipe down racking canes and other utensils that are often exposed to the air, then re-introduced to the brew. Honey does not provide enough nutrients for the yeast to reproduce and flourish in your mead. This is easily taken care of by adding yeast nutrient to the boil. This way you can insure against stalled and slow fermentations. I have always added about a teaspoon more than the instructions called for, just so my pet yeast will be that much happier. Did I mention my pet yeast perform tricks. They turn sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Keeping all this in mind, here is the recipe I would recommend for a first time mead maker making a very simple, medium sweet, still mead.
Things you will need:
- Two fermenters; at least one should be glass.
- A large boiling pot-with lid. The bigger; the better.
- Racking cane, hoses, and a bottle filler.
- Lots of ice (optional)
- Bottles and caps.
- Bottle capper.
- One step sanitizing solution
- 10 lbs. Honey
- Water to make 5 gallons. If you purchase water at a store, you will not have to worry about boiling it, and you can add it directly to the fermenter.
- 5-6 tsp. Food grade urea yeast nutrient.
- Dry ale yeast
- Sanitize your primary fermenter racking cane, and hose, and place them somewhere they will dry and remain clean. If you are using a plastic fermenter, use it for the primary.
- Start warming your honey and about 2 ½ gallons of water.
- As foam starts to rise to the top, scoop it out with a spoon. Try to not actually bring the solution to a boil, but keep it near boiling until you remove it fromt he heat.
- Take a sample of the honey-water solution and re-hydrate your yeast.
- When the foam is almost gone, add the yeast nutrient.
- Once you have scooped out all the foam and no more is rising to the top, remove the honey-water from the stove and cool it as quickly as possible. If you don't have a special device for this, try filling your bathtub about 5 inches deep with ice water and set your boiling pot in the ice bath. Stir the bath and the solution with separate spoons. For the solution, stir with the spoon you used to skim the foam, because it was sanitized in the heat while boiling. Do not add ice directly to the solution because the ice can contain microbes, which can infect your brew and cause some pretty funky flavors.
- If you can pour the solution into your primary, do so. If you are using a carboy, rack the solution into the fermenter.
- Add enough water to make 5 gallons. The water must have been store bought or pre-boiled and cooled.
- Pitch your yeast into the fermenter, add your airlock and wait.
- Once your airlock has stopped bubbling sanitize your racking cane, hoses, and the glass fermenter, and rack your mead into the secondary fermenter.
- Be patient.
- Be Patient.
- BE PATIENT!
- Once your mead has cleared, or you just can't stand it anymore, Sanitize your racking cane, hose, bottle filler, and bottles. Fill your bottles, cap your bottles, and enjoy your mead.
Mead is the oldest fermented beverage. It is involved in traditions that go back to the days of Beowulf, King Arthur's court and farther still. In the Rig Veda (I, 159, 4-6), the oldest Hindu text, it is said, " In the wide striding Vishnu's highest footstep, there is a spring of mead." In Greece, if you wanted to pray to Aphrodite it was appropriate to use mead instead of wine. The word, "Ale" originally referred to mead.
Now, armed with a basic understanding of the issues involved in making mead, you can choose your own route for making this divine drink. Don't forget, "Mead is what legends are made of."