This week I take a look at making mead with regular home brewing equipment. Mead is simply a wine made from honey, and is remarkably easy to make at home using your existing brewing equipment. This is a follow up based in part on my recent interview with Michael Fairbrother from Moonlight Meadery.
What is Mead?
Mead is wine made from honey, or a combination of fruit and honey. Mead could possibly be the oldest alcoholic beverage, dating back to 9000 BC (Ref: Wikipedia) or longer, but is relatively unknown to the average American. Mead was widely consumed throughout history – in fact the term “honeymoon” is derived from a tradition of drinking mead at weddings. However a trip to the local wine store will rarely produce more than a handful of bottles on the shelf. Thankfully a handful of small mead makers like Moonlight Meadery are starting to change this.
Mead is a wonderfully complex and great tasting drink. Like beer, it comes in a dizzying array of styles including sweet mead, Pyment (with grapes), Cyser (with cider), Melomel (with fruit), Metheglin (with herbs/spices) and Braggot (with hops). In fact there are over 25 different varieties of mead.
Why you Don’t Need Two Years to Make Mead?
Back when I started home brewing it really did take 1-2 years to complete a batch of mead, and that myth still persists among many home brewers. The reality is that with modern techniques and yeast nutrients, a good batch of mead can be completed in 3 months – which is a bit longer than a batch of beer, but far short of the 18 months it used to take. The secret is to use staggered yeast nutrients as I will describe below.
Mead Making Equipment
If you brew beer, you already have the equipment you need to make mead. You need:
- A large fermenter or carboy – 6.5-7 gallons is ideal for a 5 gallon batch since you need a little headspace to contain the foaming that occurs during fermentation
- An airlock for the fermenter
- A large pot if you want to pasteurize the honey first (not strictly required)
- A hydrometer
- Bottling equipment (bottles, bottle capper, bottle caps, bottle filler and tubing). Some people also bottle into wine bottles with corks, but beer bottles also work.
The most important ingredient for making your first batch of mead is honey – you will need 15-18 lbs of it for a typical 5 gallon batch. Unfortunately you can’t just go to the grocery store and buy honey off the shelf – its really not the kind of honey you want. Instead you should try to find a good quality mead making honey variety such as tupolo or orange blossom honey. Often you can find this at your local home brew store or any of the major online brewing supply stores. Another good place is to check out your local honey growers. You can locate honey sellers in your state through the National Honey Board locator (honeylocator.com).
Water is also important for making mead, as it is with beer. You need good quality drinking water – without excessive hardness or chlorine. If you can make good beer from your local water source, you can probably make good mead from it as well, but switch to bottled water if your local water is excessively hard or out of balance.
The next important ingredient is yeast. The “gold standard” for mead making is arguably Lalvin 71B wine yeast, (71B-1122 Narbonne White Wine Yeast) which is a dry yeast widely used by commercial mead makers. You will need a minimum of 1 gram/gallon but pitching 2-3 grams of yeast/gallon will result in a stronger fermentation. This works out to 2-3 packets of dry yeast (5 gram packets) per 5 gallon batch of mead.
Finally you need yeast nutrients unless you want to wait a year for your mead to complete. The three critical ones are called “GoFerm”, DAP (diammonium phosphate) and “Fermaid-K” and are available from most good home brewing or wine making shops. I personally go with additions of Goferm and Fermaid-K (which contains DAP) but you will find various people use various combinations of the three nutrients staggered over time.
We’ll start with a simple sweet mead (makes 5 gallons):
- 18 lb of Honey (tupolo or orange blossom)
- Lalvin 71B-1122 Yeast
- Fermaid-K and Goferm yeast nutrients
The Mead Making Process
There are two ways to start your mead. One is to pasteurize your honey by heating it, and the other is to simply mix water honey (cold) and then pitch the yeast. I personally go with the cold method (don’t heat the honey) as honey has some natural preservatives built in and is not at high risk of infection. In most cases pasteurization is not needed.
- Sanitize your fermenter and also any tools (spoons, bowls etc) that will come in contact with the yeast or honey mixture.
- Mix the honey with 5 gallons of tap water to create a liquid called “must”. Its OK to aerate the water (oxygen is good at this point) by using it directly from the tap. If you are adding fruits or spices, add them at this time.
- Mix you first yeast nutrient addition (see below) along with a little bit of honey, warm water and yeast to hydrate the yeast. Let this sit for 15-20 minutes before pitching into the must. I generally sprinkle it over the top of the must and slowly mix it in.
- For yeast nutrients, I mix up equal parts of GoFerm and Fermaid-K (roughly 1 tsp each) and then divide this mixture into four equal portions. One part is added to the yeast during hydration and one part is added at roughly 24 hours after active fermentation has started. Another portion of nutrient is added at 48 hours and then the final portion is added after roughly 2/3 of the sugar has been depleted (i.e. the original gravity has dropped by 2/3 of your target). Mix each portion of nutrients with a little honey and water, as adding it directly to the fermenting must can result in excessive foaming.
- For the first few days, you can agitate the must with a sterile spoon to liberate some of the CO2 (from fermentation) which will speed the fermentation. It may also add some oxygen, but unlike beer adding oxygen is actually good for early fermentation. You should continue doing this for on the first 3-5 days. Be careful as sometimes large amounts of foaming can occur (as the CO2 is liberated) which can cause your fermenter to spill over.
- Within 3-4 weeks the bulk of fermentation should be complete, but you need to allow another 8-10 weeks to allow the mead to clear. I recommend a minimum of 2 months before bottling.
- Bottling mead is no different then bottling beer. Mead can be made either still (with no carbonation) or sparkling (with carbonation). I personally prefer still meads. The only consideration is that mead tends to continue a slow fermentation after bottling, so even if you bottle a mead with no carbonating sugar, it will tend to carbonate over time. To prevent this you need to use Potassium Sorbate on still meads. This will prevent further fermentation in the bottles.
Here are some mead recipes on the BeerSmithRecipes shareing site.
For More Information
- Latest Making Mead interview with Michael Fairbrother
- Making Mead podcast episode with Michael Fairbrother from Moonlight Meadery
- Mead podcast episode with Kurt Stock
- The Compleat Meadmaker book by Ken Schramm (Full disclosure – Amazon affiliate link)
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