One of the best things about the information age is that ignorance is no longer something that’s imposed on you by an inefficient world (just ourselves, if we’re not careful). When I want to know something, I can easily and instantaneously search for the information myself, and even better, find someone to explain it to me!
Thus, I find myself sharing a great piece written by one of the best meadmakers in the world – that he also happens to be a wonderful person and a good friend is just icing on the cake. Today’s guest blogger, Adam Crockett, is co-owner (along with his fellow-meadmaking-and-brewing-and-beer-judging wife Erin) of Haymaker Meadery – and if you don’t immediately find a way to get your hands on some of their mead, then you’re really letting yourself down and you don’t even know it.
Today, I’m taking a back seat to let Adam talk us through the basics of mead. I genuinely like mead (and my wife genuinely loves mead, especially Adam & Erin’s), but it’s something I’ve always found intimidating, for some reason. After reading this, though, I’m quite confident that anyone (even me) can hit the ground running on making mead.
Take it away, Adam.
An Intro to Mead
Mead is an amazing beverage. It's neither beer nor wine, but somehow falls in the middle of both. It's an ancient beverage, too, and in fact some people believe it's actually the oldest fermented alcoholic beverage on Earth. Fermented Honey dates back as early as 2000 BC based on chemical signatures found in Asian pottery. The ancient Greeks also drank Ambrosia, a delicacy made of honey and believed to be the drink of the gods. So what is mead exactly?
All alcohol is derived from the conversion of sugar by yeast. Whereas beer derives its alcohol from malted barley, and wine derives its alcohol from grape juice, mead is primarily made up of fermented honey. Although mead hasn’t enjoyed the popularity that beer and cider has in the craft revolution, it finally seems to be getting some rightful attention, showing up in homebrew circles as well as being commercially produced. The best part about this resurgence is the quality of the mead being made: no longer is mead a cloyingly sweet beverage that takes years to mature. A drinkable mead can be made in under two months with only a minimal amount of time, effort, and money. So, if you have been thinking about making your first batch of mead, this article will help you to take that leap.
Mead making is a bit different then homebrewing. There is no boil involved and the attention and activity needed is spread out over a few weeks rather than a 6-hour brew day. [B:S editing note – Adam, you really need to let me take a look at your brew day. We can cut that thing down substantially!] There is also less equipment involved, which means less to buy and less to clean.
The first thing you need to locate is honey. The better the quality of the honey, the better your final product will be, but really any honey will do. I prefer to use honey from a local apiary, and they can be found by searching sites like honeylocator.com. Farmers markets are also great places to meet bee keepers from your area to score some good local honey.
If you have homebrewed before then no extra equipment is necessary. If, however, this will be your first time making mead then I would suggest speaking with your local homebrew shop about what you’ll need to get.
Once you have your honey and equipment it's time to get started. To start, combine the honey and the water to make “must” (the meadmaking equivalent of wort). I prefer not to boil my must. The non-boil method better preserves the delicate honey character in the final product, in my experience. Also, honey has antiseptic properties which will keep your mead from any bacterial or wild yeast infection, so there’s not much risk involved. Mix your honey using a wine whip or a large spoon, adding enough 80-90F water to bring your total volume to 5 gallons. Next, take a gravity reading. If you are happy with your gravity (mead comes in all strengths, so it’s up to you!) then it’s time to add your yeast nutrient. Yeast nutrients are necessary because, unlike beer, honey doesn’t have enough nutrients on its own for a healthy fermentation. For nutrients, I prefer Fermaid-K but any wine yeast nutrient will work. Sprinkle 4 grams of Fermaid -K into a water solution and stir it into your must. Don’t worry about oxidation: whether you are using a wine whip or spoon, you want to introduce oxygen into your mead by splashing the must. The only thing left to do is add your yeast, so rehydrate it or sprinkle it on top (or, if you’re using a liquid yeast, just pour it in), then close up your fermenter.
Like beer yeast, mead yeast likes and needs oxygen during the adaptation and growth stages of fermentation, but unlike beer for the first three days you want to open up your fermenter and stir out the C02 and introduce more oxygen. This is because CO2 is toxic to yeast and can impart undesired flavors that take a while to age out. Degassing the CO2 will lead to a mead that is drinkable faster. To degas, simply take your spoon or stir whip and agitate the must. Be careful and make sure everything is cleaned properly, and be sure to avoid a volcano-effect overflow when you are stirring out the C02 (the off-gassing may cause a head to form!).
By day 3 you should have a good fermentation going and it's now time to add the second addition of your yeast nutrients. Again, sprinkle 4 grams of Fermaid-K into your mead and stir. Once you have made this second nutrient addition, stirred out the C02, and introduced oxygen, it's time to leave your mead alone until it's done fermenting. Fermentation time can vary depending on honey variety, fermentation temp, and the original gravity, but a good average is about one month.
After a month, take a gravity reading then wait three days and take another gravity reading. If the gravity is the same, you’re done fermenting. Once Fermentation is complete you want to remove your mead from the inactive yeast, proteins, and heavy fats on the bottom of the fermenter and rack it into a new carboy. This will help you start the clearing process of your mead and start the bulk aging process as well. This is a great time to do a few minor flavor adjustments to your fermented mead. You might like to adjust the acid levels with an acid blend, back sweeten if your mead is not sweet enough with more honey (be sure to add potassium sorbate so fermentation doesn’t restart) or add more spice or oak . I prefer to age my mead in a 5-gallon carboy rather than bottle right away, since I believe this gives the final product a more complete and rounded flavor. During the bulk aging process you will want to rack your mead at least one more time after about 2 months. If your mead cleared on its own after bulk aging consider yourself lucky: if not you will want to pick up a clarifying agent like Super-Kleer. Follow the directions and after it has cleared, rack it again into a clean carboy or your bottling bucket. Your mead is now ready to bottle. A 5 gallon batch will give you around 24 bottles (750ml) or two cases of mead.
Thinking outside the box
Meads can be as simple as honey, water, yeast, and nutrient or as complicated as you can imagine. Don't be afraid to try something new like barrel aging, adding a funky or sour yeast, using the whey after making cheese instead of water, or even using an unconventional ingredient like peanuts. Also, meads don't always have to be 12% or more; I enjoy making low gravity meads in the 8% range. This way you can enjoy a few glasses with friends and not have to age your product for extended periods of time. Anything you can imagine for a beer is just as capable for mead, so go out there and get creative!
Some Recipes to Get your Started
This is a recipe for a simple mead that will give you a good sense of what your selected honey variety tastes like – you can build future recipes off of this one and get as crazy as you like:
Traditional Mead (Follow directions given in article)
15# Orange Blossom honey (or any variety you want to use)
Add water to achieve 5 gallons
Lalvin 71b yeast
8 grams Fermaid-K yeast nutrient
Here is my recipe for a pyment (a mead-wine hybrid) that recently won a first place ribbon at a massive local competition (nearly 1,000 entries):
Petit Syrah Pyment
36# Petit Syrah Grapes
9# Wildflower honey
Add water to achieve 5 gallons
Lalvin D47 yeast
8 grams Fermaid-K yeast nutrient
Have your local homebrew shop crush the grapes for you, add this must to your honey water solution. Stir and introduce oxygen for the first three days, after that punch down the grape skins everyday for a week. After a week remove the grape skins and matter from your mead and let fermentation complete.
And it’s just that simple. To date, I’ve made two meads, but I’m giving serious thought to making more – specifically, I want to focus in on recipes (probably pyments or dry meads) that I can use as wine substitutes. Then, once I’ve hooked them on the dry mead, I can tell them that they haven’t been drinking “wine” at all!
Or, worst case scenario, I can just keep buying it from Adam & Erin.
Whichever route you (or I) choose, keep in mind that, just like beer, mead can be as simple as you want or need it to be. Care and craft don’t need to be complicated, and it’s usually that caring that yields a superior product.
Thanks again to Adam, and as always…
Keep it simple.
A previous version of Adam’s article appeared in Philly Beer Scene.