Mead is a classic fermented beverage with a long history. Ancient text and drawings, some dating back as far as 4000 BC, mention both wine and mead. Several Biblical writings describe this wonderful drink, as do many Roman and Egyptian texts. The first detailed mead recipes began appearing in the early 1500s and make reference to these ancient texts.
Originally mead was made by fermenting honey and water with wild yeasts. Over time, many variations were invented. Some recipes add spices and some add fruit, while other recipes even call for adding grape juice. Each of these variations have taken on different names over the years — such as melomel, metheglin, pyment and cyser — but the foundation of these fermented beverages still remains sweet honey. Mead-making offers endless possibilities, giving the intrepid winemaker a new arsenal of tools to use in the quest for making wonderful fermented beverages at home.
Where does honey come from?
As everyone knows, honey is produced by bees. The Latin name for honey bees is Apis mellifera, which means “honey carrier.” The various flavors of honey, which include orange blossom, wildflower and clover, are the result of the different nectars collected by a hive of bees in a particular year.
The nectar collected by bees from various sources is primarily a complex combination of sucrose (cane sugar), dextrose (grape sugar or glucose) and fructose (fruit sugar). The nectar is stored in the bee’s “honey sac” and transported to the hive. Enzymes are added to the nectar inside the sac. The nectar is then delivered to the honeycomb, where the bees evaporate its moisture by fanning their wings. The nectar has now become honey, and the bees seal it into the comb with wax.
The composition of honey
The average composition of honey is water, amino acids and enzymes, dextrose, sucrose and fructose, minerals and organic acids. (Raw honey also contains pollen, wax and propolis, a gummy substance that bees use to seal the honeycomb. Commercial honey producers remove this waxy stuff by straining and filtering.)
Under most circumstances the amounts or percentage of each of these compounds can vary substantially. The sugars tend to have the most consistent levels; they average 80 percent of total composition, with water content averaging 17 percent. The remaining three percent is comprised of minerals, vitamins, proteins and enzymes.
The amount of water contained in honey is critical to its quality and to its stability. Honey with lower moisture levels contains more sugar, and is much less likely to begin fermentation during storage. This is because osmosis draws moisture from any wild yeast cells that may be present and helps to keep the yeast in a dormant state. Conversely, honey with higher moisture levels can become unstable if wild yeast are present, and spontaneous fermentation can begin. Honey will also draw moisture from the air so proper storage should always be an important consideration.
Average sugar content of honey
- Fructose (d-fructose) 38.5%
- Dextrose (d-glucose) 31.0%
- Sucrose (table sugar) 1.5%
- Maltose 7.2%
- Other higher carbohydrates 4.2%
Honey is a fairly stable product, especially high-quality honey (commercial “Grade A” honey has a maximum moisture content of 18.6 percent). Keep honey in airtight containers if possible and store at room temperatures (70° F). Over time honey will darken with age and its flavor will change, due to contact with air and oxygen, but this does not denote spoilage. Honey that will be stored for extended periods can be kept at cooler temperatures (around 50° F), or even refrigerated if desired. Honey that has been diluted with water, or that contains higher moisture levels, should be stored very cold or used immediately, as fermentation by wild yeast will likely begin at room temperatures. Crystallization of honey is also common as it ages or if it is stored at cold temperatures. This is a natural process and gentle heating of the honey will return the honey to its liquid form.
Acidity and pH
Honey contains many different acids, including amino acids and other organic acids. Gluconic acid is the dominant acid in honey and is one of the primary factors in honey’s flavor profile. The acid range in honey is generally between 0.17 to 1.15 percent. Total acids in honey are generally expressed as “meq/kg” (millequivalent/kilogram). pH values in honey range from 3.4 to 6.1. Most honey will average around 4.0 pH. It is important to note, however, that the PH does not always reflect the acidity values, but rather reflects a buffering action between organic and inorganic acids. When making mead in the style of wine, acidity and pH should be measured and adjusted with a titration kit. (More on adjusting acidity later.) If you’re making mead in the style of ale, using pH papers should suffice. Keep pH levels in the 5.0 range .
Different types of honey
Honey gets its flavor and consistency from the floral nectars on which the bees are foraging. North America has more than 300 floral sources for honey, and each nectar varies in the type of sugars, proteins, minerals and trace elements present. The small quantities of aromatic oils also differ between flowering plants. Honey falls into one of two categories, “monofloral” and “polyfloral.” The difference is whether the bees collected nectar from a single source or from different sources.
Another consideration in choosing a type of honey for mead-making is color. Color designations for honey range from “water white” to “dark amber.” The color relates to the mineral content and is characteristic of the floral source. In general, the darker honeys will have stronger flavors than the lighter honeys. Not every kind of honey is good for making mead, so let’s look at some that are excellent:
Tupelo: This light, golden-amber table honey is prized because it does not crystallize. It has a very high fructose-to-glucose ratio of 44:30. It is made from the nectar of the greenish-white flowers of the Ogeechee lime tupelo trees, which grow only in the swamps of northern Florida and southern Georgia. Tupelo honey is rare and the most expensive in America. Average price is $4.50 to $5 per pound.
Orange Blossom: This is the most aromatic of all honeys; it smells like an orange grove in full bloom. This honey comes from the citrus groves of southern California, and the 2001 orange blossom honey is exceptional. Other citrus honeys are often given this same name, though they may have come from a different citrus flower source. Average price is $3.50 per pound.
Wild Buckwheat: This is a relatively dark honey, and the flavor is strong. Its flavor is often described as resembling malt, which explains its popularity with brewers. It is usually made from the wild buckwheat of Washington state, not the commercial buckwheat grown in the Northeast. Average price is $3 per pound.
Clover: This is a light honey. The moisture levels tend to run on the high side, at about 18 percent, making clover honey a candidate for quick use. As with most of the lighter-flavored honeys, the ash content is low, as is the total acid content, which would contribute to a softer flavor profile. It’s a great choice for flavored meads, in which you may want less of the honey flavor and more of the fruit or spice in the upfront profile. Average price is $2.50 per pound.
Mesquite: Mesquite honey is produced in the desert areas of Texas during the dry spring and summer months. Mesquite trees are ubiquitous in areas of Texas stretching from Austin southwest toward the Mexican border. The white flowers produce a light honey of delicate flavor. Average price is $3.25 per pound.
Wildflower: Wildflower honey can be very unique, with special flavors. This depends mostly on the kind of flower the nectar was collected from. It can be notably different from region to region, because of the different plants and flowers that are indigenous to each area. Plants such as wild thyme, bramble and hawthorne are often sources of nectar for this honey. Average price is $3 per pound.
Huajillo: This honey comes from the white flower of a native bush that grows in the south Texas chaparral or brush country. Huajillo has long been regarded as an exceptional honey and more than 100 years ago it was shipped in huge quantities to Europe. The color can be very light but it varies more year to year than other honeys. Average price is $2.50 to $3 per pound.
Sage: This is a light-flavored honey with good aromatic qualities. Sage shrubs usually grow along the California coast and in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The color of sage honey is usually white or water-white. Like tupelo, sage has a higher fructose-to-glucose ratio and is extremely slow to crystallize. Average price is $2.50 per pound.
Other types of honey that are well worth trying for mead-making would be fireweed, blackberry blossom and raspberry blossom. The names alone have a strong lure. I have made mead from orange blossom honey and mesquite honey (among other types), and highly recommend both of these for their aromatics and flavor (especially the orange blossom).
In addition, a mead-maker need not limit his batch to just one kind of honey. Blending several kinds of honey before fermentation can open up a lot of potential and give you a chance to add color, flavor, aroma, complexity, and structure to a finished mead.
One thing worth noting is that the very best honey will be fresh and right out of the beehive with minimal filtering. Keep in mind that honey such as this often contains pollen and bee parts. Most honey you can purchase through a supplier will have been processed in some manner. Honey with the very least amount of processing will retain more of its flavors and aromatics. If you are a homebrewer that has a beehive or beekeeper nearby, consider yourself lucky. Get to know your local beekeeper and see about acquiring some of his delicious nectar. If you don’t have a local beekeeper, a good place to find some fresh honey is a farmers’ market. Your local agricultural agency may have information on local beekeepers or honey suppliers as well. There are several bulk honey suppliers that are good sources of honey; the National Honey Board keeps a list of these suppliers. (Go to www.honeylocator.com to search the NHB database. The site also lists beekeeping associations by state.) Another source are homebrewing and home winemaking supply shops that purchase from bulk suppliers and then sell smaller amounts to homebrewers.
Variations in mead
Just as there are variations and different type of honeys, there are different types of meads as well. Mead is pure honey and water fermented to create an alcoholic beverage. When you add other components, either for added sweetness, flavoring or aromatics, the mead takes on a different name. Here’s a guide to types of mead.
Braggot: Mead with flavoring derived from malted grain.
Capsicumel: Honey with chili pepper.
Cyser: A sweet mead to which apple juice has been added.
Dry: These meads have no added flavoring and use about 2.5 pounds of honey per gallon of mead.
Hippocras: Mead to which grape juice and spices have been added.
Melomel: Also called mulsum; mead to which fruit juices other than apple or grape have been added.
Metheglin: Mead to which herbs and spices have been added.
Morat: Mead to which mulberries have been added.
Pyment: Mead to which grape juice has been added.
Rhodamel: Mead with rose petals.
Sack: A name given to stronger meads, generally made with more honey to increase alcohol content or sweetness. Sack meads usually use about 4 pounds of honey per gallon of mead.
Small: Small meads contain less honey (1.5 pounds per gallon) and ferment faster than regular meads. Ale yeast starts the fermentation, which takes about a week. These meads are more like ale than wine.
The mead-making process
The process of mead-making starts with the pasteurization and sterilization of the honey. I have read countless mead recipes that start out by telling you to heat or boil the honey. There are several schools of thought on this, and several options as well.
Keep in mind that sanitation and the prevention of bacterial and microbial infection are just as important in mead-making as they are in home brewing or winemaking. So in addition to sanitizing your must, remember to keep your work surface and every piece of equipment sanitary.
One aspect of honey worth mentioning is its antibacterial activity, which is attributed to a substance or effect called “inhibin.” Research has shown this to be a byproduct of gluconic acid, and it is now known to be hydrogen peroxide. In diluted honey solutions that have correct pH values this antibacterial activity has a significant presence. With that in mind, I don’t believe bacterial infection from within honey is of major concern.
To boil or not to boil
In mead-making, just as in winemaking, the unfermented honey, water and other ingredients, once combined, is called “must.” Your aim in preparing the must and in the fermentation of honey should be to retain as much of the natural flavor and aroma of the honey as possible. Honey is a dense and sticky product, which makes it quite difficult to work with. You will need to dissolve the honey in water so the must is easy to pour and stir. There are several options that a mead-maker can employ that will dissolve the honey and sterilize the must at the same time. Each of these methods have pros and cons.
Boiling: This process involves heating some water in a stainless-steel pot. Once the water is at a very warm temperature, just below the boiling point, it is removed from the heat and the honey is added. The mixture is stirred to dissolve the honey and then placed back over the heat. The must is brought to a boil and the scum that forms on top is scooped off. This scum consists of coagulated protein and beeswax. After a brief period the must is removed from the heat and allowed to cool, or more water is added to bring the temperature down more rapidly.
Advantages: The must is sterilized and any bacteria or wild yeast present will be killed. In addition, protein compounds are boiled out of the honey mixture, leaving less chance of a protein haze in the finished mead.
Disadvantages: The flavor and fragrances of the honey will most often be cooked out of the must, leaving your finished product with very little of either. Possible color change.
Heating: In this method, water is heated to 180° or to just below boiling, and the honey is diluted in the hot water. This method is similar to pasteurization. The temperature is held at this temperature for 20 to 30 minutes.
Advantages: As with boiling, the must is sterilized and any bacteria or wild yeast present will be killed. Some of the protein compounds will also be removed, although some may remain.
Disadvantages: As with boiling, some of the honey characteristics can be lost, as well as some of the subtle aromas. The color of the honey may change. Some of the protein compounds are heated out of the must, but not all of them, so fining may be needed to clarify.
Sulfite: This method simply dilutes the honey in warm water so that it is dissolved. Once dissolved, the rest of the water is added and the must is sulfited to around 65 to 70 parts per million (ppm). Sulfite additions are common in winemaking to sanitize the must, and this is becoming the preferred method among mead-makers, as well.
Advantages: The must is sterilized. The must will retain all of the delicate flavors and aromas contained in the honey. No change in color to the honey.
Disadvantages: Possible protein haze in your finished must, requiring extended aging in bulk or the use of a fining agent to remove the haze and clarify the mead.
Sulfite comes in several easy-to-use forms for homebrewers and winemakers. One of the most common forms is Campden tablets. The tablets are crushed and then added to the must. Each tablet contains 0.44 grams of sodium metabisulfite and adding one crushed tablet per gallon of must is just about right (the amount of sodium metabisulfite in tablets can vary; check the label and adjust the amount if you need to.) Since these tablets contain sodium, I would err on the side of caution when using them, since you can end up with a salty flavor in your mead. An easier and much better product to use is potassium metabisulfite, which comes in powder form and is ready to measure out and use. Here’s a quick guide that tells you how much potassium metabisulfite to add to various batch sizes of mead.
Amount of must 1 gallon
Amount of sulfite 0.33 gram or 0.05 tsp
Result 50 ppm
Amount of must 1 gallon
Amount of sulfite 0.46 gram or 0.07 tsp
Result 70 ppm
Amount of must 5 gallons
Amount of sulfite 1.64 gram or 0.26 tsp
Result 50 ppm
Amount of must 5 gallons
Amount of sulfite 2.3 gram or 0.37 tsp
Result 70 ppm
Which of the above sterilizing methods to use will depend mostly on your style and how quickly you want the mead to clear. Personally, I prefer to sulfite the must, preserving as much of the natural honey aroma and flavor as possible. When using this method to make a pyment (honey and grape juice) or a braggot (honey and malt) I have not noticed any significant haze, and a common fining agent such as Claro-KC clears the mead within a week. With a pure honey mead, I have experienced some residual protein hazes after fermentation when using only sulfite to sanitize, and I had to use bentonite to clear it. In addition to the methods mentioned here for sanitizing a mead must, other processes — from no sanitizing at all, to sterile filtration — are used by some mead-makers.
Honey contains small amounts of vitamins, minerals and amino acids, as well as anti-oxidants. That said, honey is not abundant in available nutrients, and it is recommended that nutrients be added to the must before fermentation. The known lag time in getting yeast activity started in a mead must is partially due to the lack of available nitrogen and nutrient compounds. Mead adjuncts, such as fruit, malt, grape juice or other spices, can be used as a source of nutrition for yeasts, but yeast nutrients should be added to the must to supply adequate compounds. DAP (Diammonium Phosphate), yeast hulls, Fermaid or a combination should be added at the rate of one-half teaspoon per gallon. Additional DAP can also be added partway through the fermentation process, at about day six, to keep the yeast active.
A well-balanced mead should have just enough acid to offset the sweetness. Mead has low acid levels because the honey is diluted with so much water. So I recommend that you measure and adjust the acid.
Once your must is diluted with water, take an acid reading. You can take your total acidity reading with a simple acid-testing kit, available at most homebrew or winemaking supply shops. Purchase a testing kit that contains a one-percent solution of sodium hydroxide, as opposed to another strength. Measure out 7.5 milliliters (mL) of your mead must with the supplied syringe and add this to a test tube or small container. Add 3 to 4 drops of the supplied indicator solution (phenolphthalein) and stir or swirl to mix. Rinse your syringe and draw up 10 mL of the one-percent sodium hydroxide solution and begin slowly adding it to the mead must. After each few drops you add, swirl the container and look for a color change over the entire sample. When you see the entire sample change color, record how much of the sodium hydroxide you used. This will be your total acidity in grams per liter. If you used 5.6 mL of sodium hydroxide to see an entire color change in the solution then your acidity will be 5.6 grams per liter.
Adding acid to the must is controversial among some mead-makers, and some favor adding the acid after fermentation to adjust for acid-sweetness balance. Your primary concern will be pH levels in the must, because adding acid will lower pH levels. But proper acid levels promote a healthy fermentation and adjustments should, in my opinion, be made before fermentation. After adding water to your must the acid levels are going to fall dramatically, and pH levels will be approaching between 5 and 6, so I recommend that you add at least enough acid to the must to bring the pH down into the 3.5 range. After fermentation and after sweetening the finished mead, additional acid can be added if needed to balance your mead. A general rule of thumb is that if you intend a dry mead the natural organic acids formed during fermentation may be sufficient. Some mead makers, including myself, do adjust acidity before fermentation, taking into account desired residual sugar levels, with no apparent ill effects. A common acidity range to target when making a mead with 2 percent residual sugar is 6.5 g/L (0.65 percent total acidity). For a braggot style of mead to which malt is added, and procedures are followed for a lower-alcohol brew, use simple pH papers and shoot for a range of about 5.0 pH.
To add acid, simply buy a powdered acid blend at your supply shop. Most of these blends contain three natural acids — citric, malic and tartaric — that are found in a wide variety of fruits. The amount to add varies (see page 42). Some mead-makers substitute fresh citrus juice for an acid blend.
Most yeasts that are available for making beer or wine will also work quite well for fermenting a honey mead. Mead musts can be started with a wide range of Brix or specific gravity levels, resulting in alcohol percentages from six to 20 percent. For an ale style of mead, the starting specific gravity should be in the range of 1.050. If you’re making a wine style of mead, the specific gravity should be in the 1.080 range. As with any homebrew, the final alcohol levels, nutrient needs, oxygen consumption and sugar levels should be taken into account when selecting a yeast culture. Sweet and dry mead yeast are now available specifically for fermenting meads. Dry granulated wine yeasts seem to work very well for meads as well. Most mead-makers will recommend the following yeasts for either their clean ester properties or for the favorable qualities they lend to the mead, without the inherent harshness other yeasts might contribute.
Nicely balanced, strong fermentation.
Fruity characteristics; perhaps my favorite mead yeast.
Harsh at first, but ages wonderfully.
Red Star Cote Des Blanc
Smooth, good flavor.
Red Star Pasteur Champagne
Clean, neutral, vigorous.
White Labs WLP720 (Sweet Mead) or WLP715 (Champagne)
Tolerant to 15 percent alcohol and accentuates the fruity characteristics of meads. Use the Champagne strain for dry meads.
Wyeast 3184 (Sweet Mead) or 3632 (Dry Mead)
Harder to get started, but shows good qualities in a finished mead.
Honey is known for its slow fermentation times; mead will take much longer to ferment than beer. However, providing that you supply a nutrient-rich environment and higher temperatures for the yeast to thrive in, fermentation times can be shortened quite a bit. Is this desirable? Well, most white wines are fermented at very cool temperatures, resulting in a long and slow fermentation. This tends to preserve fruit flavors and subtle aromas in the finished product. This type of fermentation can be applied to meads as well. Meads that are slow to ferment may show more of the flavor and aroma of the honey, as well as subtle hints of toasty or yeasty flavors. Finding a happy medium may the best approach, such as a moderate fermentation that takes only two to three weeks, or slightly longer, at about 68 to 70° F.
If you are using a dry wine yeast, re-hydrate the yeast in a cup of water that has been heated to around 100 to 105° F, and stir lightly. Allow this to sit for 15 minutes and then stir once more. To the cup of warm yeast water, add 1 to 2 cups of your mead must and stir. Allow this to sit, slightly covered, for 20 to 30 minutes. Stir your must thoroughly to aerate it and then stir your yeast starter into your must. If you used sulfite to sterilize your must, wait at least 12 hours before adding your yeast starter. Otherwise the sulfite will inhibit the yeast.
After 24 hours you should see signs of activity. Give the fermenting must a good stir to supply oxygen to the growing yeast colony. Stir the must once more on day two of active fermentation, then attach a bung and airlock. Partway through fermentation, on or about day four to six, depending on how fast your gravity levels are falling, give the mead a gentle stir to bring settled yeast up from the bottom of the fermenter. Monitor your airlock for bubbles and use your hydrometer to occasionally check the remaining sugar levels.
When activity seems to have stopped and your hydrometer reads below 1.000 specific gravity, or 0° Brix, add potassium metabisulfite to 50 ppm and allow the yeast to flocculate for a couple of days. Once the yeast has settled, rack your mead off the yeast sediment to a secondary container. Keep racking the mead every four to six weeks until it is clear. This may take as long as six months. Once the mead is clear, bottle it. I like to age my mead six months in the bottle, which means a year may elapse between making the batch and popping the first cork. With a drink this tasty, waiting is harder than it sounds!
- 9 lbs. of honey (any kind)
- 4 lbs. pale malt extract (unhopped)
- 1 tbsp yeast nutrient
- 4 tsp acid blend
- Wyeast 3632 (Dry Mead) or your favorite ale yeast
- 1 cup corn sugar (for priming)
Boil 4.5 gallons of water for 4-5 minutes. Cool slightly and add all ingredients except yeast and corn sugar. Cool to room temperature and add the yeast. Ferment until dry, then rack. A small amount of gelatin can be added to aid in clarification. After 14 days, rack your braggot back to the primary, add the corn sugar for priming, and bottle. Age for several months.
Basic dry mead
- 2.5 lbs. honey (any kind)
- 2 tsp acid blend
- 0.25 tbsp gypsum
- 0.15 tsp Irish moss powder
- 1 Campden tablet or 0.15 tsp sulfite powder
- 1-2 tsp yeast nutrient
- Wine yeast of choice
Dissolve honey in enough warm water to bring the volume to just over one gallon. Add rest of ingredients except sulfite and yeast. Remove 1 cup of must and heat to 80° F, pitch yeast into the warm must. Add sulfite to the 1 gallon of must and cover. After 12-24 hours add fermenting mead starter to 1 gallon of must. Attach a bung and airlock and ferment to dryness. Rack to secondary container. Keep secondary container full and rack every 4-6 weeks until clear. Bottle at several months of age.
Basic sweet mead
- 3.5 lbs. honey (any kind)
- 5 tsp of acid blend
- 0.25 tbsp gypsum
- 0.15 tsp Irish moss powder
- 1 Campden tablet or 0.15 tsp sulfite powder
- 1-2 tsp of nutrient
- Sweet mead yeast (Wyeast 3184 or White Labs WLP720)
Dissolve honey in enough warm water to bring volume to just over one gallon. Add rest of ingredients except sulfite and yeast. Remove 1 cup of must and heat it to 80° F, pitch yeast into arm must. Add sulfite to 1 gallon of must and cover. After 12-24 hours add the fermenting mead starter to 1 gallon of must. Ferment mead to dryness, add 0.5 tsp potassium sorbate to prevent re-fermentation in the bottle, and then sweeten with sugar or honey. Rack to secondary. Keep secondary container full (top up with water if necessary) and rack every 4-6 weeks until clear. Bottle at several months of age.
- 6 lbs. orange blossom honey
- 1 96-oz. can Chenin Blanc grape
juice concentrate (or your choice of
other wine-grape juice)
- 4 large pomegranates
- 10 kiwi fruit
- Juice of 2 oranges
- 8 tsp acid blend
- 0.25 teaspoon sulfite
- 1.5 tsp tannin
- 2 tsp pectic enzyme
- 2.5 teaspoons potassium sorbate
- 7.5 to 9 ounces of sugar for final
- Wine yeast of choice
Dissolve honey in enough warm water to bring volume to just over six gallons. Add rest of ingredients except sulfite, pectic enzyme, fruit and yeast. Remove 1 cup of must and heat it to 80° F, pitch yeast into cup of warm must. Add sulfite to the 6 gallons of must and cover. After 12-24 hours add the cup of fermenting mead starter to the 6 gallons of must and stir well. Cover and fit airlock. Check must in 24 hours and stir, then add fruit and pectic enzyme to must. Ferment mead to dryness or near dryness and rack to secondary container. You may add a common fining agent if mead is dry at this racking, or allow the mead to clear naturally. Rack mead again in 3-4 weeks, and then again in 4-6 weeks (add a pinch of sulfite at each racking). Allow mead to clear and age for 4-6 months. For final sweetening 2 to 2.5% residual sugar is suggested. Dissolve 2.5 teaspoons of potassium sorbate in a small bit of water, and stir into the mead. Add the sweetening sugar. If mead is at room temperatures, you can stir the sugar right into the mead. If mead is at cooler temperatures, remove 2-3 cups of the mead and heat it to 80° F in a sanitized pan, and dissolve your sugar in this. Add to mead and stir. Wait several days before bottling.
Joe O'Neal is an avid home winemaker in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.