Article

Mead: From Nectar to Nirvana

Mead is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey. In fact, it’s sometimes called honey wine. Mead tastes like honey and can be made to be sweet or dry, sparkling or still (uncarbonated). Its appearance is clear and usually very pale, although some types of mead are colored due to other ingredients or use of a dark colored honey (like buckwheat honey).

Composition of Honey

We are all likely familiar with honey as a sweetener. As meadmakers, it helps us to know that honey is around 80% sugars, with glucose and fructose being the most abundant. It also contains other sugars — including maltose and sucrose — in smaller percentages. Honey contains acids, most notably gluconic acid, and has a low pH — ranging from 3.4–6.1 and averaging 3.9. The protein content of the honey and water mixture that becomes mead is very low, so yeast nutrients are needed to ensure proper yeast health. The water content of honey varies from 15 to 20%, with most examples hovering around 17%. The low amount of water is sufficient to suppress the growth of most potentially contaminating microorganisms.

Plants Make Nectar – Bees Make Honey

Honey is made by honey bees (Apis mellifera) and few other species of bees. Worker bees visit flowers and gather nectar, a dilute sucrose solution. In their crop (the sac that holds the nectar), most of the sucrose is split into fructose and glucose by an enzyme called invertase. A second enzyme, glucose oxidase, converts some of the glucose into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. In addition, the body of the bee absorbs some of the water. Upon returning to the the hive, the crop liquid is transferred to other worker bees, who maintain the hive. Hive workers place the liquid in a cell of the honey comb. The bees then fan the presumptive honey with their wings to evaporate water and cap the cell when the water level drops to about 17%.

The characteristics of honey vary depending on which plants the bees have visited and honey is almost always labelled with a varietal name. For example, orange blossom honey is honey made from bees that visited mostly orange trees. Popular honey types for meadmaking include orange blossom, tupelo, huajillo, mesquite, sage, buckwheat, raspberry, wildflower and clover. (Note that honeys made from the nectar of fruit bearing plants don’t taste like the fruit of that plant. Orange blossom honey and raspberry honey do not taste like oranges or raspberries.)

Most times, a meadmaker will use honey varieties that are available locally. These days your neighborhood supermarket may have three or four types of honey on the shelves. In my homebrew shop, I carry at least six types of honey on a regular basis. I stock some special types from time to time depending on my supplier and where he places his hives. I would advise the home meadmaker to explore his locale for unusual honey types. Small farm stands may surprise you with an unusual honey type that no one else has.

Home Winemakers Make Mead

With a cursory knowledge of basic sanitation and the right combinations of ingredients, one may produce world class mead at home. The following is an overview of my basic method.

Mead is slow in fermentation startup time, overall fermentation time, clarification and aging. A meadmaker must have the patience of a saint. Nothing “mead” is quick. However, the rewards are worth it — trust me.

I generally make 5-gallon (19-L) batches of mead. The meadmaking process takes from six months to a year, so you might as well make a good-sized batch. It takes the same amount of time to make a 5-gallon (19-L) batch as a 1 to 3-gallon (3.8–11-L) batch. My recipe calls for 15 pounds (6.8 kg) of honey for a 5-gallon (19-L) batch. This will make a mead with an original gravity around 1.110 and a final gravity around 1.030–1.035, yielding an alcohol content of around 10% ABV.

Basically, the only equipment one needs to make mead is a 5-gallon (19-L) cooking pot — 6 or 7-gallon (23–26-L) is better — with a lid, a long spoon for stirring, a large funnel (if using a glass carboy for the primary fermentation vessel) and a sink to immerse the cooking pot in for cooling. Your local home winemaking shop should have all the various other additives and yeasts described here.

The following is my basic procedure for a 5-gallon (19-L) batch of still, sweet mead — one of the most popular types of mead. The fermentation of this style stops a little short of completion, leaving a pleasant residual sweetness.

Sanitizing the Must

Place two gallons of water into your pot and heat using medium heat. Add fifteen pounds (6.8 kg) of honey, stirring constantly to avoid scorching. Once the honey is dissolved, add the remaining water to a total volume of 5 gallons (19 L). Honey is heavier than water and will sink to the bottom, so keep stirring it until the honey and water mixture is uniformly mixed. Maintain the heat on low to medium and stir every five minutes. This process takes time, so plan on it taking at least an hour to reach 160 °F (71 °C). This is Pasteurization temperature and any bacteria or wild yeasts that may be present in the unfermented mead (or must) will be destroyed. When the temperature has reached 160 °F (71 °C), place the lid on the pot and let it sit for fifteen minutes.

After this fifteen minute rest period, immerse the entire covered pot into a sink full of cold water. You will have to change the water in your sink a few times to cool the must down sufficiently. A few trays of ice cubes added to the sink will hasten the chilling effect. You must cool the mixture to a temperature below 80 °F (27 °C) before you can pitch your yeast.

Some meadmakers, especially those with a home winemaking background, sanitize their unfermented meads by adding one Campden tablet (or 0.33 g of potassium metabisulphite powder) per gallon (3.8 L) of liquid. When doing this, let the unfermented mead sit overnight. Cover the bucket loosely with aluminum foil, so the sulfur dioxide gas — released from the tablets or powder — can evaporate from the mead. Pitch your yeast the next day.)

Once the must is sanitized, transfer the honey and water mixture to a sanitized fermenter. Add one teaspoon per gallon (3.8 L) each of yeast nutrient and acid blend (a mixture of tartaric and malic acids). Use the “complete” type of yeast nutrient, not DAP (diammonium phosphate), which is often labelled “yeast nutrient” in winemaking shops.

As an option, you may also add up to 0.25 oz. (7 g) of tannin to add a bit of “structure” to the mead.

Pitching the Yeast

Next, pitch your yeast. My personal preference is for sweet mead, so I inoculate my meads with sweet mead yeast. Both Wyeast and White Labs make sweet mead yeasts — Wyeast’s is labelled 3184 (Sweet Mead) yeast and White Lab’s is designated WLP720 (Sweet Mead/Wine) yeast. Wyeast also makes 3632 (Dry Mead) yeast. Other popular yeast choices include wine yeasts such as Champagne yeast, Côtes du Rhône yeast (such as Lalvin D-47), Côte des Blanc yeast (such as Red Star Côte des Blanc) and Steinberg yeast.

Vigorously shake or rock the mixture for at least five minutes to oxygenate the mixture, ensuring a prompt startup of fermentation.

I always make a 1-quart (~1-liter) or larger yeast starter, so my yeast is already at a gallop when I pitch it. A day or two before the meadmaking day, I prepare my starter. Mix a cup of corn sugar with a quart (~1 liter) of water. Boil the mixture for fifteen minutes to sanitize it, then chill to less than 80 °F (27 °C) by immersing the covered vessel into cold water, just as you will do in the mead making process. Pitch your commercial yeast into the chilled mixture. Vigorously shake it up, affix a sanitized airlock and let the starter sit at room temperture until you are ready to use it.

Fermentation

Try to maintain a temperature of 65–75 °F (18–24 °C) throughout primary and secondary fermentation. I recommend affixing a stick-on type thermometer onto the primary fermenter to monitor the temperatures in the primary vessel. The initial fermentation usually starts slowly, but may kick into high gear, producing quite a bit of its own heat in the process. The increased fermentation temperature (over 80 °F or 27 °C) may develop some fusel alcohols. If you see this happening, move the vessel into a cooler environment.

After three months in primary fermentation, transfer the contents into a secondary vessel, preferably a glass carboy. Avoid splashing, or oxidation may occur. You will leave the mead in this vessel until all signs of fermentation are finished. This may take an additional six to nine months. One may check for completion by performing a specific gravity reading, waiting a couple weeks and checking it again. If there is not any change, and the specific gravity is around 1.030–1.035 (with the sweet mead yeast), then your mead is fermented to completion. The high final gravity is due to the sweet mead yeast’s low tolerance to the alcohol produced. The cultured yeast that fermented so well initially actually dies from alcohol toxicity and leaves some unfermented sugars. If you choose to use dry mead yeast or Champagne yeast, then your final gravity will drop quite a bit lower — perhaps as low as 1.020 — due to the yeast’s higher attenuation.

Clarifying Your Mead

Now that your mead is fermented out to the style you prefer, sweet or dry, the next step in the process is clarification. Meads are very special and take a lot of time to produce, so getting them to look good is important. A little extra time for clarification may be necessary. In the end, your mead should be brilliantly clear.

If you’re as lucky as I have been, the mead will probably have cleared itself. Maybe the yeast dropped out on its own, or maybe you left the mead in the fermenter a lot longer than you had planned and it cleared itself. I’m usually so busy I bottle my mead months after it has settled out on its own. If it’s in a secondary fermenter, and you don’t un-stopper it or fuss with it, then the dangers of oxidation are nil. The mead can wait a few extra months before it needs to be bottled. Time and patience are necessary virtues.

I view any haze at all as unacceptable, so I occasionally have to clarify my meads. The clearing agent I’ve had the best luck with is called Sparkolloid. I prefer the hot version, in which 0.25 oz. (7 g) of Sparkolloid is boiled in 8.0 fl. oz. (237 mL) of water for 20 minutes. After carefully adding the still-hot mixture to your hazy mead, a gentle stirring or swirling will mix it in. Be careful if you are using a glass carboy. Add the hot mixture slowly to the carboy, mix it in a bit, and keep adding it so that you don’t expose the carboy to hot temperatures that may crack it. The clarification will start in a few hours, but may take a week or two or more to complete. A fine soft pancake of sediment will drop to the bottom of the vessel, eventually packing itself down. Sparkolloid does clear the mead very nicely, but the dropped out sediment is quite loose, and can be stirred up by just a little movement of the carboy. I’ve heard of some meadmakers adding another clarifier such as Bentonite on top of the Sparkalloid to pack down the soft sediment. I prefer to rack off my brilliant mead very carefully with small diameter plastic tubing. I start the siphon by filling the sanitized tubing with clean water and placing it about halfway down into the mead that I am transferring. Plastic tubing by nature always seems to have a curve in it, sort of a memory from it being rolled up in a coil. Use this curve to your advantage by placing the tubing inside the carboy the mead is in about halfway down. The curved tubing will touch the inside wall of the carboy. Release the pinched tubing to drain the water, effectively starting the siphon action. When the mead starts flowing, place the tube to the bottom of the receiving bottling bucket. Be as careful as you can to avoid any splashing into the receiving vessel that may cause oxidation. As the mead is transferring to the lower, receiving bottling bucket, slowly move the tubing down lower and lower into the sending glass carboy, taking extra caution by not stirring it up or moving the carboy. The tubing should be very visible through the clarified mead. When you get near the bottom, and have a chance of sucking up some sediment, stop the process by pulling the tubing out of the carboy.

Don’t worry about losing any mead that is still left in the carboy. What I do after the transfer saves every last drop of mead. I pour the entire remaining mead (probably a quart or two, including the sediment) into a glass pitcher and cover it with a plastic wrap. I then put the mead sludge in the refrigerator overnight. The next morning, I find a distinct layer of sediment with clear mead on top of it. Carefully pour the clear mead off, as you might do when decanting wine off some sediment. In this manner, you will recover virtually all of the remaining mead.

Bottling

Bottling your mead is simply transferring it into a bottle without splashing. If you want a sparkling (carbonated) mead, add corn sugar at bottling as homebrewers would do when making a bottle-conditioned beer. Though I’m a beer brewer and bottle virtually all of my beers in 12-oz. (355-mL) brown beer bottles, I feel that my meads deserve a more special presentation. I package my golden nectars in special icewine or flip-top bottles. I also label my meads with specially made labels. They’re great gifts to fellow meadmakers and brewers.

Types of Mead

The type of mead I have described is a simple mead — basically just a mixture of honey, water and yeast. But, you can add other ingredients to meads. Different mead-based drinks go by different names.

Melomels are meads made with fruits or fruit juices. I’ve had good luck with fresh raspberry, strawberry, blueberry and black currant added to my base mead. As for how much fruit to add, I feel more is better and I usually add 8–10 lbs. (3.6–4.5 kg) per 5 gallons (19 L) of mead.

Some types of fruit — including raspberry and cranberry — will make the mead more acidic. When adding an acidic fruit, you should skip the addition of acid blend (or at least decrease the amount). Many fruits also add a bit of tannin to the mead.

To aid in clarity, I always use pectic enzyme — 1/2 tsp. per 5 gallons (19 L) — in my fruit meads. I add this when I pitch the yeast.

Cyser is simply basic mead using apple juice or cider instead of water in the mead-making process. Different types of apples as well as different honey types produce various flavors and aromas.

Metheglin, from the Welsh word “Medcylglin” means medicine. These meads are made using various combinations herbs and spices. I like the way cinnamon and cloves accents the sweetness of the honey.

A type of mead which may appeal to many home beer brewers is Braggot. This medieval drink is made with honey, water and yeast, but has malts or malt extracts added. Braggot can be made with or without hops, depending on your preference.

Home winemakers may want to try a pyment. Pyment is a style of mead that incorporates grapes or grape juice into the basic mead recipe. Most have a sweet finish due to a high residual sugar content, but can be fermented to dryness if one uses the appropriate yeast. The choice is up to your tastes.

Another style of mead that incorporates grapes is Hippocras. Named after Hippocrates, the father of medicine, this version of mead uses includes both grapes or grape juice and spices.

 

Mead Recipes

Zocco’s Sweet Mead

(5 gallons/19 L)
OG = 1.111 FG = 1.033 ABV = 10.1%

Ingredients
15 lbs. (6.8 kg) honey (your choice)
5 tsp. yeast nutrient
5 tsp. acid blend
Wyeast 3184 (Sweet mead) or White Labs WLP720 (Sweet Mead/Wine) yeast (make 1 qt./1 L starter)
0.25 oz. (7 g) Sparkolloid (if needed for clarity)

Step by Step
Heat 2 gallons (7.6 L) or water under medium heat. Stir in honey, then add water to make 5 gallons (19 L). Add yeast nutrient and acid blend. Heat to 160 °F (71 °C) and let sit, covered, for 15 minutes. Cool wort to 80 °F (27 °C) and transfer to fermenter. Aerate and pitch yeast. Ferment for about three months at 65–75 °F (18–24 °C), then rack to secondary. Let mead condition and clear. Fine with Spakolloid, if needed. Bottle.

Number 9 (Semi-Sweet Mead)

(5 gallons/19 L)
OG = 1.093 FG = 1.023 ABV = 9.0%

This mead is not as sweet (or alcoholic) as sweet mead, but retains enough sweetness to round out the orange blossom honey’s characteristics. You can add more or less acid to suit your own taste. — Chris Colby

Ingredients
12 lbs. 9 oz. (5.7 kg) orange blossom honey
4 tsp. yeast nutrients
2 tsp. tartartic acid
2 tsp. malic acid
3 pkg. Lalvin D-47 yeast (dried yeast)

Step by Step
Heat 1 gallon (3.8 L) of water to about 130 °F (54 °C). Pour as much of your honey into a sanitized bucket as will pour on its own. Scoop hot water as needed into your honey container(s) to dissolve the rest of the honey. Use a (sanitized) flexible spatula to scrape the sides of the container(s). Use only as much of the hot water as you need to dissolve the remaining honey. Slowly add filtered tap water to your bucket, stirring constantly with a sanitized spoon, until you reach 5 gallons (19 L). Stir in yeast nutrients. Put 5 oz. (150 mL) of water at 109 °F (43 °C) in a large (sanitized) measuring cup.

Proof the dried yeast by adding it to this warm water and letting it sit 15 minutes. Aerate the must, pitch the yeast, seal the bucket and let sit at 70–80 °F (21–27 °C). Let the mead ferment until the rate of fermentation slows greatly (at least two months). Add acids to a 5-gallon (19-L) carboy and rack mead on top of them. If the carboy is not full to the neck, boil some water for 15 minutes, cool it quickly (but without splashing or otherwise aerating) and top up carboy. You may also want to add one crushed Campden tablet if you top up. Let mead sit until fermentation is finished and mead clears completely. Bottle and serve cold. (Option: for a sparkiling mead, add 1.25 cups of corn sugar when you bottle.)

Rabbit’s Foot Meadery Sweet Mead clone

(5 gallons/19L, honey)
OG = 1.110 FG = 1.030 ABV = 12%

The following recipe is for an award-winning sweet mead produced by Rabbit’s Foot Meadery in Sunnyvale, California.

Ingredients
15 lbs. (6.8 kg) wildflower honey
5 tsp. yeast nutrient
5 tsp. DAP (diammonium phosphate)
5 tbsp. bentonite
2 pkg. Lalvin EC-1118 yeast

Step by Step
Use the finest wildflower honey that you have available. Blend your 15 lbs. (6.8 kg) of wildflower honey with about 2 gallons (7.6 L) of boiling water and stir well. Do not boil the mixture. Add the additional water (2–3 gallons/7.6–11 L) a little at a time until the specific gravity reaches 1.110. You should end up with around 5 gallons (19 L), but you may have a little more or less depending on the density of the honey. For this recipe, you should use two packets of Lalvin EC-1118 yeast. More yeast to start is better. Rehydrate the yeast in a cup of 104 °F (40 °C) water for 30 minutes, then mix it into the honey and water mixture. Pour the contents of the batch back and forth into an additional sanitized fermentation bucket to aerate. Add 5 tsp. of yeast nutrient and 5 tsp. of DAP. Add 50% of your nutrients now and allow to begin fermenting. The next day you should see signs of fermentation. Add the remainder of your nutrients.

Ferment until the specific gravity reaches 1.030–1.035 and add 1 tbsp. bentonite per gallon (3.8 L) mixed into a slurry. Allow this mixture to settle out and the following day stir it up again. Following this, the mead will clear rapidly but still continue to ferment. Watch the gravity for the next few days until it reaches 1.030 and then rack it off the lees (sediment). If you have the ability to filter the mead, go ahead and do it now. Ideally, you would bulk age this mead for a month or two before drinking, but it should be quite nice right away. Bottle the mead still (without bottling sugar for carbonation).

Redstone Meadery Vanilla Bean / Cinnamon Stick Mead clone

(5 gallon/19 L, honey and spices)
OG = 1.102 FG = 1.012 ABV = 12%

Every December 21st, I make mead. For many years I would make a 10-gallon (38 L) batch leaving half of it traditional and half with either vanilla beans or vanilla beans and cinnamon sticks. I would age it two years and then serve it at the annual Winter Solstice party from a special bottle.
— David Myers, Redstone Meadery

Ingredients
8 lbs. (3.6 kg) alfalfa honey
4 lbs (1.8 kg) wildflower honey
1 tbsp. yeast nutrient (or 1 tbsp. extra light malt extract)
3-4 whole vanilla beans
3–4 cinnamon sticks
Red Star Montrachet yeast

Step by Step
Bring 4 gallons (15 L) of water up to 180 °F (82 °C) in your kettle and then add 12 lbs. (5.4 kg) of honey. Cover for 20 to 30 minutes at around 150 to 160 °F (66–71 °C).

Now is a good time to start your yeast. For mead, I like to use dried yeast. Take a few packets of Montrachet yeast. Mix with a tablespoon of extra light malt extract. Stir vigorously so as to introduce oxygen.

Primary fermentation most likely will take three to four months. Try to keep the fermentation temperature between 70 and 78 °F (21–26 °C) if possible. After primary, transfer to a 5-gallon (19 L) carboy that already has the vanilla beans and cinnamon sticks in it. Just toss the cinnamon sticks in whole. Cut the vanilla beans into thirds before adding. The vanilla beans in particular need the alcohol in the mead to help extract the flavor. Let it sit for three months or so. Transfer off the spices. Keep racking until you are pleased with the clarity of the mead. Bottle still (without bottling sugar).

Wild Blossom Blanc de Fleur clone

(5 gallon/19 L, honey, wine and flavorings)
OG = 1.095 FG = 1.005–1.010 ABV = 12%

Following recipe courtesy of Wild Blossom Meadery & Winery in Chicago, Illinois.

Ingredients
12 lbs. (5.4 kg) light honey
4 tsp. DAP (or good yeast nutrient)
1/4 tsp. grape tannin
1 tsp. elderflowers
2 pkg. Red Star Côte des Blanc yeast
1/4 tsp. potassium metabisulphite
3 tsp. potassium sorbate
Quick Clear to fine
1 cup honey (to back sweeten)
1/2 gallon (1.9 L) dry white wine
2 tsp. acid blend

Step by Step
Bring honey and water to boiling and cool. Add DAP, grape tannin and elderflower. Mix well to aerate. Rehydrate yeast and pitch. Ferment 15 to 25 days in primary. 30 to 50 days in secondary. Rack and add potassium metabisulphite, 3 tsp potassium sorbate and acid blend. Let stand 10 days. After 10 days add dry white wine, honey to taste.

Let stand. Top up with N2 gas until clear. When clear, bottle. This mead is best when aged six months or more. Bottle the mead still (uncarbonated).