Mead is a historic beverage that is stepping out of medieval times and Renaissance Faires, and into the modern era.
Honey wines bring refreshing flavor profiles, that more than compete with the standard grape wines, and they pair well with a wide palate of foods. This decadent beverage deserves to come out of the limelight and take center stage of your holiday celebrations this year. Meaderies are popping up across the United States with the help of the American Mead Maker’s Association. Check out your local meadery if you’re looking to find honey wine outside of the Renaissance Faire; or if you’re feeling adventurous, you can make your own mead at home! We’re going to take a look at how to make this alcoholic treat at the beginner, intermediate, and advanced level.
The Novice Mead Maker
We sat down with our Editor-in-Chief, Eric Bryan Seuthe II who recently this year started making his own mead.
Sarah Somerville: For someone who is just starting out and who has never made alcohol before, what is the first thing they need to know?
- Eric Bryan Seuthe II: The devil is literally in the details. Be prepared to make mistakes, and one of the greatest joys in making the item, is when in spite of your stumbles, you still make an amazing product.
Sarah: What kind of equipment does a beginner need, and where can they find it?
- Eric: Almost nothing to be honest.
To make alcohol, you really need a clean environment. Any imperfections can drastically change what you are trying to do. However, there is a really easy way to prevent it and keep a clean environment. When I first started out, I purchased gallon water jugs available anywhere, and regular clover honey from Costco. The yeast is a bit harder, but if you are lucky enough to have a beer and wine making store in your town, you can find that easy. Otherwise you’ll have to order online. I personally prefer to use Champagne yeast, but any wine yeast will work just fine. A bag of party balloons. No joke. You can get additional equipment, but if you are starting out, you really don’t need more. Out the door, for 3 gallons of mead, it can cost you as little as $25. However, I would recommend getting or using a food scale so you can be as precise as possible.
Sarah: How long do you let your mead age for?
- Eric: I personally don’t touch it until after two months, and two racks, however I have let the mead age over 6 months. The benefit of letting it rest, is usually a better and more full taste. Unfortunately I make the Mead for our weekly friendly get together, and it usually goes fast.
Sarah: Is it easier to make a sweet mead or a dry mead? Which would be best for a first batch?
- Eric: To be honest, a sweet mead would be a lot easier. Adding a lot of honey in the beginning, allows you to sit back and let the mead do the work, and not worry about it later.
Sarah: What’s your favorite part of making mead?
- Eric: Ownership. The product is yours. Good or bad, you made it. It’s booze though, people will love it, unless it tastes like vinegar, and even then you probably know one person who wouldn’t care. When you make your own anything, you get to put your own spin on it, your own flavor. You like cherries? add some cherries to the mead next time if you are feeling adventurous, it’s yours. Make it as you want, and you can celebrate it. I now keep a gallon or so of mead in my house at all times, ready to drink so that my family and friends have something to enjoy when they come over.
Sarah: Do you prefer natural or store bought ingredients? Why?
- Eric: My skill level doesn’t allow me to use natural products just yet. While it’s less an issue of natural honey, and more with the yeast. Eventually I definitely want to get to the point in which I am using all natural products, so I don’t require outside .
Sarah: Where in your home do you make your mead? Where do you age it?
- Eric: I make my mead in my kitchen. Ample sinks in case I make horrible mistakes, Haha! But honestly it doesn’t take that much space to make a gallon to three. Then I store my mead under my kitchen sink, it’s a perfect temperature location, with no direct sunlight. In the next months, I hope to move my production into my garage where I will be making more alcohol based projects.
Sarah: What batch size would you recommend for a beginner?
- Eric: For me, because of the earlier equipment description, I started with 3 gallons. It made it easy to use all of the honey that I purchased, or else my wife would use it, and then I couldn’t 100% be sure it was clean room standards, because someone else would have touched it. One gallon would probably be easier, but 3 gallons would allow you some care if you mess up.
Sarah: Why did you start making mead?
- Eric: I’d always been a fan of Mead. Having first tasting it at 21 while at California’s “Original Renaissance Pleasure Faire”. I looked into it’s history, and when I found that it was the drink of choice for my Scandinavian ancestors, I was even more in love. Then my friend, and our alcohol expert for the site, Matt Hinkley, made me a bottle of mead. It was his awesome mead, and the realization that I too could make my own mead that planted the seed in my mind. He really has been a helpful guide to my steps into the field. If at least to tell me that I’m not messing up the whole time…
Sarah: Walk us through your basic process in its most essential steps.
- Eric: For the basic setup I described earlier, I open the jugs of water, then remove some of the water, to make room for the honey. I add 3 lbs of honey to each jug of water. Vigorously shake the water with the honey in it until the Honey has been dissolved into the water. At that point I add the yeast, it’s important to add the yeast after you vigorously shake the jugs. For expelling the gas produced by the yeast eating the sugars, I started with balloons. Take some party balloons, and just pierce about 8 or so small holes in the balloon, and afix it atop the jug, tossing the cap, or putting it aside. As I described earlier, keep the jugs in a dark place, and in two weeks I perform my first rack, removing the mead from the jug to discard the sediment, into another container, usually a 1 gallon glass jug, and re-afix the balloon to it. Then do that again at the two month period.
The Intermediate Mead Maker
After talking to Eric, we decided to talk to our more advanced staff. Matt Hinkley is our resident alcohol specialist, and as Eric mentioned, the person who got him interested in, and started with making his mead.
Sarah: What would you say is the step that takes one beyond being just a beginner when it comes to making mead?
- Matt Hinkley: Precision. You need two make sure your measurements, both in terms of your ingredients, sanitation practices, and the brew readings are all immaculate. That’s the difference between being able to tune your recipe, and just hoping for the best.
Sarah: Once you’ve got the basics down, what are some additional steps you can take during the mead making process to add some extra flair to your flavor profile?
- Matt: Experiment! Once you get your base recipe down, you can start playing with variables. I like experimenting with lactose (a non fermentable sugar) oak beans, and fruit purees.
Sarah: Do you prefer to use additives to get a crystal clear mead, or do you prefer to have a cloudy, more natural mead? Why?
- Matt: Clear mead without adding finings (that’s what the clarifiers are called) is a nice reward for patience, but it’s a reward I seldom see. I prefer to use Irish Moss when possible, but some recipes are resistant to clearing. When in doubt I use Super-Kleer K.C.. As far as I’m aware it’s derived from the swim bladder of an ocean fish, so vegans beware. In my experience that will clear up just about any batch overnight.
Sarah: What is your preferred method for stopping the fermentation process and why? Or do you prefer to let the fermentation process end naturally?
- Matt: Always cold crash. Clear out the fridge and throw in your carboy. Or, if you’ve made a big batch, grab one of those jumbo plastic party tubs, put your carboy in there, and fill it with ice. You can crash it with campden tablets, but that kinda messesv with the final flavor and can have other unintended effects. Generally though, I let fermentation end on it’s own.
Sarah: What kind of equipment separates the beginner from the intermediate mead maker? Where can you purchase some of the more specialty equipment?
- Matt: Equipment can range from giant stainless fermentation tanks, to smart bubble locks that monitor temperature and gas exchange. There’s no substitute for a 6 gallon plastic fermentation/bottling bucket and 5 gallon glass carboy though. Start there. And always try to support your local home brewery supply. Yes, Amazon has everything, but it’s the little independent shops that keep the old ways alive. Do your part.
Sarah: Do you monitor the specific gravity when making mead? Do you find this is a necessary step?
- Matt: Yes, always. I actually use a floating specific gravity hydrometer in a graduated cylinder, along with a refractometer to measure brix. The only thing we’re doing here is converting sugar into alcohol, so monitoring these sugars is key. Everything else is a secondary detail that revolves around this conversion. Monitor this, and start day one.
Sarah: Do you prefer to use filtered or unfiltered water when you start a batch of mead? Why?
- Matt: I live in Los Angeles, who had some of the best water for brewing (in comparison to some of the other tap water around the country) according to recent tests, but I would suggest contacting local crazy brewery to see if they’ll fill you up with the water they condition to brew their beer. That way you know it’s ready to rock.
Sarah: What are some flavors that can be added to your basic mead during the process? What is your favorite flavor to add?
- Matt: You can play with spices like black pepper, allspice, clove, citrus, grains of paradise, almost anything under the sun!
Sarah: Why did you start making mead?
- Matt: Mead is the oldest known fermented beverage, so I wanted to give it a try. The rest is history.
Sarah: Walk us through your process in its most essential steps.
- Matt: I don’t know if I can go through everything, but I’ll give you a high level view.
I obtain the water from my local brewery.
I swing by my local home brew supply for my yeast and any other ingredients in need. I have a local honey guy that I like to use, but don’t be afraid to order your honey online (from small operations of course).
I use a form if yeast that produces flavors I like, ferments at warmer ambient temperatures (I’m in Los Angeles), and is resistant to infection. I use sani-star to get everything that might come into contact with the mead free from infection. Everything goes in the bucket according to my recipe. Measure your honey and all your other add-ins by weight, not by volume. Get a your mixture to the appropriate temperature listed on your hydrometer, or use your refractometer to measure the amount of sugars in your mixture by volume. WRITE IT DOWN.
Pop on your lid and your bubble lock, and put it somewhere that the temperature is stable and out of the way. Then forget about it for a few days. When you do check in it you should see some bubble activity. Then forget about it again for a week at a time, checking about that often to make sure your fermentation is still going.
After about a month, it’s time to test your specific gravity and/or brix. This will tell you how far along your fermentation is and how much booze is in the bucket. Repeat this process every week or two until you start to approach your final gravity.
Then it’s time to rack! That means moving your mead from the bucket to the final carboy. Try to leave as much of the year cake behind as possible. Put the bubble lock on the carboy and forget about it again. This time for a month. When the bubble lock didn’t show any action for at least 15 minutes, you can move to the bottling stage.
That’s the whole process!
It might sound like a lot, but take it one step at a time and you’ll be rewarded with an ancient beverage that you’ll surely enjoy!
The Advanced Mead Maker
For the Advanced Mead Maker section, Nerd News Social had the wonderful opportunity to sit in on a mead making class at Walker Honey Farm and Dancing Bee Winery with local SCA group, Stronghold of Hellsgate. The grounds were also host to the Mead War between Stronghold of Hellsgate and Shire of the Shadowlands this past March. If you’d like to learn more about the Society for Creative Anachronism, check out their website and find your local chapter today.
You should also check out our feature on Walker Honey Farm and Dancing Bee Winery, and ‘bee’ sure to stop by if you ever find yourself in the heart of Texas.
Resident Mead Maker Chase gave the class on making a home brewed mead. You can start simply with a 5 gallon bucket to prepare your brew. The class chose to make a sweet dessert mead, which meant a goal of 14% alcohol content. Start with 4 gallons of warm filtered water, and then calculate the specific gravity. You can use the brewer’s friend calculator by entering the original gravity and the final gravity you are hoping to achieve to get to your desired Alcohol by Volume, or ABV.
The final gravity will be the density of your brew when compared to the specific gravity of water, which is 1.0. The density of the mixture will increase as the honey is added, but will go down during the fermentation process as alcohol is less dense than water. By determining the ABV you are aiming for, you can then calculate the volume of honey to add to your water. Make sure to mix the honey quite thoroughly into the water to ensure a healthy environment for the yeast. Yeast will do well if you begin with a starter of 2oz of warm water at 104 degrees Fahrenheit per packet of yeast. Once the yeast has been added to the water, let stand for 15 minutes. Add some of the honey to the yeast gradually once the 15 minutes has passed to let the yeast acclimate, then add the starter to your 5 gallon bucket mixture. Now you can cover your bucket with a bubbler to let the aging process begin. Monitor the specific gravity of your brew with a hydrometer, and once it has reached the gravity that matches the ABV you wanted, kill the fermentation process through either a cold crash of with sulfides such as potassium sorbate. In the words of Chase, the keys to being a good mead maker are “laziness and procrastination.” He says to “let time and gravity do the job” for you, and that the best mead is the one that is forgotten about and rediscovered later. He recommends doing an acid trial with your brew to test your flavor profile, by taking a small sample and adding some lemon juice or citric acid crystals to taste for a balanced flavor. If you’re unfamiliar with citric acid and the concept of adding acid to your diet scares you, it is actually a very common food additive used to create sour candies or to improve the fullness of a sweeter product.
Walker Honey Farm and Dancing Bee Winery prides itself on its bee to bottle philosophy. As we state in our write up on the facility, Chase states the entire operation is “an extension of the beehive expressing itself.” They take the honey from their local hives and follow the above process on a much larger scale, with their honey brews fermenting in their large stainless steel tanks, each of which is lovingly named after an iconic Seinfeld character with the exception of the two newest additions named Mario and Luigi. In these tanks, it can take up to 4 hours for the honey and water to be mixed together into the perfect must. At Walker, 100% of any fruit going into the mead goes in from the very start of the process, while other meaderies follow different processes. Once the fermentation process has been started, Chase likes to help the yeast along with a yeast nutrient to help it to flourish. To test out new flavor profiles before making a large batch, he likes to test new concoctions as Meads on Tap at the Winery. Chase likes to let his brews “tell the story of last spring” in combination with the complementary flavors he adds to the mix. If you’re looking to try a wide variety of mead flavors, or are looking to try mead for the first time, check out Walker Honey Farm and Dancing Bee Winery for some delightful libations.
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