Mead is an alcoholic beverage made from fermenting the sugars found in honey. They tend to range from 10% to 18% alcohol and have an enticing honey-like flavor and aroma. While meads can ferment out quite dry, they usually have a degree of sweetness and a rounded mouthfeel.
The process of making mead is very similar to producing grape wines. An excellent book called The Compleat Meadmaker covers everything that you’d need to know to get started. You can use either wine making equipment or beer making equipment to produce honey wine. The winemaking equipment will produce 6 gallon batches and come with corks and a corker. The beer making equipment will produce 5 gallon batches and comes with crown caps and a capper.
Nutrients are necessary for the health of the yeast during fermentation, as honey does not have all the minerals that yeast needs to thrive. Using nutrients will help ensure a complete fermentation that is free from off-flavors.
Remember to make sure everything that touches the mead is sanitized. Create a must by combining water, honey and nutrients together. Some mead makers choose not to sanitize the must, relying on the natural preservative qualities of honey, while others prefer to sanitize the must to remove the risk of infection. This can be accomplished with Campden Tablets (Sodium Metabisulphite) or by pasteurization with heat. Pasteurization can be done by heating the must up to 165 degrees and letting it stay at that temperature for 20 minutes or so. Boiling honey can cause some of the aromatic qualities to be lost, so it is not recommended.
Transfer the must into a sanitized bucket or carboy. Now is the time to take an original gravity reading with a hydrometer. Splash vigorously to introduce oxygen into solution. The yeast will need the oxygen for their reproductive cycle. Add the yeast and seal the fermenter, attaching an airlock to release CO2 from the container. Allow the must to ferment completely, which usually takes several months, then bottle. You may want to rack (gently siphon) the mead from one container to another after a few weeks, leaving behind any sediment, to improve clarity. Take another hydrometer reading at bottling to determine alcohol content.
Probably the most important thing to remember when making mead is patience. Many meads will take several months to lose the harsh alcohol flavors they develop at first and will continue to get better and better as time goes on. Plan to ferment your mead for several months before bottling and give it several more in the bottle before drinking.
There are a large number of different kinds of honey, each one with different characteristics. The flavor, aroma and even color of a honey can change significantly depending on what plants the bees collected nectar from. ‘Varietal’ honeys are made mostly from a single flower source, showcasing the unique attributes of that plant. Specific varietals can be difficult to come by depending on where you live. Non-varietal honeys are more of a combination of flavors and are easier to obtain. Some well known types of honey are:
- Clover – This is the type of honey commonly found at the grocery store. It is light colored and light flavored. Clover honey will make a fairly mild mead. It is easy to obtain, but the actual clover content of this honey varies from brand to brand, and shouldn’t be thought of as a varietal.
- Wildflower – Darker and more pungent than clover, this honey is made from the nectar of various flowering plants. It will produce a mead with more complex flavor, but still wouldn’t be considered a varietal. Wildflower honeys can come from a variety of sources, and can change it’s character depending on where you get it.
- Orange Blossom – One of the most popular varietal honeys for making mead, this honey is made from the nectar of citrus fruit bearing trees. It is light in color and has a distinct aroma that makes for a very interesting mead.
- Mesquite – A light to medium amber colored honey with a distinctive flavor that can be smoky or woody in tone.
- Blueberry Blossom – This honey has a dense, complex flavor with a mild blueberry-like aftertaste.
- Raspberry Blossom – This honey has a mild raspberry aroma that will carry through fermentation, making a very interesting and high quality mead.
- Tupelo – This honey has a high amount of complex sugars, giving it a distinct character that makes meads with powerful flavor and aroma.
There are many more varietal honeys out there, each with it’s own distinct traits. The national honey board has a honey locator that can help find varietals of all sorts.
Basic meads need only honey, water, nutrients and yeast. You can also add other ingredients to meads to create a wide variety of unique beverages. Different variations of mead go by different names depending on what has been added.
- Melomels – Meads made with fruit or fruit juices. The fruit adds additional flavors and dynamics to the mead. Since fruits have simple sugars in them, they can provide additional fuel for making alcohol and dry out the finished flavor. Some fruits will increase the acidity of a mead, giving it a sharper taste. Pectic enzyme will help break down the fruit, increasing the flavor and reducing haze. Add it with the yeast.
- Cyser – Mead made with apple juice or cider instead of water. Using different types of apples will create different flavors that blend with the honey to make a mead/hard cider hybrid.
- Pyment – A style of mead that includes grapes or grape juice in the recipe, adding a wine-like quality.
- Metheglin – Made using herbs and spices. Sweet and spicy aspects can be added with additions of cinnamon and cloves, while more savory aspects can be incorporated with basil or oregano.
- Braggot – A beverage made with malted grains as well as honey. This drink combines the worlds of mead and beer, and is often seen as it’s own entity rather than a variation of one of those two. Braggot can be made with or without hops.
- Hippocras – A mead including both grapes and spices.
- Capsicumel – A mead made using chile peppers.
- Rhodomel – Mead flavored with rose petals or rose hips.
- Show Mead – A mead made using honey, water, nutrients and yeast only. Also known as traditional mead, these do not have any additional flavorings.
- Sack Mead – A mead made using higher than average amounts of honey. These are high in alcohol and often have a lot of residual sweetness.
- Great Mead – Any mead designed to be aged for several years, as opposed to quick mead.
- Quick Mead – Also known as short mead, this is any mead designed to age quickly for immediate consumption.
There are many more variations on the mead theme. Any combination of ingredients can be added to create a unique drinking experience.