Mead brewing

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Mead is a fermented drink made from honey. Brewing mead is one of the easiest and most rewarding of the brewing arts (if you like to drink mead, that is).

In either case, if you wish to get started with basic mead, there's a step-by-step guide here: http://www.taryneast.org/hobbies/mead.shtml

This should get you started if you've never brewed before or if you've only brewed beer. For those in the latter category, mead-making is very different to beer-making - for one thing, while a beer could be done in 4-6 weeks, mead really should be left for a *minimum* of 6 months. Any less than that and you end up with the rocket-fuel specials or honey-water horribles.

To see a description of the various types of mead, go back to the mead page, but the basic recipe consists of just honey, water, yeast and time.

The main variations depend on added ingredients. If you add herbs or spices you get metheglin. If you add fruit you get melomel.

Contents

Honey: where, what type?

The biggest issue generally facing a prospective mead-maker is what type/where to get your honey. Really, as with most things, it's a matter of taste. If you're making a basic mead, the taste of the honey is the most important thing (as it's really the only thing in your mead that gives it taste). Go to the honey-making places and do all their free tasting (yum). Try the different varieties and see what *you* like best (presumably you'll be drinking most of your mead so you'd better like it).

Remember, if it has a nasty aftertase, it'll be horrible in mead - go for something smooth.

Raw honey, straight from an apiarist is my preference - it's often the cheapest too - especially if you can buy in bulk. Don't forget, honey doesn't go "off" so you can buy yourself a 27kg food-safe bucket full and stick it under a table somewhere and use it for years as long as you keep in covered. If it's a good honey, it's generally worth it, and you might have a store of honey to offer other mead-makers if there's another drought/worldwide shortage (like there has been recently).

How to find someone that sells honey in bulk? there are several ways to go about this:

  1. join the local brewers guild and ask.
  2. look at the supermarket honeys and see where they came from then go on the internet and look if these companies do bulk honey
  3. look in the phone book under "bee products" or "honey" or "apiarists", or do an internet search for any of these terms. :)

Yeast

Do not, I repeat *DO NOT* use beer yeast in mead. Yes, there's a recipe below which does - but that's meant to be an ultra-fast brew and not a "pinnacle of the meads" type of recipe.

One brewer's alternate opinion: As an experienced and award-winning brewer of beer and mead, I take exception to the recommendation against using beer yeast for mead. I find that using a good-fermenting and fairly neutral-character ale yeast yields an off-dry, wonderful mead. Two I have used to good effect are Danstar Nottingham and Wyeast 1056 American Ale. I have experimented with various wine yeasts but have gone back to using ale yeast for all my meads.

The best yeast to use depends on what type of mead you are aiming at. You can make mead sweet, dry or... in between. So you can choose yeast that:

  1. ferments out every last iota of sugar = dry mead = a champagne yeast or "dry white wine" yeast
  2. is very gentle and doesn't ferment much at all = sweet mead = something like "white labs"s "sweet mead yeast"
  3. something in the middle that will depend on how much honey you put in.

Personally, I prefer option 3 - as that way I myself can determine the sweetness of the mead by how much honey I use. I'll give you some ideas of yeast I use - but don't take this as read - there are many very good yeasts out there.

I use: Lalvin EC1118 or Gervin Wine yeast #3 (depending on what's in stock at the local shop). These are both a type of yeast labelled S. cerevisiae (bayanus), so I guess they're both the same type of yeast from different companies. As I said, though - there are many types and if you are really getting so good at mead-making that you are worried about what type of yeast you use - you probably are better at it than me and can find all the yeast-debate websites that are out there.

Where do I get: yeast/demijohn...?

At a brew shop - look online or in the phone book for "homebrew wine". WRT demijohns - don't get the beer ones - your mead is going to sit in them for 6 months to a year, beer only sits in them for 4-6 weeks. you don't want plasticy-tasting mead, so invest in a glass one if you can - it's worth it in the long-run. The 1-gallon ones don't cost that much more for glass and they're the best for beginning mead - by the time you're sure you want to go the whole hog you can have saved up enough for the 5/10-gallon ones.

Honey: How much to use?

Three main factors determine approximately how much honey you should use:

  1. how sweet/dry you'd like your mead
  2. if you will be using a specialty yeast (e.g. champagne)
  3. if you will be adding other sugar-carrying ingredients (e.g. grapes)

Tackling these in reverse order: 3. If you're making a pyment or melomel, I can't help you - the amount of variation is very wide and you really have to consult the individual recipe you are using, or, if you aren't using a recipe, make a guess based on what percentage of the mel will be "mead" and what will be "your-fruit wine" and use the honey-ratios (below) for the mead bit and a "your-fruit" wine recipe for the other

2. It's another guessing game depending on how sweet/dry you want it to end up. I've experimented with all three and to give a basic idea - if you're using champagne yeast add a kilo or two, if you're using sweet yeast, take one away... however - that assumes you want a medium mead. Maybe you want it dry as a desert or sickly-sweet... really it's a guesing game. Just remember, though - you can always add more honey if it's not sweet enough... but you can't take it out again if it's too cloying. So if in doubt, add the lower amount and add some more later. It'll make the ferment a little longer, but if that will make the end result drinkable, then it's worth it!

1. Ok, I've never made a really dry mead as I personally can't stand the stuff, so I can't reliably comment on the amount of honey to use. I generally make sack meads - which means they're quite sweet - but not sickly. Based on this I'd give the following *VERY* approximate guide:

kg honey per imperial gallon:

  1. dry mead - 7.5kg
  2. medium - 8-9kg
  3. sweet - 10-12kg

Be aware that when you get to about 12kg of honey, you are running dangerously close to creating a stuck ferment, so a beginner would be safer with about 10kg for a sweet mead - and maybe adding more later if they felt the need.

Another complicating factor can be the "strength" of the honey itself. When I switched from supermarket honey to the real stuff, I noticed a *huge* difference in how strong/sweet the mead I made was. Pure honey is much stronger in flavour - though I'm not sure what the concentration-difference (if any) of the sugars is between pure honey and honey-glucose supermarket mixes.

Safety

  • Sterilise only with brewing sterilisers - you don't want to have to drink bleach, so don't use it to sterilise your bottles!
  • Don't bottle too early - yeast produces CO2 while it still lives. if you bottle too early, the gas may build up inside the bottle and the bottle can explode, this is know as the glass grenade effect and is very dangerous.

Controversies

To sterilise or not to sterilise

I've heard arguments both for and against sterilisation. Sure, they didn't do it in period. Sure, some batches may have been lost. Sure, the initial burst of yeast-activity generally kills off most competition.

For me, it came down to personal laziness.... sterilising everything takes time, smells bad and is actually bad for you - especially when the metabisulphate sets off your migraine (like it does for me). I've been brewing for two years since I stopped sterilising (5 years all up so far) and I haven't lost a batch yet... that doesn't mean I won't ever, but I've put out at least 21 gallons in that time without losing anything yet and I think that's a good enough ratio for myself. However, if you have a messy kitchen or you're just beginning or just don't trust fate as much - feel free - many people do sterilise and most people swear by it. I do sterilise in some cirumstances - e.g. where I'm using second-hand bottles that haven't been washed out and the dregs may have gone vinegary... not good. My advice is to read all your options and decide based on your own abilities.

However - if you choose to sterilise, make sure you use common sense and *BE CAREFUL*.

  1. metabisulphate must always be used out in the open or at least with the windows open and try real hard not to inhale the stuff - it's nasty!
  2. don't use anything apart from proper brewers steriliser. Bleach is not good for you when you finally have to drink the stuff!
  3. read the instructions on the packet/bottle. Especially as regards to the dilution-strength and whether to rinse the bottles out afterwards or not.

To boil or not to boil

Another case of personal preference. People have always told me to boil the honey, they tell me I should spend ages bent over the pot scooping scum off and desperately trying to pull it off the stove before it boils over. This is probably do-able if you have only a gallon, but it becomes a chore when you do five 1-gallon pots-worth for your 5-gallon demi-john.

The argument for boiling is that the "scum" you pull out would otherwise make the mead cloudy and ick.

My feeling is that, sure, in period, this was great advice - your honey would normally be full of pollen, bee-bits and random chunks of suspended beeswax. However, these days your local supermarket honey is pasteurised and homogenised as well as filtered, so highly unlikely to be of the random "raw" quality of the 1500's. I get my honey "raw" from an apiarist and even they filter it very finely out before handing it over.

The main argument against boiling is that boiling "boils off" the volatile components of the honey - and destroys natural enzymes and "wholesome goodness" (that I have so far been unable to find anyone to fully describe to me).

Personally I'm not so certain of either argument, and therefore I go with my gut-instinct for laziness... again.

If you're making show-quality mead, maybe you'd like to be certain that it'll be clear and go with boiling - but then maybe you'll be worried that you'll boil off the more complex flavours... I personally don't boil. If my mead ever goes cloudy because of it (hasn't yet) I'll throw in some dolomite - which is the usual way to clear suspension hazes anyway.

To stop the ferment or not

Stopping a ferment is absolutely *NO WAY* in period. Besides which, the longer you leave your mead, the nicer it will taste. I personally never bottle before a year, even if the ferment finished in 6 months. The only reason I can tell to stop your mead early is if you've absolutely, positively got to have your mead by xyz time. However if you're on a tight schedule I'd much rather recommend you make some nice cider or perry or something instead - and leave that mead a few months more and take it to a major event the following year :)

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