Mead may be the ancestor of all today’s booze. People gathered, ate, and probably fermented honey long before the agricultural developments that led to beer and wine.
After all, honey fermentation is an amazingly simple process. In its simplest form, mead requires only honey, water, and yeast. "If you take the honey out of the hive before the bees finish drying it, it has enough moisture content to ferment on its own due to wild yeast," says Houston meadmaker (or "mazer") Josh McGregor.
People drank mead in Viking longhouses, in ancient China, and nearly everywhere in between. Today, home-brewers who want to resurrect the spirits of the ancients are bringing on a mead renaissance.
Picking the Right Honey
Honey comes in many flavors, which are usually named for the most common flower around the hive that produced it. Experienced mazers advise against using the processed honey sold at most supermarkets. "Every time it’s heated and pasteurized, it breaks down some of the flavor and some of the nutrients," McGregor warns. That can cause honey to ferment badly or produce a poor-tasting batch of brew.
Some beginners’ guides recommend starting with the basic grocery store honey just as a cheap starter option while you learn the basics. Just look for the least-processed honey available. While you’re learning to make mead, visit your local farmers’ market or organic grocery store to try out other kinds of honey.
Other ingredients can be added to give the drink a unique flavor. Mazers have tried fruit, spices, chocolate, rose petals, or even maple syrup. Much like cooking, developing mead recipes requires learning what flavor combinations work well, then experimenting with the ingredients you like.
The process is simple, although perfecting the finer points will take time and experience. If you already home-brew beer, you’ll have many of the tools and skills necessary to make mead.
You will need:
• Primary fermenter: any sealable container large enough for the purpose, made of food-grade material that can be sanitized. Glass carboys work well, and 5-gallon buckets designed specifically for home-brewing are also available.
• Hydrometer: an instrument used to check the specific gravity of the mead (that is, how dense it is compared to the normal density of water).
• Secondary fermenter: another container that meets the same requirements as your primary fermenter.
• Siphon hose: a 5/16-inch tube of food-grade vinyl used to transfer mead between containers.
This equipment is available at any local store that sells home-brewing equipment, or you can order it online.
Mead starts with honey dissolved in water. Although most recipes will probably be more specific, a good general guideline will call for one part honey to four parts water. Be wary of heating the mix. Heating can help kill microorganisms and make the honey easier to stir in, but it can also alter its flavor and nutrient content.
The honey and water go into the primary fermentor. Then add yeast. The yeast you choose will impact the fermentation process and the taste of the mead. Bread yeast works, as does white wine yeast.
Time to Ferment
Fermentation takes about two weeks, depending on the honey, yeast, and other ingredients, as well as how sweet and how alcoholic you want the finished product to be. As the yeast consumes the sugar in the honey, it becomes less sweet and more alcoholic. To get an idea of how much sugar is left, check its specific gravity (SG). SG below 1.006 is considered dry, while 1.012 or higher is considered sweet.
If your mead reaches the specific gravity you want before the yeast stops working, you can stop fermentation by adding potassium sorbate—a preservative often used in fruit juices—which will inhibit the yeast’s reproduction. Fermentation is over when the mead is mostly clear and no longer produces gas bubbles.
You can move the mead to a secondary fermenter to separate it from the yeast, which helps you avoid accidentally transferring yeast to the bottles later. Throw in the additional ingredients at this point, but leave the mead alone long enough to absorb those flavors. Otherwise, it can be bottled anytime.
Some mazers recommend aging the drink after bottling, but opinions vary. "As soon as it’s ready for the bottle, it’s ready to drink," McGregor told PM, "but some people will tell you it needs to sit around for a while."