Mad for Mead
Here’s everything you need to know to make a great mead the first time.
Contemporary mead makers have liberated this historical honey wine from the shackles of tradition, mirroring innovation in craft beer by exploring new creative directions. Nor surprisingly, the craft-beer world has taken notice, and more beer fans and brewers are drinking and fermenting their own. If you’ve wondered about how mead is made, here’s everything you need to know.
MEAD CAN BE DRY
or sweet, still or carbonated, sessionable or port strength, pale yellow or black, or anything in between. And then there are spices, hops, fruit, and anything else you can think of to add. What makes mead awesome is that you can use local ingredients, and the variety you get from honey, water, and yeast is amazing. The same recipe can make a totally different mead with just a different honey.
If you can make beer, you can make mead. Your knowledge of good beermaking techniques is still important (some are a little more important for mead), and there are a few more things you should know. But you already have the big ideas down. The best way to make a good mead? Good honey, good process, and patience.
Better honey makes better mead. Period. Better mead honey is generally less processed honey. It might contain bits of wax, propolis (the resinous mixture that honey bees collect and use to seal unwanted spaces in the hive), and bee parts. Good honey is usually pricier, but your mead is worth it. In most areas, you can find good
Different honeys have vastly different flavors, and as a result, some honey is better for certain applications. Tasting varietal honeys—and meads made with them—is the best way to learn about the influence the honey varietal has on the final mead.
local honey—usually alfalfa, clover, or wildflower. You might also be able to find some local monoculture honey varieties. Mesquite, buckwheat, and orange blossom are a few of my favorites.
Different honeys have vastly different flavors. As a result, some honey is better for certain applications. Tasting varietal honeys—and meads made with them—is the best way to learn about the influence the honey varietal has on the final product. Of course, tasting the raw honey, just like tasting the grain before you brew, will give you some insight.
Some of the art of making mead is in pairing the honey with the other ingredients. Here are some combos I’ve liked:
▪ A wee heavy braggot (a form of mead made with both honey and barley malt) with mesquite and buckwheat honey
▪ Orange-blossom honey with acidic fruits or with hops
▪ Alfalfa-blossom honey with ginger
▪ Meadowfoam honey with French oak
▪ Pretty much any honey with Montmorency cherries
Experimenting with different honeys is the easiest way to figure out what you like.
Not only do different honeys have different flavors, but they also have different sugar and water percentages depending on the flowers available to the bees. Even from the same source, each batch of honey will be slightly different—from earlier harvesting, from more or less rainfall in the area, or from a different flower blend. (See “Sugar Content,” page 81, for tips on dealing with variable sugar percentages).
The process of brewing mead is a bit simpler than brewing beer, and the mead brew day can be quite short—maybe an hour by yourself.
You basically mix the honey and water together, add the mixture to a carboy, and add yeast. If your honey is crystallized, the best practice is to warm it up. The trick is to not warm the honey above 110°F (43°C) because then you start losing aromatics. An electric blanket around the carboy works well, or anything else you can set for a temperature and hold it. If you can’t get all the honey mixed in, don’t worry. Just take a gravity reading and write it down, then take a gravity reading the next day. The gravity the next day will likely be higher as the honey will dissolve as it sits in solution.
One of the biggest differences between fermenting beer and fermenting mead is the naturally occurring level of yeast assimilable nitrogen (YAN). Wort generally has enough YAN for the yeast while honey has effectively none.
There are three ways to deal with this nutrient deficit: you can add no nutrients, you can add them all up front, or you can stagger the nutrient additions. I’ve made good mead—in fact, award-winning mead—with all three methods.
It probably goes without saying that the no-nutrient method takes the least amount of effort. However, the mead can take years to get really good. If you don’t add any nutrients, the mead can suffer from nutrient-deprivation-related effects, such as incomplete fermentation and fermentation-related off-flavors. In addition, longterm aging is required to settle the mead.
However, there are some tricks that you can use. One trick is to add a lot of fruit, particularly dried fruit, because fruit has decent amounts of YAN and dried fruit much more by weight. Another trick is to keep the sugar content and alcohol low, below 10 percent ABV. This makes the mead drinkable earlier, but you still risk the nutrient-deprivation issues.
The advantage most people see with the no-nutrient method is simplicity: you mix up the mead and then leave it alone. You can make good mead with this method, but it takes a couple of years to mature and requires the absolute best honey. If everything works and ages well, you will have only minor off-flavors.