Mad for Mead

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - Contents: April/may 2015 - By Kyle By­erly

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.

Good Honey

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).

Good Process

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.

No-nu­tri­ent Method

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.

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