Mead is a fermented beverage made purely from honey. It is not beer or wine. As a result, mead making follows a completely different set of rules from wine or beer making.
The purpose of this article is to teach you how to make delicious mead using current techniques. In the past, mead has been characterized as taking a year or more to ferment. After the year was up, the resulting mead tasted something like kerosene due to fusel alcohols. Several years of aging later, you might be able to drink it!
Image courtesy of Walshy87
No more. With the current understanding of fermentation requirements, there is no reason why fermentation shouldn’t be complete in 7-14 days. Fast, clean, healthy fermentations are the key to mead that is drinkable quickly. How quick to drinkable largely depends on the yeast you use. Wine yeast-based meads tend to be on the order of 6+ months while ale yeast can be quite tasty in a few months. Some extreme cases like my Bray’s One Month Mead are drinkable in a month!
First, I’ll give an explanation of mead ingredients. Second, I’ll run through an example recipe that uses current techniques as well as how these techniques work toward making your mead better, faster. Next, I’ll cover current and past practices that we now know are detrimental. I’ll close with a Tips and Tricks section that answers a lot of the questions I see asked repeatedly in the forums.
Quality in, quality out. The common mantra is to find local honey and use it. Try a nearby farmers market for local bee keepers. Local honey is great, but your area may not have some of the very nice varietal honeys that mead makers seek. For many varietal honeys, you will need to use online resources to locate hard to find honey varietals and good pricing.
What kind of honey to use? Many varietal honeys make excellent mead. The following varieties vary from common to obscure: clover, wildflower, sourwood, tupelo, meadowfoam, and many more. A good crowd pleasing honey for traditional mead is orange blossom honey. Clover honey is great for spiced meads because its mild character allows the spices to come through. Finding these types of honey at good prices per pound largely means either finding a local beekeeper or searching the internet for beekeeper sites. Once you decide to make mead, buy honey in bulk!
Dragon Horn Mead Photo Courtesy of Sollozzo
There are a few things to understand about honey as an ingredient. Honey is extremely nutrient deficient. Mead made only with honey, water, and yeast will ferment, but often stalls before fermentation is complete and will produce copious amounts of fusel alcohols. Nutrient deficiency is one of the more common stresses for yeast that lead to stalled ferments and fusel production. Let’s avoid this by adding…
As stated above, nutrients are critical to yeast health. Keep your yeast happy to prevent fusel production and stalled ferments. To keep your yeast happy, you must add nutrients at appropriate times in the ferment. This necessitates a staggered addition of nutrient at points when the yeast requires them. Nutrients are generally added upfront, at 2/3 and 1/3 your starting gravity (SG).
The first nutrient to add is Fermaid K. Fermaid K has diammonium phosphate (DAP), minerals, vitamins and trace nutrients. Alone, Fermaid K does not have enough DAP to fully supplement the nitrogen deficient honey. You must add additional DAP in pure form to reach the free nitrogen levels your yeast require.
The last addition is potassium carbonate (K2CO3). K2CO3 buffers the fermentation and prevent stalling due to low pH (less than 3). As a bonus, potassium is a deficient mineral in honey that K2CO3 supplies. Potassium bicarbonate (KHCO3) is interchangeable for this purpose.
3. Spring Water
NOT distilled water. Spring water has trace minerals that yeast need. Distilled water is essentially free of all mineral content. While nutrient can replace some minerals, they likely will not provide everything needed. Spring water helps supplement further.
Yeast is the single biggest choice you have as a mazer. Different yeast impart very strong to very minimal character through ester profiles. You must decide what yeast you like best. Here are some suggestions based on end product:
- Neutral wine-like character
-EC-1118, DV10, Wyeast Dry Mead
- Estery wine-like character
- Beer-like character
US-05, S-33, Nottingham
- Bray’s One Month Mead (BOMM) (Fast!)
I see a lot of confusion on the forums about yeast for sweet and dry mead. Yeast do not determine dry or sweet mead. The amount of honey added combined with the alcohol tolerance of your yeast determines how a dry or sweet mead finishes. For instance, mead with a SG of 1.100 would make a 13.1% ABV mead if the yeast drops the gravity to 1.000. If your yeast has an ABV tolerance of 12%, then the mead would stop at ~1.010. Keep in mind that published yeast ABV tolerance is more of a ballpark number than an absolute value. Depending on good/bad conditions, yeast may blow past published tolerance or stop before it’s hit. I see the latter a lot because I keep my yeast happy!
Ingredients are now covered. Now to put them to good use:
Basic Traditional Mead – 1 gallon
Day 0 – Must Creation
Note: You must sanitize everything that comes into contact with your mead ingredients!
Start with 2-3.5 lbs of honey, Fermaid K, DAP, K2CO3 (or KHCO3), and a gallon jug of spring water. I’m lazy, so I just ferment directly in the jug. It also means one less thing I have sanitize! Here is my process:
1. Remove 1/2 cup of water to compensate for the yeast you will add later. This water can be used for rehydration if you are using dry yeast.
2. Draw a line at the current water level.
3. Remove the volume of water your honey will displace. For reference, honey weighs 0.75 pounds per cup. Example: If you are adding 3 pounds of honey, then remove 4 cups of water.
4. Add honey back to the line you drew in step 2. You can also add by weight if you have a scale handy.
5. Add 1/4 tsp of K2CO3 or KHCO3. This is a one time, upfront addition to keep the pH buffered and provide K+.
6. Add 1/4 tsp DAP and 1/2 tsp Fermaid K. This same amount of nutrient will be added two additional times. When? It depends on your SG. Let’s say your SG is 1.099. You would add at the very beginning (1.099), at 2/3 sugar break (1.066), and 1/3 sugar break (1.033). Just divide your SG into thirds.
7. Now you cap and shake to both mix the honey into solution and get some oxygen into the must. This will take a while. Be sure no honey settles out when you stop. If all the honey isn’t dissolved, you will get an erroneously low gravity reading.
8. Add prepared yeast. If it is a Wyeast smack pack, smack the nutrient sack and let the pack expand for 2 hours. If it is dry yeast, rehydrate the yeast in 1/2 cup of warm water for 15 minutes (Use the 1/2 cup of water you took out at step 1). It is better to rehydrate with GoFerm if you have it. I simply mix in 1/2 tsp of GoFerm into the 1/2 cup of water before sprinkling the yeast on top.
9. Take a gravity reading. I simply drop a sanitized hydrometer directly in the jug!
10. Add an airlock or a pin-pricked balloon. No water is necessary for the first week unless you are concerned about flies.
Day 1-14 Fermentation Management
There are few things you need to do for the first week or so:
1. Gently swirl without the airlock once a day for the first week or so. What does this do? First, it stirs the yeast off the bottom to keep them from getting lazy (read “make more alcohol”). Second, it adds some oxygen into the must which is good for the yeast early in fermentation. Third, it removes some CO2 gas from solution that both drops the pH and prevents the yeast from flocculating.
2. Don’t forget to add the staggered nutrients from step 6! More importantly, be sure to swirl first, then add the nutrients SLOWLY while the jug is in the sink. Ever seen a science fair volcano blow up? Same thing will happen if you aren’t careful adding the nutrients. By the way, this explosion is called a Mead Explosion Accident (MEA). It is a mazer’s rite of passage.
3. Add sanitized water or vodka to the airlock after the mead drops below 1/3 of your SG. After this point, it is not necessary to swirl after this point.
After Day 14 – Post-Fermentation
The goal is to get the mead to a gravity of 1.000 as fast as possible. At this point, you have many options. You can leave it as it is, or you can use one or more of the following methods to customize the mead to your preference:
1. Backsweetening – Most people like some sweetness to the mead. Something about a dry beverage with a honey smell messes with the mind. Two methods: The first is to stabilize with potassium metabisulphite and potassium sorbate, then backsweeten with honey. Warning! If you have an allergy to sulphites, this is not a viable option. The second method is called step feeding. This method requires you to add honey to your desired sweetness and allow the yeast to ferment further. This process is repeated until the yeast give up due to high alcohol.
2. Oak – Mead and oak are extremely complimentary. You can use American, Hungarian, or French in any number of toasts. I do suggest cubes over chips. Chips impart flavor too fast and easily over oak the mead. Additionally, the flavor profile is very one dimensional compared to oak cubes.
3. Spices – If you add spices, your mead is considered a metheglin. Go easy on how much you add. You can always add more, but you cannot take it away!
4. Fruit – if you add fruit to mead, it is called a melomel. Generally, 2-4 pounds of frozen fruit per gallon is a good range. Adding fruit to primary tends to give a more wine-like effect. Adding to secondary tends to capture the fruit essence better. If you want a fruit bomb effect, add some fruit to both primary and secondary!
Bad Practices: Old and New
Very high starting gravities (greater than 1.12) – Until you understand how mead making works, don’t attempt extremely high gravities. I know it’s every brewers ambition to push the ABV limit at some point, but this can lead to a lot of problems unless done properly. It can be done, but you need a special plan that requires a whole different article. If I get enough requests, perhaps I’ll write one!
Acid Blend – Adding acid blend upfront is an old practice that is detrimental to yeast health often leading to stalled fermentations. Upfront acid blend addition has a propensity to drop the pH to stalling range. Add acid blend post-fermentation to taste if you want it in your mead.
Extreme Temperature Fermentation – Try to stay in the middle of your yeasts published temperature range. High temperature leads to fusel production and low temperature leads to sluggish or stalled fermentations.
Not Racking the Mead – Racking is the transfer of your mead off the gross lees (yeast cake at the bottom) after primary fermentation. The gross lees are prone to giving off flavors to mead if left in contact with the mead too long. Some yeasts are worse than others at producing these off flavors. Rack to be safe!
Pitching Rate – Yeast are your alcohol producing soldiers. If you don’t add enough soldiers, you get stressed out, fusel producing, stalled ferments. Here are my simple rules of yeast pitching:
These suggestions assume starting gravities of less than 1.12. Dry yeast packs contain much more yeast than liquid yeast packs. Since liquid yeast is also more expensive than dry, making a starter is necessary for large batches of mead.
Tips and Tricks
- Document everything! Notebooks, phone apps, and posting brewlogs on a site are all viable options. Nothing is worse than making phenomenal mead that you can never reproduce!
- It is not uncommon to find mead has blown through the airlock. It’s nothing to worry about. Just place the jug in a secondary container to prevent a mess and clean it out as needed.
- Drop a sanitized hydrometer in for gravity readings. I often leave it in the jug!
- Never bottle mead that hasn’t given a stable gravity reading for at least 2 weeks! Anything at 1.000 or below is safe, but step-fed sweet meads can be a problem if the gravity is not stable. Glass grenades are not fun!
- Oxidation is a non-issue with traditional honey-only mead. You would have to try to oxidize mead. Still maintain good practices, but don’t sweat it if an airlock pops off overnight. Oxidation is an issue with fruit-containing mead however!
- Your mead will likely be cloudy long after fermentation is complete. You can either wait for the mead to clear naturally or you can use my fast clearing method. Add SuperKleer according to the package directions, then cold crash in your refrigerator. This is the fastest clearing method I’ve found so far. Cold crashing alone is often sufficient, but not quite as fast.