Written by: John Dilley, Dick Dunn, Thomas Manteufel, Michael Tighe
Maintained by: Dick Dunn, email@example.com
Revision: 16.7 (August 2000)
This document contains basic information about mead which should answer most of the questions frequently asked by newcomers to the world of mead.
There is an electronic mailing list about mead, the "Mead-Lover's Digest". To subscribe or unsubscribe, send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org (including both your email address and your "real name" unless you're sure your mailer will supply them). Please feel free to post any questions you have after reading this document to the digest at email@example.com. Note that the digest accepts submissions only in plain text (no HTML, graphics, etc.).
To make comments/suggestions/corrections to this document, contact Dick Dunn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mead is a honey-based fermented beverage that has been produced and enjoyed since before the dawn of recorded history. Because of its antiquity, mead has acquired an almost magical reputation in our mythologies. Mead making was once the province of a select, trained guild. Now, it is open to all who have the patience and skill. You are continuing this long and honored tradition. Welcome aboard and enjoy.
Mead is classified not by the kind of honey from which it is made, but by what else may be added to it for flavoring:
Depending on the initial amount of honey, and how attenuative (effective at fermenting sugars) the yeast is, the final mead may vary from quite dry and austere like some white wines, to very sweet.
Depending on the bottling process, the mead may be "sparkling" (carbonated) or "still" (no bubbles).
There are many kinds of honey, based on which flowers the bees collected the nectar from. Bees aren't loyal to any particular flower, so any characteri- zation of honey as being from a particular source (for example, "blackberry honey") can vary from absolutely true to a rough generality, depending on what flowers the bees can find and how interesting they find them. Honeys range in taste and color from the light clover through alfalfa to stronger tasting (and darker) such as buckwheat. There are many unusual honeys to be found where there are unusual local flowers. Which honey you will use depends both on which you like the taste of, and what type of mead you are trying to make. Stronger flavors go well in metheglins and heavier or sweet meads, while the milder honeys make a good base for melomels or dry traditional meads. Realize that a honey with an interesting-but-unusual taste can produce an overpowering character in mead.
You can buy honey in bulk from roadside stands or health food stores. You may be lucky enough to live near an apiary and be able to buy right from the beekeeper. Look in the phone book for honey, health food, or beekeepers. Sometimes, exterminators will remove hives, give the bees to beekeepers, and sell the honey. University agriculture departments occasionally sell honey. Be inventive. If all else fails, you may have to buy it from the grocery store.
The honey will be either raw or processed in some way. Raw honey has bits of wax, bee parts, dust, pollen, microorganisms, and the like in it. You have the most control in how you process raw honey, but you also have the most to do. Honey may be filtered, or blended, or even heat-pasteurized to make it clearer and less likely to crystallize. The more processed it is, the milder it is likely to be and the less character it will give to your mead. The processing also dissipates some of the honey's aroma. Commercial, "grocery store" honey, crystal-clear and pale, is the most processed and is usually not a good choice for meadmaking.
Crystallized honey is normally acceptable for mead. In fact, it has two points in its favor: First, it generally indicates less processing, since one of the reasons for processing honey is to keep it from crystallizing. Second, it may be cheaper because it's less appealing to the average consumer. (One point against crystallized honey is that if the sugar is drawn out into large crystals, the liquid surrounding them can be low enough in sugar content to allow some fermentation from wild yeast.) To re-liquefy crystallized honey so you can pour it, just heat it gently.
Acid may be added to the "must" (the honey water mixture you're going to ferment) both to adjust the pH and to balance the sweet flavor of the honey. Yeast prefer an acidic environment. Many other micro-organisms don't. The acid you add protects the must until the alcohol level creates a hostile environment for the competition.
[There is a discrepancy between older practice in meadmaking, which tends to advise adding acid at the start, and newer practice, which suggests that it be added after fermentation to avoid problems from too-low pH. This document is in review/revision on this point.]
Acid can be added in many forms. Winemaking suppliers sell acid blends, powder or liquid. Acid is measured in "as tartaric", or how acidic the must is compared to pure tartaric acid. For example, if the must is 0.5 percent acid as tartaric, it is as acidic as if 0.5 percent of the must were pure tartaric acid. Inexpensive test kits will let you measure the acidity so that you can adjust it. Acid blends are a combination of tartaric, citric, and malic acids. You may be able to get the individual acids used in blends. Each contributes a slightly different taste in addition to acidity. The natural acid in fruits and berries will also acidify the must, for which reason melomels often need no additional acid.
The honey/water before fermenting is called "must". You will want to add the honey to hot water in a large pot, but make sure the pot is not on the heat while doing this because the honey will fall to the bottom and caramelize (or stir vigorously if you leave it on the heat). Stainless steel or enameled kettles are preferred; aluminum is OK. Do not use iron, nor enameled kettles with cracks in the enamel.
Some mead recipes recommend only heating the must enough to pasteurize it. This is because boiling honey will drive off some of the delicate flavors. Refer to the recipes from the Mead-Lovers Digest or the other references (below).
If scum rises while heating or boiling the must, skim it off. It consists of wax, bee parts, pollen, etc., which don't help the flavor of the mead.
An alternative preparation method involves the use of "Campden tablets" or "sulfiting" to sterilize the must. If you're a winemaker, you'll recognize this method. With the use of Campden tablets, it is not necessary to heat/ boil the must at all first, although some mead-makers do so anyway for the sake of clarity of the final mead. If you use Campden tablets, follow a recipe or instructions for quantity, preparation, delay times before adding yeast, etc. Heating is probably easier than sulfiting for the beginning mead-maker.
Mead is more a wine than beer, with a final alcohol level anywhere between 10 and 18 percent. Wine yeasts, which have a higher alcohol tolerance, may ferment slower at first (although some are remarkably fast) but will ferment more completely than ale or lager yeast. They are also less likely to produce "off" tastes which take a long time to age out after the mead is finished. A partial list of some of the popular yeasts are: Champagne (multiple strains), Epernay, Flor Sherry, Steinberg, Prise De Mousse, Tokay, and various proprietary strains which are derived from these
This list is by no means exhaustive. Each yeast will impart its own unique characteristic to the mead. Champagne ferments out very dry and has a high alcohol tolerance. Epernay has a fruity bouquet. Flor Sherry has a high alcohol tolerance and contributes a flavor that goes better with sack meads. Prise de Mousse is particularly neutral, fast-fermenting, and attenuative (leaves little residual sweetness). Some yeasts (such as Montrachet wine yeast) can produce noticeable levels of phenols (the throat-burning part of cough medicine), which age out eventually in bottle conditioning but are an unnecessary complication since there are yeasts that don't produce them.
Honey by itself is low in some of the nutrients that yeast need to reproduce and quickly ferment out the mead must. Fermentation times can be measured in months as the yeast slowly trickles along. This is a disadvantage because as long as the fermenting mead remains sweet and low in alcohol, it is inviting to contaminating bacteria and lacks a good layer of carbon dioxide (CO2) to protect against oxidation. Mead makers can add a nutrient to help the yeast, and normally should do so if the only fermentable ingredient is honey. Fruit, particularly grapes, will contribute needed ingredients; thus melomels have lesser or no requirement for nutrients. Nutrients are normally added when the must is prepared.
There are several kinds of nutrients. Most winemaking shops will sell various salts designed for grape musts. While this is helpful for mead, too much can leave an astringent metallic flavor that will take months or years in the bottle to age out. Yeast extract, pulverized yeast, is also available. Dead yeast are exploded ultrasonically or in a centrifuge, and sold as a powder. Yeast extract will not leave the same metallic flavors as nutrients, but may be more difficult to find. It is not possible to make your own yeast extract at home.
Mead will take longer than beer to ferment. Fermentation times are often measured in months, so get another carboy. Mead likes to ferment a little warmer than beer (70F - 75), but should be stored in a cool place to bottle condition. You will have to rack mead (transfer it to a separate vessel, leaving behind the sediment) while it is fermenting. If you make any kind of mead beside traditional, you will have to rack about a week after starting to remove the bits of fruit or spices that settle out. Rack periodically after that to get the mead off the dead yeast and other matter that settles out--every 3-6 weeks depending on the rate of fermentation and settling. This improves the flavor and clarifies the mead.
Initial fermentation of melomels made with fruit (not just juice) is easiest in a food-grade plastic pail so that you can strain out the fruit before racking. Except for this, glass carboys with fermentation locks are the best fermentation vessels. Mead does not tend to form the huge head that beer does when starting fermentation.
First, you must make sure the mead has stopped fermenting. Mead is such a slow fermenter that it may appear completely done, yet continue to ferment after bottling. This can turn a still mead into a sparkling one; it can even produce enough pressure to cause the bottles to explode. Exploding bottles-- "glass grenades"--aren't funny. They're unpredictable and very dangerous.
To be sure the mead is done fermenting, take hydrometer readings spanning a week or more and be sure the readings are not still falling. Dry meads will also finish at a gravity below 1.000. As a mead finishes, it will "fall clear"--the initial cloudiness will settle out. Be careful, though, because being clear is not enough.
Choose appropriate bottles for the type of mead. Sparkling mead (carbonated, like champagne) will require a sturdy bottle, either sparkling wine (which are thick enough to take the higher carbonation) or returnable beer bottles. Beer bottles should be crown-capped. Sparkling wine bottles can be corked if you use champagne corks and wire them down. American sparkling-wine bottles can be crown-capped just as beer bottles can. European sparkling-wine bottles cannot be reliably crown-capped--they have a crown-cap lip, but it's the wrong size for standard caps.
Still meads (uncarbonated, like normal wines) may be bottled in regular wine bottles with standard corks, or in crown-capped bottles as above. Since pressure isn't an issue, almost any bottle with an airtight closure can be made to work. Bear in mind, though, that the appearance of your bottles is part of the first impression when you serve your mead.
Mead that has finished fermentation and is then bottled will be "still" (flat). Sparkling mead is "primed" by adding a small amount of sugar at bottling time to produce a short renewed fermentation so that it is carbon- ated. For predictable results (again, to avoid "glass grenades"), you should first let the mead finish fermenting in the carboy, then add just the amount of sugar needed to carbonate it. Bottling a mead before it finished ferment- ing (in hopes of capturing just the right amount of carbonation in the bottle) can lead to under- or over-carbonation, and even in the best case won't give the mead a chance to finish clearing before bottling. A normal amount of priming sugar is about 4 ounces by weight for five gallons.
If you want a still, sweet mead, you can use a lot of honey and let the mead ferment until the yeast finally gives up (because of the alcohol), then bottle. However, if you do this, it is strongly advised that you "stabilize" the mead with potassium sorbate to prevent the yeast from re- starting and slowly fermenting after bottling. Mead-makers have seen sweet meads stop fermenting and remain stable for months, but re-start slowly and produce dangerously carbonated meads in bottle. Note also that sorbate won't stop an active fermentation; it will only prevent dormant yeast from re-starting.
Store the bottles in a cool dark place. Mead is not as sensitive as beer to light (unless you have hops in it), but should not be left in bright light.
While reading the mead-lovers digest you will occasionally see the word "Wassail". It's a toast, an expression of good will, much as a beer drinker might offer "Prosit" or "Cheers". The word derives from Old Norse through Middle English, and means "be healthy". A modern German cognate would be "wacht heil." The dictionary lists two pronunciations (wahs'ul, wah-sale').
In the USA, mead is classified as a wine. A brief, informal (not legal advice!) synopsis: Federal regulations allow an adult to make up to 100 gallons a year, or 200 gallons per year per household of two or more adults, for personal or family use, with no tax or license required. It may not be sold. Concentration (including but not limited to distilla- tion) is prohibited. State and local laws may impose additional restric- tions, so check first. The usual situation is that home mead-making is allowed in any locality where commercial wine can be sold. Repeat: this is NOT legal advice.
In addition to the Mead Lover's Digest there are some related forums you may find interesting. The forums and their subscription addresses are:
There was an organization in the US specifically devoted to mead: the American Mead Association. Sadly, the president and driving force of this organization died in early 1996. The organization fell on bad times after that, and a couple of efforts to revive it have stalled or failed. We do not expect to see the AMA return in anything like its previous form.
Beyond this basic information you should refer to recipes and further reading for details on how to make mead. There is mead information including this FAQ, back issues of the MLD, and a few other items at www.talisman.com/mead.
Brewing Mead/Wassail! In Mazers of Mead, Lt. Col. Robert Gayre and Charlie Papazian, Brewers Publications. ISBN 0-937381-00-4
Making Mead, Bryan Acton and Peter Duncan, Amateur Winemaker Publications. SBN 900841-07-9 (UK)
Making Mead (Honey Wine), Roger Morse, WICWAS Press, ISBN 1-878075-04-7.
On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984, ISBN 0-684-18132-0. ("Cooking Science"--a general reference on science in the kitchen, but many relevant sections on fermentation, honey, fruits, spices, etc., and fun to read.)
Zymurgy (the magazine of the American Homebrewer's Association) occasionally has articles about mead-making.
The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby, Knight, Opened. 1669. A transcription of the beverage recipes (over 100, mostly meads) from this book has been available from the International Bee Research Association (IBRA) [address was formerly listed in Cardiff, Wales; more recent information suggests London but gives no specific address] Copies may also be obtained from the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) in the US. You might try the USENET group rec.org.sca for pointers. Some university libraries may have microfilm of the original Digby, or a copy of a 1910 reprint with substantial annotation.
Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey, Brother Adam, Northern Bee Books, ISBN 0-907908-37-3