Homebrewers often have a desire to ferment just about everything—cider, wine, sauerkraut, hooch, pretty much anything we can. The tendency is often to go big or go home. When we discover that Mead is usually fairly high in alcohol—often 12% or higher—we want to know what it's all about. Most will ask few questions. How hard is it? What are the ingredients? Do I need new equipment? Easy. Honey, Water and Yeast. None. What?! When we hear answers like that after we have labored for 6 hours or so making beer with four ingredients and a lot of equipment, we have one thought in mind: Wow, this stuff is hard to get AND I can make a 12%er? Sign me up!
First, lets dive into a few additional questions and answers that will help begin your meadmaking journey. Why does mead often taste like rocket fuel? Why is mead so sweet? Why does it take 2-3 years to make? What are all these honey varieties and do they matter?
Why does mead often taste like rocket fuel? Just like with beer, a fast fermentation at high temperatures will create fusel alcohols. Plus, any fermentation over 9% runs a risk of fusel alcohols and all over 12% have some alcohol warmth. Balance is the key; hot alcohol is never good and rarely goes away, pleasing alcohol warmth is a wonderful component. So, for mead it’s all about controlling your fermentation and then allowing it to age to mellow the rough edges of the alcohol. Two sections down, I will dive into additional practices to control fermentation. But this should be mentioned first because most people take the simplicity as a sign that they can just mix the ingredients and leave it sitting at room temps of 70-75F. A leading cause of that rocket fuel flavor.
Why is mead so sweet? That’s fairly simple, it’s honey. Even a dry mead is somewhat sweet compared to other beverages. With that said, properly balanced mead may be sweet but should have enough tannins, alcohol and acidity to balance out the sweetness. Much like when making beer, where hop bitterness is used to balance the residual sweetness, mead uses acidity to balance the sweetness. Where most go wrong is they make overly sweet mead, known as kool-aid mead. Maybe on purpose, maybe it was very under-attenuated. Either way, a few sips of this type and many are turned off from ever liking mead. But maybe they would've had they had a sweet mead balanced with the right amount of acidity. Personally, I like to add a little carbonation to my meads, it helps the aroma and mouthfeel, plus it adds a little carbonic acid to balance the sweetness.
Why does it take 2-3 years to make? It definitely does not have to take this long. A properly fermented mead will be ready to bottle and consume in 3 months and then will last for years. A low effort "dump and go" mead will take 2-3 years to become drinkable. Which would you prefer? A little effort and care can go a long way. So, when you decide to make mead, you must have pure O2, plan to spend 3 hours on the first day, 30 minutes on the second day, and 30 minutes on the third day. If you cannot dedicate this time, then please wait until you can. You and everyone else who drinks your mead will be much happier!
About the Process: The BJCP study guide has an excellent description of the process so I do not need to spend much time on it. But do pay attention to the details about nutrient additions: both the timing and blend. The number one most important area to focus is the first few hours. You want to proof your yeast then gradually feed it 1-2 cups of the blended honey and water (must) until you have ½ gallon of starter actively fermenting at 63 degrees. Then you pitch that starter and add nutrients into the blended must (see the guide for your first nutrient addition). After 24 hours stir off CO2, add your second nutrient mix, then oxygenate. After 48 hours, once again stir off CO2, add the third nutrient mix, and oxygenate. This will help achieve a healthy fermentation. And a healthy fermentation makes for a great mead!
A good starting recipe is 12# of honey, 2.75 gallons of spring water, D47 yeast, and 2/3 tsp nutrient mix (2 parts DAP, 1 part Ferm-k) each day for the first three days. You will often see specific products referenced, but know you can make use of any similar nutrient product with the right ingredients and mix. Read the label and know what you need. Never ferment mead above 65F degrees, cooler is better and I like 63F. After two weeks of primary fermentation, you can allow your mead to sit at room temperature until its clear (roughly 2-3 months). I like to keg and cold condition for a month or two after it reaches about 1.020 then bottle off of the keg. You can go straight to the bottle if you like. If your fermentation drops below 1.015, you may choose to use potassium-metabisulfate and back-sweeten before bottling. Some also use a two part fining agent to help clarify which I highly suggest if its' not perfectly clear.
What are all these honey varieties? Basic Wildflower and Clover Honey are widely available, but often very inconsistent. However, they are generally inexpensive compared to specialized floral sources, but know that consistency can drastically improve the enjoyment of your mead. Honey.com has a wonderful search feature to locate a variety of honeys. I enjoy experimenting with the various honeys because each have their own set of characteristics. Some are sweeter than others, some are richer and some are more delicate. Orange Blossom is an excellent option for any meadmaker regardless of experience and I highly suggest it for your first batch.
Honey is often regional simply because of the floral source; in Texas we have Mesquite, Youpon Holly, and Huajillo readily available at specialized honey farms. If you are fortunate enough to have a farm nearby, you are able to get 12# for about the same cost as wildflower honey. If you choose to mail order, plan accordingly and order 2-4 gallons at a time which will help reduce the price per gallon of shipping; combining with other meadmakers or homebrew club members is a good option. And a word of advice, if you buy from a bulk “fill your own” place, please plan to start your batch within a week or two.
And there it was, your simple start to meadmaking! Though, before you get started there are three primary references that I would like to suggest before you begin your mead adventures. Ken Schramm’s book, The Compleat Meadmaker, The BJCP’s Mead Study Guide especially section 8 The Mead-Making Process and finally the BJCP’s Special Ingredients Descriptions.
And last but not least, some parting advice: Start with Orange Blossom Honey and lock down the process on a Traditional Mead for a few successful batches before diving into fruited or spiced meads. Otherwise, relax and have a mead!