Homemade mead holds a story. A story of tradition, connection to nature, and most of all, patience. Mead, also known as honey wine, is one of the oldest known ferments, and has been traced back nearly 9,000 years.
I make mead for several reasons: to create a time capsule of the plants that inspire me, to create gifts for the people I cherish, and to have a deeper reverence for the alchemical process of creating alcohol.
Mead really is a magical elixir. It’s main ingredient, honey, is the life’s work of thousands of hardworking bees. A bee will travel up to 5 miles in search of nectar every time she leaves the hive and in her lifetime will only produce 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey. That sort of dedication is something to be revered.
When that honey is exposed to water and yeast, transformation occurs. One that can’t be completely controlled and always leaves me in awe of the results.
Before I go on, it feels it's important to acknowledge my fermentation teachers Sandor Katz, Marissa Percoco, and Marc Williams, who taught me everything I know about the art and science of mead making. Every brewer has a slightly different approach so I’m going to do my best to distill this information down to the basics while providing references for going deeper into this ancient art.
Dissolve the honey into your liquid and add yeast. Once the mixture starts bubbling, put an airlock on top. Those are the basics, but there are two main ways to get your ferment started. You can add a cultured yeast or do a wild ferment.
>> Cultured yeast. These are yeasts that have been cultivated from different parts of the world and are reproduced in labs to give more controlled, consistent results. For mead, most people recommend Premier Cuvee, Premier Blanc (from Red Star), D-47, or EC-1118 (from Lavlin). The yeast will impact the flavor and how effervescent your brew turns out. To find your favorite you can experiment by using different yeasts in the same honey-water mixtures.
Use by adding the yeast to your liquid, gently mixing, and immediately putting the airlock on top.
>> Wild ferment
A wild ferment may take a few days to get going. For this, you will put your honey sweetened liquid in a wide mouth bucket and mix it vigorously a few times a day, pulling liquid from the bottom, back up to the top. Wild yeast will find its way into the mix and within a few days you will begin to see it bubbling on its own. Depending on the temperature, access to yeast, amount of honey and some other factors, this may take 2-6 days.
Once the mixture is bubbling on it’s own, strain it and put it in a carboy with an airlock on top.
You can always keep it simple but I find it fun to experiment. There are 3 main ways to infuse medicine and flavor in your brew. Here are your options:
>> Herbal infusion: make a strong tea with flowers and leaves, let it brew for a few minutes. After it cools to medium heat, add your honey to this liquid.
>> Herbal Decoction: make a strong tea with roots and barks, let it brew for a few hours. After it cools to medium heat, add your honey to this liquid.
>> Raw, organic fruits: if you are doing a wild ferment, add whole fruits at the beginning while you are getting the ferment going, but make sure not to wash them as all the good wild yeast is on the surface. If you are using a cultured yeast, I recommend using the fruit juice as part of the liquid.
If you are new to brewing, you can always start with an herbal blend like one of these from Mother Mountain. They taste great and have wonderful medicinal properties too.
There are lots of resources for getting more into creating great flavors. Keep an eye out for Marissa Percoco’s classes at our shop and around town because she has deep knowledge on this topic.
The ideal brewing temperature is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, so put your mead in a place where the temperature remains stable, and is out of direct sunlight.
The cold slows down fermentation and heat speeds it up, so keep that in mind if you are making mead in the winter or summer.
Make sure that there is always water in your airlock. Sometimes it can evaporate which leaves your mead vulnerable to dust and mold.
You’ll also want to look for little air bubbles escaping from the airlock, that’s the CO2 which is a natural byproduct from the fermentation process and one of the ways that you can see magic happening inside your bottle.
At the bottom of the carboy a layer of “trub” will build up, that’s the other byproduct of fermentation. It’s totally normal. When it’s time to bottle, you will siphon the clear liquid from the top and leave that thick layer at the bottom. If some mixes in, that’s fine, but most people don’t love the flavor. The compost pile, however, loves it.
Typically it takes about 3 months for mead to brew though I have seen people bottle after as little as 6 weeks and as much as 3 years. Brewing for less time will mean there’s still more sugar so it tastes sweeter, and brewing for longer means it will be much dryer, but if you brew for too long it could begin turning into vinegar.
Feel free to taste the brew to see where the flavor is, but know that each time you pour some out, or dip in a straw to taste you are impacting the environment and changing your brew ever so slightly. If you pour out a significant amount, you should refill the liquid with a simple honey-water mixture as too much air in the carboy is not good.
When it’s time to bottle, choose which type of vessel you want to use. They all have different benefits. I’ve chosen to invest in bail tops because I like how simple they are and I know I will drink my meads within a year or two. If I was going to keep them longer I would probably use wine bottles and cork them since that’s better for long-term storage. Using beer bottles with caps are great for people who don’t drink much and don’t want the commitment of opening a whole bottle.
To bottle the mead you want to put your finished brew on an elevated surface and use a racking cane, siphon, and gravity to pull the clear liquid off the brew and into a bottle that is lower down. This can get messy so I recommend doing this outside or in an easy to clean space.
Leave some headspace in the bottles and cap them off accordingly.
It’s very important to label your brew with ingredients, date the brew was started, date it was bottled and any other pertinent information like a special holiday, friends who were a part of the process, or a special location where the ingredients were found. You think you will remember, but after a few batches, no one does.
After it’s bottled, keep your mead in a cool dry place. The flavor will change over time so something that isn’t amazing at first might be incredible after a year or two of bottle aging. Similarly, some great meads don’t stand the test of time. I recommend drinking your creations within 10 years of bottling. This mystery and evolution is all part of the fun!
>> Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz
>> The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz
>> Sacred & Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner
>> Complete Mead Maker by Ken Schramm