Mead is a fermented alcoholic beverage made from honey that can range from intense, even cloying, sweetness to bone-dryness. Some meads are as strong as the strongest wines, around 16 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) or higher. Others contain roughly as much alcohol as a “regular-strength” beer, or around 5 percent ABV. Generally, the stronger a mead is, the sweeter it’ll taste. Mead can be carbonated or flat (which mead-makers call “still”). You can make mead from honey alone, or from honey augmented with fruits, spices, or other flavorings. The best meads will exhibit the flavor and aroma of the honey variety from which they’re made, integrated with any added flavors.
Mead is unusual among alcoholic beverages, not just in being made from an animal product, but also in being made from an insect product. A few other types of alcoholic beverages are made from animal products, with kefir — fermented milk — being the most well-known. But no other fermented drink is made from a source of fermentables produced by insects. In short, meads cover a lot of ground.
Sweet and Sour
As in wine, the primary balance in mead is between sweetness and acidity. The pH of honey varies, but the average is around 3.9 — between the pH of most wines (3.0 to 3.6) and most beers (4.0 to 4.7). During mead fermentation, the pH drops, sometimes below 3.0. So mead is at least as acidic as white wine, which is most often in the 3.0 to 3.4 range, and sometimes more acidic.
The sweetness in mead can come from residual sugars not consumed by the yeast during fermentation, or from the brewer “back sweetening” — that is, adding sugars after the primary fermentation. There’s no mathematical formula for the degree of acidity required for a given level of sweetness. But if a mead lacks acidity, it can taste “flabby,” especially if it’s intensely sweet. Sometimes, carbonating a low-acid, high-sweetness mead will help balance it. Conversely, a very dry mead with a very low pH can taste coarsely acidic. There’s a vast middle ground, though, and most mead-makers let their palates decide whether a finished mead needs any post-fermentation adjustments. Often, it doesn’t.
The Revolution Is Still Revolving
Interestingly enough, today’s mead ferments faster and tastes better than it did in the past — even the recent past. But how can a beverage that’s likely the world’s oldest fermented drink have gotten better? In the past 20 years, experimentation and the application of some winemaking knowledge has led to new mead-making methods that stress the yeast less, allow the mead to ferment faster, and help it taste better. This revolution in mead-making techniques has led to an explosion in the beverage’s popularity. Commercial meaderies — almost unheard of as recently as the late 2000s — are springing up everywhere. And hobbyists now have access to others who share their interests on multiple internet forums.
The first time I made mead with the “dump and stir” method introduced most broadly by Ken Schramm in his 2003 book The Compleat Meadmaker, I was nervous. Coming from a beer-brewing background, I noticed that the must in this method wasn’t sanitized. In brewing, the wort (unfermented beer) is boiled to kill any contaminating microorganisms. In winemaking, sodium or potassium bisulfite is added to wine musts to suppress microbial growth. In old-school mead recipes, the must is boiled. But in the early 2000s, many hobbyists adopted the dump-and-stir method I describe in the Erik the Red Cherry Mead recipe.
By omitting the boiling step, the color of the mead stays light, and delicate honey aromas aren’t boiled off. Not boiling also obviates the need to cool the entire volume of must. In dump-and-stir meads, contaminating microbial growth is rarely a problem. This is due to the low pH of the initial honey-and-water mixture, and also the presence of antimicrobial compounds in honey.
Feed the Yeast
Shortly after Schramm’s book was published, mead hobbyists discovered that their fermentations were more orderly if they staggered nutrient additions rather than adding them all upfront. This way, the yeast receives nitrogen and other nutritious compounds as it needs them. It’s now common to divide the yeast nutrients into 3 roughly equal portions. For 5 gallons of mead, a total of 21/2 to 4 teaspoons of yeast nutrients are needed. Often, these nutrients are a blend of diammonium phosphate (DAP) and a complete yeast nutrient (such as Fermaid K) at a ratio between 1-to-1 and 2-to-1. The first portion of the yeast nutrients should be added when you make the mead must. The second should be added near the peak of fermentation — often on the first day of yeast action. The remaining portion should be withheld unless the fermentation is struggling. This can be hard for a novice to detect, because a healthy, ordered fermentation naturally slows as time goes on. The biggest clue that something is wrong is the smell of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), which is reminiscent of rotten eggs.
Mead-makers have found two additional variables that have slowed many traditional mead fermentations: low potassium levels and low pH. Honey is rich in sugars, but low in other nutrients. Most yeast nutrient formulations deliver an appropriate amount of nitrogen for the yeast, but the yeast can still require more potassium. In addition, if the initial must has a pH below 3.5, it can stress the yeast and lead to a sluggish fermentation. The grapes and cherries in the Erik the Red Cherry Mead recipesupply not only flavor and color, but also trace nutrients and pH adjustment. The grape juice provides trace nutrients for the yeast, which is adapted to growing on grape juice. And, in addition to adding more trace nutrients, the cherries will raise the pH of the must if it’s lower than their pH. The pH of fresh cherries varies, but is frequently 4.0 to 4.5.
Those who make mead from honey alone may add potassium carbonate (K2CO3) or potassium bicarbonate (KHCO3) to the must to raise the pH if it’s below 3.5, and additionally supply some potassium. The adequate ratios are 10 grams of K2CO3 per 5 gallons of must, or up to 15 grams of KHCO3 for the same volume. Add these a gram or so at a time, and monitor the pH. Stop adding when the pH climbs above 3.5.
If you’re a brewer or winemaker, you’ll likely be struck by how quickly mead must can be prepared. When I brew beer, it’s at least five hours of work and preparation before the wort is in the fermenter. Mixing mead must takes just minutes. If this interests you at all, give it a try. With the increased interest in this beverage, new ideas are still being floated, and it’s an interesting time to be a mead-maker.
Masterful Mead Maneuvers
The Erik the Red Cherry Mead recipe was formulated to have a high probability of delicious success for a beginning mead-maker. If you follow the instructions closely, you’ll have a wonderful mead to drink in a couple of months. Here, I’ll cover the process in detail and explain some of the differences between old-school mead recipes and more modern formulations.
Clean Up Your Act
The first step in making mead is to clean and sanitize your equipment. This includes everything that’ll come into contact with the mixture of honey and water. Any contaminating bacteria transferred to the unfermented mead via unclean equipment can multiply and leave odd flavors or aromas. If you ferment in a bucket, you can sanitize everything (after cleaning) by mixing up some working-strength sanitizing solution in the bucket and placing everything else in it to soak. Follow the instructions on the sanitizing solution, and note whether rinsing is required. After your equipment has drip-dried, you can add the honey to the fermenter.
Heat, Melt, Mix
You’ll need to heat and slightly dilute the honey before you add it. Start by heating an amount of water that’s 1/5 to 1/3 the volume of your mead batch size in a pot big enough to hold that plus the full amount of honey. For example, the following recipe is for 1 gallon of mead, so you’ll need 26 to 43 fluid ounces of water. Once the water reaches 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, turn off the heat and begin pouring or scooping honey into that water. The exact volume of water and temperature aren’t important here as long you have enough hot water for the honey to dissolve rapidly. If your honey is clear and pourable, you can shoot for the lower end of the volume and temperature range. If it’s crystallized, aim for the top end. If needed, ladle hot water into your honey container to dissolve any honey clinging to the sides. If dissolving the honey is taking too long, add more hot water. However, be aware that the next step is to cool this mixture, so adding too much water or heat will require more cooling later.
If your recipe calls for fruit or other flavorings, prepare them at this stage. Generally, add fruit once the honey is diluted. Add spices after fermentation to preserve their aromas. The Erik the Red Cherry Mead recipe calls for cherries and frozen grape juice. Rinse the cherries, discard the stems, and cut the fruits roughly in half. Cut around the pits, but don’t remove them. Place the cherries in a nylon steeping bag, and set the bag aside. Next, pour the honey mixture into your fermenter, preferably a bucket fermenter. Splash the mixture as much as is feasible when pouring to aerate the mix. If needed, top the mixture with enough water to make 1 gallon of must. Put the lid on the fermenter, and shake to aerate the mixture completely. The recipe also calls for grapes in the form of 4 fluid ounces of frozen Concord grape juice concentrate. Cut that amount from the tube, and place it in the steeping bag with the cherries. Then, remove the lid from the fermenter, and lower the steeping bag into the liquid. (This will make the volume slightly more than a gallon during the initial fermentation.)
If the recipe calls for yeast nutrients, stir them in now. As mentioned previously, many modern recipes will have you divide the yeast nutrients into 3 parts and add the first portion now. This is a way of feeding the yeast as it needs, and not overloading the fermentation with nitrogen early on. Once the yeast nutrients are stirred in and the must has cooled, you’ll add the yeast.
Keep Your Cool
Before adding the yeast, check the temperature of the honey and water mixture. If the must is below 85 degrees, add the yeast. If not, set the fermenter in a sink or bathtub full of cold water until it cools.
Adding the yeast can be as simple as tearing open the sachet and pouring it in. I recommend this for first-time mead-makers, because it minimizes the chances of anything going wrong. However, advanced mead-makers may wish to rehydrate the yeast. Rehydrating “wakes up” the dried yeast and ensures that most yeast cells are healthy and ready to start fermenting. Different yeast strains have different procedures for hydration. Follow the instructions on your yeast packet (or on the yeast manufacturer’s website).
After adding the yeast, seal the fermentation vessel, affix the fermentation lock, place the vessel somewhere at or slightly below room temperature, and don’t disturb it. If your fermentation vessel is clear, or placed in direct sunlight, cover it to block the light. Ideally, place the fermenter away from vibrations — in other words, not on top of your refrigerator.
Slow and Steady to the Finish
By the day after you sealed the fermenter (or, more rarely, the day after that), the fermentation lock should be gurgling steadily. Remove the lid and add the second dose of yeast nutrients. Additionally, punch down the bag of fruit, which will be floating on top of the mead. You can use a sanitized potato masher or spoon to do this. Reseal the fermenter and let it continue fermenting. Every day that fermentation is evident in the airlock, punch down the fruit. If you smell H2S while the fermentation is still active, add the third dose of yeast nutrients. If you don’t smell H2S, don’t add any further nutrients.
When fermentation ceases, let the mead sit undisturbed for a week or two. Then, remove the fruit bag, and siphon the mead to a sanitized glass jug, leaving behind as much of the yeast and debris in the bottom of the bucket as is feasible. Affix a fermentation lock, and let the mead sit undisturbed for a month or so. It should fall clear during this time. If it doesn’t, but a lot of sediment is evident at the bottom of the jug, rack the mead to another sanitized jug.
Finally, bottle the mead. You can do so in the same way that you would a batch of beer or wine. The mead in the following recipe isn’t carbonated, so it should be ready to drink immediately, although you can give it a few days to get over any “bottle shock,” or temporary flavor flatness, it may experience.
Minimal Equipment for Mead-Making
- Cleaning solution, such as Powdered Brewery Wash (PBW)
- Sanitizing solution, such as iodophor or Star San
- Stainless steel pot, at least 10 percent larger than batch size
- Large stainless steel spoon
- Nylon steeping bag
- Fermentation bucket with lid
- Drilled stopper to fit bucket lid
- Fermentation lock to fit drilled stopper
- Racking cane
- Jug or carboy, as close to batch volume as possible
- Drilled stopper to fit jug or carboy lid
A Sweet Drama: How Honey is Made
A western honeybee (Apis mellifera) is visiting a patch of freshly opened flowers. She’s an older bee, a little beat up, but is diligently visiting flower after flower after flower. At each flower, she extends her proboscis into the bloom to retrieve nectar. The nectar she receives contains both carbohydrates (mostly sucrose) and protein from the embedded pollen.
Unlike most foraging animals — including her ancestors (wasps in the Crabronidae family) — she isn’t foraging for herself or her offspring. In fact, she can’t have offspring. She’s a reproductively suppressed worker who’s foraging for her hive — a colony of 30,000 to 60,000 bees, most of whom are sisters who likewise can’t lay eggs. In addition to her sisters, there’s her mother, the queen — who does lay eggs — and perhaps a few hundred male drones in the hive.
Once the older bee has consumed enough nectar to fuel her activities, she begins transferring additional nectar to her proventriculus, or “honey stomach.” The proventriculus is a sac that holds nectar, formed as an outwelling of the digestive tract separate from her stomach. Additionally, as her foraging brings her in contact with flower stamens — the pollen-bearing parts — pollen grains cling to the hairs on her legs.
On her return flight to the hive, invertase, an enzyme in her proventriculus, begins breaking the sucrose down into its two component sugars, glucose and fructose. Some of the glucose is further degraded by the enzyme glucose oxidase into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. At this point, the mixture contains up to 70 percent water.
Several younger sisters meet the foraging bee near the mouth of the hive. One of them places a proboscis down her throat, and together they transfer the modified nectar to the younger bee’s honey stomach. The older bee then turns around to make another flight. However, before leaving, she performs a “dance.” The bee waggles her thorax as she walks toward the exit, and then circles back and repeats this “waggle dance” many times. The direction she walks in while waggling points other foraging bees — aging workers, like her — in the direction of the nectar source. The amount of time she spends waggling is an estimate of the distance to that nectar. Eventually, after alerting enough of her sisters, she flies off again to gather more nectar.
Meanwhile, the younger worker bee with the load of nectar transfers it to another young bee deeper in the hive. The bees transfer the nectar up to 20 times, and they may “blow bubbles” with the sugary mixture during transfers. Water evaporates from these bubbles, raising the concentration of solids in the nectar mixture. The bees carrying the nectar also continue to secrete invertase into it. Eventually, a worker will transfer the nectar to the honeycomb. The bees maintain a temperature of about 95 degrees Fahrenheit inside the hive, and they fan the honey in the comb by beating their wings. This further evaporates water from the mixture. Once the honey contains less than 18 percent water, the bees cap the comb, sealing the honey for later use. At this point, the sucrose from the original nectar is almost entirely broken down into fructose and glucose. Some of the glucose is broken down into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide, and the pH of the honey is, on average, 3.9. As such, honey is very stable. It can last for years without spoiling. Bees make honey to support their hive, but humans harvest excess honey to use for their own purposes — including the making of mead.
Chris Colby is the author of Home Brew Recipe Bible and Methods of Modern Homebrewing, and a contributing editor for Beer and Wine Journal. He lives with his wife and their cats in Bastrop, Texas. Find him on Twitter @ColbyBrew.