Making Merry

Making Merry

by Sherri Talbot Mead may be one of the oldest fermented drinks invented by man; traces of fermented honey wine found in China date back to 7,000 B.C. 

The making of mead varies widely by region and creator and can have wide-ranging alcohol contents, sweetness, and ingredients. Flavored meads can include fruit juices, teas, or unusual flavors like candy, peanut butter, or spicy jalapeno. 

As mead makers develop their talents, you never know what you might find fermenting in a mead-maker’s kitchen! 

Just Beginning

Stefanie S. is a 35-year-old dental practice consultant in Chicago. She has been drinking mead for over a decade and has been brewing for about two and a half months. 

Stephanie’s first batch had just finished a couple of weeks earlier at the time of our conversation. She talked about her longtime love of drinking mead and stated she is “the kind of person that, if I can do it myself…” she will. She credits Facebook groups as her inspiration and YouTube videos for helping with techniques and recipes. 

Stephanie buys her honey in bulk, mainly online — though she did recently buy some during a trip to Pennsylvania — and prefers to order supplies online as well. Her first order included a smaller-sized carboy for brewing, a bottling wand, a hydrometer to measure alcohol levels, an airlock, Starsan to sterilize her equipment, and a brewing baster. She also bought lots of bottles plus the needed honey and yeast for her first recipe. Startup costs ran her about $300. 

Sterilizing equipment and cleanliness are important for Stephanie, and she says it’s the hardest part about making mead in an apartment kitchen. It took her a while to learn how to get the most out of her mead and get higher alcohol levels in her batches. Still, her favorite part of the experience is learning and trying new things. 

Early Intermediate

Antonio has been brewing mead in his kitchen for about a year and a half. He usually has multiple batches going at the same time, and he brews to share with friends. 

Antonio estimates he has made 20 or 30 batches in his short time making mead. He talks about creating his own recipes. “I’m doing my own thing now. Finding what looks cool and throwing it together.”  

Honey for his batches comes from Costco as well as beekeepers from his area of Mount Hood. His voice lifts with enthusiasm about the fruity, light flavors of the blackberry and wildflower honey sourced from local keepers. Like Stephanie, Antonio prefers a drier mead and he uses only a half-pound to three-quarters of a pound per gallon. However, he experiments with fruit recipes frequently, so the added fruits give it a little extra sweetness as well. This makes his recipes a melomel — a combination of fruit and honey — rather than a true mead which includes only honey as the sweetener. 

antonio-mead

Antonio’s recipes often involve a two-step process. The initial recipe sits for about five weeks before moving to new bottles to ferment for another six to seven weeks. After that they are bottled and allowed to age until he is ready to crack them open.  

While all our interviewees stated that the social aspects of mead making as being a big part of the hobby, only Antonio got into it in order to meet new people. He had brewed beer before, so during the COVID-19 pandemic, doing an online “brew together” was a great way to socialize in a time of isolation. Now it has even become a family event.  

“I have one that I made in December, and that’s the first one I’ve let sit for a really long time. That one is just mead — there’s no flavoring in it. I made it Christmas Day of last year with a couple of my sons and we will open it and drink it for Christmas this year.” 

So, what did Antonio need for his first batch? “The first batch I made, I bought two one-gallon glass carboys with air stoppers and I used a metal pan I had. I got some quarter-inch pipe — I bought one of those just so I could siphon it off. And that was it. I went out and bought two more glass carboys so I could put it in secondary about four weeks later.” 

Now, however, he has about 20 one-gallon glass carboys, three six-gallon bucket fermenters, a seven-gallon brew pot, lots of stainless-steel spoons, and a bottle capper. He uses brew bags: mesh bags to put his equipment in so he doesn’t clog the hoses, and he “steals” beer bottles from friends when they get together. 

With a number of batches going at one time, Antonio’s challenge is storage! He says his projects are often everywhere. He makes it in the kitchen, ferments it in the laundry room, and ages it in his garage. He hopes to eventually turn the large crawl space under his house into a room for his mead fermentation so that his wife doesn’t have to put up with it in the laundry room.  

So, is the social aspect of it still the best part for Antonio? Absolutely!  

“I enjoy doing it, but what I really enjoy is sharing it with my friends. We’ll get together and I’ll bring out the mead and we will all try different ones. I’ll make four or five different ones and we’ll get some little highball glasses and we will all get a little taste of every single one of them. Mead is so much easier than beer is. It’s easy to get into and you don’t need a lot of room. You might need a lot of room if you really get into it, but not to start with.” 

Advanced Intermediate: 

Sam Trathen is the marketing employee for Groennfell and Havoc Mead, where she helps to run the Certified Meadiacs Brew Together Events. She has been homebrewing mead since 2015 with her husband and English Pointer and even wrote a book about it in 2019. You can find her latest mead adventures on Instagram @meadw1tch. 

Sam has been brewing since 2015, when she and her husband moved from Chicago to Florida. While mead was everywhere in Chicago, they were unable to find it in Florida and she loved the taste of it. Her husband bought her a mead-making kit for her birthday shortly after their move, and the rest is history! 

Finding honey in Florida turned out to be easier than many places due to the orange groves. The groves’ owners keep bees to pollinate the orange trees due to the sheer number of pollinators needed. Sam tries to buy from them when possible and purchases from farmers markets or restaurant supply stores when the orange groves don’t have honey available. Right now, finding good honey for an affordable price is a struggle. 

Does the source of the honey make a difference? Oh yeah. “If we buy from a restaurant supply store, it’s going to be consistent, but it isn’t always going to be unique. The great thing about making mead is that so much of the personality of the honey comes through in the mead. If we get a winter honey from an orange grove, it’s going to be dark, flavorful, and it’s going to be amazing. That will come through in the mead, but it won’t be consistent.” 

Sam and her husband prefer sweeter meads — or “rich,” as she describes it — and her mead involves a whopping three pounds of honey per gallon. This results in a very high alcohol content, usually from 14%-16 ABV. She also prefers a clearer mead and lets her mead sit for at least six months before decanting it. She describes this as being one of her biggest challenges, since she wants her mead very clear, and sometimes the waiting can be hard! 

When asked about her favorite aspects of mead making, Sam initially has trouble identifying just one. She finally tells me a story about making mead for a wedding where each batch was designed to meet the personalities of the bride and groom. “Seeing so many people so drunk off our mead was so satisfying.” She and her now-husband went on to brew the mead for their own wedding as well.  

Expert: 

Gary Ellis has been making mead for 10 years. He also started keeping bees to help support making his batches and is currently working on establishing a Meadery in South Windsor, Connecticut. 

Gary got into drinking mead at Renaissance fairs, only to find that — outside the seasonal events — it was difficult to find for sale, even in his local liquor store. He had been in the culinary field for years, so when he discovered a friend with a love of making the fermented honey wine, he learned to make it himself. He now makes a whopping batch a month — sometimes even two — experimenting with new recipes and working toward his long-term goal of owning his own meadery.   

Unlike our other mead-makers, Gary varies the quantities of his honey, depending on the recipe he has chosen, using anywhere between a pound-and-a-half to three pounds per gallon. He keeps bees himself, so when the hive has surplus he will use it for his mead, but more often he buys it from New Hampshire and more recently from Hawaii. He says the Hawaiian honey is truly spectacular and by buying 20 to 30 pounds at a time, he is able to buy it for about five dollars a pound, shipping included.  

Gary’s mead starter kit involved a glass carboy with an airlock. He also prefers to work with a hydrometer to measure the alcohol level. Other than that, get a few used, cork-topped bottles from friends, a few packets of yeast, and a few pounds of honey. He says you can get started with your first batch of mead for about a hundred bucks. 

gary-ellis-mead

That doesn’t mean there won’t be mistakes. Even the experts get it wrong sometimes! “One time I was making mead and I didn’t tighten the spigot enough. I set it aside for a while and when I came back, about half of the mead had leaked out of the bottle. It wasn’t a fast leak, which is why I didn’t notice it, but over a couple hours about two-and-a-half gallons of mead had soaked into the wood of my house. The room smelled good for a while but…”  

If you feel like you need more assistance: “Find a wine or beer store, because the equipment you need will be about the same, and you probably won’t find a mead store specifically. Find one of those places and go in and talk to people. I don’t think there is a single one that is a mega-conglomerate. These are guys who have been brewing for 20, 30, or 40 years, and they just love to talk to people. They can help out and get you what you need.”  

Gary also suggests visiting gotmead.com and reading Make Mead Like a Viking by Jereme Zimmerman and Big Book of Mead Recipes by Robert Ratliff when you are on the lookout for advice and new recipes. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]