Mead: The Ancient Elixir
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If you want to drink a bit of history, have a glass of mead. You’ll be consuming what may possibly be the oldest alcoholic beverage on the planet, dating back 9,000 years or more. Modern versions of mead-making approach the subject with a bit more scientific accuracy, offering a sublime product unknown to ancient cultures.
There are literally hundreds of different recipes and processes for making mead; however, there are ingredients, equipment, steps, and potential mistakes common to all.
The ingredients common to all mead recipes are honey (duh!), water, and yeast. The honey is best if it’s raw and unprocessed. The water must be distilled or at least without chlorine. Different yeasts will give different results — people have used yeasts for white wine, champagne, red wine, even bread. Beyond this, there are endless spices, herbs, fruits, and flavorings which can personalize mead toward individual tastes and preferences.
Additionally, brewers often use yeast energizers, yeast nutrients, and chemical stabilizers such as potassium metabisulfite or potassium sorbate.
Basic brewing kits are available in specialty stores or online, or can be assembled piecemeal. They consist of:
- A container (bucket or carboy) outfitted with an airlock to release gasses during fermentation, and prevent outside contamination.
- A hydrometer, which measures ABV (alcohol by volume), to indicate whether the batch is still fermenting.
- A siphon, which allows the transfer of liquid without disturbing the sediment at the bottom.
- Bottling equipment (bottles, capper, corks, etc.).
There are various processes that can tweak the final product, but the common steps are:
- Brewing the “must,” a mixture of honey and water. This is the stage when fruits, herbs, or spices are added. The mixture is brought to a boil, then cooled. Often a sludge (called “lees”) will float to the top, which should be skimmed off.
- Pour the must into the fermentation bucket and allow it to come to room temperature before adding the yeast.
- Add the yeast and any yeast nutrients.
- Use the hydrometer to check the specific gravity of the must, which indicates the potential alcohol content of the finished mead.
- Fermentation. This takes about two weeks.
- Ripening. After “racking” (siphoning) the mixture into the carboy and securing it with a bung and airlock, the unripe mead should be stored in a cool, dark place for anywhere from weeks to months. Several times during this ripening process, the mead should be siphoned to a different (sterilized) container to separate the mead from the collected sediment.
- Checking the ABV (alcohol by volume). Dry mead will read 0.099 to 1.006. Medium mead will read between 1.006 to 1.015. Sweet mead will fall between 1.012 to 1.020. Anywhere past 1.02 is considered a very sweet dessert mead. Using campden tablets or potassium sorbate will stop the fermentation process at the desired alcohol content and sweetness.
- Bottling. Decant the mead into sterilized bottles and cap. Store in a cool, dark place.
While mead is one of the easiest homebrews to make, mistakes can happen. Here are some common errors:
- Not sterilizing equipment. Unsterile equipment can result in outside contamination that can alter or ruin a batch.
- Racking too early. Siphoning the mead into a carboy before fermentation has finished is pointless. Use the hydrometer!
- Bottling too early. If fermentation isn’t finished, the result can be “bombs” after bottling, when bottles will explode.
- Using inappropriate bottles. Wine corkers or cappers can be pricey, but using cheap alternatives reduce the shelf life of the drink and increase the risk of oxidation (which can spoil mead long before its time).
- Too much headspace. Extra air will oxidize the mead. Fill bottles up to the neck to avoid oxidation during aging (ripening).
- Aging (ripening) the mead in a bucket or other container with a large surface area may ruin a batch, either by oxidation or turning it into vinegar.
- Lack of nutrients (the main reason fermentation stalls). Honey doesn’t have as much “yeast assimilable nitrogen” (YAN) compared to wine grapes, so it’s helpful to feed the yeast.
- Skimping on proper equipment. For example, a racking cane and siphon will transfer the mead properly. Never transfer by pouring (including pouring through a cheesecloth to filter it) — this just oxidizes the liquid.
- If you add fruit to the must, don’t boil or cook the fruit in advance. This can ruin the flavor and make it taste artificial.
- Using chlorinated tap water. Make sure the water is distilled and chlorine-free.
Despite these warnings, mead is a very forgiving beverage. If your hives produce extra honey this year, make some mead — then toast the hardworking bees that make this incredible brew possible.