Mid-January has arrived. You are enjoying the first saison of the season and this has your mind on homebrew. What will you brew next? It seems a little too early for pale ales and IPAs but it's too late for stouts. You thought about doing a Belgian, but you're just drinking the first of fifty Belgians in your cellar. Now is the perfect time for an easy, long-term project. Now is the time for mead.
Mead is an ancient beverage made from just honey, water, and yeast. Modern versions can be sweet or dry, still or sparkling. It can be punched up with fruit or fruit juice (to make melomel), hops (to make miodomel), herbs (to make metheglin), or barley (to make braggot). Mead is very easy to brew—you simply mix the three ingredients and wait. But there are a few techniques and methods that can contribute to a superior mead.
For this project, it's important to choose a good honey. While mead is easy to make, it takes a great deal of time to mature, and will be dominated by the flavor of the honey, so it is worthwhile to invest in something you like. Honey comes in a variety of flavors depending on the bees' diet, such as clover, blackberry, and wildflower. Choose a flavor you like. A favorite for simple mead is orange blossom.
As far as equipment goes, you'll need a sanitized glass carboy and airlock on your brewday, plus bottling supplies for later.
Fermentation—Still or Sparkling? Sweet or Dry?
The natural sugars in honey are fermented by the yeast until one of two things happens:
(1) all of the sugar is consumed, or
(2) the yeast give up the ghost as the alcohol level rises, leaving behind residual sugar.
Carbonation depends on lively yeast, so sweet meads—made when the yeast fail while there is still residual sugar—are usually still. Dry meads—made when the yeast eat through all of the sugar—can be more easily made sparkling. (There are methods to carbonate sweet meads but we'll have to come back to that topic in another post.)
Whether your mead will be sweet or dry depends on the quantity of sugar available for fermentation relative to the alcohol tolerance of the yeast. Thirteen pounds of honey for a 5-gallon batch will make a mead that has about 10% ABV, which is also about the tolerance of most ale yeast. Twenty pounds of honey can produce a 16% (or greater) ABV dry mead with champagne yeast or a very sweet 10% ABV sweet mead with ale yeast. For your first dry mead, I recommend using 15 pounds of honey and champagne yeast. For sweet, 17 pounds of honey and an ale yeast. Add water to make 5 gallons.
Yeast Health and Livelihood
Making mead is an on-again, off-again relationship with yeast and wild microbes. Before pitching your commercial yeast, you need to pasteurize the existing bugs in the honey. Two popular methods exist. The first is to heat the honey and water mixture to 145°F to 150°F, hold for 30 minutes, then cool to pitching temperature. The second is to use sulfite in the form of Campden tablets. Grind 1 tablet per gallon into powder, dissolve in hot water, and add to your honey and water mixture (must). Let it stand with the top open for 24 hours before adding your yeast.
Once your must is sanitized, you want to add your desired yeast and encourage successful growth. Unfortunately, honey does not offer very complete nutrition for yeast, so you will need to add yeast nutrient to supplement amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. Follow the instructions on your nutrient packaging for dosage. Add nutrient, sanitized and dissolved in a small amount of very hot water, at the start and every 12 hours until the must is 50% attenuated (that is, 5% ABV if your target is 10% ABV).
When it finally comes time to bottle your sweet mead, you will again want to kill the microbes again. To do this, add potassium sorbate and Campden tablets to your fermented mead just before bottling. Again, follow the dosing instructions that come with those products.
Dry sparkling mead can be bottled just as you would beer, with an appropriate amount of sugar to yield the desired degree of carbonation. Be advised that most commercial sparkling meads are carbonated at Champagne levels, which cannot be done safely with standard 12-ounce beer bottles. Talk your your local homebrew shop about bottling materials and techniques if you want to make very effervescent mead.
I Thought You Said This Was Easy!
I did! And it is! Relax, don't worry, and finish that homebrew you're drinking. If you can make a good beer you can make a great mead.
One final tip: meads take time. Plan on a minimum of one month of aging per 1% ABV. Start a lower-alcohol mead today to toast on New Year's Eve 2013.
You Can Make It More Difficult
Winemakers adjust acidity and tannins to improve the flavor and body of their wines. The same can be done with meads. If this is your cup of tea, I suggest picking up a book on mead-making and plying your local homebrew shop and club experts for advice.