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Making Mead: Tips from the Pros

Brewer: Gordon Hull is President and Meadmaker at Heidrun Meadery, Humboldt County, CA.

Getting Started:

Making delicious mead at home is not difficult if you understand the fundamentals of homebrewing. Starting simple affords the greatest likelihood of a positive outcome and creates a baseline for experimentation with future batches. A good beginner batch is two US gallons of traditional semi-sweet still mead with a target alcohol content of 16% by volume. This recipe needs two quarts (4 pounds) of amber honey.

Choosing Your Honey: Honey color is a reasonable indicator of nutrient content and flavor intensity; too light and you may have fermentation problems, too dark and the mead’s flavor might be overpowering. The “floral source” of the honey is not critical for novices, though it should be noted for future reference. If the honey has a pleasant aroma and flavor it should work fine.

To obtain honey, contact a local beekeeper, farmer’s market or organic food store. Select unfiltered, unheated and unpasteurized honey, as these processes rob honey of essential yeast nutrients and other flavor components.

Our Procedure:

For two gallons of mead, add 7 quarts of non-chlorinated water to a 3-gallon (minimum) kettle. Bring to a boil, then shut off the heat and remove the kettle from the burner. Slowly stir the honey into the hot water. Make sure none of it sticks to the bottom or sides of the kettle where it might scald. Once all the honey is dissolved, put the kettle on high heat and cover. Stir occasionally.

A white foam will appear before boiling commences. This is protein and beeswax from the honey. Skim it off with a strainer and discard. Remove the lid to avoid messy boilovers. Continue skimming throughout the boil until the foam stops forming. This takes less than fifteen minutes. By now you have killed the wild yeast or microorganisms that might harm your final product. You have also removed most of the colloidal material that creates haze. The boil is finished after 15 minutes or when no more (over very little) foam appears, which ever comes first.

Remove the kettle from the burner and replace the lid. Cool the must to fermentation temperature (70° to 72° F) as quickly as possible. Once you hit the right temperature, rack to your fermenter.

Add 8 grams of Diammonium Phosphate (“DAP”) yeast nutrient and 4 mg. of vitamin B1 (you can get Vitamin B1 tablets at homebrew shops). Or add a dosage of pre-mixed wine yeast nutrient like Fermaid-K in the quantity recommended by the manufacturer. Aerate the must before pitching your yeast. Do this in the same manner you would with a batch of homebrew. Now pitch the yeast. I recommend Champagne yeast like Red Star’s Premier Cuvee. One small packet, prepared and pitched according to manufacturer’s recommendations, works great.

Try to maintain a steady temperature of 70° F throughout primary fermentation.

Primary fermentation takes a week to several months. This depends on many conditions. Once the yeast flocculates and you see reasonable clarity, rack off the lees to a second vessel, then place in a cool location. Allow two more months of further clarification, then rack once more before bottling.

If this mead is too dry, you can add some honey before bottling. This should be done according to your own taste, but allow an additional month in an airlocked fermenter before bottling. This protects you from a secondary fermentation and exploding bottles.

Brewer: Jon Hamilton is president and head meadmaker of White Winter Winery in Iron River, WI

About the Honey:

Procure a good grade of honey. I prefer a white or water white honey for my sweet and dry meads. This honey usually has a nectar source of clover, trefoil, basswood, or something similar, and is usually early season honey. In general, early season honey is lighter in color and flavor. Later season honey (such as golden rod) is darker and heavier. Some mead makers prefer this heavier flavor. I suggest you try both and decide for yourself. You might also be lucky enough to find a varietal honey such as orange blossom. These can impart subtle, intriguing variations in your mead, especially if fermented with a yeast strain that enhances the flavor profile (one example of this is premier cuvee).

Use 1.5 to 5 pounds of honey per gallon, depending on your target for residual sweetness and alcohol content. The more honey, the more residual sweetness and the greater potential for a high, final alcohol content.

Yeast Choice:

Use a good grade of yeast, one with a “killer” factor to overwhelm other wild yeasts. Some yeasts are known as “killer” yeasts because they suppress the growth of other yeasts. I suggest Lalvin E.C.-1118, or Pasteur Champagne.

Fermentation:

Keep fermentation temps up to around 70° or 75° F. Fermentation should last between 10 to 20 days. Rack into a conditioning vessel and bulk age for 3 to 6 months. Bottle, then enjoy now and again to see how it’s progressing.

Potential Problems:

The most common problems I see with homebrewed meads are low acid and too high of an alcohol content. The primary goal should be to balance the alcohol with acidity and residual sweetness. If you are shooting for a high alcohol that’s fine, but balance it so it is drinkable. A high alcohol content in and of itself does not make good mead. Generally speaking, the higher the residual sweetness the higher the final total acid should be. You can purchase an acid test kit at your home brew store. A sweet mead could be as high as .85% or 8.5 grams per liter while a dry melomel is as low as .6% or 6 grams per liter. Sweetness and acid are a taste thing. They are different for everyone and that’s part of the fun of making wine * juggling your tastes and retesting until the final product is good enough for you.

Traditional meads have very low acid levels because honey has very low acid levels. This can be corrected by adding acid blend powder or lemon or lime juice to reach those acid levels mentioned above, though taste will have a lot to do with how much you actually add. The juice is not as easy to measure and duplicate as the standardized acid blend, but I like the flavor complexity it imparts better. Add juice or acid blend prior to the yeast pitch to help create a more hospitable environment for the yeast, then re-check the levels at the end of fermentation to adjust the final balance. Use acid blend on the back side for accuracy of final titrations.

The other problems for homebrewers are lack of nutrients and underpitching of yeast. Both of these lead to stuck fermentations. I recommend 1-2 grams of nutrient per liter of must and 10 grams of yeast per 5-6 gallon batch.

Brewer: Bob Sorenson of Native Wines in Mount Pleasant, UT

Native Honey:

We prefer strongly flavored honeys, unlike those from plants like clover or other single-source honeys. These make very mild, sweet and one-dimensional meads. We prefer honey gathered from various, uncultivated sources. These sources might be native flowers, bushes or trees. What we end up with is very complex honey that is filled with all kinds of nutrients.

About Boiling:

There are two methods of handling honey. One is boiling, the other is not to boil. Both methods are valid and professionals do it either way. But I never boil. By not boiling, I create more complex mead, where you can smell the nectar in the finished product. Boiling takes the high notes off the mead.

Our Method:

Our honey is raw and never heated. We mix it with cold water, always measuring sugar content until we get a reading of 21° Brix (1.090 specific gravity). We never add chemicals. Once we reach 21° Brix, we add yeast. Our yeast is a strain I cultivated locally while making Elderberry wine. I simply cultivated the wild yeast off the berry skins.

Our mead is dry, meaning we let it ferment down to 0° Brix (1.000 SG). The only way to make a stable sweet mead is by adding preservatives like sulfites or sorbates. These cut off fermentation and leave residual sweetness behind. The average mead recipe calls for 3 to 3.5 pounds of honey per gallon of finished mead, depending on the sugar content of the honey. This makes strong mead in the range of 14 percent alcohol. Since we don’t boil or filter the mead, clarity usually comes between 9 and 12 months of maturation in French oak casks. These are old casks, so they don’t impart much oak into the mead.

Time in a Bottle:

Aging is the most important step for dry meads. I recommend at least two years of aging, but I prefer four or five years, if possible. All that time in a bottle helps take the green edge off.