As a basis, making mead is a relatively simple process of fermenting honey in water, with
additions including yeast and nutrients. Mead can have a wide range of variations, with
“traditional” (without fruit or spice) meads ranging from session strength as low in alcohol as
beer or cider to as strong as sherry, from sweetness from dry through semi-sweet to sweet, and
carbonation from still to sparkling. Using wine yeasts is most common, but some meadmakers
use beer yeasts, all adding different characteristics. “Wildflower” honey may be easiest to obtain,
from a local beekeeper, farmers market, or quality grocery store. (Mass-market honey may have
been overly filtered or mixed with things like corn syrup. At a store, look for a “True Source”
logo.) Later, an interesting change is to try varietal honeys. Other variations include adding fruits,
spices, hops, and/or grains. In beginning to make mead, a workable strategy can be to first
make a fruit mead to have an initial success, but then work on perfecting the techniques of
making traditional meads, and then exploring whatever strikes your imagination.
If you have been making beer or wine, you can use the same equipment
to make mead. If not, an easy way to start is to buy a gallon of apple juice in a glass jug, and
using that jug as a fermenter. There are several advantages to starting with gallon-size batches
of mead, including being able to use small amounts of ingredients per batch (and not being stuck
with an expensive batch that isn’t what you want, as you learn the process), and being able to try
a variety of mead recipes without needing to use a large amount of one recipe before trying
another. If you are starting without already having equipment, other basic equipment includes an
airlock to seal the fermenter, and a hydrometer to monitor the meadmaking process. At the end
of the process, a plastic hose is good for a siphon to transfer the mead to another container
without exposure to oxygen, with the easiest to use being an “auto-siphon” that uses a hand
pump to start the siphon. Shop local if possible at a homebrewing store, otherwise there are
online stores that carry these and explain their use. Over time you will gain experience and want
to add more equipment.
Cleaning and sanitizing equipment:
Before each step in meadmaking, thoroughly clean all
equipment using an unscented cleanser to remove microorganisms that can spoil a batch of
mead, then rinse to remove residue of the cleanser. PBW (Powdered Brewery Wash) is a
popular cleanser, and over time you can compare alternatives. Make sure to use soft (e.g.,
plastic) utensils rather than metal, to avoid scratching equipment. Even after cleansing, a rinse
with a sanitizer is needed to make sure the equipment is properly sanitized. StarSan is a popular
no-rinse sanitizer, which can be poured into fermenters, or applied with a spray bottle for quick
sanitation. Don’t rinse after using the no-rinse sanitizer, since even clean tap water can contain
trace amounts of microorganisms that can grow along with your yeast and produce off-flavors.
Heating the honey is discouraged, to preserve its wonderful aroma and flavor.
Instead, for a traditional mead (just honey, water, yeast, nutrients, and other optional ingredients
that promote good fermentation), boil water (3 quarts if using a one-gallon fermenter), and add it
to a sanitized pitcher or other container once it has cooled to a warm temperature. Then add the
honey and mix so the warm water dissolves the honey, using a sanitized spoon. (If using fruit
juice, add the honey to room temperature juice. If you are starting with a gallon of apple juice in
a glass jug, set one quart aside in a refrigerator for use after fermentation, and use some of the
remaining apple juice to dissolve the honey.) If the honey has crystallized, that is actually a good
sign that it is good honey that has not been overly filtered or mixed with other materials like corn
syrup – it will still mix through stirring. The reason for putting only amounts like 3 quarts in a
gallon container (or similar proportions for other fermenters) is that the yeast can produce foam
during fermentation, and overflowing the fermenter would be a problem.
Once the honey and water are mixed (called the “must”), sanitize the
hydrometer, use the hydrometer to measure the “specific gravity” (a measure of the sugar
content) of a sample so you can calculate the alcohol content after fermentation, and add the
must to the fermenter. Follow the yeast supplier’s recommendations to rehydrate the yeast if
needed and to let the must cool to the recommended temperature range. There are many
opinions among meadmakers for their preferred yeast, and experimentation with different yeasts
can find your own preference. One good starting point is the K1-V1116 wine yeast, which
ferments well under a variety of conditions. Once the yeast is rehydrated if needed and the must
is the right temperature, add the yeast to the must.
Yeast needs nutrients to grow and ferment, but honey is very low in the
needed nutrients. For a session mead (relatively low alcohol, about beer or cider strength) an
option can be to add the full amount of needed nutrients at the start of fermentation, but
staggered nutrient additions work best for stronger meads. For recommended amounts of
nutrients, there are online calculators available on websites listed in the Reference section. After
the must, yeast, and nutrients have all been added, add the airlock to seal the fermenter and
add a liquid to keep out oxygen (vodka is one option). Yeast need adequate oxygen during their
initial growth phase, but often the process of mixing the honey and water, rehydrating the yeast,
and dissolving the nutrients will provide enough. If the resulting mead has off-flavors, needing
additional aeration is among the possible reasons. After active fermentation starts, exposure to
oxygen should be minimized.
After the must, yeast, and nutrients have all been added, and the
fermenter has been sealed, signs of fermentation usually start within a day, but sometimes it can
take 2 to 3 days. If the airlock has a good seal, bubbles of CO2 will show the activity
as the yeast produce CO2. During fermentation, keep the fermenter at relatively stable
temperatures within the range recommended by the yeast supplier. When the bubbling stops,
use the hydrometer to confirm that the fermentation is done, with the specific gravity of the mead
being the same in readings at least 3 days apart. The end of fermentation may take 2-3 weeks,
Finishing the process:
When the fermentation is done, sanitize and use the auto-siphon to
transfer the mead off the yeast into another sanitized air-tight container. Empty head space in
the new container should be as little as possible and the container should still be sealed with an
airlock, to minimize exposure to oxygen. Using the airlock allows dissolved CO2 to escape. Add
potassium metabisulfite and potassium sorbate to stabilize the mead, using information in the
links in the References section: sulfite stops the yeast and any other microorganisms from being
active, and the sorbate prevents them from reproducing. At the end of fermentation, the mead
will be bone-dry, which may not meet your tastes, so after the sulfite and sorbate have acted,
you can add honey for sweetness. Try starting with dissolving a half teaspoon of honey per 12-
ounce bottle before bottling, and add more if needed to match your tastes. When using fruit
juices after fermentation, many juices such as apple juice can add sweetness, so they can be
added first before adding honey.
Although the yeast is done, the mead will continue to develop and become clear as suspended
particles settle. Years ago the common opinion was that meads needed several months to a
year to mature, but by following the practices described here and in the Reference section’s
links, a mead can be good after a month. When you’re ready and are sure the fermentation is
done, you can bottle the mead or keg it like beer.
As you gain experience, you will be able to refine and enhance this basic process.
Check back for additions to this tutorial, which will extend this basic process with lessons
learned through my meadmaking.
A wide variety of information is available on websites and social media.
Among my favorite mead websites, which include recipes, recipe calculators, and podcasts, are:
As social media, on Facebook I have found the Modern Mead Makers group
to be very useful as a place to get good answers from experienced meadmakers.