How to Make Mead, the Honey Wine
By Brianne Mcelhiney | Nov 9, 2012
Based on the James-Beard-Award-winning One-Block Diet, The One-Block Feast (Ten Speed Press, 2011) is the ultimate guide to eating local. Complete with seasonal garden plans, menus, 100 recipes and 15 food projects, this guide explains how to raise and produce everything needed for totally made-from-scratch meals, all from your own backyard. The following excerpt on how to make mead, the honey wine, is taken from “The Winter Projects.”
You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: The One-Block Feast.
How to Make Mead
Most people think of mead as an overly spiced and unbearably sweet beverage found only at Renaissance fairs, but there is a whole world of delicious, easy-to drink mead, both sweet and dry. Along with beer and wine, it is one of our most ancient drinks, thought to have been made as early as 7000 BCE. We tend to associate mead with the Vikings and the Celts of northern Europe, but it’s been quaffed in many other places around the globe, including China, India, Greece, and Africa (it is still popular in Ethiopia, where it’s called tej). In places where grapes could not be grown, mead offered a different way to make wine. Dozens of different styles of mead exist, from morat (made with mulberries) to cyser (honey and apple juice fermented together) to metheglin (a traditional Welsh brew involving herbs and spices).
We were inspired to have a crack at it ourselves after accompanying our local beekeepers’ guild to Rabbit’s Foot Meadery, in Sunnyvale, California. We chatted with the owner and acclaimed mead maker, Michael Faul, and realized that basic mead was not hard to make: Honey, water, and yeast are all it takes.
After doing some research, we came up with a streamlined recipe that is easy to re-create. We left out all spices and refrained from boiling the honey to preserve more of its character. This gentle treatment also retains more of the nutritional benefits of the raw honey.
Our mead still needs a few years of aging to mellow fully, but even after eight months, it already tastes better to us than many of the professionally made meads we have tried. The flavor of the honey shines through, undisguised by fruit flavors or excessive spices. Follow Team Mead’s blog to watch our progress as we embark on future batches of dry mead and of melomel, mead flavored with fruit.
Mead, the Honey Wine
Sweet, crisp, unspiced honey wine, showcasing the floral and faint eucalyptus flavors of our one-block honey.
Makes: 5 gallons
Time: at least 6 months
How to Make Mead: What to Use
Unless otherwise noted, all of our materials came from More Beer! in Los Altos, California (800/600-0033).
Saniclean. For sanitizing all equipment, including containers, tubing, and bottles. Safe for septic systems and doesn’t stain. Use 2 ounces for 5 gallons of water. About $13 for a 1-quart bottle from Williams Brewing Company.
5-gallon plastic bucket. For mixing up batches of Saniclean solution. About $7 at a hardware store.
Water. Room-temperature tap water is fine. If your water contains heavy chlorine or minerals, use bottled water (not distilled).
6-gallon, food-grade plastic bucket with spigot. Used for mixing the must and for fermenting and bottling. About $13. We actually used a 5-gallon glass carboy since we happened to have a few on hand, but this is much cheaper.
About 12 pounds honey. From our own hives.
Hydrometer. A probe-like tool that measures the specific gravity (density) of the must relative to water. Dissolved sugars make up the density of the must, and sugars are what ferment into alcohol, so the beginning hydrometer measurement is a good indicator of your mead’s potential alcohol level. (The higher the specific gravity, the higher the potential alcohol level.) The MT300 hydrometer has a potential alcohol scale included. About $6 from More Beer!.
Hydrometer jar. A plastic tube with a flat base, sized to fit the hydrometer; for holding the must and mead samples. Some hydrometers come with their own jars. An 11 1/2-inch jar is about $5.
Yeast. We used 1 vial of White Labs Sweet Mead liquid yeast. About $6.25.
Stirring paddle or spoon. Any sort of long-handled spoon or spatula will work.
5-gallon glass carboy. The main fermentation container. From $20 to $30 at a home wine-making or homebrewing shop.
Rubber stopper. You want a no. 7 stopper with a small hole (to accommodate the airlock) for sealing the opening at the top of the carboy. $1.50.
Airlock. You fill this small plastic cylinder with water and insert it into the rubber stopper on top of the carboy. This keeps bacteria and other airborne impurities from entering the mead, which is highly susceptible to contamination in its early stages. It also allows carbon dioxide to escape, rather than build up inside the carboy. About $1.25.
Blanket or a large, dark cloth. For wrapping the mead as it ferments. It blocks sunlight, which can stimulate the growth of bacteria.
Racking cane. This cane-shaped stiff plastic tube (3/8 inch in diameter by 21 inches long) attaches to the vinyl tubing (below) used to rack the must. $2.50.
4-foot length of food-grade vinyl tubing. Made of clear vinyl, and with a 3/8-inch interior diameter, the tubing is used to both rack the mead (siphon it off its sediment to another container) and bottle it. Cut it into a 3-foot section and a 1-foot section. About 30¢ per foot online or at a home wine-making or plumbing-supply store.
Bottles. You’ll need 48 pry-top bottles (screw-top bottles are harder to seal) in a dark green or brown glass (sunlight shining through clear glass can stimulate growth of bacteria). We got ours from friends, family, and colleagues. Free.
Jet bottle washer. This fits on any outdoor hose thread faucet, like those on an outdoor or garage sink. About $12.
Bottle tree. Invert your newly washed and sterilized bottles on this multipronged “tree” for easy drying of lots of bottles at once. We like the 81-bottle model from Williams Brewing Company (800/759-6025; it’s the same one we used for our beer). About $30.
Beer caps. A pack of 50 pry-type caps costs about $1.50.
Capper. The only way to cap your bottles. We like the double-armed, easy-to-use Emily capper from Williams Brewing Company (above). About $14.
How to Make Mead: Get Started
1. Sterilize your equipment. Sterilize everything with a Saniclean solution in the 5-gallon plastic bucket. Rinse the equipment well and set on clean dish towels to dry.
2. Make the must (honey water). Add 4 1/2 gallons tap water to the 6-gallon bucket. Add enough honey to give the must your target specific gravity, which predicts potential alcohol content. For example, for a potential alcohol content of 10.74 percent, the beginning specific gravity needs to be 1.08. To get a specific gravity reading, insert the hydrometer in its jar, drizzle in enough must from the bucket’s spigot to make the hydrometer float, and read off the original specific gravity (OG). Make a note of the OG. If your hydrometer does not include a potential alcohol scale, you can use a handy online potential alcohol calculator (see Helpful Information, below) to figure out the corresponding specific gravity.
The thickness of the honey you use, not the amount, will determine the specific gravity of the must. We recommend first adding about 2 cups honey to the water, then stirring in more, 1/2 cup at a time, measuring the specific gravity with your hydrometer after each addition. Be sure there is enough liquid in the bucket to fill a 5-gallon carboy. If it is looking short, add more water and honey, paying close attention to the specific gravity.
3. Pitch the yeast. Add the entire vial of liquid yeast to the must and stir for 5 minutes.
4. Primary fermentation. Transfer the liquid from the bucket (through the spigot attached to the 1-foot tubing) into the clean glass carboy, leaving 2 inches of headspace at the top. Seal the carboy with the rubber stopper and insert the airlock into it. Store the carboy in a warm room (70° to 80°F) and cover it with a blanket or dark cloth to keep out the light. Within a week, fermentation will begin.
When the mead stops bubbling and the dead yeast particles have sunk to the bottom, it will be time to rack the mead. This typically takes between 1 and 3 months. (It took our mead 2 1/2 months.)
5. Secondary fermentation and racking. To rack your mead, put the carboy on a counter and the plastic bucket with the spigot on the floor below. Remove the airlock and stopper from the carboy. Attach the 3-foot length of vinyl tubing to the racking cane and insert the tip of the cane into the carboy. Start gently sucking on the end of the tubing to get the mead flowing; when the mead begins to move down the tube, pinch the end, set it in the bucket, and let the mead flow down. Stop when you see that you’re getting close to the sediment. Remove the siphoning tubing and racking cane. Clean and sterilize your carboy and siphon the mead back into the carboy (switch positions with the bucket). Replace the rubber stopper and airlock and store in a cool, dark place (60º to 70ºF) for 3 months. Re-rack the mead every 2 to 4 months until it is clear (this may take up to a year).
When your mead is clear, it is ready to bottle. Take one more specific gravity reading. As the sugars in the must convert to alcohol, the mixture becomes less dense, and the reading goes down. The reading won’t tell you what the alcohol content is. The point, rather, is to let you know whether fermentation has worked. Our specific gravity sank from 1.08 to .998, so we knew we had been successful.
6. Bottle the mead. Mix up a plastic bucketful of Saniclean, put a batch of bottles into the solution, and let them sit there for a few minutes. Make sure the solution fills the bottles completely. Then empty the solution out of the bottles back into the bucket and rinse out the bottles with hot water using your jet bottle washer. Be sure to rinse the lip and neck of the bottles, too, to wash off any excess sanitizer. Invert the bottles on the bottle tree to drain. To bottle the mead, siphon the mead from the carboy into the 6-gallon bucket with the spigot. Set the bucket on a counter and attach the 1-foot length of vinyl tubing to the spigot. Put the other end of the tubing in the neck of your first empty bottle. Open the spigot and fill the bottle about halfway up the neck. Cap each bottle as soon as it’s filled.
7. Cap the bottles. Put a cap on the bottle, place the capper over it, and push down on the capper’s arms to seal.
8. Let the mead age. Your mead will be fine for drinking once you have bottled it, but we recommend you let it age in a cool, dark place (60° to 70°F) for a minimum of 2 to 3 years. From everything we’ve heard, it only gets better.
More One-Block Feast Winter Homesteading Ideas:
Reprinted with permission from The One-Block Feast: An Adventure in Food from Yard to Table by Margo True & the staff of Sunset Magazine, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Buy this book from our store: The One-Block Feast.
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