A lot of people who are thinking about trying out home winemaking are put off at the prospect because of all the technicalities required in the process. This is the reason why most people start out with brewing beer. It takes less of an initial investment and is a little more forgiving of mistakes. One avenue for those who don’t quite have the confidence for winemaking is to first try out their skill by attempting a few batches of mead.
Mead is a beverage that has been made from fermented honey since time immemorial. In our modern world, people can be taken aback that anyone would still drink mead. It seems almost like something out of mythology. In fact, there is a large and vibrant community of mead makers who take pride in producing over one-thousand types of the sweet liquid that ends up being something like a cross between wine and beer. Keep in mind, however, that mead is more of a wine and is classified as such by U.S. law.
At its basic, mead can consist of only the three key ingredients: honey, water, and yeast. Other varieties use fruit or spices to provide a little extra flavor or kick. Often, a small amount of various edible acids are used to make mead in order to control the pH balance and to round out the sweetness.
The first step in making mead is choosing a variety of honey. Honey differs by the specific flowers the honeybees use to make it. The base flavor of the honey will be the base flavor of the mead. If you live near a commercial beekeeper, you will have a good source of bulk honey available. Otherwise you need to rely on your local health food store. Sometimes farmer’s markets will also carry bulk honey. Most mead recipes call for 10-15 lbs. (4-5 quarts) of honey.
The best form of honey to be used is raw honey. It will not be as clean as processed or heat-pasteurized honey, but it will give your mead the most flavor. If it is at all possible, avoid the clear or translucent grocery store honey. Crystallized honey that has become opaque and more solid than liquid is perfect for mead making. In addition, it can sometimes be cheaper than other forms of honey because it is less visually appealing.
Using acid to make mead is optional, but highly recommended. If you are using a recipe that uses fruit juice, the acids in the juice are usually sufficient. Acid makes the fermenting process safer because yeast loves a slightly acidic environment, whereas most other microorganisms will avoid it. Winemaking suppliers sell an acid blend that is perfect for the mead making. In addition to the acid, you will need a simple acid test kit.
The yeast you add to your “must,” the initial mixture of water and honey, should be a variety created for winemaking. They specific variety of yeast you use will impart a different flavor to the mead. Some of the more popular varieties of yeast include the following: flor sherry, champagne, Tokay, and Epernay.
In addition to yeast, it is recommended to add a yeast nutrient to your must. Honey actually has very little nutrition for yeast, so without added nutrient, it will take much longer to ferment to the desired alcohol content. This can be a safety factor, because the longer your must ferments in a low-alcohol environment, the higher the chance of contaminations.
Mead takes much longer to ferment than beer. The temperature of the fermentation chamber should be between 70 and 75-degrees F. It will need to ferment for several months. The exact time varies and can only be determined by monitoring the fermentation chamber. If the mead is bottled before fermentation has ended, it will become a sparkling mead, and the type of bottle must be able to take the pressure of carbonation. Still meads are the most popular, and they can be bottled in standard wine bottles.
Mead making can be fun and exciting endeavor on its own, and some winemakers never get past it, continuing on with different varieties of mead. If you enjoy making and drinking mead, go ahead and stay at it. There’s no need to “graduate” to grape winemaking.