How to Make a 20,000-Year-Old-Beverage in Your Kitchen

Homemade mead
Homemade mead / Photo by Tyler Zielinski
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One of the world’s oldest fermented alcoholic beverages, mead can be traced to China’s Henan province a millennia ago. Historians speculate that rain fell into a pot of honey, which diluted it enough to be fermentable by airborne yeasts.

Ken Schramm, cofounder and head meadmaker at Schramm’s Mead, says that mead has been present in Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas for thousands of years, although its popularity has ebbed and flowed.

In 2011, there were 30 meaderies in the U.S., according to Upserve. But in 2020, the trade group American Mead Makers Association (AMMA) claims there were about 450 meaderies in the United States. The group also says that 50 additional wineries and breweries make at least one mead in their product lineup.

“The craft beer revolution of the mid-2010’s has given rise to consumers who are seeking out new and exciting beverages,” says Bill Quirk, a New Jersey-based homebrewer who has a small mead label, Barrister Meadery. “Mead is gaining popularity as more people have the opportunity to sample new producers. This is no longer just the stuff you would see at your local Renaissance Faire once a year.” And, unlike some other ferments, a simple mead is easy to make at home.

Why Wine Lovers Need to Give Mead Another Look

Styles of Mead

Mead, in its most basic form, is made from honey, water and cultured yeast, and is fermented over time. There are various styles and flavorings to consider based on personal preferences.

“Mead is an extremely varied beverage,” says Quirk. “It can be dry, like a white wine; sweet, like a dessert wine, or anything in between. Session meads (known as hydromels) can have alcohol by volumes (abv) in the 3–5% range. Standard meads are in the 8–12% range, and strong or sack meads can run all the way up towards 20% abv.”

“This is no longer just the stuff you would see at your local Renaissance Faire once a year.” —Bill Quirk of Barrister Meadery

A mead’s strength, sweetness or dryness is determined typically by the ratio of raw honey to water, and the yeast strain at work. Maturation methods can also be a factor.

An average mead requires one part honey to four parts water. A lighter mead can be made with one part honey to five to six parts water. Some, like the ancestral Lacandon balché-style mead from Chiapas, Mexico, are diluted with as many as 17 parts water.

The best honey to use is a separate topic, given the ingredient’s terroir.

“I am fond of orange blossom, alfalfa and many ‘wildflower’ blends,” says Schramm. “Be careful with those, though. Any floral source can go into a wildflower honey.”

Even though cultured yeasts are added typically to kickstart fermentation, it’s best to avoid pasteurized honey, as it doesn’t have any native yeast content. Raw honey also brings a nuanced flavor to a mead.

As for flavorings, the possibilities are endless. Enhanced meads are most commonly infused with botanicals, fruits and/or flowers. These create complex meads. But some ingredients can contribute acids, tannins, their own native yeasts, nitrogen and other factors that should be considered to ensure your product is what you intended.

For those who champion sustainable beverages, using food scraps is also something to consider.

“I love working with food waste and wild collected fruits,” says Jori Jayne Emde, a fermentationist and alchemist with Lady Jayne’s Alchemy. “So, I generally make mead with a mellow honey, like wildflower, so the fruits or food scraps are more pronounced in the end product.”

Mead making often takes some trial and error, but there are some best practices to keep in mind.

The Essentials for Mead Making

To make mead can be as simple as to add raw honey and water to a mason jar, cover it with cheesecloth (or cap it if you want to depend solely on the honey’s yeast for fermentation) for a few days and let nature do its thing.

Before you get started, Schramm and Quirk recommend having this equipment on hand.

  • Sanitizer: Sanitize all tools and equipment to prevent malevolent bacteria and mold growth. Schramm says a bleach solution will work, or Star San is an industry standard.
  • Triple scale hydrometer: “This is the most important tool for a new meadmaker,” says Quirk. “A  hydrometer takes all of the guesswork out of knowing when your mead is finished fermenting.”
  • Plastic fermentation bucket (preferably two-gallon) or a mason jar with an airlock, if you’re going to start small
  • Glass carboy (one gallon) with an airlock
  • Yeast: Wine yeast works, as does ale yeast.
  • Go-Ferm: Yeast nutrient to rehydrate the fungus
  • Fermaid O: A yeast nutrient
  • Auto-siphon and racking cane setup: “Transferring your mead from the primary fermenter to the secondary vessel is done best with a racking system,” says Quirk. “The best part of a setup like this is that you can add a bottling wand to it when you want to bottle your mead.”
  • Mesh bag: For meads with fruits, flowers or botanicals.

Bill’s Basic Traditional Mead

Courtesy of Bill Quirk, homebrewer, Barrister Meadery, Bergenfield, New Jersey

Making the must
Making the must / Photo by Tyler Zielinski

In fermentation vessel, mix  12 cups water with all but 1 teaspoon of honey until honey dissolves into “must.” Use a hydrometer to determine the original gravity (OG).

Pour ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon spring water into saucepan. Bring to 110°F (measure with thermometer). Add 6 grams Go-Ferm. Mix thoroughly. Add remaining teaspoon of honey and mix again.

Remove saucepan from heat. When mixture’s temperature drops to 104°F, sprinkle yeast packet over top and let rest 5 minutes for yeast to rehydrate. Bubbles should form on top of water.

Making the honey, water and yeast starter mixture
Mixing the honey, water and yeast starter mixture / Photo by Tyler Zielinski

When bubbles form, use sanitized spoon or baster to add some must from fermenter into yeast mixture to bring the temperature of both closer together. (Note: because yeast mixture is warmer than must, the contrast could kill yeast. This slow process helps it acclimate.)

Add 1 tablespoon must to yeast mixture. Mix and let sit for 5 minutes. Repeat twice, waiting 5 minutes between each addition. The temperature of yeast mixture and must should be within 10°F. Once there, aerate must with whisk, or shake vessel for 1 minute.

Add remaining yeast mixture into must and stir vigorously for 30–45 seconds. Place in cool (60–70°F) area free from sunlight.

Fermentation should start within 8–24 hours. Stir after 12 hours, and again at 24 hours. During second stir, add 2 grams of Fermaid O dissolved in 50 grams spring water.

Keeping temp correct while making the honey, water and yeast starter mixture is important
Keeping temperature correct while making the honey, water and yeast starter mixture is important / Photo by Tyler Zielinski

Repeat stirring schedule on the second day. Add 2 grams of Fermaid O dissolved in 50 grams spring water at the 48-hour mark.

On third day, take gravity reading. Subtract current reading from original gravity of must. If the difference is at least one-third of original gravity minus 1.000, then ⅓ sugar break has been reached and must doesn’t need to be fed anymore. (e.g. If the must started at 1.100, the ⅓ sugar break would be 1.100-1.000 and then divide that number by three.

Attenuating the yeast
Attenuating the yeast / Photo by Tyler Zielinski

Example:

  • Step one: 1.100-1.000=.1000
  • Step two: .1000/3=.0333
  • Step three: 1.100-.0333= 1.0667, which would be the sugar break

If ⅓ sugar break hasn’t been reached, add 1 gram Fermaid O dissolved in 25 grams spring water. Monitor fermenter. Take gravity readings every other day to ensure fermentation continues.

When hydrometer shows 1.000 or less, it’s ready to transfer to one-gallon carboy.

Pitching the yeast
Pitching the yeast / Photo by Tyler Zielinski

Rack mead to carboy using auto-siphon. Ensure that dead yeast and sludge on bottom of fermentation vessel doesn’t enter carboy. Stabilize with potassium metabisulfite and potassium sorbate.

Add honey to desired sweetness. Let rest at least few weeks before bottling. Mead may take up to two months to be completely clear. Makes 1 gallon.

Basic Vanilla Mead by Ken Schramm

Courtesy of Ken Schramm, cofounder/head meadmaker, Schramm’s Mead, Ferndale, Michigan 

Set aside ½ cup water.

In a bucket, combine honey with 3½ gallons of water. Stir to mix. Add vanilla beans. A spoon will suffice but using an immersion blender or kitchen mixer to vigorously mix will add oxygen, which is needed by the yeast.

Rehydrating the Yeast:

Heat ½ cup water until it reaches 104°F.

Pour heated water into sanitized bowl. Add Go Ferm and stir until dissolved. Sprinkle yeast on surface without stirring. Wait 20 minutes, and then gently stir for 5 to 10 minutes until yeast moistens. Add moistened yeast to honey mixture.

Combine Diammonium Phosphate and Fermaid O and mix thoroughly. Divide into 5 equal portions.

On first day, add first two portions of Diammonium Phosphate and Fermaid O. Close bucket, add airlock and fill the airlock with cheap vodka.

On days 2–4, stir must, at first gently to avoid foaming over, then vigorously to de-gas liquid. Add another portion of Lalvin 71B-1122 after foaming diminishes. Stir well.

This mead should ferment for 14–21 days. When bubbling of airlock has slowed, rack mead into sanitized carboy, and fit with a bung and airlock. Keep airlock topped with cheap vodka at all times. Check every 2–3 days. Allow mead to clear to your liking, and bottle.

This mead should finish with about 13% alcohol and a pleasant but not cloying amount of residual sweetness. Makes 5 U.S. gallons.

Published on June 11, 2021
Topics: Homebrewing