What is mead?

At its simplest mead happens when you:

  1. Make a must by mixing water with honey together
  2. Add yeast
  3. Wait

Generally the result is described as a wine made from honey.

Sampling a glass of mead
Sampling honey wine at the Viktualienmarkt in Munich. Photo by Celeste Hutchins [CC BY

For my first few attempts at homemade mead I didn't do much more than the instructions listed above. I ended up with drinkable results and was able to call myself a mazer (one who brews mead). Since then I've tried to up the quality of my brews. The following is a quick overview of some of the fundamentals I wish I had learned earlier.

Various fermentation vessels. By ArnOlson, via Wikimedia Commons

Yeast

There are many varieties of yeast to choose from. Yeasts are rated on a number of qualities such as temperature range, approximate alcohol tolerance, and flocculation (how easily it clarifies when fermentation is finished).

Two of the most popular yeasts in mead making circles are Lalvin 71B-1122 and Lalvin ICV D-47; one of the most used yeasts in general is Lalvin EC-1118:

D-47 - Is great for drier traditional meads as it is known for producing a nice mouthfeel. The main drawback is that it works best if fermentation temperatures are below 68ºF (20ºC). It is also thought to have higher nutrient requirements.

71B - Works very well in melomels (mead made with fruit) due to its ability to metabolize maltic acid found in fruits. This quality helps produce smooth results. With 71B It's more important to rack off the lees (dead yeast) in a timely fashion than with other yeasts.

1118 - At some of the wine making supply shops around me this is the only yeast sold. It provides an aggressive fermentation, has a very high alcohol tolerance, wide temperature range and low nutrient requirements. On the downside, some feel it is more likely to blow off the subtle honey flavours and aromas. If you don't want a dry mead, it's likely you will need to back sweeten (adding more honey after fermentation stops).

Tips. A typical 5g packet of yeast will usually state that it's good for a 5 gallon brew, however, I would suggest using 2 packets if you will be brewing more than 3.5 gallons or using a recipe with a higher proportion of honey. Another option for increasing your yeast population is to create a yeast starter.

Water

The water you use will impart it's character into the mead. Some like to use spring water. My filtered tap water seems to work well. If your water source is chlorinated, it might be worth boiling the water to evaporate it off and thereby making it a little more hospitable for your yeasts.

Honey

The number one rule to remember about honey is that it should not be heated and doesn't need to be sterilized. Heating destroys the subtle flavours and aromas of your honey. As this is a more recently adopted convention in mead making, you will still come across instructions, that should be ignored, advising you to boil your honey. At most, mix crystallized honey in warmer water to ease the process of dissolving it.

The variety of honey used will certainly impact the character of your end product. Delicately flavoured mono-floral varieties like clover, tupelo, raspberry, and orange blossom are known to be popular in mead making circles, yet some do add varying amounts of the robust flavoured honeys like heather and buckwheat in their recipes.

If you know you have a nice wild flower honey you can work with that too. I believe wildflower honeys are not promoted as much by mead makers developing recipes to reuse and share as wildflower honey can vary tremendously depending on the region and season.

Note: Keep in mind it's often felt that the stronger flavoured honeys take longer to age in a mead.
Honeybee on clover blossom. By Shawn Caza, via Flickr.

Mazers generally advise to use the highest quality honey for mead, but as a beekeeper you may occasionally end up with honey that has a high-moisture content, and it may even have started fermenting on its own. If you can't do much else with it, why not see what happens when you brew with it? I've also had some interesting results using the sweetened water left over from wax rendering as part of a mead recipe.

Taking a reading with a hydrometer. By Schlemazl [CC BY-SA], via Wikimedia Commons

Hydrometer

This is used to measure the specific gravity (SG) of your mead. The reading tells you how much sugar you have mixed into your must. Based on the start number, you can later work out the alcohol percentage of your mead by taking another reading when fermentation is finished.

There is a handy online mead calculator available here. The calculator can help you to estimate things like how much honey is needed to achieve a desired SG or your final alcohol content.

Honey to water ratio

Lower proportions of honey mean less potential alcohol, but there's also less osmotic pressure. This means it's a bit easier for the yeast to work its magic. Higher alcohol meads also often require a longer aging period.

On the lower end, 2.5 - 3 lb of honey added to 1 gallon of water typically works out to an SG between 1.075 and 1.086 and the potential for around 10-11.5% alcohol by volume. Once you start adding more than 4.25 lb honey per gallon, you might need to pay a little bit more attention to the finer details in order to achieve a successful fermentation.

Nutrients

Unfortunately, honey alone is low in some key nutrients, like nitrogen, that help yeast to thrive. Most brew shops carry yeast nutrients, like DAP, and energizers such as Fermaid-k. Natural alternatives to these products include adding raisins or pollen to the recipe.

I've made one side by side comparison of the same recipe made with pollen versus the commercial nutrient products. In my test I observed a far more vigorous fermentation with the batch using pollen. Of course, pollen may impart some of its flavour into the mead which may or may not be desirable. Personally, I did not find the pollen impact on flavour to be all that obvious in my experiment. The other potential drawback of this method is that it can take a large amount of pollen to reach the needed nutrient levels.

Tips. Recently, there's been a great deal of thought by mazers poured into staggered nutrient additions in mead making. If you're interested in getting more technical about when and how much to add, here's an article on advanced nutrients in mead making along with a link to a spreadsheet for calculating the appropriate amounts of nutrients to add.

Carboy

This is the container you're going to brew your mead in. Ideally you have at least one larger container and one smaller container. For the primary initial fermentation it's ideal to have a bunch of extra space. Extra space makes it easier to shake it up. It also keeps particularly vigorous fermentations from bubbling over.

Two carboys. By Shawn Caza, via Flickr

The other reason why it's nice to have two different sized containers is that it's ideal to have very little air space in the container once the fermentation is finished. A larger container for the primary fermentation allows you to brew a little extra you so you don't need to worry about the volume of liquid lost when:

  • Racking your mead off of the dead lees (spent yeast that accumulated on the bottom); or
  • Performing the requisite taste tests.

Air lock

Simple little tool that blocks the carboy opening. It is filled with water to allow gas from the fermenting liquid to bubble out while preventing potential contaminants from entering.

Oxygen

In the early stages of the fermentation, oxygen in the liquid helps promote strong yeast development. To this end, I'll vigorously shake the carboy for the first 3 or 4 days. I'll do this as many times a day as it occurs to me. For large batches of mead (5 gallons or more) you may want to look into tools that can help you do this.

To help increase oxygen levels, many people don't bother with an air lock during the primary fermentation. They will simply cover the opening with a piece of foil or cloth.

Racking

This is the process of moving your mead from one container to another. The main purpose is to separate your precious mead from the yeast that has served its purpose and is starting to accumulate at the bottom of the carboy.

Bottling the brew
Racking mead. By Christine4nier [CC BY-NC], via Flickr
It has been suggested that once the fermentation is nearing completion, gauged by frequency of bubbles in the air lock having slowed down to approximately 1 per 30 seconds, it is a good time to first rack your mead. The idea is that allowing the end stage of fermentation to take place in the new vessel will help push oxygen out of the air lock and prevent oxidization.

Caution. Remember, your main goal is to separate the liquid from as much of the yeast guck as possible. Don't try to save the liquid too close to the bottom.

A popsicle stick attached to the end of your siphon tube or a tube opening cut at a sharp angle can reduce the risk of sucking up liquid from the very bottom. In the new container into which you are moving your mead, have your siphon tube rest at the very bottom so as to minimize splashing and any oxidization.

Auto-Siphon via Amazon.

There are a number of gadgets, like the auto siphon, that make the process a whole lot simpler, but it is possible to do this with just a plain old tube.

You may want to rack again as the mead continues to clarify and another thick layer of yeast accumulates at the bottom of the carboy. It is desirable for your mead to eventually become crystal clear.

Cloudy mead on the left beside a clear mead on the right. By Shawn Caza, via Flickr.

Some find the simple act of racking will greatly accelerate clarification. Exposing your mead to a sudden drop of temperature for a number of days can also help the yeast to drop. There are also fast acting commercial products designed specifically for this purpose.

Temperature

The temperature at which to ferment is somewhat yeast specific, as they all have slightly different tolerances and reactions to temperature. It's typically best to ferment at the lower end of a yeast's tolerance range. At warmer fermentation temperatures:

  • You are more likely to get fusel alcohols, which impart a harsh burning flavour.
  • You may lose the subtle volatile honey flavours and aromas.

I'm often aiming for a fermentation temperature around 17°c (63°F). To accommodate this I'm typically making my meads in a cool basement once the beekeeping season has finished in the late fall. If you don't have any choice, you can usually do fine with room temperature, particularly with more heat tolerant yeasts.

Note: A vigourous fermentation can generate a bit of its own heat and raise your must above ambient temperatures.

When aging mead, storing at cooler temperatures is also a good idea if possible.

Sanitizer

There's a wide variety of products out there that will sanitize your carboy and any other equipment that is going to come in contact with your must or mead. A no-rinse sanitizer is considered ideal as rinsing with non-sterilized water can re-introduce contaminants. Star San is the first choice of many brewers.

It's sold in a concentrated form and is diluted with water before use. The diluted solution can be stored in a sealed container for months. Materials to be sanitized can be rinsed, soaked or sprayed with the solution. After about two minutes of being wet, any excess liquids can be poured off and the items are ready for use.

Note: It will leave a bubbly foam in your carboy, but this should not be a cause for concern. The foam does not adversely effect your mead.

Dry, sweet and back sweetening

Yeasts are rated for alcohol tolerance, but if treated well, they will often go a little beyond their ratings. For example both D47 and 71B are rated with an alcohol tolerance of 14%, but they might go to 15-16%. If you want a dry mead using those yeasts, simply mix a must with a gravity that corresponds to a potential alcohol content of 14% or less.

Getting a sweet mead can be a bit more complicated. If you mix your must with enough honey to still be sweet if the yeast does reach 16% alcohol, you've created a more challenging environment for the yeast and maybe it won't make it very far at all. This makes it difficult to plan on ending up with a particular amount of sweetness. The solution to this problem is back sweetening.

Back sweetening involves adding honey at the end of fermentation to reach your desired sweetness level. Just make sure the yeast has reached its tolerance limit before adding more honey, or use stabilizing products to prevent fermentation from starting up again.

Tannins and acids

Tannins and acids can be used to help improve the mouthfeel of your beverage and can help balance out the flavour.

Oak is one way to add to the tannin levels of your beverage. Brew shops carry a variety of oak cubes and chips. A little can go a long way, so be cautious about over-oaking. Though the oak flavour will mellow a bit with age, I like to keep it subtle and taste every few days or so to keep it at a level I find pleasant.

I've found 1 gram of medium toast oak cubes or 0.5 grams of oak chips added in for 3-5 days before racking can be enough for my tastes. Some will recommend larger quantities and longer time with oak.

Acids work particularly well at adding balance to sweeter wines. Once upon a time it was commonly recommended to add acids at the start of fermentation to correct PH levels, while today many argue it should not be added till the end. Unless the PH of your must is above 5-6, which isn't very likely, you probably shouldn't worry about it at all. My tendency is to not even bother measuring PH.

Aging

Time required to get something tasty does vary depending on many factors, but generally mazers agree that things, sometimes even unpleasant things, get better with age. If you created an ideal environment for yeast to work their magic, and particularly if you make something with a lower alcohol level and a higher final sugar content, you can be enjoying your beverage in as soon as three months. On the other end of the spectrum, a 14 year old mead is the most awe inspiring beverages I have ever tasted.

Further Resources

Ken Schramm's 'The Compleat Meadmaker' is one of the most widely respected books on modern mead making.

You can hear him talk mead making in the following episode from The Jamil Show starting at about the 7 minute mark.

Link

The truth about thousands of years old unspoiled ancient Egyptian honey

This is an oft repeated story printed by seemingly credible publications and told by innumerable beekeepers and honey lovers around the world. It's a shocking statement that lends honey an almost magical mystique, but is there any truth behind it? Well in her blog post K Cummings Pipes took about as thorough a look into the matter as can be found on the internet.

For the full story check out her blog. If you just want me to make a long story short and spoil all the fun then keep reading.

In 1923 National geographic published photos at the tomb of Tutankhamen. One of the photos was just a bunch of kids munching on sugar cane. The description of this photo referenced 3,300 year old honey found in the tomb of Yuaa and Thuaa. Pipes found two books that referenced this honey finding incident at Yuaa and Thuaa's tomb. I'm sorry to say that though they did initially identify something as honey, it turned out to be a substance called natron.

Is may not be true but does that make honey any less magical? I don't think so. A bouquet of concentrated flower juice, that lasts, if not thousands of years, longer than most food products, is still pretty amazing all on its own as far as I'm concerned.

I did try searching a little more on my own. I found some mentions of a Georgian honey. Each report stated how it's older than the Egyptian honey. In one case there was claim about the specific types of honey found. Some mentioned multiple 'jars' being found, while others say 'traces' of honey were found. No mention of edibility anywhere. So maybe there is still hope of an ancient preserved honey?

To maintain the quality of your bees wax, here's a few things to be aware of when melting:

Temprature

Heating the wax to tempratures above 85ºC (185ºf) may discolour it. The melting point of beeswax is 62-65ºC (143 - 149ºf). If melted in water at excessive tempratures, hot steam can cause partial saponification and ruin the wax

Water type

Melting in soft water (like rain water) if preferable. Acidifying the water with something like 0.1 % vinegar can protect the wax.

Container material

wax heated in a container made with iron, brass, zinc and copper in it may cause a reaction that will discolour the wax. Stainless steel, aluminum or enameled steel, tempered glass & ceramic pots should be okay.

I used two crushed combs from a warré to make a small candle in an improvised solar melter. Here's a quick overview of the process:

Materials

A couple of discarded waxed paper coffee cups, an appropriate sized candle wick, a small cooler, a window, a few small sticks, a small piece of cloth or old window screen, a black garbage bag, and an elastic.

beeswax solar candle making materialsPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

Separate the wax from the remaining honey

The first melting is all about trying to make your wax as pure as possible.

  • Cut the bottom out of coffee cup A.

  • Place cloth on the bottom of cup A with an elastic.

  • Poke small holes in the sides of cup B above the estimated needed wax capacity and slide a small stick into the holes.

  • Rest cup A full of wax on top of the stick inside of cup B.

candle filter and moldPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

  • Place the cooler inside the garbage bag, the cups inside the cooler. Then place the window on top in full sun.

beeswax solar melterPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

The cloth should keep most propolis and debris in the top cup.

beeswax candle filterPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

Once cooled all the wax will float to the top with the honey on the bottom of cup B. Though I crushed the comb and let it strain for over a week I was surprised to see there was still more honey than wax left after melting. This photo shows how much of each I ended up with:

wax vs honeyPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

Making the candle

I make the candle following a similar process as described above except a wick is added. Using the right sized wick for the size of the coffee cup is essential for the candle to burn properly.

  • This time a small hole is made in the centre of the bottom of cup b.

  • Thread the wick through the hole and use a knot to keep the end from passing through the hole.

  • You can use an additional cup to catch any wax that might pass through this hole, but if you keep the hole tight and keep the wick knot snug against it, the wax will not drip through.

candle making moldPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

  • Tie the other end of the wick to the centre of the stick.

Once the wax has all melted into cup b allow the wax to cool slowly. If it cools to quickly the wax may crack. Then rip the cup away from the wax.

ripping away beewax candle moldPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

Trim the wick as necessary.

holding candlePhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

Enjoy your candle.

beeswax candle flamePhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

People use all sorts of things to filter their wax. The cleaner you can get it the better it will burn. A doubled up window screen might give you a working candle if your wax is fairly clean to begin with, but a cotton cloth or paper towel will result in a candle that burns brighter. The below photo shows the difference in in brightness between candles made with different degrees of filtering.

beeswax candle light comparisonPhoto by: Shawn Caza / CC: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License