by Mike Retzlaff
We all know what mead is; don’t we? We’ve at least heard of it but the definition is often indistinct as there seem to be as many varieties of it as there are of beer. Most descriptions are a bit inadequate anyway. Basically, mead is a fermented beverage made primarily of honey and water. Many of us have tried some form of mead at one time or another. Some people love it and others have a lesser affinity for it.
It seems anywhere people and bees have crossed paths, there has been mead of one sort or another. Pottery shards with traces of a honey based beverage dating back 9,000 years have been found in China. In Europe, such traces go back 4,800 years. In India, written descriptions have been found that go back 3,700 years.
Of all of the fermented beverages brewed by humans, honey is probably the most ancient primary ingredient. Mead exists in a rather broad spectrum. The source of the honey makes quite a difference in the final product. Just think of the various honeys which are commonly available here in North America. We have honey from clover, alfalfa, tupelo, palmetto, buckwheat, orange blossom, and many other sources which can be very regional. In Britain, heather honey is often used for mead.
Dry Mead – Isn’t required to be bone dry.
Semi-Sweet Mead – In-between Dry and Sweet and is dependent on terminal gravity.
Sweet Mead – Shouldn’t be cloying like cough syrup.
Hydromel is the designation for the lowest strength of mead.
Standard is the designation for a medium strength of mead.
Sack is the designation for the highest strength of mead.
Hydromel – OG 1.035 – 1.080
Standard – OG 1.080 – 1.120
Sack – OG 1.120 – 1.170
Hydromel – abv 3.5% – 7.5%
Standard – abv 7.5% – 14%
Sack – abv 14% – 18%
Dry – FG 0.990 – 1.010
Semi-Sweet – FG 1.010 – 1.025
Sweet – FG 1.025 – 1.050
MELOMEL (Fruit Mead)
- Cyser is made with apples or apple cider.
- Pyment is made with grapes or grape juice
- Other – A melomel made with blackberries, strawberries, elderberries, cherries, etc., or a combination of such fruit or juices. There are special names for mead made from other particular ingredients.
- Acerglyn – Mead made with maple syrup
- Bilbermel – Mead made with huckleberries (European blueberries)
- Bochetomel – Caramelized honey with blackberries, black raspberries, or elderberries.
- Morat – Mead made with mulberries.
- Metheglin is a mead with spices or herbs.
- Hippocras is pyment spiced with cinnamon.
- Braggot (bracket, brackett) is a mead made with 1/3 to 1/2 of the fermentables being malt sugars derived from a mash, DME, or LME. It can also contain hops or gruit.
- Still – Need not be totally flat; may have some carbonation.
- Pettilant – Has noticeable carbonation and lightly sparkling with short lived foam.
- Sparkling – Has a mouth-filling presence like champagne or soda with short lived foam.
Mead can be simple as fermented honey and water to very complex with all sorts of ingredients. The key is that honey is the majority fermentable in this beverage.
There is a bit of difference in procedures when making mead as opposed to wine or beer. Honey doesn’t have all of the necessary components to fully support fermentation so some sort of nutrient should be added. Some nutrients, usually in excess, will leave a metallic taste in the mead. Yeast extract can be used in lieu of the nutrients.
Another additive is acid. Many makers use tartaric acid but acid blend, consisting of malic, citric, and tartaric acids, is handy, readily available, and works well. It provides a more balanced final product. The acid is necessary for a number of reasons. Yeast prefers an acidic environment, many unwanted organisms don’t, and the flavor profile of the finished beverage is more agreeable. If making a Melomel (fruit mead), the fruit may be acidic enough to negate or reduce the need to add acids.
Generally, honey delivers 35 ppg in wort. The color has a tremendous range with Clover honey at about 7 oL which also has a lighter flavor. At the other end of the spectrum, Buckwheat honey is usually much darker and has a stronger flavor.
Honey already has anti-microbial components but is expensive enough to cause you to err on the side of caution. Pasteurization can be used by heating the wort above 140 oF for a short period. Heating the honey can drive off many of the desirable esters so many mead makers prefer using the sulfite method. Sulfiting requires stirring in Campden (sodium or potassium metabisulfite) and leaving for about 24 hours. The nutrients as well as the acid can be added at the same time as the sulfites. Inoculation with yeast can be made after the “sanitizing” is complete.
Yeast is another contentious variable among mead makers. Wyeast and White Labs both culture specific liquid strains for mead. Depending upon what style of mead you make, other commercially available yeasts are also used. Champagne yeast, wine yeast, and even beer yeasts are used by droves of mead makers. The alcohol content of mead can range from 3.5% to 18% abv. This requires some consideration. I know makers who use a regular beer or wine yeast and finish Sack strength mead with EC-1118 (tolerant to 18% abv.) Lalvin D-47 is a good yeast for medium to sweet meads and retains full mouthfeel. It is tolerant to about 14% abv. Lalvin 71B-1122 is best for melomels (fruit meads).
Let’s make a simple 5 gallon batch of mead. We’ll start with 12 lbs. of honey in a sanitized fermenter. Top off with about 4 gallons of spring water to bring the contents up to just above the 5 gallon fill line on the fermenter. Add 5 tsp. of acid blend and 3 – 4 tsp. yeast nutrient to the must. Next add 5 crushed Campden tablets and stir the contents well before loosely covering the fermenter. 24 hours later, add a yeast slurry of Lalvin D-47 or Lalvin 71B-1122 yeast (yeast dissolved in 2 oz. non-chlorinated water), stir, aerate, and snap on the lid of the fermenter with an airlock. Ferment around 60 – 75 oF for about 6 weeks. At that point, you can rack the mead into a glass or plastic carboy and fit another airlock while it ages and clears. Afterward, rack and bottle.
Some options include:
- Boil a few cinnamon sticks in a little water and add to the fermenter with the honey. (Metheglin)
- Add a pound or two of berries (fresh or frozen) at the beginning. The sulfites will sanitize them along with the honey. (Melomel)
- Bottle with priming sugar to carbonate in the bottle.
- Add other spices or even edible flowers during the ferment (hibiscus, chamomile, etc.)
The above basic mead will make a little over 5 gallons of 1.080 mead which should finish at 1.002 with 10% abv. The color of this will be about 10 oL if using Clover honey.
Mead can be a rather complex beverage but it can also be quite simple . . . a lot like beer. There are all sorts of options and your imagination is one of the few the limiting factors. Start simply and build on experience. The flavor of mead will often improve with age like red wine, strong beer, and hard cheese. Mead also lends itself quite readily to being made in 1 gallon batches. There are books and websites devoted to the subject of Mead. This article simply provides an overview to a historic and fascinating beverage. I encourage you to seek further information if your interest is sparked.
An extra tidbit of info: The words amaze and amazing are derived from the word mazer which was the name of the drinking bowls of yore. Apparently, amazing is what you felt when you had a belly full of mead.