Mead, a liqueur produced from fermented honey-water, is one of the oldest alcoholic drinks. It was once the favourite beverage in regions of Northern Europe where the climate was not suited to maintaining vineyards. Mead had ritual and spiritual significance for the Celts of the British Isles, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Vikings. Many ancient legends recall the pleasures of mead: early Irish literature speaks of the ever-full mead cauldrons to be found within faery mounds; the Norse Eddas tell how the god Oðin seduced a giantess to gain the mead of poetry; and the joys of the meadhall are a common motif in Anglo-Saxon verse. Popular folk-belief traces the origin of the word honeymoon back to the medieval custom of newlywed couples drinking mead for the first month (moon) of married life to ensure their fertility and to increase the chances that their first child would be a son.
Mead is a wonderful addition to modern rites of passage because it is both traditional, and, in these days of mass produced commercial beers and wines, exceptional. Serving a heady homebrewed mead can help to make a wedding, naming ceremony, wake or other occasion stand out as special. And if you are looking for a gift to bring along to a celebration, you will seldom go wrong with a bottle of good homebrewed mead.
Many people are surprised to learn that mead is actually simpler to brew than beer or wine, though it usually takes longer to ferment and mature. The initial outlay for equipment and ingredients is modest, especially if you can pick up a used demijohn from a friend or charity shop. It's a good idea to set aside a weekend day for your first attempt at mead-making so that you will have adequate time to complete each step (you can deal with routine household tasks while you wait for your yeast to become active or for hot liquids to cool). Read over all the instructions before you begin, then, when you have all the supplies to hand, have fun making mead. Reasonable cleanliness and accuracy is all that's required, not laboratory precision. The yeast and honey will do most of the work on their own (with a little help from the brewing-brownies). The mead produced by the recipe given in this article should turn out to be between 12 and 15% alcohol.
large (4-quart or more) saucepan or pasta boiler
gallon-size demijohn (narrow-necked glass jug)
pint-size glass milk bottle (or other small narrow-necked glass jar)
rubber bung with hole (to fit both demijohn and milk bottle)
brewing or cooking thermometer
flexible clear plastic siphon tube
Campden tablets or sodium metabisulphite powder
Bottling Options (pick one):
thick cork to fit top of demijohn
Grolsch beer bottles or similar hinged-cap bottles
glass liquor bottles with screw-on tops
wine bottles, corks, and corker
beer bottles, bottlecaps, and capper
Ingredients for One Gallon of Mead:
3 lbs. honey
1 teaspoon acid blend
1 teaspoon yeast nutrient
1 packet champagne yeast
water (if your tap water is foul-tasting, use bottled water)
About the equipment and ingredients
The supplies you need for mead-making are easily obtained, even if there is no homebrew shop in your immediate vicinity. Most Boots Chemists* carry a selection of wine-making paraphernalia. Try your nearest Boots for the demijohn, rubber bung, airlock, siphon, Campden tablets, acid blend, yeast nutrient and champagne yeast. You could make mead the old-fashioned way with just honey, water, and yeast, but it would take several years to mature and lack complexity of flavour. Yeast nutrient helps the yeast to ferment more quickly. The acid blend gives the finished mead a subtle fruitiness and balanced taste.
When purchasing honey for use in mead, the important thing to keep in mind is that bland, tasteless honey makes bland, tasteless mead. Fragrant, flavour-intense, single-flower honey is more expensive than the generic blended kind, but will make a real difference to your final product. Locally produced honey from a farmshop varies in flavour and quality depending on where the bees get their nectar. Some is very good indeed and some is less tasty than cheaper supermarket honey. Try it on your toast before you use it in your brew. Sainsbury and Tesco* both carry a range of speciality honeys from around the world (such as leatherwood, clover, and orange blossom) in 1 lb. jars at prices ranging from about £1.75 - £2.50. Some Edinburgh Wool Shops* carry expensive 1 lb. jars of Scottish heather honey; this stuff is ambrosial and makes a unique mead. Don't be overly concerned about buying only the finest, however. If you mix a strong-flavoured speciality honey with a cheap blended honey, your mead will retain some of the fragrance and flavour of the good stuff. Be aware also that some varieties seem to ferment faster than others. If you make one gallon with orange blossom honey and one with heather honey, the former will probably be drinkable long before the latter.
Keeping it Clean Cleanliness is very important when making mead because there are all sorts of microscopic nasties that can contaminate your brew and make it taste sour, acidic, or mediciney. The air is full of wild yeasts that will thrive under the same conditions as brewing yeasts and give off bad flavours in the process. Household surfaces are covered with bacteria that can do strange things to mead. You can easily protect your mead from infection by sanitising everything that comes into contact with it. To make up a batch of sulphite solution for sanitising, dissolve 2 ounces of metabisulphite powder or thirteen crushed Campden tablets (metabisulphite in pill form) in 1 pint lukewarm (not hot) water. Sanitise containers by swirling sulphite solution over all the inside surfaces. Sanitise things like your spoon and thermometer by dipping them into a container of sulphite solution. There's no need to rinse off the sulphite, it's a commonly used ingredient in wine and won't affect the taste of your mead. If you set something like a spoon or a bung down on a counter, remember to re-sanitise it before letting it come in contact with mead ingredients.
Starting the Yeast
Boil about ½ pint water. Remove from heat. Stir in 2 to 3 tablespoons of honey. Leave to cool. Meanwhile, sterilise the milk bottle, bung, thermometer and airlock. Pour the honey-water into the milk bottle and stick in the thermometer. When the solution gets down to about 80 F /27 C, remove the thermometer from the bottle and pour in the packet of yeast. Stick the bung and airlock into the top of the bottle and give it a swirl to mix the yeast and honey water. Fill the airlock about half full of sulfite solution. Now leave the yeast-starter in a warm place. Within a short time, some bubbles will begin to rise out of the airlock. After about 2-5 hours (or sooner or later depending on the type and age of the yeast, the temperature of the room, the helpfulness of the brownies, etc.) the bubbles will be rising quite rapidly and a thick foamy head will develop on the top of the liquid. At this point the yeast is healthy and active and ready to add to your brew, so it's time to begin the next step. ( If after 12 hours the starter-solution shows no signs of yeast activity, throw it away and start again. Your yeast might have been too old to revive, or your honey-water solution may have been too hot or cold, or you may have done something to offend the brownies.)
Measure the amount of water you need by filling your demijohn about 2/3 full. Pour this amount into your brewpot (saucepan or pasta boiler) and bring it to a rolling boil. Remove from heat. Stir in the honey, acid blend, and yeast nutrient. Let cool to about 80 F/27 C. Meanwhile, sterilise the demijohn and funnel. Funnel the cooled honey-water from the boiling pot into the demijohn. Swirl the bottle of yeast-starter to mix the foamy head back into the solution. Remove the bung and airlock from the milk bottle and pour the yeast-starter through the funnel into the demijohn. Put the bung and airlock on the demijohn and swirl to mix the yeast into the honey-water. Set the demijohn in a warm place and wait. Within the next 24 hours, the airlock should be bubbling rapidly and foam should be forming on top of the liquid. Congratulations, you're the proud parent of mead-in-progress!
Take a glance at your mead jar each day to monitor its progress. Over the next few weeks the bubbling will slow down and a layer of sediment (mostly dormant yeast cells) will build up on the bottom of the demijohn. When it gets to be around ½ -1 inch thick, it's time to rack. Racking is the process of siphoning the liquid off of the sediment. Leaving it on the sediment for too long may spoil the flavour of your mead. Sanitise your siphon tube and a container large enough to hold the contents of your demijohn (for instance, the brewpot you used earlier). Put the demijohn on a chair and the empty container on the floor next to it. Stick one end of the tube into the demijohn just above the sediment and hold it there. Breath out all the air in your lungs and, with your free hand, stick the other end of the tube in your mouth (which you might have sanitised beforehand with a swig of whiskey). Suck until the tube is completely full of liquid, then quickly stick a clean finger over the mouth-end and lower it into the container. If you've done it right, the mead will be flowing up the tube out of the demijohn and down the tube into the other vessel.
When the level in the demijohn is low and sediment starts flowing up the tube, stop siphoning. Rinse all the sediment out of the demijohn and clean the sides with the bottle brush. (There's no need to use soap, and it's best not to, as any soap residue can have ill-effects.) Sanitise the demijohn with sulphite solution. Now reverse the siphoning process to transfer the mead back into the demijohn. (If you are too impatient to siphon, you can carefully pour the mead back into the demijohn through a sanitised funnel. Take care not to splash, since you don't want to aerate the liquid.) After the first racking, you should top up the demijohn with water so that only about an inch of air space remains in the bottle neck. During the slower period of fermentation, your mead should be exposed to as little oxygen as possible.
You'll have tasted your mead during the siphoning. Don't worry if it strikes you as very harsh or sharp, it will mellow over time. Continue to check on your demijohn each day. If the layer of sediment builds up to the original level it was before racking, rack it again. If the level of liquid falls below the neck of the demijohn, top it up with water. If a week or two goes by and you don't see any bubbles in the airlock, then fermentation is over. This usually takes between two and six months. When fermentation has ceased, pour a small sample from the demijohn and taste your mead. If you like it, it is ready to drink.
If the mead still tastes harsh, or if you're saving it for a future celebration, then you will want to bottle it and let it age. Rack the mead one final time and siphon it into clean, sanitised containers. If you can find a cork to fit your demijohn, you can use the demijohn to age your mead. Top it off with water so that there will be no airspace between the liquid and the cork. Soak the cork to make it flexible and stick it into the top of the demijohn. (You may need to pound it in with a rubber mallet). Store the demijohn on its side in some out-of-the-way place. Alternatively, you can siphon the mead into sanitised Grolsch-type bottles or screw-cap bottles. These have the advantage that they are easy to open and reseal when you want to check the progress of your mead. They also have the advantage of allowing you to bring less than a gallon of mead to a party, so you can save some for yourself. If you already brew wine or beer and have the standard bottling equipment on hand, you can bottle mead just like wine or beer.
After six months (or sooner if you can't wait), remove the cork (or open the bottle or unscrew the cap) and try another taste. You should note an improvement, but if it's not your idea of perfection, back into the broom cupboard with it! If you haven't seriously displeased the brownies, you will eventually have a gallon of delectable nectar. Within modern brewing folklore, many tales are told of the mead that tasted like battery acid after six months and like ambrosia after three years. There are also legends of the absolutely perfect "three-month mead."
This, of course, is only a very basic mead recipe. After your simple first brew, there are many ways you can expand upon your mead making skills. You can experiment with adding herbs and spices to your honey-water before adding the yeast. You can try blending meads made with different kinds of honey to produce one that has your ideal combination of flavours. If you prefer a sweet mead you can wait for all the honey to ferment out, add more honey to taste, and then add wine stabiliser to prevent further fermentation. Keep a record of any variations you make on the basic recipe. You will want to refer back to it when tasting and comparing different batches of mead. With a bit of practice, you should be able to brew a mead which perfectly suits your particular taste.