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A Mead Making Primer

 

There’s an awful lot of information out there on mead making, but as for most of it, if you’ll excuse my French, je m’en fou. Most of the mead recipes I’ve found in books or on the internet are ill-considered at best, and cannot be relied upon to produce a consistently tasty honey-wine. The mead making community is in desperate need of the kind of information which will reliably improve outcomes and encourage more people to take up this fun and rewarding hobby, and to this end I have compiled the following list of guidelines and recommendations for novice mead makers.

A small precaution: the procedures I outline below are based upon many years of practice and experimentation with mead making, but I can’t claim to have chosen these practices on the basis of any truly scientific method. Rather, a trial-and-error methodology has led me to adopt certain methods which I hope to pass along to others so as to avoid having certain episodes in my personal brewing history repeat themselves. These are the methods that work for me, but I can’t guarantee they’ll work every time for every brewer, and I’m sure that other methods (even some that don’t work for me) produce excellent results for other brewers.

Mead Maker Guidelines

Boiling destroys volatile aromatic compounds in the honey which are desirable in the mead. Furthermore, there is nothing to be gained by boiling the honey. Unlike beer brewing, in meadmaking there are no proteins to coagulate and no hop resins to dissolve. As for sanitizing the must, temperatures well below the boiling point (as low as 150°F, if sustained for 10 minutes or more) will accomplish the goal perfectly well.

For some reason, the vast majority of mead recipes I’ve seen call for the use of Champagne yeast. In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons these same recipes usually deem it necessary to age the mead two or three years or more; wine yeasts in general (and Champagne yeast especially) tend to produce a harsh astringency during fermentation. While extended aging is usually an effective strategy for mellowing the mead, choosing a different strain of yeast strikes me as a much better idea, especially if you wish to consume the fruits of your labor in a timely fashion. In my experience, the sweet mead yeasts produced by Wyeast and White Labs yield a reliably gentler flavor profile, as do most ale yeasts. When using ale yeasts, it is of course important to select a strain with a high alcohol tolerance; I have had consistently satisfactory results with California Ale Yeast (White Labs WLP001, aka Chico Ale Yeast or American Ale Yeast – Wyeast #1056).

Most of the recipes I’ve seen advise using Campden tablets or some other form of sulfite for sanitizing the must. This is unquestionably effective for ensuring a “clean” fermentation free of wild yeasts and bacteria, but unfortunately many people are allergic to sulfites – reactions range from cottonmouth and headaches, to nausea and vomiting, to seizures and anaphylactic shock. People who suffer from severe negative reactions to sulfites will usually be aware of their susceptibility, but if you’re using sulfites it’s probably wise to warn those to whom you offer your tasty beverage. Or you can avoid the issue altogether by simply relying upon heat for sanitation. As I noted above, temperatures in excess of 150°F for at least 10 minutes can be relied upon to sanitize the must; as for the fermenter and other equipment, I’ve always been entirely satisfied by using iodophor (a no-rinse sanitizer composed of iodine and phosphoric acid).

For those of you who prefer the metric system, that works out to about 300 grams per liter. I invariably use 12 pounds of honey every time I make a five gallon batch of mead. Most of the recipes out there call for 12 to 18 pounds of honey in a five gallon batch; that puts my methods at the low end of the spectrum, and it’s true that using around 2½ pounds per gallon will make it impossible to achieve an alcohol content over about 11%. There are two main reasons why I choose the 2.5 lb/gal ratio. First, I’ve got no problem with an alcohol content even as low as 8%, that just means I can drink more mead. Second, keeping the alcohol content relatively low makes the process much easier. This is mainly because alcohol is toxic to yeast, which means that the higher the alcohol content gets in the fermenting liquid the more stressed the yeast becomes, and yeast in a stressful environment becomes more and more likely to do either of two undesirable things. First, the yeast becomes increasingly likely to produce the kind of harsh-tasting by-products that I mention above as being commonly associated with wine yeasts; this is true even when using an ale yeast. Second, the yeast becomes increasingly likely to die or simply stop fermenting the remaining sugars; this can lead to stuck fermentations and cloyingly sweet meads. Keeping the starting gravity relatively low (around 1.090, say) is a good way to avoid these difficulties. If you do wish to make a high gravity mead, make sure to pitch a large volume of yeast, provide good aeration of the must, and use some form of yeast nutrient (as far as the yeast nutrient is concerned, the available commercial varieties are certainly effective, but so is bee pollen used at a rate of ½ a teaspoon per gallon, or as little as one quart of fruit juice in five gallons of must).

This last piece of advice is based on my observation that meads that finish dry may well be delicious, but will usually require extended aging before consumption. For whatever reason, stopping the fermentation early, when only the desired amount of residual sugar remains, seems to consistently produce a mead that is ready to drink right away. Once again, sulfites are an effective way to stop fermentation, but for the reasons outlined above I recommend relying on temperature to bring attenuation to a halt. A temperature below 40°F can be relied upon to stop fermentation in any strain of brewer’s yeast except certain hardy lager varieties (another reason why I recommend using ale yeasts).

So to summarize, when making a five gallon batch of mead, I recommend beginning by culturing up an ale yeast starter about 24 hours in advance.

On the following day, bring about three gallons of water to a boil, then turn off the heat and stir in 12 pounds of honey (almost any type will do, but avoid eucalyptus honey) until completely dissolved.

Check the temperature and raise it to above150°F if necessary.

Add bee pollen or fruit juice at this point if you so choose, and after waiting ten minutes to ensure sanitation of the juice and/or pollen, cool the must and strain into a fermenter.

Pitch the yeast and ferment in the low-to-mid seventies (temperatures well above those desired for beer fermentations are acceptable for mead fermentations, mainly because the fruity-tasting esters produced by yeast at higher temperatures are not undesirable in mead as they are in beer).

Taste the fermenting mead on daily basis, and when it has reached the desired degree of attenuation, arrest fermentation by cooling to below 40°F and keeping the mead cold from that point on.

I hope these guidelines are helpful, and enjoy your mead making!