Making mead is more like making wine than brewing. If you’ve never made wine before, the processes will seem a little strange at first. The whole affair is over in about an hour, but not to worry, there’s still lots to do and it won’t be finished for a long time.
Mead definition: An ancient alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey and water. These fermented honey wines sometimes have added fruits (melomels) and / or herbs and spices (metheglins). It can also be made by fermenting honey with beer (braggot).
The alcohol range runs from about 8% to more than 20%, from dry to sack (very sweet) and can be still, petillant (slightly effervescent) or carbonated.
I’ve been a meadmaker for about 10 years now. One thing I’ve learned, and tell all home brewers is that you must have patience, lots of patience to make a honeywine. You won’t be able to make a batch this weekend and have it ready in less than 6 months. It’s more like a barleywine in that respect. Age and patience is your friend.
Don’t let the fact that it’s new and strange to you stop you from learning how to make this ancient beverage. You have to start somewhere. I’ll give you a basic recipe for a dry, traditional mead. Then I’ll expand on that later on other pages to show you how to add fruit and spices to make the other styles.
Equipment You Will Need to Make Mead
Most of the equipment you will need, you probably already have:
- 6.5 gallon plastic primary bucket with lid and airlock
- at least a 5 gallon carboy, stopper and airlock
- Erlenmeyer flask for your starter 2000ml-5000ml with stopper and airlock or foam stopper
- Wine thief for procuring samples to test
- Hydrometer with hydrometer cylinder and thermometer
- Long-handled spoon / paddle for mixing and stirring
- Racking cane with transfer tubing or auto-siphon
- Sanitizer (I like StarSan)
- 750 ml wine bottles and corks
MoreBeer.com has several starter kits for every budget. Click on the pictures below to go their website and review the kits.
Basic Dry Traditional
OG-1.100 FG-1.000 or less
- Honey (your choice) 14 lbs
- Water 4 gallons
- 10g ICV-D47 dry yeast (or your choice of liquid mead yeast)
- Yeast Nutrient-ie. Fermaid-K or your choice
- Yeast Energizer-Diammonium Phosphate (DAP)
- Go-Ferm-Rehydration Nutrient (only if you are using dry yeast)
- 2000ml of 1.040 OG wort from 200g light DME for a starter (only if you are using liquid yeast)
- Acid Blend (if needed to taste)
If you need to purchase your honey in bulk when it is available, but don’t plan on making your meade right away, you will need to store your honey for a while. Here are some great honey storage tips from Hive & Honey Apiary.com to help you out.
Don’t want to fuss with gathering the ingredients? Here is a 1 Gallon Dry Mead Kit from MoreBeer.com.
Here are the steps I go through. I have to give credit here to Ken Schramm, meadmaker extraordinaire. Ken Schramm is the author of the book The Compleat Meadmaker. His book is the definitive guide and is a must read if you really want to get serious and win medals. For sure you need to check out this article by Ken called Optimizing Honey Fermentation.
Note: Sanitize everything that will come in contact with the must (same as wort in brewing-honey and water mixture) including your hands.
Make the Yeast Starter
Making a yeast starter is a little different for wines than it is for beer. Here is a rundown:
If you are using liquid yeast from Wyeast, smack the pack at least 24 hours in advance. One day before you plan brew, you can make your starter with either the swollen Wyeast packet or a vial of White Labs liquid yeast. Click here to learn how to make a starter.
Here is how Ken Schramm makes his starters in his book The Compleat Meadmaker:
Boil 6 cups of water with 1/4 tsp of yeast nutrient and 1 Tbs of Dried Malt Extract for 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of honey, stir and remove from the heat.
Cover the starter and allow it to cool to room temperature. When the starter has cooled, sanitize an Erlenmeyer flask and funnel and pour the starter through the funnel into the Erlenmeyer flask.
Either cut the corner off a packet of Wyeast or shake the vial of White Labs liquid yeast vigorously to suspend the packed yeast, then pour it into the flask of starter solution.
If you plan to use pure oxygen, oxygenate the starter now. If you plan to shake the starter to introduce oxygen, put a stopper in the flask and shake and swirl the starter to aerate.
You should see signs of active fermentation soon. Ferment your starter for 24-36 hours, then put it into the fridge to settle (if using DME for your starter solution).
If you are using a honey and water solution with nutrients as your starter, you can pitch the entire contents of the starter into the must.
If you want to grow a larger starter for high gravity musts, above 1.100 OG, repeat the process of making the starter and repitch the slurry from one starter into another. This will produce enough healthy yeast to ferment the high gravity must to completion.
When you get ready to pitch the yeast, pour off as much of the “starter beer” as you can (if using DME for your starter solution) so you don’t affect the flavor of your mead. If you do not see any signs of life on the day you want to make the honeywine, don’t ferment with the inactive yeast. Instead, have a few packets of dried yeast available just in case.
Many meadmakers will make their starters with tepid orange juice to a SG of about 1.030 to 1.040.
Whichever starter medium you choose, maintain good sanitization.
It is best if you can use a stir plate as it will significantly increase the amount of yeast growth you can expect for a given volume of starter.
If you plan to use dry yeast, rehydrate the 10g packets of dry yeast using Go-Ferm in your rehydration water (pre-boiled and cooled to remove chlorine). Use 167 ml of water with 12g Go-Ferm. DO NOT ADD ANY OTHER NUTRIENTS TO THE YEAST (such as fermaid-K or any other yeast nutrient or energizer), the Go-ferm supplies everything the yeast need to form strong cell walls and get ready to ferment.
Prepare Your Honey and Water Must-The “No Boil Method”
You will see several different ways of preparing the must with the honey. I use the no-boil method which keeps all the aromatics in the honey intact. I assure you, many thousands of gallons of honey wine have been made this way with no ill effects.
First, prepare your must by adding 2 gallons of good quality water to your sanitized plastic primary bucket. Then heat another 2 gallons of water on your stove to 115°F (46°C) and remove it from the burner. If you forget to remove it from the burner, you may end up scorching the honey on the bottom of the pot.
Add all the honey to the heated water and mix well, mix very well, then mix again. Pour or ladle some of the hot honey and water into the honey container, put the lid on and shake and swirl until you get all the honey off the sides, then add this to the must.
Repeat if you are not satisfied you have all the honey out. You can get by without heating the water, but it makes it easier to dissolve the honey and get every last bit out of the jars.
Add all the warm honey/water mixture to your plastic fermenting bucket. Then add the Stage 1 nutrients and stir well to dissolve them into the must.
This is the point you would add your herbs, spices or flowers to make a Metheglin, which is a traditional mead with herbs or spices added. If you would like to know more about how to add spices or herbs to your honey wines to make a Metheglin, click here.
Check the OG or °Brix
You should now have about 5 gallons of must. Use the thermometer to check the temperature. When the must has cooled to below 80°F (27°C), measure the SG and or °Brix (if using a refractometer). Make sure you record these in your log book. Put the lid on with an airlock and keep the must isolated this way from now on.
Aerate or Oxygenate Well
Aerate or oxygenate the must well. This can be done several ways. Use a lees stirrer and a drill and whip the heck out of it for a couple of minutes, or use an aerator for several minutes, or add pure oxygen for about 90 seconds to two minutes.
Oxygenate daily for the first 3 days but be careful because aerating, stirring, or adding oxygen may cause the CO2 to come out of suspension and foam severely.
Start out slowly and be ready to stop, let it die down, then continue. This has the added effect of degassing the mead which removes CO2 that can be toxic to yeast.
Pitch Your Yeast
Pitch your yeast into the must when it is below 80°F (27°C) (not warm to the touch), mix the yeast into the must well. Add the Stage 1 Nutrients now ( 4.5g Fermaid-K and 4.5g DAP). Put the lid and airlock on and walk away (OK, you can sit there and watch, but it is going to take a while before it starts fermenting).
Note: If using liquid yeast, sanitize the packet if you decided not to make a starter then pour the yeast into the must, add some distilled water and wash out all the yeast. Otherwise, pour the starter into the must and rinse it out with a little distilled water. Then proceed with the rest of the recipe.
Lag Phase-First Few Days of Fermentation
Your yeast is very temperature sensitive. Honey wines ferment best between 65-75°F (18-24°C).
If you used a starter, you will notice a very short lag phase, ie. fermentation will commence in a very short time.
Check your specific gravity frequently, when it drops 2 or 3 points, you can consider your mead in active fermentation. Add the stage 2 nutrients now. (2.8g Fermaid K and 2.8g DAP).
1/3 Sugar Break
Let the fermentation continue, oxygenating daily for the first 3 or 4 days. You should have the 1/3 sugar break calculated (OG-[(OG-FG) *.33]) and written down in your log.
When you reach that point as determined by your hydrometer readings, add the third and final nutrient edition, stage 3 (1.8g Fermaid-K and 1.8g DAP).
Ferment to End Point of Primary Fermentation
Let the fermentation continue to the end point. To find the end point, after about 2 weeks, start taking a specific gravity reading. When the reading remains the same for two consecutive days, you have reached the end of primary fermentation.
For this mead recipe, your SG should reach about 1.000 or less. When you reach the end of primary fermentation, rack the mead from your primary bucket into a clean and sanitized 5 gallon glass carboy. Be sure to top up with a similar mead, wine or good quality water. Install the airlock and stopper and wait about 3 months.
I know it’s hard. You can visit your fermentation as often as you like but resist the temptation of removing the airlock and smelling or tasting it. You should notice a fine layer of sediment on the bottom of the carboy. Every time you rack (transfer), you are leaving behind the sediment that contains finer and finer particles of dead yeast and other products of fermentation.
It’s better to let ir bulk age and get clear than to bottle too soon and have it settle out in your bottles.
How to Make a Sparkling Honeywine
If you want to make a sparkling mead, you will need to prime with more fermentable sugar and bottle just like you would with your bottle conditioned beers.
You should combine 5 oz. of corn sugar with 1 pint of water in a small saucepan. Boil for 5 minutes to sanitize, then pour into a bottling bucket and rack your mead on top.
When you bottle, treat it as if it were a highly carbonated Belgian Ale, bottle in heavy champagne or Belgian bottles.
If you want to use smaller bottles, use the same beer bottles you would use for competition, ie. pry-off bottles and not the twist off kind.
Bulk Aging and Bottling
Now the hard part is deciding when to bottle. I tend to take the lazy route. I just let it bulk age, sometimes for up to two years, racking every 3-6 months to get rid off the sediment. (Okay, I’m really lazy…I have carboys that are still bulk aging since 2007 and it’s now December of 2016…Do you think it’s time to bottle yet? It’s all good, as long as I keep the airlock full and the headspace purged with CO2, I can age as long as I want with no ill effects.)
Just make sure to keep the airlock full of cheap vodka. For those of you that don’t want to take the lazy route, I’d suggest racking every two to three months until you feel the clarity is good and the mead has no more dissolved CO2 in it.
As you gain more experience, you will be able to tell. At some point you either fine (clear) the mead with one of several available products such as sparkalloid, bentonite, gelatin, etc. and bottle, or wait until it quits dropping the fine lees, and then bottle.
Time to Bottle
You bottle just like you would bottle wine. But since this article will be read mostly by homebrewers who may not have ever made wine, here is a link to a great (if rather long) article on how to bottle your home made wine by Winemaker Magazine.
Once you bottle, let it condition for 6 months to a year. It only gets better with age.
If you would prefer to make a sweet mead recipe, MoreBeer.com has a nice kit with everything you will need.
Click here to purchase MoreBeer.com’s Sack Mead Kit.
Staggered Nutrient Addition Schedule (NAS)
For 5 gallons of honeywine, cider or perry, use the following
Nutrient Addition Schedule (NAS) (sometimes called SNA or Staggered Nutrient Additions):
- Stage 1 nutrients: added at yeast inoculation (or pitching) add 4.5g Fermaid-K and 4.5g DAP
- Stage 2 nutrients: added when you notice active fermentation (When OG has dropped 2-3 points, usually 12-24 hrs.) add 2.8g Fermaid-K and 2.8g DAP
- Stage 3 nutrients: added at 1/3 sugar break OG-[(OG-FG)/3] add 1.8g Fermaid-K and 1.8g DAP
If you don’t have digital scales, here are some rule of thumb numbers: 1 tsp of Fermaid-K weighs about 4.0 grams, 1 tsp of DAP weighs about 3.9 grams. If you don’t have access to Fermaid-K, use the same amounts of whichever yeast nutrient you can find. Most homebrew and winemaking supply stores will have quality yeast nutrients to choose from.
When you are finished fermenting and bottling, here is a GREAT Carboy and Keg Washing Station that will make your life much easier.
References: I relied heavily on the FAQs from Hightest’s website entitled How do you make a Basic mead?. I also used information from a post on the Gotmead.com forum entitled Oskarr in a Nutshell and of course from the book by Ken Schramm entitled The Compleat Meadmaker.