Mead is an ancient drink of fermented honey that was prized, notably, by the upper classes of Scandinavia but was actually quite widespread through Europe, Africa, and Asia. Today it’s making a comeback in mixology circles. Here’s a simple method of making a delicious semi-sweet mead, which you can carry out in your kitchen!
1. Pre-warm the honey
Put the containers of honey in a warm location, such as near a water heater, or in a water bath so that the honey warms to about 100°F (38°C) and is easy to pour. Make sure it doesn’t overheat.
2. Clean the equipment
It’s important to work with spotlessly clean equipment to minimize the risk of spoilage. Starting with the 4gal–5gal stock pot, thoroughly scrub all vessels and equipment that will contact your mead with hot water and unscented detergent or sodium percarbonate (Figure A), then thoroughly rinse and drain (Figure B). Scrub the carboy (your fermenter) with a long carboy brush, and soak it with hot detergent water to remove any residue of dried yeast from a previous fermentation. Carefully inspect all equipment for cleanliness and store it on a clean surface.
3. Sanitize the fermenter
The carboy and any gear used to fill and seal it must also be sanitized to eliminate the vast majority of bacteria and wild yeasts that could hijack your fermentation.
To do this, put 1.5gal of warm water in a clean 2gal plastic bucket and stir in 2tsp of Starsan sanitizer — an acidic surfactant combined with food-grade phosphoric acid. This will give you a dilute, sudsy, clear solution that will quickly kill stray bacteria and yeast on contact. Pour 16oz of this solution into the spray bottle (for spot-sanitizations — very useful!) then pour about half of what’s left into the carboy using the funnel.
Gently roll the Starsan solution around inside the fermenter to wet the entire surface, then drain it into the bucket for reuse. Rinse a piece of aluminum foil with the Starsan solution and close it over the mouth of the carboy to keep out contamination until you’re ready to brew. Drain the carboy once or twice more at 10-minute intervals to get out as much Starsan as possible. If a little dry foam is left, it won’t detectably affect the mead and it is not at all harmful. That’s part of the beauty of Starsan!
4. Mix honey, water, and nutrients
Weigh 15.75lbs of spring water into the stockpot (or measure 1gal + 7pts) then heat it to 120°F (49°C) on a stove (Figure C). Meanwhile weigh 7lbs of pre-warmed honey into a 4qt mixing bowl (Figure D).
Turn the stove off and pour the honey into the stockpot (Figure E), then dip the mixing bowl into the pot to dissolve out all traces of honey (Figure F). Stir until the honey is completely dissolved, using very gentle heat if necessary.
Now weigh out and add 8g of Acid Blend, 7g of yeast nutrient, and 5g of DAP (Figure G). Stir until dissolved (Figure H).
The specific gravity of the batch should now be 1.100 to 1.105, which you can verify with a hydrometer if you wish (Figure I).
Recording this value, along with the amounts and descriptions of all the ingredients and temperatures used, will help you make progress as a mead maker.
5. Fill the carboy
Set the covered carboy on the floor. Sanitize the funnel and carboy cap in the Starsan solution. Shake off the funnel and use it, along with a sanitized scoop, to pour the honey-water mixture into the carboy (Figure J). Now add 2½ Campden tablets to sanitize the mixture (Figure K).
Shake off the carboy cap and put it on the carboy (Figure L). Dry the carboy with a paper towel and carefully set it in a dark, cool space that maintains a fairly even temperature between 60°F–65°F (15°C–18°C). It must sit there for 24 hours to cool and let the sulfite from the Campden tablets dissipate (too soon and the sulfite might kill your fermenting yeast).
6. Start fermentation
Take the 2 packets of Lalvin D47 yeast out of the refrigerator and let them warm to room temperature (Figure M). Take off the carboy cap and set it in the Starsan solution. Cut the tops off of the yeast packets and slowly pour the yeast into the carboy where it will dissolve over the next few hours (Figure N).
Replace the carboy cap and set into it a sanitized airlock that’s half full of Starsan solution (Figure O). Within 24–48 hours the batch should start bubbling, showing that the fermentation has started (Figure P). This primary fermentation will continue for about 1 month until the yeast action has slowed considerably.
CAUTION: The filled carboy is heavy, and any moisture or Starsan will make it extremely slippery! Before you move it, dry the carboy and your hands. And never set the carboy on a concrete floor without cushioning it with a carpet or cardboard mat.
7. Agitate yeast
Mead fermentation can go slowly and much of the yeast will settle to the bottom. This yeast layer won’t have good access to sugars and nutrients so it’s good to shake it up every day or two. Gripping the dry carboy near the bottom with both hands, swirl it gently for 20 seconds to stir up the yeast.
Carbon dioxide will bubble out of the liquid and come out through the airlock — probably driving out some of the Starsan with it. Dry the carboy, refill the airlock to half-full, and return it to its dark, cool space. This will reinvigorate the fermentation.
NOTE: From time to time the airlock will dry out. Top it off with new Starsan.
8. Rack for secondary fermentation
After 4 weeks, it’s good practice to rack (transfer) the mead into another sanitized carboy to separate it from the bulk of the yeast sediment, which could break down and harm the flavor of the mead in the long run. The yeast that’s still in suspension will continue to improve the quality and flavor of the mead for another 2 months or so.
Use a sanitized, automatic siphon and about 6′ of ⅜” clear vinyl tubing to avoid getting any mouth-borne bacteria into the mead. Place the full carboy on a sturdy table or countertop and siphon it into a sanitized carboy on the floor. Close the new carboy with a sanitized cap and airlock as before, and return it to the cool, dark space for secondary fermentation.
When the mead has finished its secondary fermentation and become still, at about week 14, the yeast will settle out leaving it quite clear (in my experience). You may have to help the clarification by adding a clarifying agent (consult your homebrewing shop or The Compleat Meadmaker by Ken Schramm) and waiting a few days. Clarity is very important to the delicate flavor of light mead.
Using sanitary equipment and containers, rack the mead back into the first (scrubbed and sanitized) carboy for bottling. Add 2½ Campden tablets to sanitize the batch one last time, wait for them to dissolve, then agitate the mead to mix it thoroughly. Immediately siphon your 2.4gal of mead into sanitized beer bottles or American (cappable) champagne bottles and cap them with sanitized caps (Figure Q).
Now amaze your friends and family with this unique, delicious, and historical drink!
SPECIAL THANKS: To the people at Oak Barrel Winecraft in Berkeley, California, for teaching me the mead-making process, and to Trina Lopez, for providing honey from her urban hives in San Francisco.
Log everything. By carefully logging your procedure (ingredients, amounts, temperatures, specific gravities before and after fermentation, airlock activity, pH, qualities of the finished mead, etc.) you can develop your techniques for better and more varied meads. It’s worth starting with the first batch!
Mix it up. Mead variants mixing honey with fruit juices, pressed grapes, and malt — each with their own names — have a long history and offer many possibilities for experimentation. Clear, chilled mead tastes outstanding with a couple of mint leaves in it and a little carbonation. Ginger is good too. That’s my little secret.