Having a beehive in my garden got me thinking about what I could do with the honey and, having experimented a bit with making my own wine, I had been contemplating making honey mead. On a recent trip to Adelaide I was fortunate enough to visit the McLaren Vale wine region and try some excellent honey mead from Maxwell Wines, and was inspired to give it a go.
Mead is made by fermenting honey and is believed to be the oldest fermented beverage known to humans. The ancient Greeks knew it as ambrosia or nectar of the gods. It is also the origin of the term “honeymoon”: Vikings believed mead to be an aphrodisiac and grooms drank it for a month after their wedding to inspire virility.
My most memorable experience of mead was at a medieval banquet held at Cardiff Castle in Wales: nobody else at my table liked the mead so they all passed theirs along to me. I’m not much of a drinker and back then a glass and a half of wine was about my limit before I’d be falling asleep in the corner. I’m also NOT a singer, so you can imagine everyone’s surprise (including mine) that on the way back on the bus I was leading the singing!! That was a long time ago and I can assure you that my interests now stem from understanding how mead is made rather than repeating that experience.
As mead making is such an ancient activity, it is not surprising that there are a wide range of different styles and approaches. A search on the internet brings up a bewildering number of different recipes – on Wikipedia there a 44 named variants of mead, not to mention the wide range of possible variations of those. I decided to go with some basic mead instructions that I got from makewine.co.nz as their basic wine making instructions were straightforward, easy to follow and gave good results with different types of wines (whereas some of the recipes I’ve tried from elsewhere weren’t so successful).
I really liked the Spiced Mead that I tried at Maxwell Wines and I talked to them about how they did the ‘spicing’: they make the basic mead first and then take off a small portion of the batch to mix with the desired spices and then gradually add this back to the batch until they get the desired flavour. I decided to try this approach as well, making a still dry mead (you can also make a medium or sweet mead by adding a sweetener or stopping the ferment early; or make a sparkling mead by using champagne yeast and adding further sugar after bottling).
Equipment needed at the beginning
5L Glass Carboy
Airlock and rubber bung
Pot or kettle to heat water
Small jug or container to rehydrate yeast
Heating pad (optional)
10% Potassium Metabisulphite solution for sterilizing equipment (50g in 500ml water)
Ingredients for 5L Mead (6 x 750ml bottles)
1.5kg honey (preferrably raw unprocessed)
5g Yeast (71B-1122 was the strain I used)
1/4 tsp Nutrient (Fermaid A)
Sterilization is critical so make sure you sterilize all your equipment.
Honey has its own natural antibacterial compounds but may also contain wild bacteria and wild yeasts. It appears to be up to you as to whether you decide to sterilize the honey as well. I chose not to, to see what would happen but will include the sterilization steps below.
Day 1 (preparation)
Heat some water in a pot to nearly boiling, add honey and dissolve. Cool to room temperature.
Or as I did: Add water boiled and cooled to room temperature to the honey and stir using a sterilised spoon.
Pour into the carboy and top up with cooled boiled water to about 10cm below the top.
Add 5ml (1 tsp) 10% potassium metabisulphite solution and leave overnight.
Or as I did: don’t add potassium metabisulphite and add yeast straight away.
Day 2 (Add yeast)
Add 1/8 tsp Fermaid A nutrient.
Shake your must (the honey solution) well to aerate and mix through the nutrient.
Rehydrate yearst: add 5g yeast to 50mls cooled boiled water. Stir gently and let it sit for 20 minutes.
Add rehydrated yeast into the must and shake or mix through.
Put the bung and airlock (with some PM solution in it) into the carboy.
Keep it warm – early 20s centigrade is ideal. I used a heating pad that I got for making cider.
Day 3 onwards (fermentation)
Within 24 hours the must should be showing signs of fermentation: you will see bubbles through the airlock and the must will show bubbles and maybe some foam on the top.
Gently shake or swirl daily.
On day 5 (or day 4 if you didn’t add potassium metabisulphite) add the remaining 1/8 tsp of Fermaid A nutrient.
After about a week the ferment should have calmed down (or it may never have been in danger of overflowing) so you can top up the carboy with cooled boiled water to 2cm below the bung.
After days or weeks the fermentation activity will slow and eventually stop. This usually means the fermentation has stopped. You can check this by tasting (no remaining sweetness) or take a hydrometer reading (should be below 1.000).
The mead may still be cloudy but should start to clear by itself.
After a month, I started to notice that there were some unidentified lumps floating in my mead. The fermentation had slowed considerably so I decided to follow the instructions for keeping some sweetness in the mead by stopping the yeast (and any other microbes) fermenting by adding a teaspoon of 10% potassium metabisulphite solution (it also said to add 1/2 tsp of potassium sorbate but I didn’t have any).
I swirled the mead around regularly to mix the solution through and it cleared up the unidentified lumps but I was surprised to discover that there were still fermentation bubbles going through the airlock. It also started to cle
I decided to leave it again to ‘do its thing’ (having tasted a little using a sterilized straw). Then I thought I may as well add my spice ingredients as well and leave it to take up the flavour at the same time. I added a cinnamon stick, a single clove, a teaspoon of ground ginger and the zest of an orange. Several of the recipes I had seen said that a little spice goes a long way so I didn’t want to overdo it.
Bottling the Mead
Whilst you can siphon the mead into another carboy (removing it from the lees) to mature, as my mead had cleared I decided that I would just siphon it straight into bottles. I used the 750ml amber flip-top bottles that I have used for other wines, ciders and ales.
You can add 1 tsp 10% potassium metabisulphite at this point but this is not necessary if you are only intending to store the mead for a short time & want to minimize the preservatives.
Sterilize your bottles and the siphon and tube. My siphon wouldn’t fit into the carboy so I poured the mead into a sterilized jug and then siphoned it into the bottles. This stirred up the lees again but they soon settled in the bottles.
Siphon mead into the sterilized bottles up to about 2.5cm from the top. Top up with a little cooled boiled water if needed.
You can drink your mead straight away or leave it to mature. Maturation often results in a more mellow, complex mead (and clearing if it has not already done so). I plan to sample mine at different stages – starting with straight away. My first sampling of mead was still a little cloudy but it still tasted good although the spice flavours were not strong.
For my second sampling I decided to treat it like mulled wine and gently heat the mead in a saucepan with a cinnamon stick, star anise and a few cloves. It was delicious and a lot smoother in flavour than the first taste.