By Joe the Troll
What is Mead?
Mead is an ancient beverage, a highly alcoholic variety of wine made with yeast-
fermented honey water.
Like many skills, making mead can be learned quickly, but may take a lifetime to master.
Indeed, it is the simplicity of mead that makes it a creative challenge. Though simple, the
possible flavor combinations number near to infinity! (See Figure 1). One can simply
ferment honey water (mead), or add fruit (melomel). It can be flavored with grapes
(pyment), with herbs and spices (metheglyn) or with apple juice (cyser). Each of these
categories has a wealth of varieties, and when one begins to combine the different types,
vast opportunities result. It is no wonder
this beverage has captured mankind’s
imagination for so many centuries!
The history of mead can be difficult to tell
accurately, since the drink itself predates
written history. It is highly likely, in fact,
that mankind’s first experience with alcohol
came courtesy of a beehive fermented by
natural yeasts. Names and traditions
associated with mead girdle the globe; it is
mentioned in the oldest literature and lore,
where it was often placed in the hands of
Gods. The old tradition of newlyweds There are as many possible flavors of
drinking mead for one month following the mead as there are possible flavors of
wedding (in order to influence the birth of a honey!
son) leads directly to our current custom of a Fig. 1
That which we call “mead”, by any other name….
Mead has had many different names through the ages!
Old English medu Welsh medd
Old Norse mjöđr Breton mez
Danish mjöd Mid. English meþeglin
German met Polish miód
Sanskrit madhu Russian mjod
Old Irish mid French hydromel
Italian idromele Greek μεθη (méthē)
Finnish mesi Latin hydromel
Making mead is much easier than it was in days of old. The necessary equipment is
readily available and affordable, and can be used to make beer as well (see Fig. 2, next
page). Honey is no longer strictly for the wealthy. Sanitation – which is absolutely
essential – is far easier to accomplish. In addition, the mead maker no longer needs to use
wild yeast strains or strive to keep samples alive and pure. Clean, healthy yeast is easily
obtained in a variety of strains. The method is simple:
1. The first step could be the most difficult – choosing a style of mead to make! This
will require thought and research. Shall you make mead, metheglyn, or perhaps a
melomel? Suppose you choose a melomel…. what fruit shall you use? Perhaps a
combination of fruits, and/or maybe a spice or two? Once you decide, what recipe
will you use? There are many books and websites you can turn to for inspiration.
This text will explain how to make a simple honey mead.
2. After the recipe is chosen and the ingredients are gathered in the kitchen, begin
sanitizing the equipment. The importance of sanitizing anything that will come
into contact with your mead cannot be overstated. Foreign bacteria, if allowed to
grow in the mixture, can and will ruin the mead. Don’t worry; you can’t make
anything even remotely dangerous. You can, however, make poor tasting mead. A
weak chlorine bleach solution (½ oz. per gallon) will suffice. Be thorough. Be
very thorough. This is time well spent. Rinse the chlorine off with hot water
before using any piece of equipment.
The magic of fermentation.
Fermentation is the process by which yeast cells convert
simple sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The yeast
microorganisms ―eat‖ the simple sugars present in the
honey, and as they digest the sugars as food, they create
two waste products—the CO2, which bubbles out of the
fermenting mead, and the alcohol, which stays.
Thus is magic made!
The basic equipment.
A. A five-gallon food grade plastic bucket with a spigot at the bottom is useful for bottling
the beer and sanitizing the smaller equipment.
B. A hydrometer is a device used to measure the specific gravity of a fluid. You will also
need a floating thermometer (not pictured).
C. An Airlock is a device used to let carbon dioxide escape while keeping air and germs out.
D. A carboy is a large bottle (shown in five gallon size) used for fermentation. The fact that
it is clear allows you to easily monitor your progress. It will come with a cap or a stopper,
either of which will have a hole and a plug.
E. Irish moss is a seaweed used to help meads and beers clarify in the bottle by removing
the proteins that create cloudiness.
F. The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian is just one of many books
on the subject, and was a major source for this pamphlet.
G. This is a modern handheld bottle capper. The non-twist-off type of beer bottle is easily
refilled and recapped. It’s also fun to stock up on!
H. A bottle washer is a faucet-mounted device that makes washing those recently emptied
beer bottles a lot easier.
I. Food grade gypsum is a mineral used to provide the proper nutrition for the yeast, and to
help the final product clarify.
J. A funnel will help you get your freshly brewed mead into the carboy.
K. (Not Shown). A racking cane is a hollow tube, bent to resemble a walking cane, used to
siphon the mead from the carboy when it is finished. It is specially designed to help you
get the mead without getting the dead yeast at the bottom of the carboy.
3. The next step is to mix the ingredients. This basic five-gallon recipe calls for
A. 15 lbs. honey (your choice).
B. 1 tbsp. gypsum (see Fig. 2).
C. 4 tsp. acid blend. Acid blend is an optional mix of citric, malic, and
tartaric acids that some use to balance the sweetness of the honey.
D. ½ oz. yeast extract. Yeast extract is an additive derived from the hulls of
dead yeast cells. It is used to provide the living yeast with the nutrients
that the honey lacks. Yeast extract is optional, but its use will lead to
significantly faster fermentation.
E. ¼ tsp. Irish Moss (see Fig. 2).
F. ½ oz. yeast. Any of a wide variety of mead, wine, or champagne yeasts
will work, and each will lend a distinctive flavor to the mead.
G. Five gallons of water. Bottled water is advisable as it has been filtered and
lack the chlorine often found in tap water. Why add antibacterial agents
and odd flavors to your mead?
Combine all the ingredients except the yeast with 1½ gallons of water in a large pot (at
least three gallons). Bring it to a boil, stirring occasionally and watching carefully.
Two words of warning!
1) The boiling honey/water mixture can and will boil over. This is a hazard, and a
very sticky mess once it has cooled.
2) Always be very careful when dealing with boiling liquids, especially in large
volumes. Serious burns can happen in a split second.
4. Keep the mixture boiling for 15 minutes, watching it continuously. You will see a
thick foam form at the top as it boils, which you should skim off and discard. (See
Fig. 3). This boiled honey mixture is now called a ―must‖.
5. Once the must has finished boiling, it is ready to be added to the carboy for
fermentation. The carboy should be sanitized, rinsed, and contain about two
gallons of cold water. (See Fig. 4) The cold water absorbs the thermal shock from
the boiling must, and keeps the carboy from cracking. Stick the sanitized funnel
into the carboy, and use a sanitized ladle to scoop the must into the funnel. Never
try to pour large volumes of boiling liquid! Top off the bottle with cold water,
Fig. 3 Fig. 4
What is specific gravity?
Specific gravity is the measurement of a liquid’s density.
When honey is added to water, the sugars (which are heavier than water)
raise the specific gravity of the water. As the mead ferments,
the sugars are replaced by alcohol, which is lighter than water.
By measuring the specific gravity of the mead before and after
fermentation, and subtracting the low score from the high score,
we can determine the alcohol content of our mead!
Specific gravity is easily measured with a floating hydrometer,
which will come with instructions for how to read it (see fig. 2).
leaving approximately four inches of space between the must and the lip of the
carboy. Seal the carboy with the cap or stopper.
6. Despite the addition of cold water, the must will still be too hot. Set it aside to
cool. While the large volume is cooling, you can pour out a small sample. This
you can cool far more rapidly, and use for your first hydrometer reading. Write
this down for later.
7. The must needs to cool to 78 degrees or below before you can add, or ―pitch‖, the
yeast. Different types and strains of yeast will have different pitching
requirements, so read and follow the instructions provided. Liquid yeasts are
preferable, as dry yeasts may impart a strong flavor that the liquid yeasts do not.
After pitching the yeast, seal the carboy and agitate the liquid by rolling the
carboy back and forth. This will mix the yeast with the must, and also help aerate
the must, so the yeast can have oxygen readily available to use for fermentation.
This aeration is helpful now, but must be avoided meticulously later on.
8. When this is done, set the carboy aside to ferment, with a two to three foot length
of sanitized plastic tubing coming from the cap. In the earlier stages of
fermentation, the activity will be rapid. Not only will the process create carbon
dioxide, it will also create a ―blow off‖ comprised of dead yeast cells and other
solids. This will blow out of the tube (and into a handy bowl) for the first few
9. After the fermentation settles down and no more foam is seen in the
tube, remove the tube and add the airlock (see Fig. 5). The airlock is
designed so that when you add water (or to be even more sanitary,
vodka) the carbon dioxide is allowed to bubble out, but air cannot get
in. This keeps foreign bacteria, and thus foreign flavors, from entering
your mead. There are different styles of airlocks, so follow the
instructions provided with the one you choose (See Fig. 6). Another
benefit of airlocking is the fact that you can see how fast the yeast is Fig. 5
working by seeing how quickly the fluid in the airlock bubbles.
10. After a couple of weeks, you will see a thick sediment on the
bottom of the carboy. This is mostly dead yeast. While this is
never dangerous (quite the contrary – it is actually quite
nutritious), it can impart an unpleasant flavor to the mead if left
in contact with the must for too long. If the mead is still actively
fermenting at this time, and it most likely will be, you will need
to separate the must from the sediment. This is done by ―racking‖ the must.
11. Racking is the process of siphoning the must from one carboy to another. This is
done with about four feet of sanitized tubing and a sanitized racking cane (See
Fig. 2). Just insert the racking cane into the must, being careful not to disturb the
sediment. Fill the hose with water, and attach one end to the top of the racking
cane. Put the other end of the tube into the other carboy and release the water.
This will create a siphon that will carry your must into the second carboy. Get as
much of the mead as you can, with as little of the sediment as possible. If you get
a little sediment, don’t worry – just make sure you keep the wasted mead to a
minimum. Once you are finished, cap and airlock the carboy.
12. The next part is not difficult, but it can be the most excruciating. At this point, all
you do is watch and wait for it to finish. The time this takes varies by recipe. One
thing is constant – it will always seem like it is taking too long. When the airlock
has not bubbled for several days, the mead is probably done. This can also be
determine with the hydrometer – if the specific gravity stays exactly the same for
three days, the yeast is done! You are now ready to bottle your mead.
13. Start by cleaning and sanitizing your bottles (This text assumes you will be using
beer bottles instead of wine bottles. This is cheap, convenient, and allows you to
dole out smaller portions. This might be desirable since the mead will be around
12% alcohol. Use the non-twist-off type of bottle, as they are refillable.). When
this is finished, sanitize and rinse the bucket.
14. Rack the finished mead to the bucket, once again capturing as much as possible
while avoiding the sediment. When racking this time, extra care must be taken not
to splash or otherwise aerate the mead. Getting oxygen into the mead at this point
will contribute to stale flavors, so be careful to disturb the mead as little as
possible while moving it.
Keeping oxygen away is the purpose behind a special piece of
equipment called a bottle filler. A bottle filler is a device that allows
you to fill the bottle from the bottom up, thus avoiding aeration. It
also makes it easy to stop the flow of mead between bottles.
15. When the bucket is full, attach one end of the hose to the spigot, and put the bottle
filler on the other end. The bottle filler shaped like two rods, one fitting inside the
other. One end goes to the bottom of the bottle, the other end attaches to the hose.
When the end on the hose is allowed to slide down over the end in the bottle, the
mead will flow out and fill the bottle. When the bottle is full, the upper end is
pulled up again, and the flow is stopped. Thus you will fill all your bottles. Five
gallons should fill 50 to 60 beer bottles.
16. Next, sanitize your bottle caps (new, uncrimped ones from the brewing shop, of
course) by boiling them in water for 15 minutes. Place a cap on a bottle, place the
bottle capper (See Fig. 2) over the cap, and push down on the handles until the
cap crimps firmly. Repeat until all the bottles are capped. Place your bottles in a
cool place to age. You have now made mead.
The drink of Vikings.
Mead was a favorite of the Norsemen,
no doubt because
few fruits grew in the cold climate.
The father of the Norse Gods, Odin, even had a goat
that gave mead instead of milk!
The mead will be ready to drink as soon as it clears, which should not take more than a
week or two. It will change with time, however, the flavors mellowing and mingling as
the mead ages. How long you allow it to age is up to you. The nice thing about large
batches is drinking some now and allowing some to mature!
As you prepare to pour your mead, you may notice a thin final sediment at the bottom of
the bottle. This is the same as the previous sediment, and easily avoided with careful
pouring. You may have to leave a little behind to do this, but that is a small sacrifice for a
glass of perfect, clean mead.
Mead is a wonderful way to connect to the past. As you stand under the ancient stars,
enjoying your homemade mead, be sure to raise a glass to your ancient ancestors, who no
doubt enjoyed this same simple recipe several millennia ago!
A parting thought.
The next time you see this fellow bumbling about,
be sure to thank him for doing the hard part!