Making mead (by Guy Palmer)

 

Guy Palmer, from Eltham, is this website’s webmaster and occasional author of food and drink articles.

Introduction

A few years ago, I (Guy) was lucky enough to attend a mead making course organised by the Eltham and District Winemakers Guild and even luckier to have Angela and Wayne Harridge as my tutors. During the course, I successfully made my first 5 litre batch of mead and, since then, have become a complete convert, mostly drinking mead in preference to wine. The material below is based on the extensive handouts from the course and I would like to thank Angela and Wayne for their permission to use them.

Mead is fermented honey, where the fermentation turns the sugars in the honey into alcohol. The end result is an alcoholic beverage which is an alternative to white wine but with its own unique taste.

Mead has a similar alcoholic strength to wine and is golden in colour. Unlike white wine, mead is generally drunk at room temperature and does not go off quickly after the bottle has been opened.

All meads are made with honey, yeast and water. Beyond that, ‘botanicals’ are often added for flavouring purposes, for example fruit or fruit juices (in which case the mead is called ‘melomel’) and/or spices or herbs (in which case the mead is called ‘metheglin’). Different varieties of honey, different strains of yeast, and variations in the fermenting process can all result in different styles of mead.

How long it takes for the honey to ferment depends on the room temperature (fermentation rates increase with temperature) but the total process from start to bottling typical takes 8-12 weeks. But it doesn’t actually require much effort as most of the time is spent waiting for fermentation to complete.

The recipe below is for a mead called ‘Joe’s ancient orange’ (JAO). Despite the name, it is a modern recipe which is easy to make as well as tasty.

1. Gather your supplies

At the start, you will need:

  • A 5 litre demijohn (in which the mead will be fermented).
  • A bung with an air lock (to fit onto the top of the demijohn to keep oxygen out during fermentation).
  • A funnel (for putting the various ingredients into the demijohn).
  • Some potassium metabisulphite, aka PMS (for sanitising purposes).

Later on, you will need:

  • A pump or tube (for syphoning the mead out of the demijohn without disturbing the yeast at the bottom).
  • Some accurate, small scales (for measuring out small quantities of sugar etc to add in at the end).
  • Some potassium sorbate (to inhibit yeast reproduction).
2. Gather your ingredients

These are the ingredients to make 5 litres of ‘Joe’s ancient orange’ (JAO):

  • 1.6Kg honey (raw)
  • 5 litres water (chlorine free)
  • 1 orange
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 cloves
  • 15g raisins
  • 1 teaspoon bread yeast (e.g. a 7g sachet of Tandaco bakers yeast)
3. Prepare the ‘must’ (the mixture of the ingredients)

Clean and sanitise all the equipment before use.

Clean using hot water, avoiding detergents or other cleaning substances.

Sanitise using a solution of 15 grams potassium metabisulphite (PMS) per litre of water.

Pour 3.8 litres of water into the demijohn (DJ) and clearly mark the water level on the glass.

Empty the water and do not erase the water level mark.

Pour the 1.6Kg honey into the demijohn (it can be diluted using warm, <50degC water to make pouring easier).

Add the cinnamon stick, cloves and raisins.

Cut the orange into small pieces (so that they can easily be removed later on through the neck of the demijohn) and add them.

Add water to the level of the 3.8 litre mark previously made. The water should be at around 20degC.

Shake the mixture vigorously to get oxygen into it.

Note: no more shaking or stirring from this point on!

4. Get the ferment started

Hydrate the yeast (simple method).

  • Add about 50ml of warm water (30–40degC) into a sanitised container (a glass or cup).
  • Add ½ teaspoon of sugar and dissolve.
  • Add the dry yeast to the water and stir gently for 30 seconds to break up any clumps.
  • Let the mixture stand for no more than 15 minutes, by which time it should have developed a foamy head.

Add the hydrated yeast to the demijohn.

Fill the fermentation lock with water to the correct level (see marks on the airlock).

Fit the fermentation lock and associated bung into the top of the demijohn.

Keep the demijohn at a comfortable room temperature environment (20-25degC is ideal) until the fermentation has finished.

5. Wait

The ferment may take between 2 and 24 hours to start (bubbling from the airlock).

The ferment should slow down within about 1 week depending on the ambient temperature.

Once the ferment has slowed right down with minimal foaming, top up the demijohn with water until the mixture is around 3cm below the bung. Once you have done this you will probably notice the fermentation rate increase again – this is because the alcohol in the must has been diluted.

Ensure that the fermentation lock is always clear of any blockages and that the water within the lock is clean.  Wash out, clean and re-fill if and as necessary.

Wait until fermentation is reasonably complete, which is when there are fewer bubbles in the airlock than, say, one every 30 seconds (it doesn’t matter if you wait a bit longer).

6. Rack

Sanitise all equipment using a solution of 15 grams potassium metabisulphite (PMS) per litre of water.

Using tweezers or similar, remove all the orange pieces, raisins, cloves and cinnamon stick from the top of the demijohn (or leave them in until after the syphoning).

Syphon the mead out into a temporary holding container.

Remove all the gunk from the bottom of the demijohn and then wash and sanitise it.

Pour the mead back into the demijohn.

Add 0.1 grams of dissolved potassium metabisulphite (PMS) per litre of mead to inhibit oxidation and microbiological spoilage.

Wait for a week or two for the mead to clear ready for bottling.

7. Fine tune

You can add a bit of sugar either to balance excessive acidity/bitterness or just because you like sweet meads.

You can also add acid to change the honey/fruit flavour, depending on your tastes.

These are both important steps that can substantially change the taste for the better.

Judging how much sugar and acid to add is done via experimentation on a sample. For sugar:

  • Add 100ml of mead to each of 4 tasting glasses.
  • Add 0.5g sugar to glass #2, 1g to glass #3 and 2g to glass #4, and dissolve.
  • Taste each glass and decide which is the best.
  • Finally, if you wish, try a few variations around the preferred glass.

Following the test, add the appropriate amount of sugar to your mixture.

For acid:

  • The most commonly used acids are tartaric, citric and malic.
  • Make up a 10% acid solution (10g acid in 90ml water).
  • Add 100ml of mead to each of 4 tasting glasses.
  • Add 0.5ml of the acid solution glass #2, 1ml to glass #3 and 2ml to glass #4.
  • Taste each glass and decide which is the best.
  • Finally, if you wish, try a few variations around the preferred glass.

Following the test, add the appropriate amount of acid to your mixture.

If you consider yourself an expert, you can also potentially add some tannins (typical rates 0.01 to 0.1 grams/litre).

If your mead is overly cloudy, you can try ‘fining it’ (adding a product to to remove an offending substance from the mead). Read more.

8. Bottle

Sanitise all the equipment using a solution of 15 grams potassium metabisulphite (PMS) per litre of water.

Syphon the mead out into a temporary holding container, wash out the now empty demijohn, and then pour the mead back into the demijohn.

Add 0.1 grams of dissolved potassium metabisulphite (PMS) per litre of mead to your final mixture to inhibit oxidation and microbiological spoilage.

Add 0.1 grams dissolved potassium sorbate per litre of mead to kill off any remaining yeast.

Wait a few days.

Fill the bottles.

With wastage, you should be able to get 5 or 6 bottles of 750ml mead. If you are a little short on the last bottle, you can add some white wine (or just drink it straightaway!).

Cap (e.g. using NovaTwist caps).

9. Wait then drink

Although you can drink it straightaway, mead tastes better the longer it is aged.

 

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