Mead: Worth the wait
by David Myers
Ah, mead. If memory serves me right, this is the oldest of all fermented beverages. It's a nectar of the gods, makes-you-want-to-sack-a-village type of beverage.
The first time my lips ever touched this magnificent elixir I was at Charlie Papazian's home in the early 90's. I had the good fortune of winning a pair of tickets at my local homebrew club's auction fundraiser. This would become a tradition that several of us in the club have continued. At the end of an evening of trying an array of beers, Charlie looked at the group and asked us if we wanted to try something very special. Not being a bunch of idiots, we quickly agreed to indulge him. From down in the basement Charlie emerged with a bottle of heaven: prickly pear mead. Oh, the flavors that rolled over my tongue. The beautiful sunset red hue that colored the glass...the earthy flavors that danced around my mouth.
Not long after, I was having some beers with Paul Gatza and he too asked if I was interested in trying something special (what is it with these guys?). Paul pulled out what is known around these parts as Boysenberry '94: a sumptuous dessert mead that set the bar for what dessert mead should be. I thought to myself, "Self, you could make this." I was already brewing beer at home; I knew that it would be easy to turn some of my carboys to mead. Patience was the only additional thing required. Since I always was good at saving my allowance as a kid I figured it was time to make mead.
My first mead was one that I visited often both as a homebrewer and then later as a commercial mead maker; vanilla bean cinnamon stick, made from a blend of alfalfa and wildflower honey from Colorado. This is wonderful wintertime mead, savory and warming. It is funny how I still make many of my earliest meads today. Next were juniper berry mead and then a big boysenberry mead made with Paul. Boysen Dome was an enormous mead. Since the hydrometer was bobbing at the top of the cylinder we estimated the starting gravity at 1.165. This mead became especially good at around five years old.
So many meads, so little time. The whole reason I went pro is because one day I realized that I had 25 or so carboys of mead going. Mead, I believe, is one of the easiest fermented beverages to make. You can make it taste like all sorts of things; it all depends on what you like. You can make a traditional or a varietal mead from just honey or you can add fruit or spices. Different honeys will produce different flavor profiles much as different grapes make different grape wines.
What you need to make Mead
If you are already homebrewing you will have most, if not all, the tools you will need to make a batch of mead. You will need a kettle to mix in (we will discuss the various ways you can make it in a moment), a spoon, a wort chiller (nice, but there are ways around this), a hydrometer (if you care, I never did until I went pro), a carboy (I prefer glass), airlock, stopper and ingredients. The ingredients list of course is based on what style you want to make but some things will be a constant and that would be a yeast nutrient of some sort. Honey is very low in nutrients that yeast like to begin feeding on. What we do around the meadery is start the yeast with some Yeastex from Crosby and Baker so it is awake and hungry by the time we add it to the cooled must. In the summer time we begin to see active fermentation within an hour after pitching.
Vanilla Bean Cinnamon Stick Mountain Honey Wine
One of the traditions I started early in my mead making career was producing Winter Solstice Mead. Every December 21 I make mead. For many years I would make a 10-gallon batch leaving half o it traditional and half with either vanilla beans or vanilla beans and cinnamon sticks. I would age it two years and then serve it at the annual Winter Solstice party from a special bottle.
I use two parts alfalfa honey to one part wildflower honey. Now as I've already said, different honeys taste differently. These particular honeys were from Colorado. Something I haven't said, of course, is that you can make it as strong or as light as you like. It just depends on what you like and how long you are willing to wait for it. Given that this is meant to be a winter mead I'd suggest using at least 3 pounds of honey per gallon of water. That should give you at least 12 percent alcohol by volume, but don't be afraid to use another pound per gallon either. Maybe two!
You will also need three to four whole vanilla beans as well as three to four cinnamon sticks. You should be able to find these ingredients in the bulk section of Wild Oats type markets or check online. Don't be freaked out by the price per pound of the vanilla beans. Though $200 per pound, it should still only be about $10 for a 5-gallon batch.
Yeast nutrient will be needed but as a homebrewer you can do something as simple as using some extra light malt extract. A tablespoon per 5 gallons should do. The last ingredient necessary is the yeast. Much like different honeys have different flavor profiles so too will different yeasts impart different flavors. For this particular mead I like using a blend of Montrachet and Sherry yeast. This mead is the most versatile in terms of what temperature to serve it at. It is nice at cellar temperature, slightly warmed around 110*F, or, in the summer, served over ice.
Now it's time to make the mead. There are three basic theories on how to make mead: adding sulfites, pasteurizing and boiling. I've had good mead made all three ways but my personal preference is the pasteurization method. Bring 4 gallons of water up to 180*F in your kettle and then add 12 pounds of honey. It helps to preheat the honey, especially if it has crystallized. I like to soak mine in hot water to get it nice and pourable.
It is important to make sure to take your kettle off of the heat and stir vigorously, so that the honey gets dissolved. Mostly you want to make sure that you do not burn any of the honey on the bottom of the kettle. Cover for 20 to 30 minutes at around 150* to 160* F. Now is a good time to start your yeast. For mead I like to use dry yeast. Take two 5-gram packets of Montrachet and one 5-gram packet of Sherry yeast. Mix with a tablespoon of extra light malt extract. Stir vigorously so as to introduce oxygen. Yeast likes oxygen to begin feeding.
After the pasteurization period, cool the must to the mid-70s and pour into the carboy. Leave some room at the top. Add the yeast and shake the hell out of the carboy. I place a towel under the carboy and shake it in such a way as to introduce oxygen to the product. Don't be surprised at this point if you find the one weak spot in the carboy and you find your fresh must all over your knees. Certainly don't blame me: I warned you. Personally I like to use a 6.5-gallon carboy to make 5 gallons of mead. This way you lose nothing to blowoff. Place the airlock on and prepare to be patient.
Primary fermentation most likely will take three to four months. Try to keep the fermentation temperature between 70* and 78* F if possible. After primary, transfer to a 5-gallon carboy that already has the vanilla beans and cinnamon sticks in it. Just toss the cinnamon sticks in whole. Cut the vanilla beans into thirds before adding. The vanilla beans in particular need the alcohol in the mead to help extract the flavor. Let it sit for three months or so. Transfer off the spices. If you have an ice cream maker use the vanilla beans to make some incredible ice cream.
At this point how many transfers you make is up to you. How clear is the mead? Has it absolutely stopped fermenting? You need to make sure it has stopped fermenting before bottling or you will wind up with a sparkling mead. One way to accomplish this is with the addition of potassium sorbate. The other is by being patient. Most likely you will transfer a couple more times and then bottle. The biggest determinant for how long it will be is how much honey you put in. Certainly you should figure on one to two years.
David Myers opened Redstone Meadery in Boulder, Colorado in July 2001 after several years of making mead at home. He is a member of Hop Barley and the Alers homebrew club and lives in Sunshine Canyon west of Boulder.
This article originally appeared in Zymurgy magazine (September/October 2004)