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Mead Making for the Rank Beginner


(Or anyone else interested in a quick source of recreational alcohol)

Tom Spooner

It's been suggested that everything I write about about needn't go bang or whoosh. So, in the interest of keeping you happy until you can make something go bang or whoosh, here's an introduction to the wonderful world of brewing: Mead Making 101.

Yes, mead; that wonderful honey-based elixir which stereotypical Viking barbarians quaff by the hornfull. Now you too can share in the pleasure of an after-raid Viking revel without risking getting spitted by an irate peasant's pitchfork.

Okay, just a little more seriously...

When I first seriously considered learning how to make my own beer and wine, I was completely isolated from knowledgeable brewers. As a result, I turned to my usual source of instant information: books.

Oddly enough, for once this proved to be a mistake. I'd heard that brewing was simple; these books claimed otherwise. I wanted a simple process which I could learn and advance from. Instead, I got a discourse on single and multi-row grains, the chemistry of various malting and mashing processes, the acidity of hops, the biology of yeast, and lists of recommended chemical additives.

Additives?

Bleah. This was one reason I wanted to make my own. With certain exceptions, chemical, non-spice additives are not the intoxicant indulger's friend. We don' need no steenkin' additives. In short, the books I happened to stumble upon told me that there was no way I was going to learn the art of fermenting beverages on my own. So I gave up for several years. C'est la guerre.

Fortunately, I wasn't completely daunted, and I eventually looked into brewing again. I was still on my own; but this time I was equipped with the crackpot experimenter's knowledge that I could at least fake my way through anything. So I tried, and discovered that brewing really isn't all that tough, at least at the entry level.

But those first books, and regrettably several brewers and vintners I have met over the years, seemed determined to scare off newcomers--to maintain some air of mystery and mastery. That sort of attitude tends to piss me off, so I like to make a point of showing people how easy it is to get started. I don't stress obscure terminology, fancy equipment, or exotic ingredients. I subscribe to the KISS principle. If I can show someone how simple it is to get started, just maybe he'll stick with it, develop a strong interest, and advance.

Besides, the world can always use more booze.

A typical set of starter instructions for quick mead follows. This isn't a fancy beverage; and it doesn't take long to make, as opposed to the more traditional long meads which may not be ready for decanting for a year or more. If you're at all like me (god save you), you don't want to wait a year before sampling your first wares.

Tom's Miracle Mead:

Mead can start as nothing more than diluted honey, with yeast added. But it's easy enough to enhance its flavor with commonly available items; I always try a little something. But if you want to keep your first attempt as simple as possible, consider the starred items below optional. You'll still enjoy the end result.

Here's what you will need:

Equipment:

Ingredients:

Any live brewers yeast will suffice for this. Find a brewer's supply house, use the sediment from a homebrew, or borrow some from another brewer. If you're really desperate, try ordinary baker's yeast. Brewing snobs hate the thought, but it's like using fertilizer grade ammonium nitrate in an ANFO mix instead of some more expensive explosives grade nitrate; it works.

First, get that gallon of water onto the stove in the enamel pot. You want to bring it to a boil.

While you're waiting for the water to boil, get your yeast ready--dissolve about half a teaspoon of honey into half a cup of lukewarm water. Add the yeast, and cover the container. Don't stir; just pour it into the warm water, and let it sit.

Next, skin the yellow outer layer of the washed lemons off (this part is called the zest), and add it to the boiling (or soon to be) water. Squeeze the juice from the lemons into the water as well. Then toss in your cinnamon. Some folks prefer stick cinnamon to the powder for a variety of reasons, one being that it's easier to leave the sediment behind later in the process. If you opt for sticks, I promise not to be offended; I happened to have ground cinnamon available when first I tried this.

Anyway, boil this for 20 minutes, then stir in the honey, dissolving well. Let it come back to a boil, then turn off the heat. Cover the pot, and let the 'must' (the fancy word for unfermented mead or wine) steep, cooling to room temperature. Once cool (at least below 80 degrees F), add the yeast-water-honey mixture.

In the most basic system, you can let your must ferment in the same pot you mixed in it. Or you could transfer it to some other container. White, food-grade, plastic buckets are popular, as are 2 and 3 liter soda bottles. If you use the pot or a bucket, cover it with plastic wrap to seal out air. If you use bottles, you can stretch small balloons over the bottle mouths.

You should see some sign of the fermentation after several hours (gas build-up inflating the cover or balloon), but it could take a day or two to be obvious; be patient, the yeast will start converting the sugar in the honey into alcohol. The fermenting must yields carbon dioxide gas, and the pressure buildup can cause the plastic wrap or balloon to pop off if some pressure cannot escape. You may have to prick a small pinhole in the cover.

The time needed to ferment the must is dependent upon several variables: temperature, type of yeast, and amount of sugar all have an effect. If fermentation seems to stop (the balloon or plastic deflates) after only a few days, slosh or stir the must a bit. This may restart fermentation. Most likely, fermentation will be complete after a week or so, but I've seen it take as long as 14 days. When the cover deflates, and stays deflated, it is time to bottle your mead.

Bottling is easy enough--you just siphon the mead from the fermentation container into bottles, being careful not to disturb or suck up the sediment at the bottom of the pot. If you fermented the mead in bottles to begin with, you still need to siphon it into fresh containers. You want to leave behind the sediment you'll see at the bottom of the fermentation container. This process is called racking. Fill the bottles up to about 1 inch from the bottom of the bottle neck, then cap tightly. Store the bottles in a cool, dark place for two to four weeks, depending on your patience. You'll then have a nice, light, slightly sweet mead. I find it suitable for just about any occasion that would also suit beer or a white wine.

For those who feel a Spooner article with no bang misses the mark...

The bottled mead will self-carbonate (it gets fizzy, right?) through a slow residual fermentation process due to yeast spores left in suspension in the racked brew. This is a good thing, but... If you've bottled too soon (which shouldn't be the case if you've followed these instructions more or less), there can be enough carbonation to cause bottles to explode. This is a definite hazard with glass bottles; I've never seen it happen with plastic bottles. Either way, I wouldn't store them in a clothes closet, or other area you really don't want to be cleaning of sticky fermented honey.

There is one very important factor to observe throughout the entire brewing process: SANITATION. Brewing and vinting is based on near-supersaturated sugar solutions. These solutions are perfect media for breeding bacterial cultures. Contamination is a bad thing. If you're silly enough to consume a batch of illicit brew that's been contaminated, you can get sick. And you probably won't like the taste of the ruined beverage either. So everything must be kept clean. Wash everything carefully before starting: the pot, fermentation containers, siphon tube, and bottles; anything that contacts the mead. Even the plastic wrap or balloons. Silly? Maybe; but at the price of honey, do you want to waste it because you couldn't be bothered to wash a toy balloon?

After washing, sterilize all the items. A teaspoon of ordinary bleach to a gallon of water works wonders. After sterilization, rinse everything carefully, and store in a clean place till each item is called for. Sterilization should be done just prior to the item's use.

But despite your best efforts, if you stick to brewing and vinting, eventually you will get a contaminated batch. Excrement occurs. To all of us. Things to watch for are mold at the top of the beverage in the bottle, cloudy 'veils' floating in the bottles, or a rotten smell when opened. If you have doubts, assume contamination and dispose of it.

So you see--nothing mysterious, secretive, or difficult. Getting started is a breeze. As you gain experience, you can invest in the gadgetry that will allow you more control over the process. But it isn't necessary. Other flavorings than lemon and cinnamon are possible; I'm fond of ginger. Some people use peppermint, but I think that overpowers the mead itself. So, all together now...
Be creative. :^)

Now thenů

Congratulations; you've made a quick mead, and likely already consumed it (I would). What's next? Maybe more quick mead; nothing wrong with that.

But maybe you're ready to move up to the next level. Or half level anyway, as I still intend to keep this simple: Traditional (or 'long') mead.

Ginger Mead

The basic equipment required is the same as for quick mead, except you'll want 3-4 of those 2 liter bottles; the volume of mead is going to be greater. Also, you'll need a second large pot or bucket for fermentation; you'll see why in a moment.

Ingredients:

For this recipe I recommend against improvising with baker's yeast--the time invested and money spent on honey make it worth spending the very little extra for a good yeast.

Start by putting your water on to boil. While it's coming up to temperature, peel the brown skin off of your ginger root (which can be purchased in most supermarket produce sections), and grate the root with a standard kitchen grater. Put the grated ginger into the water, and boil for 30 minutes. Some people prefer to put the ginger in a boiling bag of cheese cloth to make it easier to remove later; if you do this, make sure the ginger is loose in the bag.

Now that your home is pleasantly ginger-scented (hey, I like it), stir your honey into the water, dissolving it thoroughly as before. But this time, let the mixture boil gently for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Then add the lemon juice, and boil 10 more minutes. Remove from the heat, and allow to cool to room temperature (70-78 degrees F). Keep covered.

When the must is sufficiently cooled, hydrate and pitch the yeast as in the above quick mead, leaving the ginger in the must. And again, seal the fermentation container against air (don't forget the tiny hole to allow carbon dioxide to escape. Allow the must to ferment until the protective cover collapses (just like the quick mead, once again).

Now the process changes. Instead of racking the fermented mead into bottles, transfer it into another pot, bucket, or bottles if that's what you have. Leave behind all possible sediment, including the ginger root. You're now beginning what's generally called secondary fermentation. Yep, you're now going to participate in an exercise in patience: Let the mead ferment again.

Fermentation is going to be slow, possibly not noticeable at all. Your cue that secondary fermentation is finished is when the mead has cleared and the rest of the sediment has settled to the bottom of the container. Now you have a choice, based on your degree of patience. You can now rack and bottle the mead, and allow it to age for 6 to 12 months. Or...

You can rack the mead into a new, clean fermentation tank and give it a chance to clarify more yet. Then when the mead is clear enough to suit you, rack and bottle. Age 6-12 months.

This mead should be rather sweeter than the quick mead, and much less carbonated. If you racked and settled for the third time, there may be no carbonation evident at all. It will have a smoother taste, and will be decidedly more alcoholic. Enjoy.

Purists who've been reading this are probably outraged at the simplifications I've made. If you choose to pursue this hobby, you'll discover specialized sterilizing mixtures, yeast nutrients, hydrometers, thermometers, wort/must chillers, glass carboys, fermentation locks, bottle cappers, citric acid, Irish moss, pH testing and adjustment, and much, much more... None of which are absolutely necessary. But they do allow you more control over the process and can improve your product immensely.

But until, and unless, you're ready to try such things, be assured that you can produce a very satisfactory brew with a KISS. Just... Be creative. :^)

(c) 2000

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