Mead can be dry or sweet, still or carbonated, sessionable or port strength, pale yellow or black, or anything in between. And then there are spices, hops, fruit, and anything else you can think of to add. What makes mead awesome is that you can use local ingredients, and the variety you get from honey, water, and yeast is amazing. The same recipe can make a totally different mead with just a different honey.
If you can make beer, you can make mead. Your knowledge of good beer-making techniques is still important (some are a little more important for mead), and there are a few more things you should know. But you already have the big ideas down. The best way to make a good mead? Good honey, good process, and patience.
We’ll look at the honey in this first part of the series and cover the process and fermentation and bottling (the patience part) in upcoming articles.
Better honey makes better mead. Period. Better mead honey is generally less processed honey. It might contain bits of wax, propolis (the resinous mixture that honey bees collect and use to seal unwanted spaces in the hive), and bee parts. Good honey is usually pricier, but your mead is worth it. In most areas, you can find good local honey—usually alfalfa, clover, or wildflower. You might also be able to find some local monoculture honey varieties. Mesquite, buckwheat, and orange blossom are a few of my favorites.
Different honeys have vastly different flavors. As a result, some honey is better for certain applications. Tasting varietal honeys—and meads made with them—is the best way to learn about the influence the honey varietal has on the final product. Of course, tasting the raw honey, just like tasting the grain before you brew, will give you some insight.
Some of the art of making mead is in pairing the honey with the other ingredients. Here are some combos I’ve liked:
- A wee heavy braggot (a form of mead made with both honey and barley malt) with mesquite and buckwheat honey
- Orange-blossom honey with acidic fruits or with hops
- Alfalfa-blossom honey with ginger
- Meadowfoam honey with French oak
- Pretty much any honey with Montmorency cherries
Experimenting with different honeys is the easiest way to figure out what you like.
Not only do different honeys have different flavors, but they also have different sugar and water percentages depending on the flowers available to the bees. Even from the same source, each batch of honey will be slightly different—from earlier harvesting, from more or less rainfall in the area, or from a different flower blend.
As I mention above, different honeys have different sugar percentages. The amount of sugar in the honey makes a difference because a 5 percent difference in sugar content is a 5 percent difference in the starting gravity. That’s enough of a difference to make your dry mead a semisweet mead, or vice versa.
One technique for working with this variation is to make half of your recipe, check the gravity, and then adjust your volume or honey to hit your target.
For example, let’s say your goal is a gravity of 1.100 (dry mead), and you start with half the calculated amount of honey and water. If your gravity is 1.120, that’s 20 percent too high. So you need to either use all the honey and adjust the total volume up 20 percent or reduce the amount of honey to make the blend 1.100. That means the second half of the mix should be 1.080, and you would use two-thirds of the remaining honey. Of course, being 20 percent off is unusually high; a difference of 5 percent is more common. There are blending calculators to help with this if you’d prefer not to do the math. You can find a decent one at gotmead.com.
That’s about all you need to know about honey—the primary ingredient in mead. In Part 2 of the series, we’ll look at the process of making mead, and in Part 3 of the series, we’ll cover fermentation, aging, bottling, and potential problems you could encounter in your early mead-making adventures.