On the one hand, fermentation is fermentation. There’s no magic in it. Take a sugary liquid, add yeast, and voilà, an alcoholic beverage. Grain, grapes, honey, rice—whatever the source, the principle is more or less the same.
On the other hand, though, undeniable distinctions and subtleties make each beverage unique. Brewers already have an intuitive sense of how to ferment basically anything. What we lack is that key information about how to ferment it well.
What follows is a rundown of what you, as a brewer, already know about meadmaking, what you know but probably don’t need to know, and, finally, what you probably should pay more attention to. Homemade mead is something you’ll probably enjoy for all the same reasons you enjoy homebrewed beer. The good news is that you’re already most of the way to making it—and making it well.
First, let me put in a plug for The Compleat Meadmaker by my friend, Ken Schramm. Ken is the owner and head meadmaker at Schramm’s Mead in Ferndale, Michigan. If you haven’t tasted his meads, you’re missing some of the best drinking in the world. For more (“compleat,” you might say) information, grab a copy of his book. Here, I’ll just cover the basics.
Mead is made from water-diluted honey. Honey, as you probably know, comes in a range of varieties. These are akin to wine grapes: Each contributes subtle (or robust) flavors. The more honey you use, the higher your potential ABV, and meads can range from mid-single digits all the way up to the high teens.
Because honey is a bit nutrient-barren, you’ll need to add yeast nutrient so the yeast can properly ferment your honey into mead—yeast cannot live on sugar alone. Then (obviously) you’ll need yeast, and the commercial yeast providers offer strains engineered to produce quality mead—or you can even select a beer or wine strain.
After fermentation, you have some work to do: Most meads lack the balancing bitterness of hops or other ingredients or flavors that could provide a similar service. So, a common post-fermentation step is to adjust the flavor by adding acidity and/or tannins to prevent a cloying sweetness.
Finally, just as with beer, you can package mead in bottles or kegs (or cans, if you’re fancy) for conditioning. Carbonation—a little to a lot—is also an option, as meads can be either still, sparkling, or pétillant (a mildly effervescent “middle ground” between carbonated and still).
See what I mean about fermentation being fermentation? This seems simple enough (and truly, it doesn’t have to be complicated). You’ve got this! In fact, there are plenty of headaches in brewing that simply don’t factor much into modern meadmaking.
Don’t Sweat It
Several steps and considerations regarded as essential to beer are either absent or minimal in mead.
First, although we’re using water, don’t be too concerned about water chemistry. Adam Crockett, owner and head meadmaker of the award-winning Haymaker Meadery in Pennsylvania, notes that unless you’re working with the hardest well water on Earth and/or have water with strong flavors (soil, chemicals), the character of your water just doesn’t factor into the finished product. For one thing, water makes up a much smaller percentage of mead than it does in beer. For another, the beery interactions between salts/ions in water and ingredients (hops, yeast) aren’t really happening in mead.
Then there’s the “production” process: Don’t sweat it, at least not in the traditional “beer” sense. In Michigan, Schramm says, “Beer is very technique-specific: hitting grist-to-water ratios, mash temps, strike temps, boil duration, and hop additions, etcetera.” By comparison, he says, mead is “very much about the far-front-end of the process”—and we’ll get to that shortly. It’s less about the process itself.
Likewise, even concepts such as “recipe” matter less—Crockett notes that with all of the fermentation and post-fermentation adjustment and tweaking, flavor can be quite malleable, and a meadmaker can address significant off-flavors in a way that’s largely impossible for a brewer.
Finally: equipment. The newest noob in beer brewing already has all the equipment needed to produce outstanding mead. If you have a bucket, a spoon, a racking cane, an airlock, and bottles, you’re good to go. Meadmaking is many things, but equipment-intensive it is not.
So far, so good!
What You Already Know
There are the things you don’t need to know, and then there are the things that are still vitally important … but that you already know because of your experience in brewing.
Crockett from Haymaker hits a note that will sound perfectly familiar to any brewer: “Sanitize everything.” In brewing, we’re mostly concerned about cold-side sanitation, since the boil will rectify any hot-side messiness on our part. Dip your dog into your beer while coughing into the mash tun, and so long as it doesn’t have a flavor impact (and you don’t tell anyone), who cares? But mead is basically all cold side. To the extent that you’re heating your must (the honey-water pre-fermentation equivalent of wort), it’s only to loosen up the honey, to get every last bit out of the jars/buckets, or possibly to do some relatively low-temperature pasteurization—and many recommend against even that. Heating the must, in the opinion of many meadmakers, drives off desirable flavors. Risk from the lack of heat-sanitizing processes can be mediated by using a chemical sanitizer such as potassium metabisulfite, but sanitation is still essential. The old saw that “of the top 10 things that can wrong in your beer, 11 have to do with sanitation” still applies to mead.
Another area of common ground is ingredient quality. Think about honey the way you think about grain: quality in, quality out. Get yourself the very best honey and additional ingredients (fruits, hops, spices) that you can. As Schramm says, “Mead is very much about far-front-end of the process: finding and using the finest ingredients you can find and then getting the hell out of the way.” This is no time to grab honey off the convenience-store shelf or to make a mead by pilfering two or three honey packets from each coffee-shop visit until you have enough for a short batch. (Note: the author disavows any knowledge of any meadmaker who may have tried this petty-crime approach to ingredient sourcing.) Know where your honey comes from. For new meadmakers, be sure to investigate the reputation and quality of honey producers; taking advice from more-experienced practitioners is a great idea here.
Last, Michael Fairbrother of the pioneering Moonlight Meadery in Londonderry, New Hampshire, tells us that, just as in brewing, a solid piece of advice is to “manage your fermentation temps.” Winemakers often play fast and loose with fermentation temperatures, but mead can be sensitive to flavors produced by yeast. Holding at a consistent and appropriate temperature will help keep the yeast “happy.”
It’s time to break the bad news: There are parts of this process that are going to be different, bordering on utterly alien. They’re manageable, but you need to know about them, lest you end up with a half-breed mead (note to self: “Half-Breed Mead” is a killer name for a braggot) that suffers from your brewer’s instincts and practices.
First, as Haymaker’s Crockett mentions, mead can be more yeast-intensive than beer. While not an absolute requirement (you could follow a standard beer-pitch rate and probably be okay), there are at least two reasons to consider aiming high on pitching rate. First, meads are often working with a much higher original gravity than beer, pushing into the mid-high teens of potential ABV percentage. The second reason is that honey, as previously noted (and as we’ll jump into next), is nutrient-deficient. While we’re adding some of that manually, the margin for error is smaller, so avoiding any potential causes of yeast stress (such as under-pitching) will also reduce the risk of off-flavors from fermentation. For that reason, more yeast (and, for that matter, more oxygen at pitching) is a good idea.
In addition to yeast, you’ll need to add nutrients to mead. Honey is deficient in a key element—nitrogen—that makes fermentation possible. This is one reason that honey is essentially immune from spoilage: You can’t spoil what you can’t ferment. As brewers, we care a bit about yeast nutrients, but we have a cheat: malted barley. As Fairbrother notes, “Malt has a healthy supply of YAN [yeast-assimilable nitrogen]—honey doesn’t. So, if [you’re] making a traditional mead, you will need another source.” Moonlight (and many home meadmakers) use a product called Fermaid O. It adds organic nitrogen that allows yeast to metabolize honey’s complex sugars into alcohol. Many introductory guides (including Schramm’s The Compleat Meadmaker) suggest adding yeast nutrients at the time the must is produced, just prior to pitching yeast, and in addition it has become standard practice to add nutrient throughout fermentation. These staggered nutrient additions prevent the presence of nutrient “scraps,” which could enable undesirable organisms to contaminate your mead. Instead, meadmakers recommend adding just enough nutrient to, as Fairbrother says, “keep the yeast happy.”
One other infrequent-in-brewing but par-for-the-course-in-mead practice is post-fermentation acid, sweetness, and tannin adjustment. This fine-tuning process is a fantastic feature of meadmaking, and it allows even a novice to dial in the exact flavor profile desired. Many of these adjustments can be done to taste (add a bit of tartaric acid, taste, add a bit more, taste, etc.), though resources abound for specific tests, ingredients, and measurements to guide you. You can even restore sweetness to a mead by dosing it with potassium sorbate (to prevent further fermentation) and then adding honey or other sugars. Sure, as brewers we might occasionally dry hop or toss in some oak, but post-fermentation adjustment is the norm in meads.
Ultimately, the differences boil down to these: overprepare your yeast with plenty of company and support, provide them with the nutrients they need, and take advantage of the flavor-adjustment tools available to you to bring your mead to the exact flavor profile and expression you want.
Now You’re a Meadmaker
Meadmaking isn’t brewing. As Fairbrother says, “it’s the smallest of things that make the biggest differences: Manage your fermentation temps, keep the yeast happy, and plan for a much longer time needed to ferment.” Most of the differences, though, are a matter of degree or intensity than of kind, and you already know most of what you need to know, and you already have most of the equipment you need to produce high-quality meads. All you need is the ingredients.
And make no mistake: Mead is delicious, and it’s a great way to introduce your wine-drinking friends to the wider world of fermented drinks. This isn’t just for them, though: The greater utility with honey that you’ll derive from meadmaking will make you a better brewer. Not only are there styles devoted to honey-grain hybrids (such as braggot), but honey is a fantastic adjunct sugar that you can and should be using as an ingredient in your beers.
So, start simple, learn the “new” basics, and a whole new world will open up to you. Melomels (fruit meads), metheglins (spiced/hopped meads), pyments (grape-honey hybrids), and all manner of combinations and honey varieties will challenge your palate and skills. You already know how to produce a fermentable liquid. You’re already a meadmaker—all you’re missing is the mead.
Go grab some honey and some yeast nutrients and fix that.
PHOTO: MATT GRAVES/WWW.MGRAVESPHOTO.COM