As an avid home-brewer, I constantly push the boundaries of my recipes and techniques. After having brewed several batches of beer, I began to delve further into the holy trinity of fermented beverages: beer, mead and wine. Since I enjoy beer and mead more than I do wine, mead seemed the natural next step.
Mead is known by many names, but at its core, it is simply fermented honey water. My interest in mead-making also stems from my fascination with the day-to-day elements of ancient Scandinavian culture (mead is mentioned often in Viking sagas and mythology) coupled with a desire to be more self-sufficient.
1. Getting started: Look for local, raw, unpasteurized honey. There are myriad reasons for this, but to put it simply, it will make for better mead. You’ll also want to procure some good, clean water. Spring, distilled or even filtered tap water will work. If the water you use tastes good, then it will be good for mead. You will need to decide what type of mead you want before determining the honey-to-water ratio. For a sweet or semisweet mead, use about 1 gallon of water to every 2 to 3 pounds of honey. Use less honey or add more water if you crave a dry mead.
Steps To Amazing Mead
Step 1: Sanitize equipment: When brewing mead, make sure all of your equipment is well cleaned, but don’t fret too much over sanitation. If you filtered tap water will work. If the water you use tastes good, it will be good for mead. Next, decide what type of mead you want before determining the honey-to-water ratio. For a sweet or semi-sweet mead, use about one gallon of water to 2-3 pounds of honey. Use less honey or add more water if you want a dry mead.
Make sure all of your equipment is wll cleaned, but don’t fret too much over sanitation. If you sanitize, use food-grade sanitizers (such as Star San or Iodophor), or just pour warm water mixed with a little bleach over your equipment and rinse thoroughly.
2. DISSOLVE HONEY: First, heat enough water in a clean, sanitized pot to dissolve your honey. If you feel the need to boil your water, give it time to cool down. Modern recipes often call for pasteurizing the must (unfermented mead) and skimming off any scum. This also removes a lot of the nutrients in the honey and kills off any wild yeast, the reasons many mead-makers consider boiling the must a sin. While the water is heating, warm your jars of honey in a separate pot of hot water to make it easier to pour out the honey.
Before adding the honey, take the pot off the stove and allow the water to cool down to 100 degrees or less to avoid scorching your honey and killing wild yeast. Once you have poured as much honey as you can into the water, add some warm water to the honey jars and stir or shake them to ensure you get all of the honey out.
Stir the must until the honey is fully dissolved in the water. You can use a clean stainless steel, plastic or wooden spoon, but keep in mind that this is another potential method for adding wild yeast. Ancient cultures, in particular the Vikings, passed down totem (or magic) sticks through generations. These acquired new yeast strains with each use, enriching the flavor of subsequent batches. I like to use the wooden stir-stick my dad used to make many batches of wine.
3. INITIATE FERMENTATION: The main difference between the brewing techniques used by most modern brewers and those used in the past is the method for introducing yeast, a vital component of the fermentation process. For homesteaders, learning how to brew using the millennia-old technique of allowing wild yeast to enter from the air and instigate the brewing process is an important skill to have. It’s perfectly acceptable to add yeast to instigate fermentation, but our goal here is to emulate the ancients and call upon the gods to bless our mead. Pour the must into a fermentation vessel. Practically any vessel that is food grade will do, but avoid metal. Fermentation has the potential to corrode and draw in toxins from the metal, which can ruin the flavor or even cause mild poisoning. For traditional modern brewing, carboys and plastic airlocks are commonly used to eliminate direct contact with outside air. But in wild brewing we want to let in lots of air, which carries wild yeast, during the initial fermentation stage. To keep out ants, fruit flies and other unwanted guests, I recommend covering the vessel with cheesecloth. A small container of cornmeal with a bit of honey or must can also be placed nearby to distract and kill ants.
4. AERATE AND STIR: Place the vessel in a warm, dark room (ideally 60 to 80 degrees). Make sure the room isn’t drafty and that the mead is placed near a heat source or wrapped in a blanket, and stir it several times a day. Regular stirring aerates the must, allowing the yeast to propagate. In about three to four days, sometimes up to a week, the must will have col- lected enough wild yeast from the air and will begin to bubble and fizz when you stir it.
Congratulations, you’ve made mead! Since you no longer need to bring in yeast from the outside, place a non- metal lid over the cheesecloth loosely enough to allow CO2 gasses to escape, but not enough to allow outside air to enter. Stir occasionally until the fizzing is minimal and the residual yeast (lees) has settled on the bottom of the vessel.
5. STORE IN A CARBOY: Now that active fermentation is complete, it’s time to cut off all contact with outside air. Rack (transfer) your mead into a secondary container if you wish to separate it from the lees and flavoring ingredients—opinions vary on whether or not this is necessary. I usually rack at least once to filter out any fruit, spices or other ingredients. (Leaving these ingredients in for a while can make for a more complex flavor.)
Then place a heavy towel or plastic wrap under the lid of your open container, or siphon the mead into a carboy with an airlock. If, like me, you use a vessel with a spigot, take samples to gauge how the flavor changes. If you’ve sampled it and like the flavor, drink some of it immediately. Be sure to save enough for a few bottles, as it will improve with age.
6. BOTTLE IT: Due to the lack of air-tight vessels, most meads in ancient days were drunk young. However, giv- ing your mead six months to several years in a bottle will allow the good flavors to come to the forefront and the off flavors to dissipate. Before bottling, leave your mead for at least a month in its covered fermentation vessel to minimize the chance of bottles bursting or corks popping due to carbonation.
If you haven’t been saving bottles, ask friends to save wine bottles or visit the recycling bins of restaurants that serve wine. You can also buy bottles from home-brew supply stores and websites. A 2- to 3-gallon batch will yield 10 to 15 bottles. Fill bottles to 2 inches below the opening, which is usually about where the neck begins.
You will need bottle corks and a corker. Corkers come in a variety of sizes and price ranges. Floor corkers are more stable and less cumbersome than economy corkers, but are also more expensive. For my double-lever hand corker, I need to be firm and quick when inserting the cork.
Once you’ve corked your bottles, lay them on their sides in a cool, dark location. Like wine, this will result in more even aging and will keep the cork moist. Most meads will be flavorful within six months to a year but, like wine, mead improves with age.
Now Storm The Castle!
This recipe is just a starting point; you can try as many variations as you dare—adding plums, raisins, oranges or other fruit along with herbs, spices or other ingredients, depending on how adventurous you feel. If you buy organic or use produce from your garden or orchard, and don’t wash the fruit, you will introduce additional wild yeast, which can speed up the fermentation process. You can also add bread or wine yeast at the onset, and feed it with yeast nutrients purchased from a home-brew supply store, but I really recommend patience and regular stirring.
It’s always a treat when you stir what was previously honey water and find that it is suddenly bubbling happily.
3 Great Mead Reads
✺ Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz
✺ Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation by Stephen Harrod Buhner
✺ The Compleat Meadmaker by Ken Schramm
• Bierhaus International, 888-273-9386
• E.C. Kraus, 800-841-7404 eckraus.com/offers/np.asp
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