How To Make Mead
Learning how to make mead really is one of those things that takes minutes to learn but a lifetime to master.
We could write pages upon pages on all of the things there is to know about making mead but for now we'll share the basics and some of the most important tips we've picked up over the years that can mean the difference between your friends and family nodding politely or begging for more!
Water + Yeast + Sugar = Alcohol
Yeast is what makes the magic happen, it is a living organism that turns sugar into alcohol. When making mead the sugar that the yeast consumes comes from the honey you add when creating the initial mixture (the must).
An important point to remember is that increasing the amount of yeast will have no effect on the potency of your mead, but increasing the sugar will! (Up to a point, see "Alcohol Tolerance" below for more information)
Not All Yeasts Are Created Equal
There are a huge variety of yeasts out there that all do the same basic job, turning sugar into alcohol, but there are a lot of factors that can significantly change the way your mead tastes.
Types of Yeast
There are many, many different types of yeast available from beer and wine to mead and champagne, that vary wildly in the flavors they impart and how strong your mead will turn out.
Mead yeasts aren't necessarily always the best choice, though they do tend to accentuate the flavors of the honey, so make sure to do your research before choosing a yeast for your batch.
Yup, some yeasts are just better at handling their alcohol. Many beer and ale variety's of yeast have a fairly low alcohol tolerance of around 5-6% above which (theoretically) they die out. Other's like champagne yeasts have tolerances of 15%+. Being aware of your yeasts tolerance is important but it's not a hard and fast rule, if you have a nice healthy fermentation yeast strains will often exceed their max ABV.
Different yeasts have different temperatures at which they are their healthiest. Some yeasts like Lalvin EC-1118 have a wide tolerance (50 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit) while others like Lalvin D-47 are much more selective about how warm they like it (59 to 69 degrees Fahrenheit)
When a yeast isn't operating in its optimal conditions it can become stressed, this can sometimes be a good thing though should be avoided unless you really know what you are doing. Certain yeasts like D-47 can give off some very unpleasant flavors when fermented above (or even at the higher end) of the temperature range.
Gimmie Some Sugar, Honey!
The second most important factor in making your mead is the honey you use. There are many different types of honey, called varietals. some of the most popular for mead making are clover (your standard lighter sweeter honey) buckwheat (richer, maltier flavor), and orange blossom (tastes like bananas).
Using a higher quality locally sourced honey not only helps to make better mead but you'll also be supporting local apiary's which are the main driver of honey bee conservation efforts.
Keep it Clean
Whether you are making mead, beer, or wine sanitization is always the first and most important step. Sanitization is an additional step in cleaning that reduces the amount of microorganisms that could invade your mead. Without proper sanitization you can end up with problems like mold or bacteria.
Sanitizers can either be rinse or no rinse. No rinse sanitizers are easiest, because you don't have to rinse your equipment after using them. You just soak all of your equipment for a few minutes, and then go to work.
Stirred, Not Boiled
Honey can be quite tough to mix with water. Some people recommend heating your honey to make it easier to mix, we recommend that you don’t. Heating your honey too much can destroy delicate flavors and drive off aromas. With enough vigorous shaking, you will eventually get it all mixed, and get a good workout at the same time.
You should also never boil your honey. Some boil their honey for fear of infection by wild yeast or bacteria. This is completely unnecessary as honey has natural antiseptic properties. Boiling honey only serves to destroy many of its delicate flavors.
Need More 'Nutes
While the basic food source of yeast is sugar, when making mead adding additional nutrients is even more important than with brewing beer or wine making. This is because honey is slightly acidic, making it harder for yeast to survive and thrive.
When you add yeast to your must, giving it the correct nutrients will allow the yeast to grow strong and healthy. Additives like Diammonium Phosphate (DAP), ammino acids, and vitamins and minerals are all recommended for a healthy fermentation and come in premade mixes like Fermaid-K. Honey is particularly low in nitrogen so it is recommended that you add a little extra DAP when using premade nutrient mixes.
Before adding any nutrients we always recommend doing your research as too much can ruin a batch. There are many excellent source online, describing when and how much nutrient should be added during the mead making process.
Pitch It, Backwards
The act of adding yeast to the must in order to begin fermentation is known as "pitching". It’s important to follow the rehydration instructions carefully on the yeast packet and adding the proper amount of go-ferm, or similar yeast energizer at time of rehydration can really help to give your yeast a strong and healthy start.
A little used technique that we love here at meadful is pitching your yeast backwards. To do this you rehydrate your yeast normally and allow your must to cool to the appropriate temperature but rather than adding the yeast to the must, you add about a cup of your must to your rehydrated yeast mixture. You then allow this to sit for about 5 minutes then repeat the process 2 more times before finally pitching the yeast mixture into your must. This allows your yeast to become acclimated to the ph, temperature and sugar level of your must before dumping it straight in. Using this method you will often see the first few bubbles start to appear before you even fully pitch your yeast.
Get Some Air
Shaking your mead also helps to introduce oxygen, a process known as aeration, that is much need during the first 72 hours (but only the first 72 hours) of fermentation.
Besides sugar, and nutrients yeast also needs oxygen to be healthy (quite the demanding little organisms they are.)
After initially shaking to stir and aerate your must, we recommend using a wine whip or similar tool (making sure to stir and splash your mead) every 12 hours for the first 3 days to make sure your yeast has plenty of oxygen to grow strong and healthy.
Some people sometimes argue that this step is unnecessary but we strongly disagree. If your yeasty beasties don't have enough oxygen they could become stressed and impart some weird flavors. As we said above this is okay if you know what you're doing but when first learning to make mead you should do everything in your power to create a healthy, clean fermentation.
Let Out Some Gas
Even more important than aerating your must is degassing. Degassing is the process of agitating your mead to help allow trapped CO2 to escape. Releasing the CO2 serves 2 purposes, first dissolved CO2 increases the acidity of your mead making the environment less hospitable for your hard working little yeast buddies. Second, thorough degassing after fermentation is complete will help the suspended yeast to drop much more quickly, saving quite a bit of time between rackings.
Through the process of aerating your must you will naturally degas it as you whip it up and splash it around but after the first 72 hours things become a little more complicated. You can use a tool like the wine whip mentioned above to stir your mead rapidly without splashing it (to avoid introducing oxygen) but the preferred method is vacuum degassing.
Vacuum degassing creates negative pressure in the empty space of your brewing vessel, allowing CO2 to escape quickly and without the hassle of the wine whip. You can use a tool like the Vacu Vin to do this by hand but the process can be slow and tedious. If you have the extra dough the best solution is a degassing pump like the one listed here which will help to quickly and thoroughly remove all trapped CO2 from your mead!
Once all of the yeast has fallen out, and the mead is clear you want to get it off of the white sludge on the bottom known as the "lees" to do this you have two options.
You can rack it into another clean carboy and allow it to sit, known as bulk aging, or you can bottle it and allow the mead to age in the bottle. How long you will need to age your mead depends entirely on the recipe you used. Some mead's are drinkable in a few months, others really shine when left alone for a couple of years.
Our personal preference is bottle aging as it minimizes the chance that something will go wrong during the aging process. Temperature is also another important factor, blind taste test have shown that mead properly stored and aged in a wine fridge typically tasted much better than that left at room temperature.
Have More Questions?
Have more questions about making mead? Leave us a question below and we'll share what we know!