A Guide To Mead
Mead is an alcoholic beverage produced by the fermentation of a diluted mixture of honey and water. Sometimes with fruit and spices added as flavorings, it is called by different names, melomel, metheglin, pyment, cyser and a variety of other names.
It is typically clear with a slight gold tint, with an alcohol content of between 7-22%. By varying the proportions of honey and water and the point at which fermentation is stopped, a wide variety of types can be produced ranging from a very dry and light mead similar to more traditional white grape wines, to sweet and heavy-bodied desert wine. If fermentation is left to continue while bottled a sparkling mead resembling a sparkling white wine is produced.
Until the late middle ages, both mead and sparkling mead were highly popular beverages, especially in northern regions of Europe, where wine grapes could not easily be grown. It was produced by organized industry during the 15th-century, controlled as with other trades by guilds. The largest guild of brewers during the time was the Guild of Free Brewers in London, who at the time controlled all aspects of brewing wine, mead, and ale. Not only did they control the manufacture of these products but the distribution and laws governing the measurement when dispensed. The guilds controlled all aspects of the trade and production of ale, mead and only toward the end of the 16th-century wines. As the importance of honey was displaced by less expensive sugars in the late Middle Ages, mead was gradually displaced by less costly beers and ales and to a lesser degree by imported wines. Mead then became a drink of the socially lower classes. Nonetheless, it was always considered for medicinal value and was prescribed to even royalty.
A period recipe unfolded
A recipe for Metheglin, a spiced mead, comes from the Closet of Sir Kenholme Digby (see bibliography )
'Take of spring water what quantity you please, and make it more than blood-warm, and dissolve honey in it till 'tis strong enough to bear an egg, the breadth of a shilling; then boil it gently near an hour, taking off the scum as it rises; then put to about nine or ten gallons, seven or eight large blades of mace, three nutmegs quartered, twenty cloves, three or four sticks of cinnamon, two or three roots of ginger, and a quarter of an ounce of Jamaica pepper; put these spices into the kettle to the honey and water, a whole lemon, with a sprig of sweet- briar and a sprig of rosemary; tie the briar and rosemary together, and when they have boiled a little while take them out and throw them away; but let your liquor stand on the spice in a clean earthen pot till the next day; then strain it into a vessel that is fit for it; put the spice in a bag, and hang it in the vessel, stop it, and at three months draw it into bottles. Be sure that 'tis fine when 'tis bottled; after 'tis bottled six weeks 'tis fit to drink.'
There does not appear to be a measurement of the quantity of honey and water used other than to suggest to the reader that they use what quantity they please. We will use nine to ten gallons total for our purposes. To determine the amount of water and honey that was used in measurements other than approximations, an amount of water (6 gallons) was mixed together with honey in 6lb increments (1/2 gallon) until a small egg floated to the surface revealing about an inch of the eggs surface. Additional water was added to balance if excess honey was added. So, by doing this we determined that the necessary water to honey mixture is 6.25 gallons of water to 36 lbs of honey or a total of 9.25 gallons or 5.76 lbs of honey per gallon of water. This would make quite a sweet mead or if a yeast was strong enough it would be a very high alcohol mead.
The spices used in the recipe were common of the time and are all available today with the possible exception of 'Sweet Briar', which may be a reference to 'rosa eglanteria' - the eglantine rose, whose young leaves smell strongly of green apples. If you can't find them you could get the same flavor profile from Russet or Granny Smith Apple peelings.
7 blades of mace (or 4 tsp mace)
3 whole nutmeg quartered (or 2.5 tsp ground nutmeg)
3 sticks of cinnamon (or 2.5 tsp ground cinnamon)
2 medium ginger roots (2 tsp ground ginger)
1/4 oz of black peppercorns
sprig of Rosemary
sprig of briar
1 lemon quartered.
Experimentation has found that the amounts of ground spices indicated will equal the amount of the whole spices if you are unable to obtain any of the whole ingredients. With the measure of nine to ten gallons, we can adjust the amounts of needed spices to our recipe below in order to make a 5-gallon batch. For this example use half of the spice ingredients and half of a large lemon. Take 3.5 gallons of water and add 23 lbs of honey into a large pot. This honey/water mixture will have a resulting specific gravity of approximately 1.09 degrees or 21.5 brix. This is sufficient to bear the smallest chickens egg available today. The egg in the recipe was the "...breadth of a shilling..." a shilling was approximately 1" in diameter so an attempt to find an appropriately sized egg resulted in the smallest chickens egg about 1.25" in diameter. Further experimentation resulted in the egg floating to only reveal about an inch of it's surface.
Add the spices to a muslin or cheesecloth bag and tie it closed. Tie the sprig of rosemary and the briar together and add it also. Bring the liquid to a low simmer (160F) (boiling honey will overflow your pot and make an absolute mess in your kitchen) and remove the scum that floats to the surface. An hour is probably excessive as most of the honey used today is pasteurized and filtered so only simmer/skim the must for 1/2 an hour. After it is done simmering remove the sprigs of briar and rosemary and allow the must to cool to room temperature (75 degrees) usually overnight. Squeeze the juice of the lemon into the must and add the lemon rind which should be removed the following day.
The recipe does not call for any additional yeast to be added and relies solely on the natural yeast that is present. Unfortunately, the temperature involved in simmering will kill the natural yeast and there are more bad yeast and other bacteria than good ones floating around so the possibility of infection is high. With commercial honey that has been pasteurized or filtered, there is also little to no natural yeast left. I would suggest using a good wine yeast starter as outlined in the section on yeast in this document. Add the yeast (see below) and put the must into a carboy, cover with several layers of cloth until rapid fermentation begins then place a cover and an air lock onto it and continue fermentation until it subsides.
The recipe calls for three months of fermentation and then it is to be bottled. I would suggest that the method for making mead below be followed from this point on as you will likely end up with a very tart mead (as I have on occasion with this recipe) if it is left on the dead yeast cells for three months.
We have looked at a sample period recipe and how it can be reproduced today with little effort and with the same ingredients used by Digby. Some of the notable points of interest discovered in reproducing this recipe were:
Honey - fresh natural honey has sufficient natural yeasts to ferment a low alcohol content mead but only if you do not heat it.
Boiling - I am not a big supporter of the boiling method as I think it removes many of the subtle qualities of the honey. You may boil if you desire.
Racking - none of the period recipes I have studied have mentioned racking the mead at intervals, other than bottling. I would suggest that you rack only once or twice during the primary fermentation and once or twice during secondary to help produce a clear mead. Racking has a tendency to remove not only the dead yeast but also a large percentage of the viable yeast cells that have settled to the bottom. Racking mead also has a common problem of slowing or halting fermentation.
Spices - there are virtually no spices/herbs that are unavailable today that were used in period recipes.
Aging - in the recipe we have looked at we find that the mead was 'drinkable' after only four to six weeks from bottling. I would recommend more time in bottles or barrels. While you may find that your mead is drinkable early on, I am sure you will also find that it is much better in a few years.
Temperature - Most period recipes for mead usually start by stating somewhere in the directions to make it in the Spring. The reason for this is probably to avoid really cold weather which would undoubtedly cease the fermentation process and make it virtually impossible to restart. Remember the higher your fermentation temperature the faster it will ferment, but also, the higher the production of fusels and other unwanted esters which are all undesired.
Sterilization: THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING!
The Main Ingredients: Honey, Water, Nutrients, Yeast, Tannin, Spices and Time
The main ingredient of any mead is honey. Imagine what it takes to make a single pound of honey. Thousands of bees must visit 2 million or more flowers. Both the flavor and the color of the honey depend on the kind and variety of the flower that the nectar comes from. Clover honey, for example, is light in color and mild, while honey from buckwheat is much darker and stronger too. Honey is rich in simple sugars; dextrose and levulose and contains more calories than ordinary sugar as well as sodium, iron and potassium.
It is probably man's oldest sweet food. In many early civilizations it was extolled as food for the gods, as a gift from the gods or as a giver of immortality. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and other ancient peoples used honey in making cakes and candies as well as beverages. It was also used to make salted meat more palatable, hence honey hams. Wherever there was a large orchard there was sure to be an apiary. It was very common for households to have a small orchard as well as a small apiary, or for locals to get together and contribute the honey that had been gathered over the summer to a brewer who would make mead for them.
There are several different types of honey that can be used for mead but the most common is a good clover honey. Clover honey gets its name from what the bee's make it out of. You can also acquire a raspberry, orange blossom or other varietal honey. You can use almost any honey in the making of mead. Strongly flavored honey (orange blossom, buckwheat, wildflower) generally work best for Metheglin while clover or berry blossom honey works well for fruit meads and will result in a very delicately flavored and light gold color, but very light honey (like alfalfa) are not very suitable as they give poor flavor and almost no color. I do use raspberry or other berry blossom honey when making mead with that particular flavor. If you plan to make a traditional mead (honey and water) then you should use a stronger flavored honey as this will be the single thing that will give your mead its character.
You can use tap water for brewing, but if your tap water tastes bad, is too hard or soft then you should use either filtered tap water or bottled water.
Yeast selection is probably one of the most important decisions you will make. There are several factors you should consider when selecting the yeast you will use.
Considerations include the resulting sensory profile, temperature ranges, and potential alcohol level. The yeast you choose will play an important factor in the strength, flavor, and type of mead that is produced. Select a yeast that has a higher tolerance to alcohol. Some of the best yeasts to use for mead are Maury and Vierke yeasts but more recently more commercial mead producers are using EC1118, K1V, D21 and other specific strains. While these are slow to ferment, they have the ability to produce 18% abv mead or higher. Any other wine yeast may be used if you are unable to find a yeast that is specifically for mead. I would suggest experimentation as your best friend here as each yeast will impart different subtle qualities to the mead and you may find one you love.
The initial aerobic fermentation, that is the initial uncovered fermentation is the primary period of yeast reproduction. It is during this initial reproduction cycle that you need to build up a large enough yeast colony to not only sustain the fermentation but to over power any other strains of yeast or bacteria that might be at work in your must.
During the initial build-up of yeast, you should allow your must to remain uncovered for at least 24 hours. The must should be agitated periodically to introduce additional oxygen into the solution. It is this oxygen that is an essential factor in the reproduction process.
Once sealing the fermenter with an airlock cuts off the oxygen supply, we force the yeast into a different type of fermentation called anaerobic fermentation.
Cutting off the supply of oxygen forces the yeast to use a secondary energy source to reproduce, that is the sugars in the must. This gives us a different type of fermentation the by-product of which is carbon dioxide and alcohol in almost equal quantities as this chemical equation shows-
C6 H12 O 6 = 2C2H5 OH + 2CO 2
One sugar molecule is changed into two alcohol and two carbon dioxide molecules.
There are such a wide variety of herbs and spices that when used, make splendid meads. I have included one recipe that is probably my favorite in the recipes section at the end of this document. There are so many different combinations that it would take a lifetime to come near to testing all them (I am trying, though). This is why it is critical to track each recipe that you use so that you can duplicate a batch if desired. In my brewing I have used the following spices; cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger, anise, nutmeg, cumin, and pepper. Of all of these, the best combinations I have found have been; cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger and nutmeg. For herbs, a sprig of fresh rosemary and sage add a nice aromatic bouquet to the mead. You can use any herb that you think would add something to your mead. You might try the following; cardamom, sage, oregano, basil, rosemary, dill, dandelion, rosehip and anise (seed or root).
Many fruits can be added to the must such as apple, peach, elderberry, blackberry and raspberry. When fruit is added to mead it is usually called something else; melomel, pyment and cyser to name a few and are specific to the fruit used.
Other variations of mead are listed as follows:
Cyser: Mead with apple juice added
Hippocras: Mead with grape juice and spices
Metheglin: Mead with cloves, cinnamon, or other spices
Melomel: Mead with fruit juices and perhaps spices
Pyment: Mead with grape juice added
Sack: Extra-honey meads
Traditional: simply honey, water, and yeast
One of the most common mistakes made by newcomers to making mead is not providing enough nutrients in the must for the yeast to start reproducing quickly and fermenting until the sugars are all gone.
The nutrient problem can be overcome easily by adding a commercially available yeast nutrient (GoFerm, Fermaid K and Diammonium Phosphate (DAP)) though this can sometimes produces other unwanted flavors if too much is used. This can be fixed by carefully adding your nutrients over the course of the fermentation and by not over using them. Adding nutrients in a staggered fashion with each drop of 30% specific gravity will yield the best result. Add 25% of your nutrient after the lag phase (24 hours) and then 6-8 hours later add your DAP. Then add 50% of your nutrient addition at the first drop in specific gravity then the remainder at the next 30% drop. Staggering your nutrients in this fashion will provide for continuos and healthy yeast growth and fermentation.
Must, juice or liquor are the terms used to describe the honey, water, and other ingredients that are mixed for fermentation. The must for mead can be prepared in a few hours or so depending on the type of mead you wish to make.
To make mead there are several things that you will need, I have listed them below.
1 - Pot
For simmering the must I would recommend either an enamel or stainless steel pot in the 6 gallon range.
2 - 5 gallon glass carboy
The carboy is used to ferment the mead in and a second one is handy to rack into when you need to. You can always use the cooking pot for a temporary racking solution but it requires double the effort.
1 - 5 foot siphon tube
Used to siphon the must into clean fermentation vessels and to fill bottles.
1 - Thermometer
To check the temperature of the must before adding the yeast and to make sure the temperature is not too high or low during fermentation.
1 - Hydrometer
The hydrometer is your best friend. While it was not used in period, our sample recipe uses an egg as a rudimentary hydrometer. By adding honey to the water until the egg floated to the top our brewing forbearers knew that they had sufficient honey to produce a fine mead. Use it to measure the specific gravity of your must before you start fermentation and during fermentation to determine when to rack. When the fermentation is complete use it to get a final reading of the residual sugar quantity and thus a measurement of the alcohol potential.
Refer to figure 1.0 for specific gravity measurements and potential alcohol content. To determine the potential alcohol content simply subtract the ending SG from the starting SG and using the chart find the total drop in specific gravity the potential alcohol is the number to the right under the Potential % column.
1 - Airlock
The airlock is used to seal the fermenting must from the outside air and to trap the carbon dioxide gas in the fermenter.
You can make your yeast starter either the day before or the same day as the must by using the following ingredients and method.
2 cups Water
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon nutrient
1/4 teaspoon citric acid or 1/4 juice of a lemon
Yeast for 5 gallons
Mix all ingredients including yeast in a glass jar, shake, then cover the bottle loosely with a cloth and let it sit for at least 30 minutes but preferably for several hours until it is fermenting well and can then be added to the must.
Steps to making mead:
Sterilize all vessels and implements with boiling water or washing them with a chlorine solution of 1/8 cup chlorine to a gallon of water then rinsing with cold water or use iodophor solution. The iodophor solution is probably the safest way and leaves no residual odor or taste.
Mix the water, honey and the dry ingredients to your pot. (Add nutrient and acid blend after it has cooled) and heat to at least 160deg. F. for 30 minutes. This will be sufficient to pasteurize your must. You can cool it and continue or you can follow the next step. If you are not using a chiller add only half of your water now and the rest after you are finished boiling or pasteurizing.
There is great debate about boiling the liquor and there are as many thoughts on the reasons to do so as there are not to. Several of the reasons to boil are that when you boil the liquor you are able to collect the scum that rises in the pot. This is the colloidal material that is left in the honey that has not been eliminated when the honey was filtered. Proteins, bee parts, and other foreign matter are also collected.
This boiling and skimming off the foam can result in changes to the flavor of the mead. While it helps the mead to clear, if you don't mind the change in flavor (especially with light honeys) then boil away but I have a word of warning:
CAUTION: once the honey starts to come to a boil REMOVE THE HEAT AND PUT A COLD METAL IMPLEMENT INTO IT. OTHERWISE YOU WILL NOT BE FAST ENOUGH TO STOP IT FROM BOILING OVER and boil over it will in less than a few seconds.
If you decide not to simmer and scum the mead you may find that it remains cloudy when bottled. This is especially true with unprocessed honey. There is a simple solution to this problem - filtration and fining.
Allow the must (your fermentable liquid) to cool to around 75-85 deg. You can use a wort chiller or you can wait overnight. When it has cooled test the specific gravity (SG) of your must with a hydrometer and record the results. Measure the temperature as well and remember that the SG varies with the temperature. Refer to table 2 for exact adjustments.
Specific Gravity for must when cooled.
Make a yeast starter.
Add the yeast starter to the must and cover the fermenter with several layers of cheesecloth or muslin and allow it to start fermenting. Once it has begun to ferment rapidly seal it with the lid and airlock or in the case of a carboy with the airlock. In a week to 10 days the primary fermentation will have subsided and the SG will now be around 1.04. Make a note of this and calculate the alcohol potential that exists now. Go ahead and have a taste. Siphon into a clean sterilized container and seal with the airlock.
Ferment for a few weeks in a warm, dry place. When a lot of sediment has collected on the bottom of the container, siphon off the liquid (without disturbing the sediment (racking)). You may need to rack several times over the course of the next two to three months to produce clear mead. If your mead is cloudy a few additional months in bottle will clear it or if you like you can use one of the following methods to help clear stubborn cloudiness. Use any of these methods you like but I usually try them in this order.
This is probably the best method of clarification/prevention of a cloudy wine. Simply add 1 oz per 5 gallons to the must before fermentation. You should finish with clear mead.
This dry clay powder will usually clear just about anything from any liquid. Take one or two pints of the mead and mix into it 1 teaspoon of bentonite per gallon of wine. Mix the resulting paste into the wine and allow settling for at least two weeks before bottling.
Isinglass is used by adding 2 oz of the liquid to 5 gallons of the finished mead.
Polyclar is used by adding the prescribed amount usually 2 oz per 5 gallons to the mead. Allow the mead to clear before bottling usually several weeks.
You can usually rent filtration systems from most home brewing supply stores. Start with a 1-micron filter and then if it still remains cloudy filter again with 0.5-micron or finer filter.
Once you have a clear mead you will need to bottle or barrel it. The specific gravity will probably be around 1.035 or lower. If it is higher allow it to ferment until it is between 1.005 and 1.0158. The following table shows the finished SG (results will vary for each brewer)
Final Specific Gravity
There is great debate among brewers as to how long mead should be aged. Is it a white wine or is it more like a red? If it is akin to a white wine then it is best to drink it early. If it is closer to a red wine in character then age will have wondrous benefits. I believe that all red wines need to be aged in order for the full potential to be released. The longer the agings process the better. Mead needs to be aged for a period of 6 months to a number of years though you can certainly drink yours when you think it is ready. I have found that most mead with an alcohol content higher than 10% starts to really show potential at the three-year mark. Store all of your meads in a cool dry place. Corked bottles are best stored on their sides to prevent the corks from drying out. Large quantities should be aged in the largest possible quantity.
Note: ferment cool(65 - 75 F) and age cooler. (50 - 65 F)
Mead is wine, plain and simple. Wine is a classification of alcoholic beverage and is not synonymous with wine made from grapes. Wine can be made from anything as long as there is enough sugar to ferment and create alcohol.
Other varieties of mead include Metheglin, Pyment, Cyser and Melomel. The recipes for these are the same as the basic mead recipe but with the changes noted here.
Add the following after you have skimmed off the impurities. Then allow to simmer for several hours and strain using a fine sieve. Follow the regular recipe from here.
1 oz Mace
1 oz Cloves
1 oz Cinnamon
1 oz Bruised Ginger
1 lemon rind
1 orange rind
1-teaspoon pectic enzyme per gallon of must
4 pounds mixed fruits - red currants, black currants gooseberries raspberries or black cherries
Use 7 pints of water instead of 1 gallon. Add the fruit and pectic enzyme in a bowl and cover with 5 pints of water, allow it to sit overnight then add the honey to 2 pints of hot water and allow to cool. Strain the fruit and mix the juice and the honey together. Continue as for mead.
Same as melomel but change the fruit to 4 lbs of chopped apples crushed and juiced.
Mead with a grape flavor sometimes called Elizabethan mead: substitute the fruit in melomel with six pounds of white grapes.
Specific Gravity - Alcohol Potential Chart
S.G Alc.% Proof
1010 0.09 0.16
1015 1.60 2.80
1020 2.30 4.03
1025 3.00 5.25
1030 3.70 6.48
1035 4.40 7.70
1040 5.10 8.93
1045 5.80 10.15
1050 6.50 11.38
1055 7.20 12.60
1060 7.80 13.65
1065 8.60 15.05
1070 9.30 16.28
1075 10.00 17.50
1080 10.70 18.73
1085 11.40 19.95
1090 12.10 21.18
1095 12.80 22.40
1100 13.50 23.63
1105 14.20 24.85
1110 14.90 26.08
1115 15.60 27.30
1120 16.30 28.53
1125 17.00 29.75
1130 17.70 30.98
1135 18.40 32.20
1140 19.10 33.43
1145 19.80 34.65
1150 20.50 35.88
Name of Mead: ______________
Date Started: ________
S.G. Before adding honey _____________
S.G. After adding honey _____________
Date fermentation started _____________
Date fermentation ended _____________
S.G. at end of fermentation _____________
Dates Racked Appearance
Date put into storage ________________
Date bottled ________________
Temperature variation chart
10 50 subtract .06
15 59 none
20 68 add .9
25 77 Add 2.0
30 86 Add 3.4
35 95 Add 5.0
40 104 Add 6.8
The Closet of Sir Kenholme Digby, Knight, Opened
London: H. Brome, 1669; reprint London; Philip Lee Warner,1910
MacDonnel, Anne, ed.,
The Winemakers Companion Argus Books Limited 1987 Berry, C J J
Food and Drink in Britain Constable & Co. 1973 Wilson, C. Anne
The Goodman of Paris Translated to English by Eileen Power. Routledge and Sons 1928
Curye on Inglysh Oxford University Press 1985
A history of wine London 1961 Allen H. Warner
Groliers Encyclopedia Americana (references for species names)
Chaucers Canterbury Tales
Mike Faul (c) 1991 - 2016. All rights Reserved. Reproduction or use without permission prohibited.