Making mead is pretty straightforward: you get some honey, mix it with water, add some yeast, and leave it to ferment. So what follows is more a mead making primer rather than instructions.

You can make mead from just honey alone, or add spices and herbs to flavour it. You can also add juice from various fruits. Some names you might encounter for mead with additives are:

  • ·         Metheglin: made with herbs and spices
  • ·         Cyser: made with apples
  • ·         Pyment: made with grapes
  • ·         Melomel: made with other fruits
  • ·         Braggot is a beer with a very high honey content, up to 50%

Meads also vary in their alcohol content. One distinction is between lower alcohol table, and higher alcohol liqueur meads.

One important term is must, it’s the honey and water mixture you will ferment to make the mead.

Honey composition.
Honey is usually 16 to 18% water, with a density of 104 to 1.5 kg per litre. Most of the solids in honey are sugars. By total weight of the honey fructose is about 38%,, glucose 31%, disaccharides 9% -mostly maltose with some sucrose, higher sugars 2 to 4%, and then trace amounts of vitamins, minerals and amino and other organic acids.

Typical pH is about 3.9.

Mass & density
Honey has a density of 1.4 to 1.5 kg per litre. One litre of honey displaces a volume of about 700 ml.

Typical water to honey ratios range from 2 to 3 litres of water per kg of honey. Approximate specific gravities would range from 1130 at 2 litres per kg down to about 1090 for 3 litres per kg.

Alternatively, the honey to water ratio typically ranges from about 350 to 550 grams per litre of water.

You will also see ratios expressed as volumes, one volume of honey to three to four volumes of water.

Water should be clean and free of taint. For the most part, town water in Australia is of good quality. There are exceptions, for example Goulbourn has notoriously bad town water. If your water is chloriney, the easiest way to treat it is to pour it off in advance and leave the container in the sun for an hour with the lid unsealed.

 Most of the mead literature is from the UK or USA where the water is usually quite hard, i.e. high mineral content. On the eastern seaboard of Australia the water is generally quite soft.

This is a really important point for several reasons.

Mineral content has a big influence on how water tastes. As an experiment buy a bottle of mineral water. Drink some tap water, then drink some of the mineral water, now have another drink of the tap water. The tap water will now taste less pleasant than before. To me the water will taste all flabby and unstructured, lacking in backbone. Contrary to popular opinion, soft water is not that good for making alcoholic beverages. However, it can be easily treated by adding mineral salts. Most of the famous brewing cities have hard water, and Scottish distilleries will boast of their minerally well water.

Although soft water might have a pH of 7 to 8, the pH can be easily changed. The fermentation will lower the pH, and with the honey already having a lowish pH, the potential problem is that the fermenting mead will become too acidic for the yeast, and fermentation will stop prematurely.

So ignore any advice or instructions about adding acid, lemon juice or orange juice to the must at the start. With our soft water it will probably lead to fermentation problems. Adding acid after fermentation has finished is another matter to be dealt with shortly.

It is a good idea to harden your water with some mineral salts. You could also use a bottle or two of mineral water! The preferred salt is potassium bicarbonate, sometimes sold as wine de-acid. Calcium carbonate can also be used but does not easily dissolve. At a pinch, calcium sulphate or calcium chloride can also be used.

Honey varieties
Honey is available in either blends, or in single varieties. Varietal honeys, eg Yellow Box, Blue Gum, Red Gum, tend to be more expensive. Personally, I think the varietal honeys are best used just as they are. If you want to add fruits or flavourings, then a blended or clover honey might be a better choice. In any case be guided by how the honey tastes, or what you have ready access to.

You are only making the must, it’s the yeast that turn the must into mead. Not only do yeast ferment the must, they also make an important contribution to flavour with the metabolic by-products of fermentation. There are many strains of yeast; they produce different flavours, flocculate (stick together and settle out) differently, and tolerate differing alcohol concentrations. Alcohol is basically yeast shit, some strains tolerate it better than others.

The basic technique to make a sweet mead is to use an amount of honey that will produce more alcohol than what the yeast can handle.

Usually wine yeasts are used for making mead. Champagne yeasts are popular because they have a higher alcohol tolerance than other strains. Probably the most well known champagne yeast is EC-118 from the Lallemand company. There are also several strains sold as mead specific yeasts. There is a dried mead yeast from Mangrove Jack, while Wyeast and White Labs both have liquid mead yeasts.  Dried yeasts are more convenient than liquid yeasts because they are stored far more easily and have a much longer shelf life. Even so, dried yeasts should still be refrigerated.

Brewers’ yeasts should also offer some options. For some reason Wyeast 1388 Belgian Strong  Ale seems to be a popular strain. Strains with lower alcohol tolerances could be useful for making sweet meads with lower alcohol contents, say 10 to 12% rather than the 14 to 16% (or even more) which is more typical for the style.

It is beneficial to rehydrate the yeast. This avoids osmotic stress on the individual yeast cells. Add the dried yeast to tepid water, say 25 to 30 degrees, at the rate of 10 ml per gram of yeast. Use a sanitised plastic cup. Gently sprinkle the yeast into the tepid water, cover with cling film and leave for ten minutes. Swirl the yeast and leave it a further 5 minutes and then pitch into the must.

When you have pitched the yeast, aerate the must however you can. Extra oxygen will enhance yeast reproduction. If you are using a small demijohn or similar then seal it, pick it up and shake it. In larger vessels you can use whisks and brewing paddles to work air into the must.

Additives: nutrients, tannin and acid
Healthy yeast need vitamins and minerals. Yeast also need nitrogen compounds to make amino acids and proteins in order to reproduce. As honey contains only some amounts of these materials, extra nutrients are required. Blended wine/yeast nutrients are readily available. Use at a rate of 0.75 to 1.25 grams per litre of must.

The yeast will benefit more if the nutrient is added in several doses rather than all at once at the start. Add about 20% of the nutrient at the very start, add a further 40% after about 24 hours or when fermentation has started, and add the final 40% about one third of the way through the fermentation.

Tannin will give the taste of the mead structure and complexity. Tannin can also bring some dryness and a balance to acidity. Tannin can be added several ways: tannin powder, oak chips or cubes, diced raisins, or strong black tea. A little bit of tannin can be added at the start of fermentation, but hold off adding the bulk of tanning until after the main fermentation has finished and you have tasted the mead. If you are racking the mead to a second vessel add it at the tannin at this point.

Adding acid can tighten up the overall taste of the mead. With our soft water do not add any acid at the start of fermentation. Wait until the mead has fermented and you have tasted it before adding any acid. Tartaric acid is the main acid used.

For both tannin and acid decide how much you will use, and then use half of that amount – you can always add more later if necessary.

Learning how to use the hydrometer properly will make your mead making more accurate. Most hydrometers have three scales: density or specific gravity, potential alcohol, and grams of sugar per litre. Alcohol content as a percentage is calculated by multiplying the difference between the original and final gravities by 0.133. Eg [(1110  - 1020) * 0.133]% = 11.97%, rounded to make 12% alcohol by volume.

Meads will benefit from at least one transfer once fermentation is complete. After any fermentation has finished, in the absence of any more food the spent yeast at the bottom of the vessel will start to self cannibalize in a process called autolysis. As the yeast autolyse they release their cell contents and this creates unwanted flavours. Mild cases will taste meaty or brothy, middling cases will taste Vegemitey, and in bad cases there will be harsh flavours with the character of burnt rubber.

To allow the mead to properly clear and condition it is therefore necessary to transfer it to another vessel. Once a significant deposit of yeast has accumulated again – this may take several months, the mead is usually transferred once more.

The preferred method for transferring the mead is to siphon it. It is gentle and will minimise any splashing and possible aeration of the mead. Rough handling of the mead and excessive aeration can produced oxidised or stale flavours in the mead.

Brewing a batch of mead
A common way to brew first meads is in a 5 litre glass demijohn. It’s a fairly simple procedure, and it is low risk in that you don’t need a lot of honey. It is also easy to aerate the must after pitching the yeast – seal the demijohn and shake it. A second demijohn is needed for the one or more transfers. Siphoning small volumes can be tricky, gently pouring the mead from one demijohn to the other is good enough. The drawbacks to this method are that between hydrometer samples and transfer losses you can lose a good 10% of the batch, and it can be quite some time before you can properly taste the mead.

A good method is to brew a larger batch as follows. You will need a plastic 15 litre fermenting drum, and two 5 litre glass demijohns. Plastic is fine for active fermentations, but not for conditioning and maturing because the plastic is permeable to oxygen.

Make up 15 litres of mead in the plastic vessel and leave it to ferment. When fermentation is complete transfer the mead to the two 5 litre demijohns, and bottle what’s left. After the mead has cleared in the demijohns, bottle the mead from one and then clean and sanitise the empty demijohn and transfer the mead from the other demijohn. Leave it for several more months at least before bottling.

Once the plastic fermenter is free you can put on another batch. Before doing so have a try of the first round of bottled mead. You will probably need a third demijohn for this second batch. Working like this is far more flexible than doing just a single larger batch. For the second batch you can experiment with different flavourings when the mead has been transferred to the demijohns.