This is how Cliff Lochhead makes mead
Dissolve honey in hot water and remove any froth that forms on the top. Allow to cool to about 30 degrees C, add the yeast and place in a bucket with a tea towel over the top. Place this in a warm area of around 25 degrees C.
Fermentation should start quite soon and within a few days it will be very active. After 10-14 days it is siphoned into a 1 gallon carboy and an airlock fitted. It will then continue fermenting slowly until the sugar is depleted or the alcohol level is high enough to kill off the yeast. After about 6 months the mead has, hopefully, cleared and is ready to bottle and in a further 6 months will be ready to drink.
Sounds straight forward, and it is, but it has taken me 3 yrs and about 15 brews to get to the stage where I am now getting some consistently acceptable results.
If you wish to put down a brew then bear in mind that some perseverance is required. It takes at least 1 year and sometimes longer before your first glass is ready to drink, and your first attempt may not be what you expect!
Any good honey can be used for mead. Traditionally the wax cappings were washed and the water/honey mix would be used for the brew. Naturally occurring yeasts would be responsible for the fermentation and the resulting brew would be of questionable quality. With a little more attention, top quality brews can easily be produced at home.
The critical facture concerning honey is the amount to use, as this will determine the type of mead produced – sweet or dry. The amounts of honey used are per 4.5 litre batch as 1 gallon carboys are generally used for brewing in. Per brew I will use between 1.5kg and 2kg of honey. 1.5kg will produce a dry, table strength wine. 2kg will result in a sweet, syrupy brew akin to a dessert wine. 1.75kg per gallon is a good place to start.
The amount of honey used at the start of the brew will mostly determine the sweetness of the final product but the choice of yeast also has a bearing on this.
Before selecting a type of yeast it is important to understand how the alcohol tolerance of the yeast affects the brew. Given unlimited access to sugar, yeast will not remain active indefinitely; eventually the alcohol level builds to a point where the yeast is killed off. This usually occurs at about 15%. Any sugar left at this point will simply add sweetness to the mead. A dry wine is produced when the yeast consumes all of the sugar available before alcohol levels are high enough to stop the yeast from working.
Champagne yeast – This has a very high tolerance to alcohol and is usually the choice when brewing mead. This will produce a very sweet dessert style wine, if enough honey is added or a dry wine if less honey is used.
Ale yeast – This has a much lower tolerance to alcohol and will stop being active much sooner than a wine yeast. It will also finish fermenting sooner. I have started using this more often as it produces sweet mead of lower alcohol content than using champagne yeast. 2kg of honey per gallon results in a sweet but light wine which is very drinkable after 1 year.
The honey is dissolved in 4.5 litres of water, just taken off the boil, this will kill any naturally occurring yeasts that may be present. Any impurities in the honey, such as pollen and wax will rise to the top where it can be skimmed off. The honey water mix is set aside to cool to approximately 30 degrees C.
Many recipes call for the addition of other ingredients and my early attempts contained lemon juice, tea, and yeast nutrients. I no longer add these ingredients and have not noticed any detrimental effects.
The yeast is activated by gently mixing it into warm water to which a small amount of sugar has been added. After 15min it should be frothing slightly and have a strong yeasty smell, it is now ready to be added to the honey/water mix. I use a 10 litre bucket for the initial fermentation and once the yeast is added, it is covered in a towel and placed in a warm location to begin fermenting. I make use of an old fridge with an electric heat pad on the bottom. The ideal temperature range for successful brewing is 23-28 degrees C.
The initial fermentation will take about 10 days. During the early stages it will be very active; you may notice bubbling, frothing on the surface and a strong brewing smell. It will gradually slow in activity and a good amount of sediment will fall to the bottom. After 10 days the brew is transferred to a 1 gallon carboy with an air lock fitted. The airlock is necessary to exclude oxygen and to stop spoilage due to Bacterial infection.
From here it gets a bit more interesting. You will no doubt want to check on your brew every day to see what is happening. Not much it seems. You may notice a steady stream of bubbles through the airlock and sediment collecting at the bottom of the carboy. During this stage the mead will need to be siphoned into a clean carboy every 6-8 weeks, leaving the sediment behind. Eventually, after perhaps 6 months, if all has gone well you will have a beautifully clear, amber liquid. Oh Joy. The yeast has now served its purpose and has converted all the sugar it has been able to into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
The mead will begin to clear as fermentation slows and eventually stops. Six months seems to be about the usual length of time it takes but it can vary. I had one brew which took 2 years to clear but by this time it was well matured and had become a very tasty drop. Using ale yeast has shortened the fermentation time and my latest brew cleared in about 6 weeks. It is said that if you can read a page through the carboy of mead then it is about right.
Once the mead is clear it is ready to bottle, be sure to have a wee sample while you are doing this. The flavour and amount of sweetness will be noticed but so too the sharpness of the alcohol. Don’t worry though as 6 months in the bottle will make a considerable difference and after 1 year it will be sublime.
To bottle I use a plastic tubing of about 12mm diameter and siphon the mead into clean wine bottles, being careful not to stir up any sediment. Label the bottles and store them away to mature for 6 months or so.
Cyser is a type of mead made with fruit juice and honey. While waiting for previously brewed mead to mature, I often brew apple cider using a commercial kit available from a homebrew shop. The kit contains concentrated apple juice and a sachet of yeast. It is quick to produce, being drinkable in about 2 months, and honey can be substituted for the sugar that is added at the start. Keeping aside 1 gallon of the reconstituted apple juice I add about 2kg of honey and brew it as mead. The cyser seems to clear fairly quickly and gives good results. If you wanted an easy way to start brewing then you might like to try this method.
Some of my most recent brews have been made using grated ginger root in addition to the honey. The ginger is added to the mix after the honey has been dissolved and is left to steep for the initial fermentation period. My first brew used 30 grams of ginger which turned out to be a little on the light side as far as noticeable ginger flavour. In the second brew I have used 100 grams of ginger; this will be ready to drink in a couple of months. Most recently I have added 350 grams of ginger to the last 1 gallon batch using 1.8kg of honey. I eagerly await the outcome of these ginger brews.
This is by no means an exhaustive instruction on mead making but may provide a few ideas to get you started. The long awaited results are very worthwhile and I think that making mead is the finest use to which honey can be put. So put down a brew from this seasons honey and you may well have a tasty bottle to enter in the Beekeepers Club honey competition next year.
Cliff Lochhead, June 2011