As I explain how to get your batch of mead going, note that there are words in bold throughout the text. These words you can find in the glossary section of this site.
Before we start a batch of mead, or actually, “pitch a must,” we need to understand the process of how yeast turns honey into wine. Well, we need to understand part of the process. Zymurgists spend years studying the science of this process. The process proceeds in two parts: primary fermentation, which is aerobic (it needs oxygen for the reaction to take place) and consists of the yeast consuming the fermentable products (carbohydrates – in this case honey) and excreting ethyl alcohol (i.e., ethanol) and carbon dioxide. Yes, excreting. So, that delicious alcoholic beverage is yeast excrement. Tasty! At the end of this phase the bottom of your bucket or carboy will be covered with a smelly, mucky mess called lees. This is the leftovers from the yeast munching down on the carbohydrates. It consists of dead yeast and bits of food that could not be digested by the yeast. Once the yeast has consumed all the carbohydrates, it moves into secondary fermentation, which is anaerobic (the reaction takes place in the absence of oxygen). At this point, it is vitally important to the life of your mead to minimize oxygen exposure. During this secondary phase, the mead will clarify and age.
The most important rule of meadmaking is patience. When in doubt, wait. Then wait some more. Really, all the mistakes I have made in meadmaking could have been prevented with more patience! Remember, “The oxen are slow, but the earth is patient.”
The must consists of the basic ingredients that will ferment into your mead. Pitching a must can be very easy, or quite complicated depending on how involved you want to get in this process (just Google “mead made easy” and “mead made complicated” if you don’t believe me).
To begin, at the minimum, you will need honey, water, yeast and a vessel (glass carboy or plastic jugs work well) and airlock to hold the must while it ferments. For one gallon (all my recipes will yield one gallon finished product, give or take a few mL) of mead, you will need about 3 lbs. of honey, one packet of wine yeast, and water to bring the total volume to one gallon. This will make show mead (mead with nothing else added). Let’s start there, and we can get more complicated as we go. Finally, and very importantly, you will need a way to sanitize the equipment you will be using. The cheapest and easiest place to start is household bleach. While this may not be recommended (for environmental reasons) in the long-run, for a first batch it is probably something you already have on hand. And why do we sanitize? We want the yeast to grow up big and strong – the yeast we introduce, not wild yeasts that could produce funky (off) flavors or bacteria of any sort.
Other equipment I strongly recommend is:
A two gallon food grade bucket with a hole for an airlock (these can be found on the internet, but are not as readily available as the 5 or 6 gallon buckets – so keep looking if you want to make one gallon batches). I made several meads at the beginning of my adventures with only one gallon jugs or carboys, and the bucket makes it much easier. Not only do you have more space (which becomes necessary when making melomels), but it exposes the must to more oxygen and helps it ferment quicker.
Also, a hydrometer is very helpful. This will let you measure the gravity of your must. This lets you know how much sugar you have in the must, which influences the amount of alcohol it will contain and how much residual sugar might be left after the fermentation is complete (thus influencing whether it is a sweet, dry, or other type of wine – see appendices for more information). You do not have to use a hydrometer to make mead, but without it, you are left to guess the alcohol level of your wine. Also, if something goes wrong – and if you make enough gallons of mead, something will go wrong – it will be harder to tell if the mead has completed its fermentation or it is stuck.
Some way to measure the pH of your must is also a good idea. There are a variety of pH meters you can purchase, ranging from several hundred dollars for industrial grade meters, to about $40 for home meters designed for food. A cheaper, easy option is using pH strips designed to measure the optimal range for wine. These can also be purchased online or at a brewing supply store.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, get a notebook. Keep judicious notes about what you put in your mead and when. This helps you recreate your favorite recipes and avoid future pitfalls if something went wrong.
Let’s talk airlocks for a minute. You might have seen on the web information about pitching your must and sealing the carboy with a balloon. This practice may be fine for the primary fermentation because the must really needs to be exposed to oxygen for the yeast to reproduce. But as any kid with a latex helium-filled balloon can tell you, balloons are porous and gas leaks out. Therefore, once you move on to secondary fermentation and the must needs to be sealed against oxygen, the balloon is no longer recommended. Airlocks and bungs are cheap and easily obtained on the internet or at your local brewing supply store. If you are wondering why you can’t just cap the carboy, remember that the yeast gives off carbon dioxide as well as ethanol. That means gas has to escape or you might have a glass bomb waiting to explode a sharp, sticky mess all over your room. This, I would recommend avoiding. This is another reason to never be too quick to bottle – but more about that later.
Pitching the must
I will assume you are making your first batch of mead in a one gallon carboy (or plastic water jug). If you bought a sealed jug of water from the store, it will not need to be sanitized. However, you will have to remove half the water and pour it back in, so whatever holds it will need to be sanitized. If you are using a carboy, it will need to be sanitized, as well as spoons, measuring cups, funnels, the bung and airlock, and anything else that will be touching your mead ingredients. One thing I like about the bleach solution is that it is reusable. Here’s what I do: make the sanitizing solution in the carboy (1T of household bleach in one gallon of water does the trick). Let that sit 20 minutes, then pour it into another container that can hold it (pitcher, bowl, casserole dish, whatever – I recommend plastic or glass so it won’t be damaged by the bleach) and add any other instruments you might use. These could include: a large measuring cup (4 cups capacity because 4 C of honey = 3 lbs.), a small measuring cup (for the ¼ C water it will take to reconstitute the yeast), a rubber spatula or spoon to get the honey out of the jar, measuring spoons, bung, airlock, and funnel. Also, you can splash a little solution on your countertop and sanitize it (just let it dry first). Remember to rinse your carboy and all your utensils well after they have soaked for the 20 minutes. Finally, once I am done with the entire process, I pour the bleach solution into a mop bucket and mop the floor with it – mead making can be a sticky process!
EDIT: After using bleach for a few years, I have switched to using StarSan. It is an acid based sanitizer that will not kill the yeast, even if you don’t rinse it out. It actually becomes a food for the yeast in primary. Plus, the StarSan only has to be on the surface for a few minutes instead of 20. It can also be saved and reused. I put some in a sealed carboy to use later, and put it in a spray bottle if I need to sanitize something in a hurry. Also, it won’t bleach out your clothes. I do still use bleach when I soak used wine bottles before cleaning them to reuse.
Once you have everything sanitized and rinsed, heat your water to rehydrate your yeast. Yeast is another area where you can get quite complicated (see appendices). You can use a baker’s active dry yeast (such as Fleischmann’s), but it may not be as aggressive in killing wild yeasts. I am also unsure as to how high the alcohol level will be. I suggest getting a wine yeast (Lalvin D-47 or Red Star Cote des Blancs are good starter yeasts) – again from the internet or a home-brewing store. These yeasts come in small packages, and each package can make up to 5 gallons of wine. I use a whole package for each gallon of mead I make, unless I am pitching two batches at the same time, then I split it between them. The reason for this is the open package of yeast will not stay good for long, and I want a vigorous primary fermentation. Rehydrate the yeast per its instructions. Each packet tells you how much water and how hot to make it – typically about a ¼ cup of water at 1000 F (380 C). If you don’t want to measure the temperature of your water, stick in your (clean) finger. The water should be body temperature or very slightly warmer. There is some debate about whether to rehydrate it in water only or in water with some of the must (containing honey) added to feed the yeast. I have done both and they have all worked. I think the main issue is allowing the yeast plenty of time to rehydrate and begin to foam. So, sprinkle your yeast on the warm water and set aside.
There has been debate about whether or not to heat the honey before pitching the must. Older recipes will describe heating the honey and skimming off the foam that rises to the surface in order to reduce bees wax, bee bits, and other impurities. This practice removes more than that, however. It also removes some aroma and flavor. There is also the suggestion that you can heat the honey to 1400 F to sanitize the honey before pitching it. This, I think is pointless. Honey itself does not go bad – it is a preservative and has many antiseptic qualities on its own. In fact, the only way to get it to go “bad” and ferment is to dilute it. Therefore, I do not heat my honey in any way before pitching it. All the bee bits will come out through repeated rackings, and if they do not, there are other ways to clarify it. Newer recipes do not always include the heating and skimming process. If you are thorough in your sanitization and use a good wine yeast, heating the honey is not necessary.
Meanwhile, fill your gallon jug about half full with water and add your 3 lbs. of honey. Put the lid on tightly and shake until all the honey is dissolved and the whole thing is frothy. Remember, you want to get oxygen all through the must so the yeast can begin fermentation. Then, fill the jug the rest of way with water, leaving enough space to add your rehydrated yeast. This is the time to take a hydrometer reading. You can float the hydrometer in your jug, but it can be hard to read or retrieve. They make test jars designed to hold samples of your wine and allow for measurements with a hydrometer. Write down the gravity reading. It should be something close to 1.100, and this becomes your original gravity (O.G.). When fermentation is complete, you can use a formula subtracting your final gravity (F.G.) from your OG which will compute your alcohol by volume (ABV). If you are going to take a pH reading, now is the time. I use a few drops of the must from the hydrometer to take the reading. That way, nothing actually touches my must (this is especially important if you are using test strips). Once the gravity and pH measures are taken, add your yeast, cap and shake well again. Leave loosely covered and put in a safe place. Clean the kitchen and mop the floor, because if you are anything like me, there are sticky spots everywhere. There is no need to put the airlock on right away – in fact it is probably better if you don’t because you want the yeast to get plenty of oxygen. Some people never airlock the primary fermentation vessel. I put on the airlock after 4 or 5 days just to make sure it is covered once the fermentation starts to slow.
How to know if the fermentation is working
Within 24 hours you will probably see fermentation taking place. You can see and hear the bubbles rising in the jug. You can also smell the sweet smell of success, or more accurately, the funky stink of yeast farts. Yes, yeast farts. Just as they excrete ethanol, they also excrete carbon dioxide (CO2) which can be a bit smelly. Each batch of mead produces a different smell depending on the ingredients and type of yeast. No one warned me about this smell however, and it can be off-putting. I recommend storing it in a room with some circulation. Also, the room needs to be temperature controlled so the yeast does not get too hot or too cold (see the yeast chart in the appendices for temperature ranges). If you see no bubbles and smell nothing within a couple of days, something went wrong. There are many reasons why this could happen and they will be covered in a troubleshooting section.
If all goes well, your mead should be done with primary fermentation between 10-14 days. This is not a hard and fast rule however. Some musts do not have the carbohydrates as readily available as others and take longer to get through the primary fermentation process. Some musts, especially with nutrient-rich fruits, whiz through the fermentation in a week. So, keep an eye on it. Once the bubbles have mostly stopped, it is time to rack into the secondary.
Another gallon jug or carboy is needed. Use your same bung and airlock. You will need some vinyl tubing – food grade. I recommend an auto-siphon for one gallon carboys.
Once fermentation is complete (or close to completion), you want to get the good must off the spent lees, which can impart nasty tastes. To do this, and not stir up the lees and get it in the new carboy, you need to rack it, or siphon it off the lees. The simplest way to do this is get some food grade vinyl tubing, long enough to go from one gallon carboy into the other (about 3-4 feet). Sanitize your new carboy and the tubing. Place the full carboy higher than the empty carboy so gravity can help siphon the liquid (I place the full carboy on my counter top and the empty in my sink). Fill the tube with water and place your thumbs over both ends to seal it. Place one end in your mead must just shy of the bottom (don’t stick it in the lees) and the other in your mouth. Suck it like you would a straw until it starts to flow. Let the water flow out and once the mead starts down the tube, place it in the new carboy. Gravity will do the rest. Remove the tubing once the mead is transferred and the sticky lees are left. Put the airlock back on and set aside. Another option is using an auto-siphon, which I highly recommend if you are going to make more than one batch of mead. They make small ones to fit in one gallon carboys. You attach your vinyl tubing to the siphon, give it a couple of pumps, and it starts the flow for you. It is easier and more sanitary.
Over time, the mead will clarify. After 2-3 months, rack it again. Give it another 2-3 months and rack it again. If you notice a heavy amount of lees in the bottle, rack at 2 months. If it is clarifying and there are not many lees, it can wait 4-6 months before racking. Once the mead is crystal clear and you can read through it, you can bottle it. However, I have bottled meads that looked very clear and there were still sediments that settled in the bottle. So wait, then wait some more, then bottle! With each racking, you lose some product. It is important to top off your carboy to prevent oxygen exposure. You can do this with water, but it will slowly dilute your mead. You can do this with honey and water, but that will either increase the sweetness or the alcohol by restarting the primary fermentation. This is where the two gallon bucket comes in. If you pitched 1½ gallons of mead to start, then you could rack into a one gallon carboy and a wine bottle then use the extra to top off your carboy and keep a full gallon. If that is not an option, I recommend using marbles or glass bead. Sanitized marbles can be placed in the bottom of the carboy to take up space, thereby preventing oxygen exposure and not diluting your mead. There are more detailed instructions about racking and clarifying in the next section.
After about 9 months from the first pitch, your mead should be ready to drink. This, of course, depends on a number of factors, but I would wait at least nine months before drinking. You want to give it the best chance to be really good! Bottling will be discussed in a later section.
There you go. Your first batch of show mead is complete. This is the basis for further, more complex meads to come…