Mead making goes back millennia, and honey wines have been found at archeological sites from around 10,000 BC. Humans have been making mead for a very long time, well before the advent of fancy brewing equipment.
Making mead at home need not be complicated, and just about anyone can make homemade honey wine.
The first time I drank mead was just after my 21st birthday, at a two-week-long medieval reenactment camp run by the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism). A bunch of us piled into the car and drove 10 hours to Western Pennsylvania for Pennsic, an elaborate medieval camping festival featuring more historical nerdery than you can shake a mead horn at.
One of my friends started a quick mead in a soda bottle, literally on the ride down. One part raw honey, three parts water and a lot of shaking made the “must.” Since it was raw honey from a local farm, it already contained wild yeasts and began bubbling before we arrived. They attached a balloon with a pinhole to the top of the bottle as a water-lock, and two weeks later on the last day of the festival we celebrated with our own hacked together batch of quick mead.
That, of course, was after sampling high-quality mead from some of the best mead makers in the country all week long. Bearded men and buxom ladies filled my glass with long-aged high-quality meads that had been started back when I was in grade school, plus plenty of experimental meads with everything from chili peppers to fennel.
Even after being spoiled with exceptional meads for two weeks straight, our hacked together batch was still darn good. Was it a 10-year oak barrel-aged mead? Nope. But I learned that mead is spectacular, and like pizza, even bad mead is still pretty darn good.
I was hooked, and now we’ve been brewing our own homemade mead for well over a decade. My husband and I made a batch of dandelion mead on our first date just over 10 years ago, and we still enjoy a bottle of it every anniversary.
There are more than 200 bottles aging down in our basement, and we’ve learned a lot about how to make truly exceptional mead at home. Believe it or not, it’s easier than you think.
Sure, I don’t make it in plastic soda bottles capped with a balloon airlock anymore, but it can be done. Don’t overcomplicate things and you’ll be a happy mead maker!
Equipment for Making Mead
If you’ve never made any type of homemade wine or beer, let me help you understand basic mead making equipment:
- Fermentation Vessel (x2) ~ Generally a glass one-gallon jug known as a demijohn. For larger batches, you can also use a 5-gallon demijohn or a plastic brewing bucket. It helps to have two so that you can siphon the mead into a clean container for secondary.
- Water Lock ~ Often the demijohns will come with a rubber stopper and water lock, but if not, you’ll need one to seal the jug. A water lock is a one-way valve that allows CO2 to escape, but doesn’t let contaminants get into the mead. Keep in mind the opening on a 5-gallon demijohn is larger and you’ll need a bigger rubber bung if you’re using a 5-gallon setup.
- Auto Siphon ~ Optional, but highly recommended. A siphon allows you to efficiently move the mead from one container to another, leaving the clouding sediment behind in the previous container. Sure, you can just pour, but it gets messy quick and aerates the mead which can impact quality. It’s also really handy at bottling time.
- Wine Bottles ~ Any clean, sterilized wine bottles can be reused for bottling, or they’re available online already de-labeled and clean.
- Corks ~ Only use new corks for a good seal and to prevent contamination.
- Bottle Corker ~ There are a few types, but I recommend the double lever variety. It’s only about $10-12.
- Sanitizer ~ A one-step sanitizer cleans all equipment quickly, and won’t leave any residue to interfere with your mead making.
Assuming you clean your own bottles (since those are the most expensive part), you can buy reusable equipment that’ll allow you to make dozens of batches for about $50. Not bad when a bottle of mead goes for $20-$30 around here. Now all you need is honey…
How to Make Mead
Making mead at home is incredibly easy, don’t make the mistake of overthinking it! Once you understand the basics of mead-making, the next step should involve getting your hands on yeast and honey.
Start by adding one part honey and three parts water to a fermentation vessel. For a one-gallon batch, that means one-quart honey (about 3lbs) and three quarts water. Mix thoroughly until the honey is completely dissolved.
Some people choose to boil the honey/water mixture to sterilize it, but this is unnecessary and will change the flavor of the finished mead. The added yeast will quickly overwhelm and outcompete any of the wild yeasts present in the honey.
Next, add wine or mead yeast to the mixture. Raw honey straight from the hive already contains natural yeast, in truth all you need is to add water in the right proportion and allow the little beasties to go to work.
Most honey you can buy is heavily filtered and often heated in bottling, so it’s best to add a bit of commercial mead yeast anyway for more consistent results. That said, I’ve made plenty of wild fermented meads with excellent results, but I’d suggest sticking with added yeast as you’re learning the process.
The yeast can have a pretty dramatic effect on the finished mead, and you want to choose a yeast that has a high enough alcohol tolerance to fully ferment the honey. A good place to start is Lavin-D47, and if you want to get more into it, you can read this article on the best yeast for mead.
Add in any optional additives, such as fruit, herbs or winemaking additives (tannin, etc). All of these are optional and will flavor your homemade mead or help it ferment more efficiently. The only additive I do suggest adding to each batch is either 1 teaspoon of yeast nutrient (or a handful of raisins) per gallon. Honey is a complex sugar, and it’s harder for the yeast to metabolize than straight sugar or fruit sugar.
Adding a few micronutrients helps them along in the process, and few historical Viking meads would have been made with just honey and water without something else added. They may not have known it was feeding the yeasts, but they did know that it resulted in a better mead.
Seal the fermentation vessel with a water lock to create a one-way valve. This will allow the CO2 created during fermentation to escape, but it won’t allow contaminants to enter. The main contaminant you’re worried about is acetobacter, or vinegar producing bacteria that can turn your mead into vinegar.
Historically, water locks weren’t available and they’re not strictly necessary to make mead. That said, bottling technology wasn’t available until relatively recently, and the Vikings were drinking their mead fresh before it had a chance to turn to vinegar. If you plan to bottle and store the mead, which greatly improves the finished flavor, it’s important to use a water lock.
Bubbles should be present with 24 hours, and the first week or so will be very active fermentation. Allow the mead to ferment for 2-3 weeks, until fermentation slows. This is called primary fermentation.
After 2-3 weeks, use a siphon to move the mead to a new container for secondary fermentation. This process is called “racking.” The sediment is left behind in the primary fermentation vessel, which helps to clarify the mead and prevents the sediment from imparting any off-flavors in the finished mead.
Racking is optional, but really improves the quality of the finished mead.
Allow the mead to ferment in secondary for at least 6 weeks, or as much as 6 months. Longer will usually improve the mead, but it’s up to your level of patience.
If you’re choosing not to rack into secondary, just leave it in primary for 8 weeks before bottling. That’s fine too.
For bottling, I’d strongly recommend using wine bottles and corks. Mead improves with age, and we’ve got 10+-year-old bottles in the basement that get better every year. If you bottle with beer bottles or flip-top Grolsch bottles, the mead won’t be able to “breathe” and it won’t age nearly as well.
Use a racking siphon to fill clean, sterilized wine bottles with mead (again, leaving the sediment behind in the fermentation vessel). Soak the corks in boiling water for an hour or so to help soften them, and then they’re ready to be inserted with a bottle corker. (Either the simple plunger corker or a much more efficient double lever corker.)
Allow the mead to bottle age for at least a month, but preferably much longer for the best flavor.
This basic process covers how to make mead, good mead, at home with minimal equipment. If you’re still nervous, you can always start with a micro-batch mead in a quart or half-gallon mason jar to get familiar with the process (without spending a lot of money on equipment or ingredients). Even after making mead for more than a decade I still do my experiments in small batches. There are plenty of reasons to make micro-batch mead, it’s not just for beginners.
Types of Mead
Part of the fun in making your own mead is experimenting with flavors. Fruits and herbs were traditionally added to meads, and according to Ancient Brews, most of the ancient brews cataloged by historians were actually mixed brews containing grapes, honey, apples, grains, and herbs rather than simple single ingredient ferments.
Ancients were trying to add as many nutrients as possible to help feed the yeasts and make potent fermented beverages. Yeast nutrient and efficient modern yeast strains do that work these days, and now we’re just adding flavor instead.
A quick mead is basically a mildly alcoholic yeast fermented soda. The total fermentation time is very short, usually just a few days. The mead has just enough time to develop carbonation as the yeast activates, but most of the honey is left in the finished brew.
Sima, or Finnish Fermented Lemonade, is a type of quick mead.
Herbal Mead (Metheglin)
Long ago, meads were an efficient way of preserving herbs, and there were few more pleasant ways to get a reluctant patient to take their medicine. Medicinal herbs like yarrow were common, as were spices like cloves and cinnamon.
Generally, herbal and spiced meads are called Metheglin.
Fruit Meads (Melomel)
Fruit adds more fermentable sugars to mead, as well as complex flavors and rich colors. While all fruit meads can be called melomel, some common fruits get their own special names. When you add apples to mead it’s called cyser, and with grapes, it’s called pyment.
Names get complicated fast, but whatever you call them, they’re delicious. Try any of these Melomel recipes:
Sometimes meads blur the line between “fruit” and “herbal,” incorporating medicinal herbs and fruits at the same time. Good examples include Elderberry mead, Elderflower Chokecherry Mead and hawthorn & rosehip mead.
Mead Making Books & Resources
Mead making has had quite the resurgence lately, and we’re blessed with many modern books and resources to answer every mead making question under the sun.
Make Mead Like a Viking ~ As the title says, this is a great guide to making mead without a lot of equipment or complications. Traditional no-fuss methods, and a lot of history along the way.
The Compleat Meadmaker ~ If you’re looking for a more scientific approach to mead making, the compleat meadmaker covers every possible additive and variation. When you start using Irish moss to clarify mead or adding oak chips for a really fancy bottle, this book will cover everything you need to know to make a spectacular bottle of mead.
Artisanal Small Batch Brewing ~ Written by Amber from Pixie’s Pocket, this book includes many easy mead recipes perfect for beginner and experienced brewers. All recipes are one-gallon batches, and she prefers high-quality ingredients and natural methods rather than brewing chemicals.
The Big Book of Mead Recipes ~ Includes 60 mead recipes from basic batches to experimental meads.
Making Wild Meads and Wines: 125 Recipes Using Herbs, Fruits, Flowers and More ~ The title says it all. I got this one early on in my mead journey and it really instills a spirit of exploration in a budding mead maker.
The Art of Fermentation ~ The ultimate guide to ferments of any type, and it has an exhaustive section on meads (as well as ferments from around the world). If you’re getting into the world of cultured foods, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.
The Craft of Herbal Fermentation Course ~ By the Herbal Academy of New England, this online course includes videos, printables, and coursework that covers everything you need to know to get you fermenting. Homemade mead, ale, wine, and beer are covered, as well as how to incorporate herbs into your brews. Whether you’re planning on brewing with herbs or not, it’s still an excellent resource with a lot of spectacular videos of the whole process.
This simple one-gallon mead recipe is the perfect place to start your honey wine adventure.
- Sanitize all equipment using one-step brewing sanitizer.
- Mix the honey, water, and yeast nutrient. Stir to completely dissolve. If necessary, gently heat the water until the honey is completely dissolved, then allow everything to cool to room temperature.
- Place the honey/water mixture in the fermentation vessel.
- Dissolve a packet of mead yeast in a small amount of water (1/4 cup). Allow it to "bloom" for about 10 minutes, then add the yeast & water mixture to the honey/water mixture.
- Cap with a water lock and rubber stopper. You should see active fermentation within 24 to 48 hours.
- Allow the mixture to ferment for 2-3 weeks at room temperature (or slightly colder), until fermentation slows. If the mixture bubbles up into the water lock, carefully remove it and clean it out before re-sealing the container.
- When fermentation slows, use a siphon to rack the mead into a clean fermentation vessel, leaving any sediment behind.
- Allow the mixture to ferment in secondary for at least 6 weeks, but preferably much longer (like 6 months).
- Bottle the mead, filling only to the base of the bottleneck.
- Soak the corks in hot water until pliable, then cork the bottles using a bottle corker.
- Allow the mead to bottle age for at least a month before drinking, preferably much longer. Like a year (or ten).
This recipe will give you a basic beginner's mead. Be sure to sanitize all equipment before beginning and have fun!
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Home Brew Ohio Glass Wine Fermenter Includes Rubber Stopper and Airlock, 1 gallon Capacity
Green Wine Bottles, 750 ml Capacity (Pack of 12)
Home Brew Ohio #8 Straight Corks, 8" x 1 3/4" (Pack of 100)
Ferrari Portugese Double Lever Corker
One Step - 8 oz.
Fermtech Regular 5/16" Auto Siphon with 8 feet of Tubing, clear, 1 piece
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