Making Honey Wine – Mead – At Home

The Celtic tradition has always embraced mead in both ceremonial and festival use. Indeed, mead is just as Celtic as the Druids. It has been touted as the “drink of the gods” for centuries. Even among today’s pagans a good bottle of mead is often just as prized and coveted as some ritual tools or “mystic secrets.” You might even be surprised at the bartering potential of a bottle of high quality mead among some circles of heathen brethren today. 

A Brief History of Mead 

Mead was quite possibly one of the first fermented drinks mankind developed. Egyptian, African, Greek, Roman, Celtic and Norse cultures all have recorded history mentioning mead as a favorite and preferred drink. Mead is made from honey, and honey was the only source of sweet foodstuff available to biblical and pre-biblical man. Refined sugar was not to be introduced for several centuries. The earliest recordings of mead are from the Egyptian culture. We know there was not a great abundance of high-sugar fruit in the Egyptian region. The only abundant source of sugar for producing alcohol came from honey, which was highly prized in the region at that time, and still is today. Other early civilizations like the Romans and Greeks also lacked high-sugar fruit and refined sugar sources to make drinkable alcohol, but honey was readily available and cultivated in these areas as well. 

How did man discover the process for making alcohol? 

Well, more than likely it was accidental. Honey has a tendency to accumulate water derived from moisture in the air, and once water accumulates to dilute the honey at the surface of a container the natural yeast present in the honey starts the process of making mead naturally. More than likely, early man just realized that when honey was combined with water and was left to sit it would generate what we now know as an alcoholic beverage called mead. This was a very unpredictable cultivation at first because these cultures had no idea exactly how the process took place or what the catalyst was. Batches of honey were often simply diluted with water and left in the sun to see what happened even up until the 1800’s. Some mead was successfully brewed and other batches were more than likely spoiled by contamination from other microorganisms. 

The father of modern brewing – Louis Pasteur

It was not until the mid 1800’s that the process of making drinkable alcohol from sugar, a process known as fermentation, was truly understood through the research of Louis Pasteur. Pasteur is most recognizable to Americans as the scientist credited with the development of pasteurization used to sanitize milk as well as other contributions to the field of biology. However, the rest of the world widely recognizes Pasteur for his great contributions to the field of wine making. He was credited for discovering and documenting the scientific basis for fermentation used to this day in all forms of brewing. The process seems quite un-natural until you have an understanding of microbiology. Egyptian and Celtic cultures certainly had no knowledge of these concepts. More than likely a serious spiritual significance was probably placed on the brewing of mead. However, in today’s world we understand how the process works on a biological level.   

The Ingredients: 

Other than core ingredients such as honey and fruit juices there are relatively few additional ingredients. Some added ingredients are to help with fermentation and others are for flavor enhancement and balancing. Here is a basic list of the most widely used ingredients today: 

Campden Tablets kill bacteria, molds and wild yeast and are essential when making wine from fresh fruit or unpasturized honey. They’re not generally required if using sterile ingredients to being with and should be avoided in these cases as they will only unnecessarily slow down fermentation. The normal dose is usually 2 crushed tablets per gallon. Be sure to cover the mixture with a cloth or towel and let vent for at least 24 hours before adding cultured yeast to the batch. Otherwise, the tablets will slow down or kill the yeast that’s deliberately introduced to the batch to kick off fermentation. Campden tablets are also often added to wine just before bottling (and not given a chance to evaporate out) to sterilize the wine and prevent fermentation in the bottle. Campden tablets have a mild effect on flavor when used in the prescribed doses. 

Yeast, is the key to making wine, is a microorganism that naturally consumes sugar (along with other nutrients) and outputs waste and carbon dioxide along with other particles. Yeast occurs naturally in most fruit and in honey but this yeast often produces an undesirable or undrinkable wine and should be destroyed using campden tablets or boiling before starting fermentation. Several strains of yeast are available from local brewing shops. Some are used for beer, others for wine and others for Champaign. Each type produces a different type of flavor. Most mead is made with wine yeast or Champaign yeast if a slight carbonation effect is desired. 

Yeast Nutrient contains all the essentials for yeast to thrive. Adding nutrient is not absolutely necessary but without it some fermentations would become sluggish and take much longer to complete. Nutrient should be added in the amount of 1-2 tablespoons per gallon before the yeast are added to the wine. 

Yeast Energizer is essentially the same thing as Yeast Nutrient but is especially bended for fresh fruit wines. 

Acid Blend is a crystallized version of most of the acids naturally occurring in fruit (tartaric, maltic and citric acid). This is often added mainly as a flavoring agent to fruit wine that is naturally low in acid such as apple wine. Refer to your wine recipe for acid blend amounts. 

Tannin (grape or other) naturally occurs in some fruit such as grapes and is used primarily as a flavoring agent. Tannin increases the “astringent” quality of wine which gives it a fuller flavor or “zest”. Tannin also aids in clearing/fining the wine and in aging quality. Refer to the recipe for amounts to add.

Peptic Enzyme is added to fresh fruit wines and forces the fruit pulp to release more of the natural fruit juice and the natural fruit color. Refer to the recipe for amounts to add. 

Potassium Sorbate is an additive used just before sweetening wine when bottling. The additive coats any existing yeast cells so that they cannot reproduce even if there is sugar present in the wine. Note, this does not kill any yeast cells, it simply means that the fermentation will not get any more intense than it already is. If there are still enough living yeast cells in the wine when bottling you may still have problems after the wine is bottled even if potassium sorbate is used. 

Sodium metabisulfite is an extremely strong contact-sanitizer for wine making equipment that can be purchased at most home brew shops. Any equipment that comes into contact with the wine should be thoroughly rinsed in sodium metabisulfite.

Sparkloid is a brown powder substance that’s mixed with hot water and poured into a mead that has stopped fermenting in order to help clear the mead. The mixture must be thoroughly stirred and then allowed to settle for at least 24 hours. The clear mead may be siphoned off of the sediment that settles at the bottom. Fining agents must often be administered two or three times to achieve optimum mead clarity. . 

Bentonite is a fining agent used the same way as Sparkloid but can be much more effective in my personal experience and ranges in the same price. If given a choice I choose bentonite over Sparkloid anytime.   

The Equipment: 

Primary Fermentation Container: The best container to use for primary fermentation (discussed later) is a food grade bucket with lid or barrel. The key to selecting an appropriate primary fermentation container is the container having a large surface area exposed to the wine (no small openings) and having it at least a gallon larger than the batch you want to produce. If you want to brew a five gallon batch you probably want to select a six gallon container and leave a few inches of air space at the top for the foaming that may occur during fermentation. 

Secondary Fermentation Container (Carboy): A secondary container should have a very slender opening and should be able to be easily filled almost to the top. As little surface area of the wine as possible should be exposed to the air. You should also be able to attach an air lock and rubber bung to the secondary fermenter making it air tight except for the air lock. The most widely used secondary fermenter is a glass carboy or plastic ozarka bottle. 

Siphoning / Racking Equipment: At the very least you will need some type of rubber or vinyl hose to move wine from one container to another. Many home hobbists also use a “racking cane” which is essentially a J-shaped hard plastic or glass tube with or without a small cap to keep the cane above the sediment in the containers. When working with five gallon batches of wine at least 5 feet of hose is required. 

Hydrometer: A hydrometer measures the specific gravity (density) of the wine. This allows you to judge the sugar content of the wine. A minimum starting sugar content of wine is usually 1.74 to 1.90. When the hydrometer registers 0 all sugar in the wine has been converted to alcohol. Hydrometers are also effected by temperature variations in the wine. Refer to the documentation that comes with your hydrometer for exact specifications and conversion tables. 

Levered or Floor Corker: If you are planning on bottling and corking your wine it’s well worth the $20-30 for a levered or floor corker. Some models of corkers do not use levers and require you to apply a large amount of direct force to the cork to force it into the bottle. These types of corkers can be extremely difficult to use. If you are planning on corking your wine then you’ll want to invest in a relatively inexpensive corker that will allow you to quickly and easily seal bottles. Remember, a five gallon batch of wine can make as many as 25 standard sized (750ml) bottles of wine so you probably won’t be corking just one or two bottles at a time. If possible, try out the corker before buying it to make sure it’s comfortable for you to use. 

Other useful tools: A plethora of other tools can be very useful when making wine but are not necessarily “specialist equipment”. They are not absolutely essential but they can make the process MUCH easier. These include bottle brushes, rinsers, drainers, fillers, long handled stirring spoons, thermometers, funnels, hose clamps, pulp bags, etc.   

How Mead is Made – Fermentation & beyond 

Yeast does the work 

The whole feat is accomplished using a microorganism known as yeast. These microscopic life forms are classified as a higher order of fungus with the ability to consume sugar and expel drinkable alcohol and carbon dioxide as waste. If yeast is introduced to a liquid with a high sugar content and held at the optimum temperature (about 70-75 degrees F) it will quickly consume the majority of sugar in the mixture and replace it with its natural byproducts, alcohol and CO2.

The more sugar present in a mixture the more alcohol generally produced in the end product. As the percentage of alcohol in the mixture (known as “must” in the wine industry) raises the process of fermentation slowly halts. Alcohol is toxic to yeast in high volumes. Some residual sugars may remain in the mixture after fermentation is almost complete but if more is added the process of fermentation will continue to further raise the alcohol content to somewhere in the neighborhood of 24-25% (50 proof). At this point, the alcohol content of the mixture is usually too high and the yeast begin to stop fermentation and die. Quick step-by-step guide:

  1. If using a yeast culture (recommended especially for fresh fruit batches), buy a bottle of bottled apple juice and pour out about ½ of the juice. Mix in the dry yeast and cap with an air lock and rubber bung. Do this at least a week before you plan on starting the wine batch. Let sit in a cool dark place.
  2. Mix all ingredients in recipe except for yeast nutrient/energizer & yeast into the primary fermenter.
  3. If fresh fruit or un-pasteurized honey is used crush and mix 2 campden tablets per gallon into the wine, cover with a towel and wait at least 24 hours.
  4. Whisk wine (optional) and add yeast nutrient and dry or cultured yeast.
  5. Stir thoroughly daily for at least the first week. (remember to sterilize your spoon before stirring )
  6. When air lock bubbling slows to 1 every 2-3 minutes test with hydrometer. If SG is below 1.34 then rack switch to secondary fermenter.
  7. Freeze and thaw (see instructions below) if desired.
  8. Clear with Bentonite or Sparkloid 3-4 times
  9. Stabilize with Potassium Sorbate & Campden tablets
  10. Sweeten to taste
  11. Bottle in corked bottles, 2 liter or gallon containers.
  12. Age as desired (aging can also be done in larger secondary fermentation containers.
  13. Sample liberally


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