Mead Making Made Easy – Part I

We are pretty avid mead brewers here at Birchwood. We have been brewing mead in our own kitchen for almost 20 years, and have come to realize over that time that the process can be much simpler than most people think. I will let you in on a little secret.

Don’t tell anyone, but making mead is easy. So easy in fact, that just about anybody could do it. I mean really. If we can do it, anybody can.

We participate in several Mead groups on Facebook, and I never cease to be amazed at the gyrations that some folks go through to produce a simple bottle of mead. Electronic monitors, meters, and gadgets of all kinds seem to be popular with the kids today.

Bunk.

Mead making can be the simplest process in the world. It is made with simple recipes, and simple ingredients, and should NOT require a Phd. to accomplish. In fact the basic recipe for mead is so simple, I am going to lay it on you right now:

Water + Honey + Yeast = Mead

After that, there really are only two variable you need to worry about:

  1. The ratio of Honey to Water (more honey = sweeter, less honey = drier).
  2. What (or if) you add anything else to enhance the flavor of the finished mead.

At Birchwood we brew mead that we like to drink, so ours runs a bit sweet. We have settled on a ratio of “2 parts water, to 1 part honey” – but you can adjust that ratio to your own taste.

That is seriously just about it, except for a few things that get thrown in as well:

  1. We add a few organic vanilla beans to every batch, regardless of other flavors. (This adds a nice spicy finish to every batch)
  2. We add a few cut-up oranges (peel and all) again, regardless of other flavors. (This adds citric acid, aids with some chemistry and such, and enhances the flavor – but all you need to know is: add some oranges).

Beyond those basic guidelines, the only other factor to consider is what you want your finished mead to taste like, and what you therefore add for other flavorings. We are partial to fruit, and usually add some combinations of berries and such to our mead for

mead-types

flavor. This technically means that what we brew here at Birchwood is a “Melomel”.

Now that I have described the basic ingredients, here is a nice simple graphic that describes the different kinds of Mead. There are more, sort of nit-picky sub-species of mead (like a mead made with rose petals is called a Rhodomel, and a mead made with traditional malted grains (like barley) is called a Braggot). But these are all things you can learn about if you really want to get scientific about it. Simple is always better.

To start with, just remember the basics: Water + Honey (+ Fruit) + Yeast = MEAD.

Equipment you will need to get started:

Again, we like to keep things very simple. You will need:

  • One brewing bucket (any size, but it 5 gallons is most common, and it MUST be “Food Grade” plastic, with a lid that seals tightly.
    • We recommend just going to your local brewing store, and buying one. Yes, you can make your own out of any 5-gallon, Food Grade plastic bucket, but the pre-made ones already have the hole drilled in the top with a little rubber gasket to accept your bubbler, and they also usually have a large rubber gasket around where the lid seals to ensure a tight fit. Do yourself a favor, and just buy one.
  • One glass Carboy. Again, any size, but it needs to hold the liquid that will come out of your bucket, so… 5-gallons is good.
    • You also need one (1) rubber stopper for the carboy (with a hole in it for the bubbler to go in).
  • You also need one (1) “Bubbler”
    • There are a couple of different types of Bubblers, and it is up to you which kind you buy. They all work the same, and do the same job. Personal preference here.
    • The last thing you will need is wine bottles to pour your mead into, and corks to seal the bottles. The corks you will buy from your local brewing store (usually by the 50 count). For the bottles, you have two choices:
      • You can recycle used wine bottles. This involves soaking them, and then scrubbing them etc. to remove the original labels. When you are done you will have a bunch of bottles (some whose labels would not come all the way off, no matter how much you scrubbed) that are all different colors and slightly different sizes.
      • OR, you can buy a brand new box of clear wine bottles from your local brewing store. A case should only run you around $20, and you are there anyway to pick up your bubbler and your corks, so DO YOURSELF A FAVOR.
The golden color of our latest batch. It tastes even better than it looks!
The golden color of our latest batch. It tastes even better than it looks!

And that’s it. You now have all the equipment you will need to make your first batch of mead. Now comes the fun part.

Once you have rinsed out your new brewing bucket, you are ready to combine and add your ingredients.

Here is a crucial bit of wisdom you should pay attention to: You do not have to heat your mead! Well, at least not much. The ONLY reason to heat the liquid up at all before you pour it into your brewing bucket is to 1) ensure the honey dissolves completely into the water, and 2) warm the liquid up enough so that the yeast will be happy and procreate.

Most meaders WAY overheat their mead before adding it to the brewing bucket. You only need to warm it slightly, and should still be able to put your hand into the liquid without it feeling “too hot”. Put your water, your honey, some cut-up oranges, a few cinnamon sticks and your fruit-of-choice into a large pot, and place it over a VERY LOW heat. When all the honey is melted into the water, turn off the heat. You are almost done.

One important step gets completed before you pour your mead into your brewing bucket and add the yeast. You must first PROOF the yeast. This just means you want to make sure that the yeast is going to like your mead (that it is not too hot, for example) and will go forth and procreate merrily. You do this by taking a small amount of the liquid out of your pot (important to make sure you have not heated it too hot), and pour that liquid into a small bowl. Add your entire packet of yeast, and cover with plastic wrap. Now go away for 20-30 minutes.

When you come back, the liquid under the plastic wrap should be covered with a foamy, yeasty layer that smells vaguely of bread. If this has happened, your yeast is happy and you are good to go. DO NOT PROCEED UNTIL THIS HAS OCCURRED. If your yeast does not proof, go back and try again with another packet of yeast.

2015-08-23 18.02.00

Now just pour that mixture of water, honey and fruit into your brewing bucket. Add a few Black Tea bags (for some Tannic Acid chemistry I forgot to mention earlier), and add a few Green Tea bags (because they contribute some anti-oxidants to your mead, as well as tannic acid), then dump in your bowl of mead-and-yeast-foam, and you are good to go.

Seal the bucket firmly, put some water in your bubbler and insert it into the hole in the top. Now step away and do not touch it for at LEAST three months. Six months is even better. You will know your mead is brewing merrily along by the speed with which bubbles escape from your bubbler. As fast as once every second in the beginning, but tapering off after about a week to stopping all together after a few weeks. Do not worry, this is normal.

In Part II of this Mead Making Made Easy series, I will talk about how long to leave your mead in the brewing bucket (WAY longer than you think!) and we will discuss transferring from your bucket to your carboy, and then later racking and labeling your bottles. Stay tuned!

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