Though mead making has been covered on the E. C. Kraus Winemaking Blog, mead also falls into the homebrewing side of the equation. It is often judged in BJCP competitions and as it turns out, the mead making process is fairly simple and generally less time-consuming than making beer – at least on brew day itself.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a presentation called “How To Make Mead Like a Viking”, presented by Jereme Zimmerman. Keep reading to learn about what I gathered from the class about how to make mead from honey.
Mead is quite possibly the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man. It’s simply a fermented combination of honey and water. Though mead can be made using commercial wine or beer yeast, to make mead “like a Viking”, it should be spontaneously fermented… without yeast added. In other words, the yeast comes from the air or from fruits and/or spices.
The ancient Vikings would often use all parts of the bee hive in their mead, including the honeycomb, the raw honey, and even the bees. If you have access to raw honey or a honeycomb, by all means use them, but also feel free to just use plain honey. Jereme recommended sourwood honey, clover honey, and buckwheat honey.
The only ingredients you absolutely need starting out learning how to make mead is honey and water:
- Do your best to find raw unpasteurized honey for your mead recipe. Your local farmers market is a good place to look. Just try to avoid the store-bought stuff that’s made with corn syrup and artificial flavors. It will ferment, but the results will be less satisfying.
- As for water, use distilled, spring, or purified water. If you must use tap water, either boil it or let it sit out overnight in order to evaporate any chlorine that may be in the water. Use about 1 gallon of water per quart of honey for a semi-sweet mead, less water if you like your mead sweeter, more water if you like it drier.
You may also wish to include flavoring ingredients, including fruit, herbs, spices, etc. Zimmerman recommends also throwing in 10 to 12 organic raisins, a bit of tree bark, such as oak, chestnut, or cherry, or black tea for flavor and nutrients for the yeast. Another optional ingredient when learning how to make mead is some sort of acid added to the mead recipe for flavor and mouthfeel.
If you are a homebrewer or winemaker, you probably already have the basic idea of how to make mead. You probably already have everything you need equipment-wise, as well. This includes:
- A ceramic, glass, or food-grade plastic fermenter
- A stirring spoon – Vikings would use a totem, or “magic” stick. They didn’t understand the science of fermentation, however the yeast that would reside on their stirring stick would carry from batch to batch.
- Cheesecloth or other cloth material to wrap around the mouth of the fermentation vessel, plus a string or rubber band to secure it in place.
This is how to make mead using a spontaneous fermentation. Your mead brew day should take about an hour from start to finish.
- Clean and sanitize your equipment – Again if you’re a homebrewer or winemaker, you know how to do this.
- Mix the water and the honey – There’s no need to boil or even heat the mixture. However, you may wish to warm the honey just enough to make it easier to pour out of its bottle. Mix about 3/4 gallons of water per quart of honey.
- Add flavorings and yeast nutrient – Though flavorings aren’t required, they can add an interesting dimension to your mead. You might also consider adding yeast nutrient to support the fermentation (though that’s not how the Vikings did it!).
- Add yeast – Yeast naturally lives on many different fruits, so this may be just throwing in a few (10-12) organic raisins. Alternatively, add a commercial wine yeast such as Lalvin ICV D-47. Fix your cheesecloth over the top of the fermenter.
- Ferment – This is probably the most critical part of the mead making process. About an hour after pitching your yeast, give the mixture a vigorous stir to aerate. Repeat this a few times a day for the first three days or so. You’ll know when fermentation takes off by the froth that forms on the top of the mead. Once the froth settles down, get ready to rack.
- Rack to a secondary fermenter – Vikings typically drink their meads young, but modern tastes may appreciate some aging. Some of today’s meads are aged for a year or longer. Feel free to take a sample of the mead to see how it tastes. If you decide to age the mead go ahead and rack it into a carboy and seal with a bung and an airlock. Minimize headspace in the carboy by topping it off with enough water, fruit juice, or honey and water mixture to bring the level of the mead up to within an inch or so of the airlock’s bung.
- Age – Allow the mead to age for at least 3-4 months. It should continue to improve over the course of a year. This may be hard for someone just learning how to make mead, but it’s well worth the wait.
- Bottle – When the mead has completely finished fermenting and it tastes to your liking, bottle the mead. You can bottle with wine bottles and a corker or beer bottles and a capper. Either way is fine. Use a bit of honey or priming sugar if you want a carbonated mead, but only do this if putting in beer bottles. Wine bottles are not designed to hold any kind of pressure.
- Drink – You can continue to age your mead, or go ahead and drink it. Either way – skål!
And that’s how to make mead like a Viking. Now it’s your turn. Sounds easy enough, right? I’ll give the process a try and let you know how it goes!
David Ackley is a beer writer, brewer, and self-described “craft beer crusader.” He holds a General Certificate in Brewing from the IBD and is founder of the Local Beer Blog.