Whether they knew it or not, most beekeepers would have already made mead at some stage.
Be it from a half washed honey bucket left in the laundry to ‘soak’ overnight which was then forgotten about, or it may have been an uncapped frame that spoiled a batch of honey.
That all too familiar smell of fermentation would have been a dead giveaway as to what’s happened.
Perhaps this natural mead-making ability comes from the 2% Norwegian heritage that your Ancestry.com DNA test has enlightened you with (practically a Viking). Or, perhaps it was because making mead is a very natural and simple process.
Either way, if your honey has fermented, you’ve made mead.
Would your accidental mead have been any good? Probably not!
Can you control and improve the mead making process? Yes, you certainly can.
We are definitely not expert mead makers. That said, we have experimented a little though and would like to share with you some of what we know.
Read on to find out more about this easy DIY and very underrated alcoholic beverage.
What is mead?
Mead is the result of fermenting honey with water.
In its most pure form, mead comes about from natural yeasts converting the sugars in honey into alcohol.
This process can be manipulated by the use of specialised yeasts and additional ingredients to shape the flavours and properties of the yeast, but the essential ingredients are water and honey.
Mead is thought to have originally been discovered by vikings.
Can just imagine ol’ Eutrid coming across Bjorn passed out in the store hold of their warship, curled around an unwashed wooden honey drum laden with the fermenting sweet drop from the gods.
“Thought I told you to wash that out a month ago…”
“But I left it to soak for a while”
“Give it here!”
Assuming that is the exact manner in which mead was discovered or not, what we do know is that it went on to become a popular drink for the Vikings and a part of their culture.
Why haven’t I heard of mead?
Despite its popularity with our Viking ancestors, mead seems to have fallen out of fashion somewhat.
I mean, it’s not as though we haven’t been able to access the stuff for generations, but it has hardly been on many people’s shortlist when hustling through Dan Murphy’s on a Friday evening.
You’ve also probably never noticed mead appearing on an advertisement amongst the plethora of fermented or distilled beverages that we have thrust upon us daily.
Whatever the reasons for mead not being a staple part of our drinking culture, we feel as though it is an incredibly underrated substance, especially when one considers how easy it is to make and how versatile and varietal it can be.
What types of mead are there?
For the aspiring mead maker, there are many different types of mead to experiment with.
Some will be more difficult to refine than others, however, on the whole, they are generally quite achievable for even the newest of home-brewers.
This list is by no means exhaustive. There are many other types of mead out there, but this should give you an idea of what kind of variations can be made.
This is a type of mead that has no added flavouring ingredients. It is simply just water, honey and yeast. While the yeast and water can have a bearing on the end product, flavours within the honey will determine the overall taste.
Has a lower alcohol content than other meads. This can be achieved by using less honey in the fermenting stage or through a dilution with water. What it lacks in alcoholic strength, this mead makes up for in the reduced time it takes to ‘age’ and become palatable.
A mead/beer hybrid that is made with malted barley or other grains and of course, honey. Can also be a blend of finished mead mixed with beer.
This is a mead that is made with fruit. This category can be further broken down to varieties such as cyser, a mead made using apples, and pyment, a mead made with grapes. Many other types of fruits can be used in the making of mead and they will all contribute certain flavouring and characteristics to the mead.
This is a type of mead that is very strong, being made with a higher proportion of honey in the mix.
This includes meads that are made with herbs such as those made with chillies, capsicums or other spices
A mead that is made without adding any specific yeasts and instead just allowing natural yeasts to take hold and induce fermentation. Can be a bit hit and miss.
There are many other types of mead, and meadsters are coming up with new ones from time to time.
How to buy honey for mead
The best mead requires the best honey. There simply is no way around it. If you want great mead, you need great honey.
While not all supermarket honey is rubbish, the best honey you will find will be the raw honey you can source from local beekeepers.
There are a number of things you should look for when buying honey for making mead. Look for trustworthy sellers that have appropriately labelled packaging and have the required permits and approvals to sell honey.
When you make up a batch of mead, the last thing you want to be buying is substandard honey.
Honey is your primary ingredient. Accordingly, it is worthwhile spending time doing your research and getting honey that you can use confidently.
At the end of the day, it will come down to you deciding what you’re willing to pay, however, by following this honey buying guide, you should be able to confidently pick a winning batch from a reliable seller.
How to make mead
Firstly, the two primary ingredients are mixed together. The water and honey are shaken or stirred until the honey has all dissolved into the water.
Some mead makers will use heated water so that the wild yeasts in the honey or water are killed off. While this will make the honey dissolve faster and may help to prevent any off flavours coming from these uncontrolled yeasts, it does have a downside.
By mixing the honey with hot water you are essentially pasteurising it. This can erode some of the natural flavours of the honey as well as kill off beneficial properties within the honey.
Whenever we make mead, we don’t heat it as we prefer the benefits in flavour that raw honey has over pasteurised honey.
As for the water you choose to use, this can either be just regular tap water or you can buy spring water. If you find that your tap water is particularly ‘hard’ and contains a lot of minerals or additives, then it may be best to buy spring water.
We can typically get away with using tap water, however, spring or rainwater is normally going to be the safer bet.
Essentially the problem with some tap water is that it can contain chlorine and minerals that adversely affect the mead making process. If in doubt about the purity of your tap water, just invest in some spring water from your local store.
To mix the honey and water you can simply just combine the two elements in your chosen mead making container or you can mix it in smaller containers first. The advantage of using smaller jugs is you can more effectively shake the mix and get it nice and oxygenated.
A tip here is to shake or stir some water around in your honey containers and then add this to the mead mix. This helps to remove all the remaining honey from its packaging so that none is wasted.
So with those two ingredients combined, the mix needs something to kick it off. For this, we add wine yeast and nutrients.
The wine yeast we use comes with a high alcohol tolerance and gets to work almost immediately in converting the sugars in honey into alcohol.
We add nutrient at this stage also, as this helps the yeast survive and thrive which aids in a prolific and consistent fermentation.
You can use whatever kind of yeast you prefer, however, we tend to use wine yeasts or a specific mead yeast like Mangrove Jacks M5 as these will ferment to higher alcohol content.
This mix can essentially just be left on its own and it will become mead!
How much alcohol is in mead?
The amount of honey used will determine the overall alcohol content of the mead. Essentially though, most meads are in the range of 12 to 18 percent ABV.
As a bi-product of yeast eating the sugar in the honey, the yeast produces alcohol.
This means that the more honey dissolved into the mix, the more food for the yeast, and the more alcohol they can produce.
Essentially, the yeast will keep on consuming the honey until it is all gone, and the fermentation stops.
When it comes to ABV, the amount of honey used is not the only limiting factor.
The yeast used in the mead will have an upper limit on the amount of alcohol they can handle. This is referred to as the ‘alcohol tolerance’ of the yeast.
Once the yeast gets to its alcohol tolerance level, it can no longer survive and will die off.
Interestingly though, sometimes yeasts will mutate and can exceed the alcohol tolerance level claimed on the packet.
Like that leathery old dude at the end of the bar who just drinks all afternoon and is seemingly unaffected, the yeast evolves into a more alcohol tolerant being that can survive in an increasingly intoxicated state.
While mutated yeasts are harmless, they are worth keeping in mind when it comes time to bottle your mead.
Can I make mead at home?
Yes, mead can be made at home!
So long as you follow basic sanitary practices just like you would with any other home brewing procedure, anyone can make mead at home. In fact, we dare say that it is actually easier and more straightforward than a lot of other brewing methods.
While the nuances and finesse of making a show mead that is competition worthy may be beyond most beginners, the actual art of getting a drinkable mead is not all that difficult.
Trial and error is your friend. Play around with different flavours of honey, different yeasts, different fermentation temperatures, various additional flavourings and whatever you feel like really.
There are thousands of recipes available online that you can try.
If you mess it up, just mix the mead with some fruit juice or something.
Sacrilege and blasphemous to the Viking gods? Maybe, but a fruity drink that packs a punch nonetheless.
That said, it is amazing how often an initially ‘bad mead’ becomes something to behold if just given time. The aging process is especially important for higher ABV meads.
Without getting scientific about it, in effect, the favours need time to mellow and round out. What may taste like rocket fuel now, can become a nice smooth drink in 6 to12 months time.
A good saying to follow in regards to aging mead is that “if you want to make a mead for Christmas, aim to make it for the following years Christmas.”
Also, the best way to get over the whole waiting around to drink it ordeal is to just have several batches on the go at any one time and have them all offset.
That way after a while, you’ll always have a batch to be working on, and some to drink while you wait for the others to become ready.
Mead making equipment
There are a number of different pieces of equipment that you need for making mead, but most are simple to source.
A lot of the items can be bought at local shopping centres, and any decent home-brewing shop will stock everything you need.
Things like these airlocks can be purchased cheap online, and can be adapted to fit most types of fermenting vessels.
We’ve fermented mead in a wine bottle with a balloon as an airlock, just for fun, but will generally use 5L glass demijohn containers or 20L honey buckets to ferment in.
So long as the container is food safe and can have an airlock fitted, then you’re only really limited by your imagination as to what container you ferment in.
The aim of this post is to serve as a general overview and guide. If you intend to make your own batch, we suggest you do some further research. Hit the Youtubes and learn more about it, find one of the mead-making website or forums, or buy a book or two on mead-making.
There are truckloads to learn, and we certainly have a long way to with our mead-making ourselves… But like anything, learning about it is part of the fun.
If you’d never heard of Mead before, we hope our words have helped open your mind to this long-hidden beverage from yesteryear.
If you’d heard of mead and this has sparked an interest in buying or making some for yourself, then that is great too!
And hey, if you’re not a beekeeper yourself and are keen to go ahead and make some mead of your own, hit us up for some honey. After all, the best mead is made from the best honey!