Brew Your Own Mead!
Late in the summer of 1993, I flipped through the Lughnasadh issue of Keltria Journal and was inspired to try my hand at mead-making. To be honest, I wasn’t all that thrilled with the few types of store-bought mead I had sampled; there weren't very many choices at the time and they were all expensive. But being a Pagan of northwestern European descent, I figured I owed it to my ancestors to give it a proper try. It was enough of a success that I decided I liked mead and kept on with the brewing, eventually branching out into herbal meads and fruit wines as well. Twenty-plus years later, I’m happy to report that my cellar is currently stocked with peach wine, medlar wine, elderberry wine, half-dry mead, muscadine wine and triple berry wine, all deliciously drinkable and remarkably inexpensive to make. And yes, it helps that I grow the fruit myself, but I don't have beehives so I have to buy the honey.
If you're interested in brewing your own mead, you should take a look at the mead-making article in the Lughnasadh 1993 issue of Keltria. Steven of Prodea gives excellent instructions and good advice, which I followed way back when. But I thought I’d give you some more specific information, a sort of step-by-step recipe that shares my experience (trial and error, much of it, to be honest). Ultimately, all you’re doing is providing some yeast with good food and a clean environment in which to do its thing. The result, of course, is sublime. And in my case, sacred as well. Yes, I consider brewing to be a part of my spiritual practice. After all, an activity that transforms one substance into another is magic, right?
All those years ago I was pretty broke so I started with very simple equipment: an empty gallon glass jug that had originally held apple cider, and a balloon. That’s all. I washed the jug really well with hot, soapy water and yes, I even washed the balloon, just in case. If I could give you just one bit of advice about brewing, it’s to be as scrupulously clean as you can manage. The yeast have to compete with any microbes that might be hanging around the environment, so wash hands, wash equipment, and work only on well-cleaned surfaces.
The ingredients for my first batch of mead were honey, water and champagne yeast. That’s it. The flavor of your honey will influence the flavor of the finished product, so don’t use honey that you wouldn’t want to eat. If you dislike a particular type of honey, you won’t like the mead it makes, either, trust me.
Be aware that honey is often sold by weight rather than liquid volume. For instance, in US measures, a quart of honey (32 ounces by volume) will weigh 48 ounces. So pay attention to labels to make sure you’ve got the right amount of honey. When in doubt, use a measuring cup at home to be sure.
Also, PLEASE use actual wine yeast. Yes, it’s possible to brew mead and wine with baking yeast from the grocery store, but it will taste like alcoholic bread. I don’t recommend it. Wine yeast is not expensive and is well worth the small investment to come out with a tasty product. I order mine from EC Kraus but if you live in a large metropolitan area, you may find a home brewing supply store nearby.
I've listed the ingredients in both metric and Imperial measures. Please choose one system or the other and use it all the way through in order to maintain the correct proportions.
Makes 1 gallon
1 quart honey (48 ounces by weight) / 1 liter honey (1440 grams by weight)
3 quarts warm water (105-110° F) / 3 liters warm water
1 packet white wine or Champagne yeast
Container with narrow neck, preferably glass, large enough to hold 1 gallon / 4 liters liquid
Clean balloon, color of your choice :-)
Large bowl or pot, to hold 1 gallon liquid
Spoon for stirring
Funnel (optional, but helpful for getting the mixture into the gallon jug)
In a large, nonreactive bowl or pot (glass, enamel or stainless steel), stir the honey and water together well until the honey dissolves. Pour or spoon a few tablespoons of the mixture into a small bowl. Sprinkle the wine yeast over and stir until it’s dissolved. Let it sit until it foams up, about 10 minutes. This lets you know the yeast is active and ready to turn your honey-water mixture into wine. Gently stir the yeast mixture back into the honey-water, then pour the liquid into the gallon jug. Avoid splashing as much as possible, since oxygen slows down the fermentation process. Stretch the mouth of the balloon over the neck of the jug, making sure it seals well (you don’t want microbes from the air to invade your brew). Set the jug in a place away from drafts, where it won’t be disturbed, and let it do its thing. In one to two weeks, depending on the temperature of the room, the fizzing will stop and the balloon will deflate. Carefully pour the contents of the jug into a clean container, leaving the sediment in the jug (that’s mostly dead yeast – add it to your compost or garden!). Clean out the jug, pour the good stuff back in, and fill it back up to the original level with warm water. Put the balloon back on and let it sit for a few more weeks, until you’re sure the yeasties have stopped doing their thing. Pour the contents into bottles, leaving any remaining sediment behind, and enjoy!
You can scale this recipe up to make larger batches (I typically make 5 gallons at a time now). You can also throw in any spices you like – cinnamon, allspice, ginger, nutmeg, cloves – just a few pinches in a gallon batch. You can substitute fruit juice (apple and grape are good) for up to half the water for a different flavor, but don’t sub more than half the water or the resulting beverage will be too sweet to drink.
Be aware that yeast is active in direct proportion to the temperature, so if you set your brewing jug in a cold basement, you may or may not get mead. If you set it on a hot porch, the balloon may blow right off. You want a gentle, mid-range temperature (70 to 80° F / 21 to 26° C) for good fermentation, about the same setting you would use for letting yeasted bread dough rise.
If you find you want to brew more and larger batches, you may want to invest in a few items such as 5-gallon carboys, airlocks and plastic tubing. But really, all you need is a jug and a balloon.
If you give it a try, please let me know how it goes. If you have questions, I’ll do my best to answer them or point you toward resources that are better-informed than I am.