Some Thoughts on Mead

I’ve had mixed success with making my own mead. One batch I made was OK and a few others tasted, as Mrs. Root Simple put it, “like a desperate white wine substitute for a zombie apocalypse.” Last year I attended a mead tasting put on by America’s first homebrew club the Maltose Falcons. Somehow I neglected to blog about it, so better late than never, here’s what I learned:

  • If you want decent mead you have to brew it yourself. We tasted a lot of homebrew meads along with commercial meads.  Many of the homebrew meads were excellent. All of the commercial meads tasted like camping fuel. I was, frankly, surprised that anyone would go to the trouble of labeling, distributing and selling some of the awful store bought meads we tasted. I tried yet another horrible commercial mead at the natural foods convention I blogged about on Monday.
  • In my opinion, the best homebrew meads at the tasting were carbonated. The carbonation helps accent the aroma of the honey that can sometime get lost in a flat mead. 
  • The best meads split the difference between dry and sweet. Too dry and you get that boring white wine taste. Too sweet and you’ve got cough syrup. Choosing the right yeast can strike that balance.
  • I’ve had good luck with a Narbonne Wine Yeast called Lalvin 71B-1122 Yeast.

  • I really enjoyed the orange blossom honey based mead my friend Steve Linsley made. Perhaps I’ll prod him for the recipe and post it here one of these days.  

Have you made mead? If so, how did it go? What kind of honey did you use? Have you tried the recipe in our book Making It?

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19 Comments

  1. been making mead for about five years, with good luck, while straight meads are ok, i prefer making melomels, the combo of fruits and honey are really compliment each other – elderberries, dandelions, gooseberries, sweet and tart cherries, raspberries, serviceberries, currants and blueberries have all yielded good results. with the light fruits like gooseberries i tend to go for a pretty dry mead shooting for the 14% mark, with darker fruits i go for higher levels, going as fars as a 18% elderberry port like thing, pretty amazing.

    Ken Schramm’s book is pretty darn helpful for yeast recommendations, and taking a workshop from him was even more helpful. only honey i ever use is wildflower honey from my hives or friends hives, i figure that way the booze is good for my allergies too. i’ve got some posts over at my blog if you wanna check em out. i’d just search for mead and something should come up.

    try some melomels, i think you will like them.

  2. Does accidental mead count? Honey ferments on its own if the water content is to high, some honey I harvested a couple years ago did this due to uncapped winter honey becoming “wetter” then it should be.

  3. My husband’s Rose Petal mead is our favorite. He gathers petals from our Therese Bugnet shrub rose — an old variety with pink blossoms (reds get too spicy). He uses whatever honey we can get, and Red Star Cote des Blancs yeast.

    Not so successful have been his spiced seasonal mead experiments, but they’re getting better as they age. Or maybe it’s as we age….

  4. There is a popular beginner recipe for mead called “Joe’s Ancient Orange Mead” that has been floating around the interwebs for some time. I gave it a whirl about a year ago using raw organic wildflower honey from Azure Standard and regular bread yeast (per recipe).

    The results were less than spectacular. The mead finished syrupy-sweet after 6 months. I didn’t take any gravity readings, so I guessed on the end of fermentation and bottled it. Maybe another year or so will help…or maybe not.

    Disappointed, I made a second batch of “basic” mead using orange blossom honey from Azure and Red Star Cote des Blancs yeast. I am hoping for better results with this one…time will tell.

    I totally agree with the comments about carbonation and fruit (melomels) adding to the drinkability of mead.

  5. I think a good sweet mead can be fantastic, but you have to really pay attention to your ingredients and how you handle them. You can’t make great mead with cheap honey, and if you overheat the honey you will cook off all the good aromatic compounds and leave it tasting flat.

    The best straight meads I have made were with an Oregon blackberry honey (rich, sweet, and fantastically flavorful) and a desert mesquite honey (much lighter in flavor, with a zing).

    Then, be patient. Don’t drink it when it’s too young…most meads take a year after bottling to really get good.

  6. The best commercial mead I’ve ever had was Ethiopian (Tej). I know a couple places here in LA carry it.

    One of my fellow beekeepers brought some for a tasting one night, and it was a lightly carbonated white wine-ish variety. It was tasty enough I took seconds when they passed the bottle around again (tasting cups are small!)

    Most of the beekeepers I know who make mead don’t wind up with many of their bottles leaving the premises…

  7. I’ve made mead twice. The first experiment went down in a 13 gallon carboy, and was based on my aunt’s honey from her yard. Four years later it still tastes of compost, and smells of turned soil. We’ll call that one a disaster, sadly.

    The second experiment produced just one gallon. Straight mead with clover honey. DAMN it is poetic to sip. Like a really rich cream sherry full of happy buzzing bees. I let it age a year before cracking open the fermentation jug, and it is still aging.

  8. I’ve had a number of awesome conversations with Brad of B. Nektar Meadery out of Detroit. He still claims to be a home brewer, even though he’s distributing through most of the East Coast. Most of his recipes are online- http://www.bnektar.com/ and he’s always happy to kick around questions. I met him at a tasting and he apologized before every conversation because he didn’t want to “get too nerdy”. Fortunately, most of us were brewers, so it was totally cool.

  9. Use good honey, not clover or wild-flower. Apple blossom, orange blossom etc works well.

    You will need some type of acid to counteract the sweetness to give it a crisp, clean taste without being totally dry. This can be accomplished through a bacterial secondary ferment if you’re skilled. Even then, it’s tough as honey only adds to the anti-septic qualities of the alcohol. You can add a bit of lemon juice, or as I do, just buy some citric acid.

    Age is everything. Mead matures a lot over time, almost always for the better. A 6 gallon batch will give you about 30 splits. Bottle after one year, and open a bottle every 6 months thereafter just to see how it’s changed. Learn what stage of the mead you enjoy most, and plan your subsequent batches based on your consumption, and the needed age to reach the flavor desired. I like a mead between 5 and 6 years old, so what I bottle this year will be shelved for consumption 5 years from now. Unlike many other brews, it does age perfectly well after bottling, it doesn’t need to be casked to continue evolving.

    Experiment with unusual flavors. I find 2 Habenero peppers per gallon gives it a ginger-like flavor that you can’t accomplish with actual ginger when brewed in honey. No, it’s won’t be like hot-sauce, it will actually taste like a light, sweet ginger ale.

    I also like to add burboun to my meads. It adds a lot of depth to them. Cranberry also works very well, as does chocolate, vanilla, etc.

    For the novice brewers, many flavors distort a lot when fermented or exposed to alcohol. What you put in is not always what you get out. Do your homework on the compounds that create the flavors you are looking for. Many herbs for instance carry their flavors and scents in oils. Oil doesn’t mix well with alcohol, and can separate out and go rancid. As such, you need an emulsifier to bond the oil to the alcohol and water to preserve the flavor. Fortunately, honey IS an emulsifier. So you may want to mix honey with equal parts of fresh water and soak your herbs in that for a few months before filtering the mix, diluting and fermenting. Otherwise you can use things like food-grade vegetable glycerin (the same stuff they use for flavor extracts like vanilla). If you are trying to make a creamed mead or add a very oily ingredient, an egg yoke works well (it won’t go bad in 25% alcohol, but needs frequent mixing for the fist year).

    Ok, I anticipate some skepticism. I’m taking something as simple as fermented honey water, and advocating adding glycerin, acid, egg yokes, hard liquor and hot peppers… Just trust me. Brewers are freaks, but it’s not as strange as many people think. You don’t need to be a chemist, just observe what changes occur in your brew. Find things that can be added to facilitate the changes you want to occur, and prevent the changes you don’t want. No matter how strange it may seem while you’re brewing, when you get to the end result, you’ll be quite happy with it. Whatever it took to get there, you’ll end up with the exact product you were trying for.

    Just think of the first person to make cheese… “I’ll take the bodily excretions of this animal, add the stuff I scraped from the lining of this calf’s stomach, let it clump up and congeal, then pack it into a brick and let it get moldy for a few years…”

    Appetizing is the product, not the process.

  10. I think B. Nektar makes tasty meads. I’ve made several meads over the years and always thought it could be better than it was until this year when I tried a recipe from Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation. I was already growing all the lemony herbs- lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemon basil, lemon thyme and lemon grass- so I was very excited to come across his recipe right before it was going to hard freeze here (Madison, WI) and kill them all. My husband, the home brewer, tried to talk me out of going the wild fermentation route but I held fast and it came out utterly delicious. So much so that we didn’t even bottle it for aging. Straight to tap in our beer fridge and we just drank the last glass a week ago, less than 6 months after we made it. CAN”T WAIT to make more this year, hopefully with our own honey.

  11. I want to make mead this year, but I want to make it the way the monks used to make it, with the cappings from a honey harvest. We have bees.

    I’ll be getting your first book soon, so I am looking forward to incorporating wax cappings, hopefully, into your book’s recipe.

  12. Mead is my favorite adult beverage to make. A few things I like to do based on visiting professional meaderies:

    1. Ferment the hell out of it. Get it up to 14-18% alcohol if you can. Run it dry.

    2. Add fruit at the end (when botteling), only honey goes into the initial ferment. Prickly pear or apple is my favorite. Just a tablespoon will do. This will give you a nice carbonation and some sweetness to override the dry ferment.

    3. Age it at least 60 days before tasting it. There is a big transition that occurs from jet fuel to desert wine.

  13. Over seventeen years of homebrewing mead, I’ve had some great successes and a few failures. Improve success ratio by 1.)not boiling the honey (just heat to pasteurizing temp only), 2.) don’t use sulfites (Campden tablets) 3.) use the best ingredients you can, including good water 4.) keep meticulous notes as you go, including taste tests and 4.) Ageing is essential, but don’t age too long either. After 10 years my melomels are past prime. My favorite meads are drier methyglyns and melomels, and I’ve recently taken to further brewing small volumes of these into truly delectable vinegars (meadgars, I guess.) I’m careful to keep the vessels in a separate place and my kitchen very very clean. I’ve had no trouble with cross-contamination. If you end up with a mead you just don’t like, why not try making it into a vinegar? You won’t be risking much!

  14. Orange Blossom honey is amazing. I recommend adding strawberries, or earl gray tea.

    Generally speaking, I have been thoroughly unimpressed with the white whine yeasts I have used. Champagne yeast seems to yield superiror results.

    Someone above mentioned it as well, but I thoroughly recommend getting your mead into the high teens in terms of alcohol content.

    To get your sweetness from the honey, you need to have a high enough gravity that your yeast will die out before fermentation is complete of all your sugars. That would put you in the 18-20% range for champagne yeast.

    That said, a dry mead is delicious too–aim for a 16-18% proof in that case.

    Do not add berries like raspberries, or blackberries directly to your wort. The skins will make it bitter. Its better to mash up the fruit, make a tea out of that, and then drop that into the wort. I suspect heating the fruit at a low temperature helps soften up the sugars for fermentation as well.

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