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Mead Basics

This article was extracted from The Mead-Lovers README file, maintained by Dick Dunn.

Kinds of Honey

There are many kinds of honey, based on which flowers the bees collected the nectar from. Bees aren't loyal to any particular flower, so any characterization of honey as being from a particular source (for example, blackberry honey ) can vary from absolutely true to a rough generality, depending on what flowers the bees can find and how interesting they find them. Honeys range in taste and color from the light clover through alfalfa to stronger tasting (and darker) such as buckwheat. There are many unusual honeys to be found where there are unusual local flowers. Which honey you will use depends both on which you like the taste of, and what type of mead you are trying to make. Stronger flavors go well in metheglins and heavier or sweet meads, while the milder honeys make a good base for melomels or dry traditional meads.

Adding Acid

Acid is added to the must (the honey water mixture you're going to ferment) both to adjust the pH and to balance the sweet flavor of thehoney. Yeast love an acidic environment; many other microorganisms don't. The acid you add protects the must until the alcohol level creates a hostile environment for the competition. Acid can be added in many forms. Acid is measured in as tartaric , or how acidic the must is compared to pure tartaric acid. For example, if the must is 0.5 percent acid as tartaric, it is as acidic as if 0.5 % of the must were pure tartaric acid. Inexpensive test kits will let you measure the acidity so that you can adjust it. Acid blends are a combination of tartaric, citric, and malic acids. You may be able to get the individual acids used in blends. Each contributes a slightly different taste in addition to acidity. The natural acid in fruits and berries will also acidify the must, for which reason melomels often need no additional acid.

How to Prepare the Must

The honey/water mixture before fermenting is called must. You will want to add the honey to hot water in a large pot, but make sure the pot is not on the heat while doing this because the honey will fall to the bottom and caramelize. Some mead recipes recommend only heating the must enough to pasteurize it. This is because boiling mead will drive off some of the delicate honey flavors. If scum rises while heating or boiling the must, skim it off. The scum consists of wax, bee parts, pollen, etc., which don't help the flavor of the mead. An alternative preparation method involves the use of "Camden tablets" or "sulfiting" to sterilize the must. If you're a winemaker, you'll recognize this method. With the use of Camden tablets, it is not necessary to heat/boil the must at all first, although some mead-makers do so anyway for the sake of clarity of the final mead. If you use Camden tablets, follow a recipe or instructions for quantity, preparation, delay times, etc. Heating is probably easier than sulfiting for the beginning mead-maker.

Yeast

Mead is more a wine than beer, with a final alcohol level anywhere between 10 and 18 percent. Wine yeast, which have a higher alcohol tolerance, may ferment slower at first (although some are remarkably fast) but will ferment more completely than ale or lager yeast. They are also less likely to produce "off" tastes which take a long time to age out after the mead is finished. A partial list of some of the popular yeast are: Champagne (multiple strains), Epernay, Flor Sherry, Steinberg, Prise De Mousse, Tokay, and various proprietary strains which are derived from these. This list is by no means exhaustive. Each yeast will impart its own unique characteristic to the mead. Champagne ferments out very dry and has a high alcohol tolerance. Epernay has a fruity bouquet. Flor Sherry has a high alcohol tolerance and contributes a flavor that goes better with sack meads. Prise de Mousse is particularly neutral and fast-fermenting. Some yeast will produce noticeable levels of phenols (the throat-burning part of cough medicine), which age out eventually in bottle conditioning but are an unnecessary complication since there are yeast that don't produce them.

Yeast Nutrient

Honey by itself is low in some of the nutrients that yeast need to reproduce and quickly ferment out the mead must. Fermentation times can be measured in months as the yeast slowly trickles along. This is a disadvantage because as long as the fermenting mead remains sweet and low in alcohol, it is inviting to contaminating bacteria. Mead makers can add a nutrient to help the yeast, and normally should do so if the only fermentable ingredient is honey. Fruit, particularly grapes, will contribute needed ingredients; thus melomels have lesser or no requirement for nutrients. Nutrients are normally added when the must is prepared. There are several kinds of nutrients. Most winemaking shops will sell various salts designed for grape musts. While this is helpful for mead, too much can leave an astringent metallic flavor that will take months or years in the bottle to age out. Yeast extract, pulverized yeast, is also available. Dead yeast are exploded ultrasonically or in a centrifuge, and sold as a powder. Yeast extract will not leave the same metallic flavors as nutrients, but may be more difficult to find. It is not possible to make your own yeast extract at home.

Fermentation

Mead will take longer than beer to ferment. Fermentation times can be measured in months, so get another carboy. Mead likes to ferment a little warmer than beer (70F - 80F), but should be stored in a cool place to bottle condition. You will have to rack mead (transfer it to a separate vessel, leaving behind the sediment) while it is fermenting. If you make any kind of mead beside traditional, you will have to rack about a week after starting to remove the bits of fruit and spices that settle out. Rack periodically after that to get the mead off the dead yeast and other matter that settles out--every 3-6 weeks depending on the rate of fermentation and settling. This improves the flavor and clarifies the mead. Initial fermentation of melomels made with fruit (not just juice) is easiest in a food-grade plastic pail so that you can strain out the fruit before racking. Except for this, glass carboys with fermentation locks are the best fermentation vessels.
 

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