All right readers, you demanded it and the time has come: I AM FINALLY POSTING THE RECIPE FOR ABSOLUTELY DELICIOUS, ABSOLUTELY (NATURALLY) ALCOHOLIC HONEY MEAD.
I’ve had requests for these instructions ever since I first posted that I was making mead at home. I think that my family, who are all very particular about their alcohol, would agree that the mead is their favorite of all my food projects. This mead has become Matt’s #1 favorite alcoholic beverage. That says a lot.
Making honey mead has been one of the most exciting and satisfying food projects that I’ve taken on. The experimentation is endless– Timing! Flavors! Techniques! I could start a new batch of honey mead every few days for the rest of my life and I would still not exhaust the possibilities.
This information and these recipes are based on wild fermentation– that is, fermentation that happens naturally by using the yeasts in the air– so if you are looking to add yeast from a packet, I’m afraid I don’t know anything about that. All of my fermentation projects have been wild, so I’ve never “added” yeast. I’ve never need to!
These instructions are a compilation of experiences and a hundred articles and books I’ve read on the topic. I’ve tried to include the relevant science involved, in basic terms, and any other tips and fun facts along the way. I know that this is long, but I tried to highlight the most important points so that you can skim through the page if you wish…
My very first sip of my very first batch, aka Love at first taste!
Honey mead is perhaps the oldest possible ferment known– The fermentation happens so easily, cave dwellers were getting plowed off it thousands of years ago! Traces of honey mead has been found in ancient pottery from 7000 BC.
Honey is so magical, with amazing nutrients, and it is so stable that it never goes bad. That is, in pure form. The sugars (glucose and fructose) in honey are dehydrated, so they do not ferment on their own. However, if honey is mixed with water (a mere 15% water or more) it will rehydrate the sugars, and the sugars will ferment and turn the mixture into mead. When I say that this fermentation happens easily, I mean it!
Honey Mead / Strawberry Cocktail
The big cost is the honey, which isn’t too bad. I buy a 5-lb tub of raw honey at about $17 each. Each tub contains almost 7 cups of honey, so it will make 2 1/3 gallons of mead, and each gallon makes about 4 wine bottles full. So, each wine bottle of mead costs less than $2 in honey.
You probably already have a gallon-container for the initial ferment, but I found gallon jars at Salvation Army for $3.25 (which I use over and over again). I re-use the balloons, but the initial cost was about $3 for a bag of 15. The screw-capped wine bottles were just bottles that I saved after drinking the wine, so I’m counting them as free– Also, my friends, local bartender, and especially my family(!!!) have been saving their screw-tops bottles for me. My family just sent me home with 25 bottles they’d been collecting for me! (Don’t forget to thank your helpers with a bit of your mead.)
You can get fancy with equipment– Brand-new bottles, airlocks, siphons, etc– but I’m not that kind of girl.
WHAT YOU NEED (TO MAKE 1 GALLON)
a gallon-sized glass jar or bowl
(ceramic may be fine, but I’ve never used it)
~3 cups honey
(raw or not)
a plastic or wooden stirring spoon
a filter (for pouring the mead into bottles)
glass bottles with screw caps*
airlocks or balloons**
*I recommend screw-top wine bottles, but you can also use a gallon jug (Think apple cider jug).
**I have never used an actual airlock, although you can find them at wine/beer shops and online for about $1.50 each. In my experience, balloons work great, cost less, and make a more simple operation.
THE SIMPLE STEPS
1: Put ~3 cups of honey into your gallon jar, and fill up the rest with water. (5 minutes)
2: Stir your mead vigorously 2+ times per day until it is bubbly. (3-10 days)
3: Pour into bottles and airlock. (1-3 weeks)
4: Once the bubbling has stopped, cap the bottles. (5 minutes)
5: Let age. (1 week to a few years)
I indicated the time involved for each step, but in actual work you only put in about a half-hour per gallon.
Super simple steps, and I want you to have them for reference– But let me explain a little of the science behind each step so that you can experiment with flavors and alcohol content.
1: Put 3 cups of honey into your (clean) gallon jar, and fill up the rest with water.
Make sure the water is filtered. If you are using raw honey, be sure to use lukewarm water (not hot) so that you don’t kill the natural yeasts in the honey– These natural yeasts will contribute to the alcohol content. It’s okay if your honey isn’t raw, though, since step #2 will introduce more yeast to your mead.
Stir so that the honey and water are thoroughly mixed.
You’ll want to cover your jar with a cloth to prevent flies from getting in (Seriously– Flies are going to attack your mead if you don’t cover it). I love to use aprons because I can use the skirt of the apron over the top of the jar, and then tie the strings in a bow around the jar to keep it secure. You can also use towels or dishrags, which I’ve also used successfully.
Prettiest little meads at the ball, all dressed up and ready to ferment!
Keep your mead in a lukewarm place, out of direct sunlight. Your mead will want a bit of airflow to bring more yeasts.
2: Stir your mead vigorously 2+ times per day until it is bubbly.
(These are the basic instructions, so please see the “FRUIT” information below about adding fruit to increase alcohol content and flavor– That would be done between the last step and this one.)
To understand what happens in this step and the next, the science of the sugars is
important awesome. Honey has two types of sugars: glucose and fructose. Generally speaking, when combined, glucose ferments into alcohol very quickly, and fructose ferments more slowly. During this step, the glucose is fermenting. In the next couple of steps, the fructose will ferment. Thus, after this step your mead will be alcoholic (and delicious!)– but only half of the sugars will have turned to alcohol.
To be honest, after a few batches I started using fruit to ferment and lightly flavor the mead, and the fruit encourages much more yeast to form in your mead, which is both fun and effective. However, plain (“pure”) mead is also delicious and can attract yeast quite easily as well.
My technique (and also Sandor Katz‘s, who is a great master of all things fermented) is to stir the honey in a circle one way, and then switch directions. You can stir the mead several times per day if you’d like, and the additional stirring will help the yeast to ferment faster.
After a few days, you will notice some obvious bubbling when you stir– Not just the bubbles caused by the stirring itself, but a flurry of bubbles will soar in from the bottom of the jar like a bottle of soda. The bubbling should get strong for a few days and then start to subside; when it subsides, it is time to airlock your mead.
3: Pour into bottles and airlock.
At this point, the glucose is pretty much all turned to alcohol, and now the fructose is starting to turn into alcohol. If, instead of airlocking your mead, you decide to drink it, you will have mead that is sweet and slightly (~8%) alcoholic. Just make sure that if you cap the bottle that is holding the mead, it doesn’t stay out of the fridge for more than a couple days, or else carbonation will build and your bottle might explode.
Like I said earlier, I don’t use real airlocks– I use balloons. The point of the airlock is to let air out of the mead while preventing oxygen from getting in. I like to use balloons because (1) they’re cheap, and (2) I’m at work all day, so it’s fun to come home each day and see how much the balloons have inflated. I wouldn’t get to see the progress with a regular airlock.
Also, the production is colorful and fun, like a circus!
If it seems like the balloons have stopped inflating, I will let the air out of the balloon, allowing the exposure of oxygen to the small surface of the mead for a few seconds, and then replace the balloon to see if it has any new air in the next few days. I also might put the cap on for a moment and dip the bottle upside-down and then right-side up again, to see if bubbles fly up, and replace the balloon for a few more days. The exposure to oxygen and the bottle-flip can re-inspire the mead to bubble a bit more (Remember that this means more alcohol! See the alcohol section below***). You can take this a step further and actually pour the mead out and back into the bottle, which will really give it a new oxygen boost. You can also siphon the mead into a fresh bottle, but I’ve never used a siphon. More on that in the next step.
4: Once the bubbling has stopped, cap the bottles.
BE CERTAIN THAT IT HAS STOPPED BUBBLING. If the mead is still bubbling when you cap it, the carbonation can build up too much over the next few weeks and make the bottle explode!!!
(If you do want very carbonated mead, you can cap the bottle while it’s still bubbly, but only let it sit out for a couple days and then put the bottle in the fridge so that the fermentation stops.)
If you are a fan of siphons, you would want to siphon the mead from its current bottle into a new bottle, pulling the mead from the top so that you leave the “dregs” (the murky part) at the bottom.
I’m not interested in this technique. The dregs are full of nutrients and flavor! Why would you leave it behind? For this reason I’ve never used a siphon, although in the US people are big fans of clarified, refined fluids (Think hot sake instead of cold unfiltered sake, or clear beer instead of cloudy). I’m not sure why we’re so turned off by murkiness, but I prefer the extra nutrients and less bottling work.
Label your bottles with the bottling date so that you know how long the mead has aged, and keep in a cool, dark place, just as you would to age wine.
You can also add a “drink date”, or you can label the bottles at the time you airlock them.
Your mead is actually delicious and ready to drink at this point, with its full alcohol content (more or less). Matt and I always drink a little of the new batch, and it is clearly alcoholic and light and sweet and a little fruity and absolutely delicious.
However, if you let it age, the flavors will change and the mead will become slightly more alcoholic.
5: Let age.
Please let me reiterate this instruction: Label your bottles with the bottling date, and keep in a cool, dark place, just as you would to age wine.
You can let your mead age for a week, or a few years, or anything in between. I’ve only been making mead for a few months, so I can’t tell you how it will change over a greater length of time, but resources say that it gets better and better. For me, I need a balance of “great mead” and “not waiting forever to drink it”. Currently, I make a couple new batches every couple weeks, so that I am constantly trying out different ages of mead, with different flavoring. SO FUN.
As it ages, the mead will lighten in color. I didn’t think that my mead had lightened much, until I compared a bottle of 2-week aged mead to a jar of new batch.
Left side, 2-week aged mead; right side, brand new, unfermented batch. What a difference!
Matt can hardly wait for each new bottle to “finish” aging. If we go for more than a couple weeks without mead, he will look at me with big doe eyes and ask if it’s time yet?
The best step!
Whether you wait for a day, a month, or a year, it will be delicious. It’s a challenge for us to wait, since I know how good it is from the very beginning– But the older (aged more than 2 months) bottles I’ve opened have been carbonated and extra alcoholic and taste like magical honey beer.
I recommend chilling the mead first, and letting it breathe for about half an hour, if you can stand the wait.
Strawberry-Vanilla Mead. (The beans were only resting on top for the picture, afterwards they were pushed down into the mead.)
Besides step #6 above, my favorite part of the honey mead fermentation process has been incorporating fruit.
The yeast in the air is attracted to the sugars in the honey, which is made up of fructose and glucose. Fruit also has fructose. A lot of it. The yeast is drawn to it, so more yeast will enter your mead if there’s fruit bobbing along the surface.
You’ve actually seen the yeast attraction to fruit– think of grapes, or plums, and the white, chalky layer on the outside. That’s the yeast that is going to help get you tipsy!
You don’t want to puree the fruit, just put chunks in. The fruit that works best is soft fruit that rots quickly– bananas, melon, mango. The most ridiculously effective fruit that I’ve used was watermelon.
I like to cut blueberries and strawberries so that the flavor infuses more. This was taken seconds after adding the blueberries, and you can already see little bubbles of yeast around the berries!
Berries also work great, and although I’ve heard that edible flowers work well, my only attempt was with jasmine and it did poorly– No bubbles after almost a week and the mead smelled grassy. I scooped out the flowers and added raspberries instead, and everything was just fine. (Remember– Don’t be afraid to experiment!!!)
Raspberries added to a batch of failed jasmine mead, during step #2. The fruit woke the mead right up!
When you first start your batch, throw the chunks of fruit in and cover. You’ll still want to stir vigorously, to wash the yeast into the mead and leave room for more yeast on the fruit. PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO SMELL. You’ll want to strain the fruit out when the mead smells like the fruit (It will smell AMAZING). This should only take a day or two.
After you take the fruit out and stir the mead vigorously, it will appear to boil, the bubbles will be so strong. When I used watermelon, I couldn’t even use my regular “stir vigorously” technique– I would just dip the spoon in, and the entire mead would bubble over like crazy!
Continue by following step #3, above.
To date, I have made the following:
*Done as outlined above, and also with strawberry juice and vanilla added to the bottle of pure mead before airlocking, which produced highly alcoholic mead!
**Most alcoholic, using fruit technique above
***Failed- let me know if you make a successful flower-mead batch!
WHAT ABOUT ALCOHOL CONTENT???
Of COURSE we want to know about alcohol content! And you would think, what with all the technological advances we’ve made, that there would be some way to dip a stick into your mead and get an alcohol reading– But it’s not so simple.
I DO NOT MEASURE ALCOHOL CONTENT because the process doesn’t interest me. The short answer is that your mead will be 8-20% alcohol. If you follow all the steps to make your mead as alcoholic as possible– using fruit to attract yeast, stirring frequently, exposing your mead to oxygen to jump-start a second ferment (see detailed instructions of step 3 above***), waiting until the bubbling has completely ceased before capping, and letting your mead age– it will be closer to 20% alcohol. If you do not use fruit, stir less frequently, only give your mead the primary ferment before capping, capping before the bubbling has ceased, and drinking the mead young, your mead will be closer to 8%.
if you are like me, you’d prefer a more alcoholic mead. However, if you are tempted to drink your mead young, keep in mind that 8% is not a shabby alcohol content! In the beer world, that’s a hell of a strong brew!
IF YOU DO WANT TO MEASURE THE ALCOHOL CONTENT, you will either need a hydrometer or a refractometer. With either tool, you’ll need to take a mead measurement at the very beginning of your mead process, and then again when you cap it. You will plug the numbers into a long equation, and that will give you the alcohol content. For more information about this process, I recommend this website.
Am I missing anything?!
I would absolutely love to hear about your mead adventures! Please leave a comment and let me know of your experiences, techniques, outcomes, and any questions that you have.