"Mead" can mean a lot of different things, depending on whom you're talking to or the context of the conversation. It can be the term used to describe all fermented beverages made with a honey base, or can refer specifically to honey wine made with only honey, water, and yeast. Meads with other ingredients have their own special names like cyser (honey & cider), melomel (honey & fruit), braggot (honey & wort), metheglin (spices & honey), and pyment (honey & grapes). Think "beer" vs. porter, stout, bitter, or IPA.
Not only can you add ingredients to the honey to vary flavors, but different honey varieties make for different meads: mesquite and buckwheat honeys (added in smaller quantities to a light base) will make a rich, bold mead, while clover or orange blossom honeys will lend to delicate meads (which are quite suitable for spice or fruit additions).
It appears KC is in a great area for wildflower and clover (and that's about it), so if you want other varieties you will likely need to order them online. Wildflower & clover honeys are widely available at local farmers' markets and, just like produce, will vary in taste and quality each season. It's important to consider the timing in which you're buying your honey, specifically because late-summer honey will be darker in color (resulting in a darker mead) and contain more wild yeast. This can cause unwanted flavors & spontaneous fermentation in your mead (making it even more vital that you add potassium sorbate once fermentation is complete, which will prevent any further fermentation while the mead ages).
If you're curious to try mead before making a large quantity of it, you have a couple of choices: make a small batch (scale a recipe to 1 gallon instead of 5) or buy some at the store. Unfortunately, all the mead I've seen at the store here in KC is still and sweet. However, some meaderies in the states are making a variety of honey-based beverages, both still and carbonated. Redstone Meadery out of Boulder, CO, is making some spectacular meads. John's tried several of them (including a hopped mead) and I was able to taste some of their apricot melomel which is carbonated. Fabulous stuff, and I'm hopeful we'll start seeing their bottles here in KC.
Until then, if you want a dry mead, braggot, cyser, or other mead variation, you're going to have to make it yourself or order it online. Thankfully, mead's pretty easy and cheap to make. You don't need a lot of equipment or ingredients, and you get 5 gallons of mead!
Making mead is easy. For about $50 you can make 5 gallons of mead, or about 25 750ml bottles. That's a LOT of mead! Once you get your equipment (around $50 for a fermenter, airlock, sanitizer, and tubing), honey (about $30 - $40 for 10 pounds, depending on the variety), spring water ($2-$3), yeast ($2), and supplements (about $10), you're ready to start. And it goes something like this:
- Add honey to your fermentation container (like a bucket or carboy)
- Top it off with enough spring water to make 5 gallons
- Add nutrient & energizer to help jumpstart fermentation (honey does not contain enough food for the yeast)
- Pitch the yeast, wait 6 hours or so through the lag phase, then aerate your unfermented mead (called a "must", just like unfermented wine)
- Add nutrient & energizer every 24 hours for 3 days
Fermentation takes about 3 weeks, at which time the mead gets racked into secondary to age. Of course, when you rack to secondary you can add fruit, spices, or oak chips to create some interesting flavor variations. Or, you can leave it as-is to emphasize the flavor of the honey or honey blend you chose for your mead. I'm doing this for my dry mead to showcase the light flavor of Orange Blossom honey. For my braggot, I bought a local clover honey at the City Market Farmers' Market. I don't care so much about the specific flavor of the honey, as I'll be adding wort and hops. It was more important to me to get something local.
Once your mead is in secondary, it sits for 6-8 months to age. At this point, it's ready to drink but its characteristics will continue to change over the next few years.
If you're interested in making your own mead, here are some resources to get you started:
- Ken Schramm's The Compleat Meadmaker. (I wouldn't make mead without reading this first!)
- Homebrewtalk.com's mead forum
- Brewing Network's Jamil Show on mead, with guest Ken Schramm
- National Honey Board Honey Locator
So, there you go. That was still pretty wordy, but even so only touches on the main points. After Brew Day 3.0, I'll follow up with how my first attempt at making mead & braggot went, and any on-the-job tips I learned. Stay tuned!
Oh and on a side note, I was recommended by a beekeeper Draper's Super Bee Apiaries for my Orange Blossom honey. I checked around other honey sites and Draper's prices seem reasonable and competitive so I went with them.