I first wrote about mead a while back (wow, was it really 2 summers ago?) and have continued to learn quite a bit since then. I wrote about making a basic mead, which included mixing honey, water, and nutrients over 3 days ("staggered nutrient additions"). Since then, we've learned a few more details to help make even better mead. In short:
- Yeast health is key
- Your choice of honey matters
- Did I mention yeast health?
Making mead, as mentioned, is essentially mixing honey & water together, then pitching yeast and letting fermentation take its course. No boiling is needed (though some people do boil the must), so preparation is extremely simple. Getting the honey & water mixed together is the hardest part of "brew day". But really the difficulty comes into play once the yeast is pitched.
Honey is extremely nutrient-poor, so yeast struggles to ferment the sugars. Additionally, FAN (Free Amino Nitrogen) is quite low in mead must, unlike most beer wort. Meadmakers therefore need to add a source of nitrogen in addition to other yeast nutrients. Nitrogen is typically added to must in the form of Diammonium Phosphate (DAP), which is commonly available at a homebrew retailer. Other nutrients to promote yeast growth are found in nutrient blends such as Fermaid K. It's composed of fatty amino acids, vitamins like thiamin & biotin, and various minerals. Like DAP, Fermaid-K is something you can easily buy at a homebrew supply shop.
How about the yeast itself? We typically use dried yeast from Lalvin, but have used Wyeast liquid yeast as well. I really like Lalvin 71B and D-47, but I think it's important to read through a yeast's characteristics and find one that suits your goal well. Lalvin posts all their yeast profiles online. This chart will give you a good overview of the yeast characteristics.
If you are using dry yeast, use a yeast nutrient during rehydration to assist mineral & amino acid uptake. We use Lallemand's "Go-Ferm" product which is, again, available at homebrew supply retailers.
Choice of Honey
When we first started making mead, I was picking up local honey at farmers' markets. The resulting meads were good, but not as good as the ones I was tasting at competitions. I attended a mead session at NHC last year where we tasted raw honey next to resulting mead. What that made me realize was that honeys have their own unique flavors which carry over into the final product; it helped me to understand why a lot of successful meadmakers turn to tupelo and orange blossom honeys again & again.
I found a bunch of honey suppliers online (Millers, Draper Bee, Bee Folks, Northern Brewer) and ordered small containers of tupelo & orange blossom honeys from each. John and I tasted them side-by-side to determine our favorites and ordered those in bulk. I found that the Northern Brewer Orange Blossom was the best citrusy-tasting honey of our selections (we ordered 5 gallons of it), while Bee Folks had the most amazing floral Orange Blossom honey. Bee Folks' tupelo honey is wonderful and creamy and will be our choice for ordering tupelo in bulk.
Bee Folks also offers a ton of varietal honeys, many of which would be great for mead. Blueberry, almond, avocado, and even killer bee honey. I got to taste some killer bee mead at this year's Upper Mississippi Mashout and it was interesting... spicy, peppery, and not my favorite. But worth trying for sure. I can't recommend enough just buying a bunch of small containers of honey from various suppliers and finding out which ones you like best. Your mead will reflect the nuances of the honey you use, so it's incredibly important to select honey that is high quality and tastes good.
So there's your prep work and some stuff to think about. In the next post, I'll talk about actually making mead.