It’s probably the first alcoholic beverage ever consumed. Honey, water, and any natural occurring yeast is all you need to make Mead– a fermented beverage of honey, water, yeast, and sometimes grains, herbs, and spices. It can range from a low of 4% alcohol by volume through a natural yeast to a brain-numbing 20% alcohol content with today’s modern yeast strains. You can make as little as a gallon or five gallons or more at a time.
In this post, I’ll run you through the basic process of mead creation. To put a little twist on it, though, we’ll ferment three batches—two with commercially developed yeasts and one with yeast we capture from the wild. I’ll take you step-by-step, so let’s jump in…
THE MEAD MAKING PROCESS
Here’s what you will need, a pot sufficient to boil at least one gallon of water or several gallons of water, up to 5 gallons. The size of the pot will depend on the size of the batch and the size of the vessel you will ferment your batch. I will be referencing both a five-gallon batch I made and a one-gallon batch to explain the process through this video. You can scale up or down based on your capabilities and once you understand the fundamental quantities and ratios. You will also need up to a 1-quart jar of honey per gallon of water. The best ratio is 2-3 pounds of honey per gallon of water. I will explain this in the next section. You will also need at least one gallon of water, preferably Springwater, as this isn’t chlorinated and has a higher mineral content that your yeast will love. You will also need a large one-gallon jug and maybe even an airlock and stopper. I will link to a really inexpensive package in the comments below, but you can use a 1-gallon jug of your own like they often sale cider in, so long as you clean it well with hot water. I will also show you how not to use an airlock if you don’t have access to one or don’t want to purchase one. You will also need a stirrer and a funnel for returning the mixture to the jug after it has cooled.
THE 60 SECOND RECIPE
One. Fill the 1-gallon jug with water, remove 1 quart and 1 pint of the water, and set aside.
Two. Pour the remaining water from the jug into the pot and bring to boil. Extinguish the heat or flame once a 2-minute boil has occurred. You may want to loosen your honey in a hot water bath to help it pour better.
Three. Add honey and stir until dissolved. If you add any other additions like herbs, you will do it at this point, but I will talk about that later.
Four. Turn on your burner again and let simmer for 10 minutes.
Five. Extinguish the burner and place the lid on the pot. Let the mixture slowly return to room temperature. Do not lift the lid.
Six. Once it has achieved room temperature, use the funnel and put the honey-water mixture into the jug. If you use municipal water with chlorine and other additives, you will need to boil your reserve water, as the yeast will not thrive when it comes into contact with chlorine. If using spring water, add reserved water, allowing a couple of inches, up to 6 inches, of space from the rim, so it isn’t truly a whole gallon.
Seven. Give it a gentle swirl, then add yeast—affix airlock and place in a cool environment. Now wait, wait, wait, for at least three weeks. For more, listen on, but that’s the most straightforward and fastest version. Here’s the rest of what you need to know to get it right.
HONEY TO WATER RATIO
Do you buy your honey in jars? A quart canning jar is calibrated in “fluid” ounces using the unit weight of water which is 8.33 lbs per gallon. One pound of water will fill the jar to 16 ounces. A whole quart jar of water, 32 ounces, weighs about 2 pounds. Honey is much heavier than water and has a different unit weight. Since it is heavier, one “pound” of honey will fill your quart jar only to 10.67 ounces. Filling it fully will give you 32 fluid ounces, or 3 pounds. Is that too confusing? Let me make this as simple as possible. Honey tends to be sold in bulk as pounds. You want a minimum of 2 to 3 pounds of honey per 1 gallon of water. That’s going to be roughly 30 to 32 fluid ounces of honey per gallon of water. It’s going to be 10-12 pounds of honey for a 5-gallon batch. For my 5 gallon batch, I used 2 5 -pound containers of honey and a ¾ quart jar of honey I had leftover from my fermented garlic honey recipe. So, I used about 12 pounds of honey -4 quarts- for my 5-gallon batch. Your ratios don’t have to be exact. Just remember that your mead will be 2 to 3 pounds of honey per gallon of water. The best ratio is a 1-quart jar of honey per gallon of water, which I will use here. If you exceed that your yeast may not be able to move as freely or may stall out and not convert the sugars to alcohol.
It does not matter if your honey is filtered or unfiltered, though I think unfiltered honey imparts more flavor in the finished product. If you use light honey, most of the honey flavor will ferment out. Even the faint orange blossom or clover honey taste will ferment out almost completely. If you use dense, dark unfiltered honey like an avocado or buckwheat honey, it may have just a slight honey flavor in the final product. The higher the alcohol content, the drier the final product, so it is a standard practice to back sweeten the mead when drinking it by adding a little honey into the drinking glass.
VARIATIONS & HISTORY
If you add traditional brewing grains like wheat, barley, or oats, you will create what is called a Braggot. It will have a more malty flavor and is really a fortified beer. You have to boil your grains and remove them if you do this, leaving only the wort before adding the honey. If you don’t boil your grains first, certain chemicals you need a Ph.D. in chemistry to correctly pronounce won’t break down. The result will be something that is too bitter to drink that will be similar to what you might imagine bitter soy sauce to taste like. Make sure you boil your grains first and research enzymatic rests, so you understand a little something about beer making.
A more common variant is called Metheglin, which is a spiced or medicated variety of mead. This type is well known in Wales but is more common than regular, plain mead. To make this type, you would make a strong tea out of about a quart of water. You can use any of these common additives: orange peel, cinnamon, lavender, lemongrass, basil, dried cherries, coriander, vanilla bean, licorice root, cloves, mulling spices, or any tea of your liking. Always use natural ingredients, and remember that a little will go a very long way in your finished product. You want the tea to be strong in character but light in nature in the finished product.
Mead made from grape must and honey is called Pymet and was popular with the ancient Romans. A mead made in combination with apple cider was called Cyser and was popular with the Nordic people. Melomel is honey combined with any other fruit. As you will note, there are hundreds of variations that have depended mainly upon what fermentable resource existed in the area where the mead was being made. I would encourage you to start with the basic recipe I present here and let that serve as your baseline for further experimentation.
Honey is only about 18% water, which means that yeast and bacteria can’t really grow in it. This is why a common practice has been to treat open wounds with pure honey. This is also why it is shelf-stable indefinitely if it is sealed and kept from exposure to air. However, it will crystallize over time. It’s still very good but will have to be gently heated to return to a liquid state. That is best done by placing the sealed container in warm water. It is also hydrophilic, which means it grabs moisture from the air. If enough air and moisture gets in to increase the water proportion much above 18 percent, the honey can become hospitable to microorganisms like bacteria or yeast.
The first mead was entirely created by accident. At some point, water was mixed with honey in a container. Since honey is hygroscopic, meaning it pulls moisture from the air, and yeast and bacteria are trapped in honey and can’t grow until they have enough water in the mix to move around, this accident may have occurred quite easily. When honey is mixed with water and left out, exposed to air, fermentation will start within a few hours. When the people of that time, probably cavemen or earlier, drank the fermented beverage, they likely felt the effects. Brewing is still done in the same way and sometimes in open pots still today. So how old is mead? Nobody knows. The first batch was made by the first people to collect and store honey. It was probably around 6% alcohol, but in some instance may have been higher.
Yeast, sugar, and water are the components of fermentation. As I said earlier, I prefer to use as local of Springwater as I can find. I like to use as local of honey I can find too. Yeast is what will impart the flavor. You can’t get more local than harvested from your backyard, though it won’t ferment with as high of alcohol content as a Champagne yeast will.
Always, always, always, leave a few inches of room at the top. The yeasts that ferment this are top-fermenting–meaning they hang out at the top. When they expel their gas, they make a foam. This is much more prominent in something with greater body and texture, like with the addition of grains; however, mead fermentation is so fast and aggressive it can bubble fast. You want that extra room. I have had beers so aggressively ferment that the airlock couldn’t keep up. I woke up to beer on my ceiling, which is not fun, I assure you.
For this smaller demonstration batch, I inoculated it with the three yeast strain batches I made earlier. To me, all kitchen and garden creations are an experiment. We only capture best practices in the form of a recipe. For the 3-batches I previously made, I wanted to see what alcohol content would be produced by each before adding them all together. I used yeast I harvested from the wild using a potato. You’ll want to check out that video on this channel. I also used a yeast specifically cultivated for professional, sweet mead. And, I used yeast specifically for Champagne.
The natural yeast should have come out to about 5% from what I had read, so I was pleasantly surprised when it achieved 6.5% alcohol after about two weeks. The Sweet Mead yeast came out to about 9.9% alcohol. The Champagne yeast came out to a whopping 10.5% after about two weeks. When I swirled the champagne yeast mead, the alcohol content I whiffed off practically burned my nose. I later combined all three bathes together and after two months I had an Alcohol By Volume of around 16%. The depth of flavor from the three different yeasts gave it more character in my opinion.
The only way to accurately determine alcohol content is through the use of a hydrometer. This instrument measures a liquid’s density compared to water. Before the mead is inoculated with the yeast, it is measured to give what is called the “Original Gravity” or “Starting Gravity.” A second measurement after the bubbling stops can be compared to the starting gravity to determine the alcohol by volume and whether fermentation has stopped.
At some point, the alcohol content becomes too high for the yeast, and it mostly dies off or goes dormant and falls to the bottom. So I usually pour the contents off to another container and leave those dregs of yeast behind because as they expire, they can impart a bitter taste to the liquid.
I highly recommend you try the potato harvested wild yeast for this recipe. That will take 3-days to cultivate, so make it in advance of boiling the water and adding the yeast. You will add the yeast, pureed potato, and all only when your batch has achieved room temperature. That is true for any yeast you put in your batch. Your batch has to be at room temperature. If it is too hot, above 100 degrees, the yeast will begin to die off or have a harder time establishing itself. All yeasts start truly dying off at 140 degrees Fahrenheit. You want your yeast to be plentiful, hungry, and robust, so it will establish itself before any other yeasts or bacterias can. Once the alcohol content produced is high enough, bacteria and other yeasts can’t find a home.
One final note on yeast. Yeast gives off C02, alcohol, and polyphenols. Polyphenols are the taste and smell of your final product. You can make the same batch of honey water and innoculate it with three different yeasts, as I did earlier, and you will end up with three different tasting meads. And to answer the question for you that you may be thinking, that I answered for myself when I was 18, you could use bread yeast, but your finished product may taste a little bready. I tried it here adding it late to the batch and I got no bread smell or taste off the final product, so you can do it. It does work just fine. If you don’t want to buy a yeast-specific yeast for mead making, I suggest the potato harvested wild yeast method. Consult my other videos for that.
Place your brew pot with polyphenols in mind because the warmer the environment, the more polyphenols created and the harsher they will be. A small batch like this you can place in a cool closet, unused bathtub, or a cool spot in your kitchen. I have made delicious meads in my 80-degree garage, but for your first batches, you want to place them in a room-temperature environment to let the fermentation happen and avoid harsh flavors. This is also true when drinking the mead or any fermented beverage, for that matter. If you chill it, the polyphenol effect will be lessened. This can make an okay wine better and more palatable. Technically, mead is just honey wine.
WHEN’S IT DONE
I am assuming you don’t want to spend 50 US dollars on a hydrometer for this mead, and you may not even have a bubbler. I will link to a 1-gallon jug with an airlock and stopper you can get for around $12. You can use it for everything from cider to mead. I suggest you start with a one-gallon batch of mead, as I am detailing here, before graduating up to larger batches. This minimizes your losses if you make an error.
Good mead can ferment for at least three months, though you could drink it anytime after a month. The best mead is bottle aged for a year. One year is the optimal time to drink it, in my opinion. Here’s the catch, though, to bottle mead which has such a high level of fermentable sugars, you have to know when the fermentation is, for the most part, complete. Otherwise, the C02 pressure will build up in the bottle, and your bottles will explode.
This is where the hydrometer is handy. This is also where the bubbler comes in handy. With a bubbler, you can count the bubbles per minute. A slow bubble rate of 1 per minute or so means the yeast is tiring out. When the bubbles are too rapid to count, the yeast is doing its thing and still working away at the sugars. If your bubble rate is too slow to measure, give the container a gentle swirl, and you should see a vigorous head of bubbles that dissipates rapidly.
I have used a bubbler, and I have also used a paper towel, doubled over and lightly sprayed with bleach. You don’t want any bleach to come into contact with the mead you are making, but this reduces the possibility of wild yeast getting into your mix. For the yeast, you can either buy a champagne yeast online in dry form that can be sprinkled over the room temperature mixture or buy a liquid packet of yeast that doesn’t store as long, must be refrigerated but comes pre-mixed. You can skip the store-bought yeast for traditional, natural yeast and use my potato method for harvesting wild yeasts. Don’t worry. Your finished product won’t taste like potatoes, and the mead will benefit from the extra starches and nutrients. This will give you a final product of between 5 and 8 percent alcohol with plenty of honey flavor. It’s a little harder to bottle a wild yeast because there’s more uncertainty about when it is done or whether it’s just taking its time.
For our purposes, and assuming you aren’t ready to invest in a hydrometer, your fermentation will be mostly done sometime after a month. If you put your gallon container in an ice bath with a bit of salt in the bath, it is called cold crashing. This will remove some of the haze and further slow yeast activity. Next, pour your clear product into another container and consume it within a few weeks. Make sure to burp the bottle, even if refrigerated, to avoid a build-up of C02. If you let it sit in the second container for two more months. Fermentation will be complete, and you could pour it off to bottles and confidently bottle age it for a few months, even years.
For such a small batch, though, I would just let it ferment for anywhere between 1 and 3 months, cold crash it, then pour it off to bottles to be consumed within the month you bottle. Your alcohol content will be somewhere between 6 and 20%, depending upon the yeast you used. If you are nearer to 20%, you will feel and taste it.
There is so much more to this several thousand-year-old recipe, but I wanted to provide you just enough to get a batch started without overwhelming you. So, there you have it. Give it a shot, and let me know in the comments below how you did. Learning the basics of fermentation will be a Godsend after a disaster. Whether that’s beer or mead, alcohol has a host of purposes in a post-disaster environment, from further distillation to sterilization to rendering a drinkable substance that isn’t susceptible to wild pathogens to just a good stiff drink to a tradeable commodity. I guarantee you the person who knows how to ferment beverages will have a place in most impromptu prepping groups. Make a batch of mead to understand the basics and raise a glass with me and enjoy. Keep building your skills…
A Basic 1-gallon fermenter and air-lock: https://amzn.to/3gCK841
Champagne Yeast: https://amzn.to/35hlDnE
White Labs liquid yeast: https://www.whitelabs.com/