Mead is an alcoholic beverage that you can make by fermenting honey and water. The first year that I made mead was 2007 which was the first year that I kept bees. Since the production of my bees went to building their hive that first year, I bought honey from friends at the farmers market to begin my mead-making adventures. So, even if you don’t have bees, you can still make mead. My first batches were with honey and water only, but since we have grapes, I usually add them to the fermenting pot. I think using grapes would technically make it honey wine, but I use the terms mead and honey wine interchangeably.
It was the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz that got me started. Page 29 has a recipe for T’ej (Ethiopian-style Honey Wine). It sounded so simple I just had to try it. Mix water and honey together in a 4/1 ratio, cover it loosely and stir it several times a day for a few days until it is bubbly. Then put it in a jug with an airlock. As you can see in the picture, the jug that I use is a one gallon glass apple cider jug. I have found that not all one gallon glass jugs have the same size opening in the top. I prefer jugs with a 1½” opening over the ones with a 1¼” opening. Corks and airlocks are readily available from suppliers of winemaking equipment. The airlock allows the gas bubbles to escape, but doesn’t allow new air in. The ingredients don’t include yeast because you are gathering natural yeast from the air. That’s the “wild” part of this fermentation. If it would drive you crazy to make something without knowing exactly how it will turn out, you might as well stop reading right now. This is a fermenting adventure and there is nothing exact about it.
Crock and stainless steel pan with fermenting mead.
I put the honey/water mixture (and fruit) in a 2 gallon crock or a 2 gallon stainless steel pot covered by a cloth. I stir several times a day and at the end of a week I strain out the fruit and put the mead in a jug with an airlock. After it has been in the jug with the airlock for a few weeks is where it gets tricky. The directions on page 29 say to leave it for 2 to 4 weeks until bubbling slows, then drink it or age it. The first year I did this I took that to mean that I could bottle it at that stage. I found out that bottling it too soon could result in popped corks. If you are looking for a crock like the one in the picture and can’t find one locally, check with ACE Hardware. They can order it for you and have it delivered to the store, saving you shipping costs. In the photo the mead pots are sitting on the woodstove. There is no fire in that stove, it’s just a convenient place to put those pots in the summer. I use 2 gallon containers in order to have plenty of room with the fruit. If you are only fermenting honey and water you could use a one gallon jar.
If you are going to try this then you also need to read Chapter 10: Wines (including mead, cider, and ginger beer) in Wild Fermentation. That chapter explains aging, siphoning, and bottling. Now I leave my mead age for a year or two in the jugs before bottling. It’s hard to wait that long the first year, so make enough to try some early and put some away. One thing I don’t seem to get around to doing is racking, which means siphoning it from one jug to another, then continue to let it age with the airlock. Racking separates your finished product from the sediment, which is supposed to result in a more delicate flavor. There is nothing wrong with the sediment; in fact it is full of vitamins, and it can be used in making salad dressing or other recipes.
That brings us to bottling. I recycle wine bottles and am always on the lookout for extras. Wine bottles need to be corked and that involves a corking machine to insert them with. Although not expensive (about $19) I was hesitant to spend the money, but then, I’m always hesitant to spend money. However, that appliance makes corking the bottles incredibly easy and I’m happy to have one. There are some bottles that come with their own plastic corks “tied” down with wires. The ones we have are the result of buying sparkling lemonade or juice at a health food store. (It is a good thing to serve to children when the adults are drinking something stronger.) We just fill those bottles and tighten the “corks” with the wires. You can see both types of bottles, the corker, and a few corks in the photo. I write pertinent information on masking tape as a label for each bottle in storage. If I’m giving a bottle as a gift I’ll make a nice looking label when the time comes.
To transfer the liquid from the jugs to the bottles you need a siphon, which can just be plastic tubing. This might sound crude, but to get the liquid flowing, you need to suck on the end of the tube that will fill the bottles. Once it starts flowing, insert the tube into the bottle. For each gallon I’m siphoning, I have five clean wine bottles at the ready. At a level lower than the gallon jug, the wine bottles sit in an oblong cake pan that will catch any drips as the siphon goes from bottle to bottle. I’ve recently acquired a mini auto-siphon (a size that fits nicely into a gallon jug) that eliminates the need for me to suck the end of the tube and it works quite nicely. I have learned to leave a 3” headspace when filling the wine bottles and only fill the gallon jugs to the base of the handle (you can see that in the top photo). Even if the action appears to have stopped by the time you fill the bottles, just the transfer can stir things up a bit and it’s good to have plenty of room. With the gallon jugs, air can escape through the airlock, so you won’t be popping it off, but things could bubble up at the beginning and enter the airlock (which you don’t want) if you fill it too full. If that happens, just take the airlock off, clean it, and put it back on.
I’ve made mead using herb tea for the water, but I didn’t like it enough to make it again. I usually add grapes to the honey water mixture, preferring the green seeded grapes to the Concords we grow. I’ve also made mead with elderberries and blackberries. I had more popped corks with the berries than with the grapes, but I can’t say for sure it was the berries or something else I did that caused those corks to pop. Until you get the hang of it, you might have some corks that pop. It will do you well to keep that in mind when you choose a place to store your bottles.
Having meals, including beverages, from only homegrown supplies is exciting. I’ve mentioned having mead on some of my Homegrown Fridays. It is nice to have homegrown/homebrewed honey wine occasionally at home and it is great to give as gifts. I’ve posted my mead recipe on my recipe page here if you want to join in the adventure. Remember, the learning is in the doing and it’s all fun!
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