Everytime I look at forums for any type of fermentation, I see responses to beginner questions that are always incredibly cautionary and border on gate-keeping. While beer can be a bit complex due to the chemistry side of things, making a simple mead shouldn’t be making anyone anxious. While you can make mead as complicated as you want, the following instructions will help you make something easy and quick-drinking.
1. Choose your ingrédients
Mead can be broken down to three main components: water, honey, yeast. Out of all of these, the honey is clearly the most important as it is what will impart the most flavor to your final result. Generally speaking, you can assume specific flavors just by looking at a honey. Dark honeys like heather or oak will carry a lot of vegetable notes, bitterness, spice, and/or caramel flavors. Lighter honeys contain more floral notes and less bitterness, though any mead fermented out dry will have a bit of the latter. Boiling your honey will also add caramel notes. Always try to use local honey, as it provides more complexity of flavor; mass produced stuff is more often than not diluted with simple sugar.
Any honey added at the beginning of fermentation will also dictate how much alcohol is formed (as it forms via yeast-driven sugar conversion), and sweetness can be adjusted by adding more at the end of fermentation. I usually start with about 15-20% honey total to get a wine-adjacent mead. You can also add flavors by using fruit juices, teas, or other adjuncts.
For yeast, it clearly depends on factors, like what percentage of alcohol you are shooting for, but honestly (and despite the protests of any online brewer/mead maker who may be reading this), baker’s yeast is absolutely acceptable for a simple home brewed mead. My first test brews were done with baker’s yeast, and I still use it to quickly find the profiles of new batches of honey. If you want to get more complicated, just pay attention to the particulars of the strain you choose to use.
2. Clean your gear !
Pretty much any kind of container can serve as a primary fermenter. Glass is always preferable but you will be fine with a food-grade plastic bucket if that’s all you have access to. Whatever the option, the fermenter has got to be well cleaned. Wash it out with hot water and soap, then sterilize it. The easiest way is simply to use a neutral alcohol (vodka works!), or sterile vinegar. If using vinegar be cautious not to overuse it as it can clearly leave undesired flavors. Make sure to clean and sterilize every brewing tool in this manner.
3. Preparing the fermentation
You can prepare your must (a fancy word for the unfermented sugar-charged liquid in mead and wine making, called wort in beer) at any temperature. The key is to properly dilute the honey in water, making sure it is completely mixed together; no clumps! The easiest way is to bring it to a boil and simmer in a pot. This has the added benefit of sterilizing and purifying the must itself, providing a less competitive environment for the yeast.
You can also prepare your must at lower temperatures, but it is advised that you use filtered water. Chlorine in community water supplies can cause problems for yeast.
When your must temperature has dropped to about 30°C (starting with a high concentration of honey in the boiling must then diluting and cooling with fresh water is the fastest way to do this), add it to your fermenter and thrown in about ¼-½ gram of yeast per liter. If using a wine/beer/cider yeast, follow the instructions on the packet. Put a lid, or airlock if you have one, on your fermenter to keep out insects and dirt.
4. Be patient !
Place the fermenter in a warm, dark place. Between 18°-22°C is ideal, but if its a bit warmer or colder it is fine - consistent temperature is, within reason, more important. Warmer temperatures will result in a faster fermentation, colder temperatures with a slower, more controlled fermentation. If you haven’t got yourself proper homebrew equipment, don’t worry. You can follow the progress by using your sense of taste.
Try not to overindulge on your taste testing, as you want to keep as much as possible for the finished drink. Once at the end of the first week, then every two to three weeks for a month and a half. Watching for bubbles is also a way of noting whether or not the yeast is doing its thing, but gives you less of an idea of how much honey has been transformed.
If the mead starts to become too dry for you, you can simply mix in a bit more honey. Wait until it seems as if the fermentation is approaching the finish to do this however, or you might end up with something a bit more boozy than expected. If fermentation stalls, try and put the fermenter somewhere warmer or, if this fails to solve the problem, add a bit more yeast.
When the flavor begins to approach what you want, you can put it in bottles. The best type of bottle to use is the flip-top type; you can buy these new or simply reuse old beer or lemonade bottles. Try and avoid getting yeast from the fermenter into the bottles. If you want a sweet mead, be careful as it might continue to ferment in the bottle. You can avoid this by adding honey to your fermenter until the fermentation doesn’t reactivate (the traditional way), or by keeping your filled bottles in the fridge (the kombucha method). If you want to make a sparkling mead, keep sweetened bottles at room temperature for 3-5 days, then refrigerate. You can also add secondary flavors like fruits, herbs or other additions directly to the bottle to create a little range of tastes (if you want to use hops however, it is better to add them to your primary fermentation). You can store bottles if they are sufficiently alcoholic, but without proper measurements you are better off consuming your mead within a couple months.
Remember more than anything, there are very few real mistakes in fermenting mead. It’s almost always more forgiving than people think, especially if you keep things clean and simple.