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What is mead and how do you make mead?


Mead... or is it honey wine?... or mead wine? err... What is mead again?.. and how do you make mead?

Is it even a wine? Isn't it a beer? Isn't it made from honey? Ahhhhhhh!

How did we manage to have so much confusion around what mead is? The most common question a mead maker will get is "What is mead?" but the answer to that question is not as simple as those asking it would hope. Mead is considered by most to be the oldest alcoholic drink and it has taken many different forms over the course of several thousand years. 

In it's simplest form:

"Mead is an alcoholic drink made by fermenting honey"

How do you make mead?

Now as we all know, a jar of honey does not turn into mead on its own so why is that? When bees collect nectar from flowers, it gets stored in their honey stomach where it is mixed with enzymes which starts the process of turning the nectar into honey. When the bee returns to the hive, it regurgitates the honey and passes it to another bee before it is finally deposited in wax structures called comb. Once the honey is in the honey comb, the bees fan the honey with their wings to reduce the moisture content before capping it with wax. 

The moisture content needs to be below 20% to stop all that honey comb turning into a little mead making kit. If it is not sufficiently dehydrated, the wild yeast naturally present in honey can feed on the natural sugars and start the process of turning their honey into mead. Making mead is not the bees objective, they need food for the long cold winter ahead which is why they go to such lengths to dehydrate their golden nectar. 

In this moisture deprived state, honey will remain viable for a very long time. The oldest honey every discovered is over 5,500 years old and was found in the tomb of a noble woman in Georgia. (Lomsadze, 2012). The mead maker first needs to increase the moisture content of the honey to allow the yeast to feed on the natural sugars. 

Making mead - Step 1:

Mix honey with water. 

Yes, all that hard work on behalf of the honey bee is undone with one little turn of the tap and this simple step is all you need to do to make a very basic mead. So if you have a tendency for impatience, you can stop reading here and get down to some mead making. You'll probably have a sweet alcoholic beverage in somewhere between 7 - 14 days time. However, if you want something you can share with your friends without them declining a second sip, it is worth thinking about your mead in a little more depth. 

How to make good mead

The above method relies on the wild yeast present in the honey and wild yeast, is just that. Wild. It is unpredictable, untamed and unknown so if you are just starting out in mead making, it's best to introduce a commercial strain of yeast that has been "tamed" and has predictable, known characteristics. You will make several terrible batches of mead during your search for perfection so limiting the unknown variables at the start goes a long way towards the avoidance of disappointment. 

Honey is a fairly delicate substance and when it is fermented, in many ways it is similar to a white wine so commercial yeast strains sold for the wine making industry work well for making mead. 

Making mead - Step 2:

Add some yeast

Follow the instructions on the packet and add your yeast to your honey and water. Sometimes, depending on the volume you are making, it may be necessary to make up a small "starter" before adding your yeast into your main fermentation. This allows the newly activated or rehydrated yeast cells to reproduce in a more comfortable environment before being thrown into the deep end of a large mead making kit. 

Every yeast is different and although they will all make mead, some will work better than others with your chosen honey so it's best to experiment with small batches to see what works best. 

Commercial strains of yeast are generally more vigorous than wild strains so once added, they will outcompete the wild strain. 

 How to make mead - Step 3:

 Wait. 

Put your mead making kit somewhere warm, around 18-23 degrees and leave it alone for 2 weeks, make sure the carbon dioxide can escape from your mead making kit, you don't want any honey wine explosions. After around 2 weeks you should have a very basic, but drinkable mead. It will of course still have a yeasty taste so we now move to the hardest part of making mead...

Making mead - Step 4

Wait... even longer before drinking it.
Yes, good mead comes to those who wait. You will need to siphon the mead into a new container, leaving behind the bottom inch of mead/yeast. Make sure the container has as little air in it as possible by filling it almost to the top and make sure air can escape in case it is still slowly fermenting. The longer you wait, the clearer the mead will get as more and more of the dead yeast cells fall out of suspension to the bottom of the mead making kit. 
How long can you wait? A mead which is aged for 7 years earns the fancy title of a "Grand Mead". Once you are sure the mead is no longer fermenting but it in some bottles and start your journey towards a grand mead. 

References

Lomsadze. 2012. [online]. Report: Georgia unearths the world's oldest honey. Available at: https://eurasianet.org/report-georgia-unearths-the-worlds-oldest-honey. [Accessed 04 May 2020]. 


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