Harvesting the Nectar of the Gods
OK - there are many ways to make mead. People have been doing it for thousands of years, and there is - by no means - a standard "gospel" of proper procedures. Feel free to deviate off of these instructions ANY WAY that you see fit. Just be sure to follow proper wine-making procedures for best quality (i.e., do not oxidize your alcohol, keep everything clean, etc., etc...)
For an alternative - and very informative - view on meadmaking, go to Traditional Mead.com. Written by Main Street employee, Douglas Remington, it is a very detailed website on his experiences and procedures for making true, historical traditional Meads. Highly recommended.
First thing is first: mead takes a long time to age and mature. If you want my opinion (and you may not) mead under two years in the bottle is generally not great. Mead over three years in the bottle can be awe-inspiring. Many people disagree with me and are happily drinking their mead two or three months after the day they brew it. To each their own and you may LOVE your mead weeks after you bottle it. But, in general, I have seen vast improvements after one or two years of bottle-aging. (For a good fast-maturing mead, we have a good recipe for a lower alcohol (5%) mead that is light, summery and very refreshing. This style of mead will mature more quickly than your tradition wine-strength (12%) mead.)
Which brings up the next point: use good honey. For something that you may lay down for several years, I do not believe in saving three or five dollars and buying a generic bulk honey. Again, that is my opinion. Many people brew solely for economics, and this is justifiable. But for the price of a latte, you can easily upgrade to a better honey. Beware: Clover honey is a FDA catch-all term and does not have to be a pure varietal from clover blossoms. Try to find varietals such as orange blossom, tupelo, blackberry, etc. We, here at Main Street, sell honey, but you can also find great varieties at local Farmer's markets, health food stores, and better-than-average supermarkets. Plan on spending between $45 to $60 dollars for 12 pounds; this is a good amount of honey for a wine-strength, dry mead.
Next point: use good water. Water with an off-flavor will make mead with an off-flavor. Filter or buy water if your tap water is not great.
Use a good yeast. We have a liquid "sweet mead yeast" from White Labs that is very popular, but many people choose a dried yeast called Cote des Blancs which is less expensive. The main reason to choose White Labs is if you want a very rich, honey-tasting sweet mead. The Cote des Blancs will go dryer and crisper, although it will still retain some residual honey flavor. If you are looking for max alcohol and minimum honey residues, OR if you are planning to carbonate your mead into champagne, choose Premier Cuvee, a dry strain that is very popular for those very reasons.
And as a sidebar: I get many people coming into the store wanting to make "just a gallon" of mead because they are not sure if they like it or not. I try to dissuade them from this. A gallon of mead will make five wine bottles of finished product, if you are lucky. The chances that a typical person will be able to hoard five bottles over a two to three year period is slim; therefore this person will never taste a fully mature mead. Five gallons will produce (realistically) 22 or 23 bottles of mead. So, if they drink one a month, the last two or three will be excellent, and - BOOM - they may be "bitten" by the mead bug and realize what the buzz is all about. Many people disagree with this belief of mine, and remember it is only an opinion... You can make as much or as little as you want...
The mead-making process can be divided into two camps: boiling and non-boiling. Beer-makers typically will boil their mead - it is what they are used to - while wine-makers typically will not boil, for the same reason. Both methods have pros and cons, you will need to decide which is best for you.
(Boiling mead shortens the aging time you will have to wait, MAY clear up the product more quickly and totally sterilizes the honey while removing any waxes it may contain. But it drives off some of the delicate essences, making it less nuanced than the non-boiling method. Not boiling your mead will retain more of the honey fragrances and flavors. But you will have to wait longer for all the flavors to blend and mellow before you can fully enjoy your product...)
If you are NOT going to boil your mead, mix your honey and your water together to make five gallons of total volume (I am assuming you are going to make a five-gallon batch). (Note: 12 pounds of honey is one gallon in volume. So add four gallons of water to one gallon of honey to yield five gallons.) Add 3.75 teaspoons of Diammonium Phosphate (DAP) - this is a yeast nutrient. It is not necessary, but it will shorten your primary fermentation from 12 months to three weeks. Add five pulverized Campden tablets and mix everything well. Cover loosely for 24 to 36 hours: you must keep out the fruit flies but let the Campden gases escape out. After this waiting period, add your yeast, preferably - but not necessarily - after making a starter culture the day before.
Fermentation should begin within 24 hours.
If you DO plan on heating your mead, you have two options. One, is to treat the mead like a beer. Add your honey to two or three gallons of water, mix everything well and heat to a boil. Do not let it scorch on the bottom. Once boiling, optionally add some Irish Moss (for clarification) and boil for twenty to thirty minutes. During this period, carefully skim any white, gelatinous looking foam from the top of the liquid: this is wax coming out of solution. When all the white foaming has vanished, and/or been removed, add your hot "must" to a primary fermenter to which you have added enough cold water to make a total of five gallons. Try to cool your mead as fast as possible to room temperature. When the total temperature drops to 80 degrees or less, add 3.75 teaspoons of Diammonium Phosphate (DAP), mix well and then add your yeast, preferably from a starter culture made the night before. Fermentation should begin with 24 hours.
The other "split the middle" option is to *not* boil your mead, but just heat it hot enough to coagulate out your waxes, while sterilizing your honey. This MAY leave behind more of the honey nuances than will a full boil. In this case, mix your honey with two to three gallons of water and heat it to 140 to 180 degrees F. Hold for 15 to 30 minutes. Skim any white foam off of the surface. After the period of time has passed, dump your hot "must" into a primary fermenter to which you have added enough extra water to make five gallons, total. When the temperature drops to 80 degrees F, add 3.75 teaspoons of DAP and a yeast, preferably in a starter culture. Fermentation should start within 24 hours. This last method may be the best, but there is a lot of debate about it.
IN ALL CASES:
OPTIONAL: To make your mead more "winelike," you can squeeze the juice from some citrus fruits into your primary. Pick your favorite fruit: limes, lemons, tangerines, oranges, even pineapples and squeeze "x" amount of juice in, depending on how much zing you want to add. The sweeter you plan on making your mead, the more you should do this option, and the more juice you should add. The dryer you want your mead, the less juice you should add - or leave it out entirely. This is very loose information, and is more the artistic side of mead-making, but plan on 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup of total juice for a five gallon batch. Use more orange than lemon (which is more acidic) and less is your mead will be bone dry. Don't worry in any case - it's all good...
OK, so now your mead is fermenting away in the primary fermenter. It should drop from 1.090 (or thereabouts) to 1.025 in about a week to ten days. Keep the temperature above 60 degrees, but below 80 degrees, in most cases. The warmer it is, the faster it will ferment, and the more complex the flavors will be. The cooler it is, the slower it will ferment, but the cleaner it will be.
If you want to retain some sweetness and honey-like qualities, rack the wine into the secondary when the gravity is between 1.030 and 1.015. This should (but may not) slow down the fermentation and leave the final gravity about 1.000, which is off-dry (or slightly sweet), or maybe even higher. If you want a less sweet, more dry mead, wait till the gravity is between 1.010 and 1.000 (or less!), and THEN rack into a secondary. Many meads of this nature will finish with a gravity of 0.992 - bone dry, light and crisp. Neither mead is better nor worse, just choose which sounds better to you. If you plan on carbonating your mead, you MUST choose the dry option.
Once the mead is in the secondary, glass fermenter, let sit at the same (above 60 degree) temperature for three or four weeks. Activity should stop and you should see a large fall-out of yeast landing in the bottom of the glass carboy. After about four weeks, rack into another, clean, glass carboy and let sit for three to four months in a cool dark spot, if possible. You can drop the temp to as low as 30 degrees with no harm, and perhaps with some benefit. Check the airlock periodicaly, but that's it. You will see another fall-out into the bottom of this fermenter. Rack again and let sit until crystal clear, maybe another three to four months. If it doesnot look like it is clearing you can add Sparkalloid to help it along.
After 6 to 12 months of total time, it is now ready to bottle.
If you are making carbonated mead (i.e., champagne), you must add one cup of corn sugar, OR 1/2 cup of honey (boiled with one pint of water) AND a fresh yeast at bottling time. Mix everything well into the mead and bottle under strong bottles that can hold carbonation. You might want to read my beer-bottling instructions for a general overview. Once bottled, let sit 6 to 12 months before drinking.
If you are making still mead (wine), I prefer wine bottles under corks, but you can put your mead into beer bottles, under crown caps, as well. If you are planning to sweeten your mead, please read our page of stabilizing before you add any sweetener into your fermenter. This will prevent exploding, gushing, foaming bottles and blown-out corks. Please read my wine bottling instructions for a general overview of the bottling process. Let sit for 6 to 12 months minimum, and remember, it only gets better from there...