Well, after many years of talking about it with a friend, I finally did it. Brewed my own mead, I did.
For years I’ve joked around with a friend, Bob (no kidding), about wanting to try mead, not finding it anywhere, and about brewing our own. I’m not talking about one or two years, I’m talking something like 7 or more years. We’d joke about it or talk about it seriously, but neither of us really did anything.
Why mead? Because I have an interest in Vikings and…well…um, maybe that’s all the reason, really. Honestly, I can’t think of any other reason now that I try. Drinking horns and all that, you know?
So, back in December I went online looking for brewing tips, processes, whatever specifically for mead. What I found out was that it’s ridiculously simple to brew a basic honey mead. Water, honey, yeast, and above all time. That’s it, really.
I only wanted to brew a gallon, just to see how it went, and not jump in with a 5 gallon batch to begin. So, I went looking for what seemed to me the most important piece of gear…a glass gallon jug. They say online you can brew in a plastic pail or jug, but I decided to go with glass. Brewing in plastic just didn’t seem right. Actually, two gallon glass jugs, for reasons that will be evident later.
I had thought it would be easy enough to find a one gallon glass jug. Apple juice or the like, right? Not around here, apparently. I wound up buying two gallons of the cheapest wine I could find. I was going to dump them down the drain just for the glass jugs, but wound up transferring the contents to plastic gallon milk jugs. It may have been cheap wine, but it turned out to actually still be good drinking.
So, now I had my two one gallon glass jugs. Scrounging around, I found pretty much everything else I needed to mix up the must (technical term for the initial honey and water mixture) and consign it to a gallon jug.
After sterilizing the jug and the funnel to be used, I was ready to start brewing. The total contents of the mead must were somewhere north of three quarts of purified water, two pounds of honey, and a packet of yeast. I heated some of the water and mixed in the honey, itself heated up to flow easier. When that was thoroughly mixed, I poured it into the glass jug. Then I added the yeast to some warm water, mixed it thoroughly, and added that to the jug. Finally, I topped off the gallon with remaining room temperature water and made sure it was all mixed thoroughly.
And so, on the 7th of December, 2015, I had brewed my first batch of honey mead.
The balloon is my airlock, to allow carbon dioxide to vent but not allow oxygen or other impurities back into the must. Before attaching the balloon to the bottle, I ran a sterilized needle through one side, creating a small pinhole. The pressure building up will inflate the balloon and at a certain point will open the pinhole enough for the pressure to vent and re-close the pinhole. Simple and elegant. Then I stored it in a dark, comfortable location: under the computer table, back in a corner. That keeps it out of the way, out of the light, and in a steady, temperate zone good for the yeast. As you can see by the inflated balloon, fermentation has started.
A little over a month later, on 10 January 2016, I did what’s called racking. In this, you transfer the liquid from one glass jug to the other, leaving the dregs behind. Oh, and the glass jug is called a carboy. I put the full jug on the counter and used a clear plastic tube and some suction to siphon out the mead into the other jug sitting on the floor. Both the empty jug and the tube were sterilized prior to use. You need to be careful the tube doesn’t suck up the dregs at the bottom of the full jug. I have no pictures of that, unfortunately. I did make a slight mess while getting the mead to flow through the tube and transferring the free end of the tube into the glass jug on the floor. Once that was done, then a fresh balloon with pinhole was installed and the newly filled jug returned to the storage spot.
After letting that sit and ferment for another month, 11 February 2016 was bottling day. On the 9th I completely vented the balloon and left it on to see if it was still fermenting or had stopped. If it was still fermenting, I was going to leave it and check each week. Over the next two days the balloon didn’t re-inflate much, so the afternoon of the 11th I assumed it had stopped fermenting and got ready to bottle.
I like the re-usable clamping bottles and jars, so earlier I had gone looking for such bottles to use. Eventually I found some nice, thick bottles of lemonade at the local International Market. The lemonades were different flavors so I tried a couple. They weren’t bad, and being on sale at $2.79 or so per bottle, they were a good price for the kind of bottles I was looking for.
Remembering the mess from racking, I wanted a cleaner way to get the honey mead from the glass jug into the bottles. I knew that otherwise I’d make a mess every time I swapped out the filled bottle for an empty one. Fortunately I discovered my wife had a plastic water/lemonade/whatever dispensing jug, so with permission I decided to use that as an intermediate step.
First, of course, everything, tube, bottles, plastic jug, all had to be sterilized. Boiling water took care of that quite nicely. Then came bottling and I had to figure out how to rack the mead from the glass gallon jug into the plastic gallon jug with the valved spout. Ingenuity and sheer insanity came to the rescue. It ain’t pretty, probably not the steadiest way, but hey, it worked!
Once it was racked into the plastic jug, getting the mead into the individual bottles was simplicity. Doing it this way also had the advantage of getting rid of the dregs that had formed on the bottom of the glass jug after the initial racking a month ago.
I got more than I expected from this one initial gallon of basic honey mead. I expected to lose some through racking so I had figured four bottles would be enough. Silly me. I should have checked what size the bottles were or something. Clearly they aren’t quart sized.
At least it gave me an excuse to sample it. I had to do something with the two glasses of mead, right? It’d certainly be a shame to toss it, and I was curious about how it would taste. It turned out I like it. I also found out it had more punch than a bottle of beer.
My readings and web search had led me to a site that mentioned how to tell what “grade” of mead you had by the clarity, among other factors. You test clarity by trying to read newsprint through the liquid. As you can see from these pictures, it’s clear enough to read. The pictures don’t do justice, but you really could just make out the small text and read it. The final picture at the bottom of this blog entry actually shows the clarity best. To be honest, I have no idea if that means this is a good brewed mead or just that it came out right. I’ve no idea what the original Viking mead looked like, anyway. I got my mead!
I wanted feedback on this basic honey mead, so I handed out the bottles to a select bunch of people. The feedback was interesting, to say the least.
I’d tasted it right after bottling, since clearly I had two glasses of mead and no fifth bottle. As I said, I liked it. It was different, a little dry, had a definite alcohol content, and had a kind of grassy aftertaste, much like a freshly cut yard smells.
The feedback I got was across the spectrum, from ugh to swoon.
My wife smelled it and had no desire to even taste it. I talked her into taking a sip and she didn’t like it.
Bob said it was like a fine white wine, which really surprised him. He tried it first at room temperature, liked it, and then a week later tried it chilled. With the chilled version, he filled a 6 ounce glass with cold mead and dropped in a tablespoon of honey. The honey clumped and fell to the bottom of the glass due to the coldness of the mead. He didn’t stir it but instead let the drinking motions roll it around. Result: the mead was sweeter with each drink and that last little bit of honey in the bottom of the glass was the nectar of the gods.
Out of curiosity, and because of the other feedback I got, I asked him to try a second bottle to see if there was any difference between bottles. The engineer in me says there shouldn’t be, and the engineer in me says it needs to be verified. Unfortunately, it’s been a couple weeks since he finished the first bottle, and I have no idea what the extra time is going to do. I’m not sure the comparison will be valid now.
My daughter said it tasted like it needed to have sat bottled for a while, as if it hadn’t finished fermenting. There was a slight refilling of the balloon in the two days leading up to bottling, but not enough to fully re-inflate to the level in the picture above of the jug stored away.
Her husband said it wasn’t bad, but that he preferred beer and doesn’t care for wine. He also said he’d had better home-brewed beer. Mead ain’t beer or wine, buster. 😉 No mention of it not being completely fermented.
My daughter’s sister-in-law said that when she smelled it, it gave her nose a yeast infection. Smart ass. Nothing about taste, so I guess she didn’t taste it after smelling it. Another mark in the not finished column.
I’m still waiting on the feedback on the remaining two bottles. They’ve been sitting over a month longer, so I suspect the result is going to be different than earlier results would have shown anyway.
I’ve already just started my second batch.
This time I’m doing two different batches, brewed a week apart. The first is a repeat of this simple honey mead for process verification and the second will be a peach melomel, or a honey mead with fruit added. I’m adding peaches at the start, as opposed to after fermentation. Doing them a week apart, I only need to get one more glass gallon jug for racking. I can rack the first batch into the new jug, clean the used jug. Then a week later, I’ll rack the second batch into the now empty jug.
I’m also going to do two rackings, each a month apart, so this will take me three months instead of two before bottling. That should be better able to ensure that the mead fermentation completes, or completes even more. It’ll be interesting to see what difference, if any, this makes.
And yes, I did get more bottles. I found nine of these at a local thrift shop at 99 cents apiece.
Uh, oh. Be right back.
Whew! I just filled and measured one with water. I got nine and they’re each a pint, 16 fluid ounces. There’s eight pints to a gallon. So I’m set. I do plan to get a couple more lemonade bottles, though, just in case. I clearly need at least one more, so two should do nicely. Then I can do each gallon into three big clear bottles and the rest in the smaller brown. Any left that won’t completely fill a small bottle gets drunk by the brewmeister, me, on the spot.