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Making the Perfect Honey Mead

by Steve DellaSala November 30, 2003
Honey Mead

Honey Mead

If you are a Mead enthusiast, home brewer, wine lover or fellow beer drinker, then this article will help you learn to make and appreciate Meads. Anyone with the advanced savvy required to use a stove is capable of creating award winning Meads.

This article is outlined in a way that will provide basics and essentials of Mead making and Mead appreciation. Before venturing on a Mead making mission, it is important to understand fundamental principals about fermentation as well as develop a basic understanding of honey. The first two sections of this article outline this information in an organized and meaningful way.

Developing an understanding of honey and fermentation allows anyone to create award winning Meads. From sweat to dry, carbonated to still, traditional to methoglins, the remainder of the class is designed for those individuals that want to create fine, award winning Meads.

Making the perfect Mead for your taste is not enough though. Once we begin to taste different Meads, it becomes obvious that there must be a basis for comparison in order to determine what makes a fine Mead. The end of the class will be devoted to tasting and appreciation of Mead. In this part of the class, we will compare different Meads based on similar criteria that have been evolved through hundreds of years within the world of wines.

Understanding Honey

The best way to make fine Meads is to understand where the source. Honey is a unique product of nature and there are a number of qualities about honey that should be recognized by any Meadmaker.

Bees Making Honey

Honey comes from the endless labor of Honey Bees, acting together as a colony, to produce enough of this wonderful concoction of identifiable and unidentifiable sugars for us to ferment and turn into Meads. We take for granted that in a 24-hour day of flying from flower to flower, a single Honey Bee only produces about 1/12-tsp of honey. Furthermore, for one bee to make 1-lb of honey, it would have to fly the equivalent of 3xs around the world. Think about that the next time you use 15-lbs (400,000 x 1/12-tsps) of honey in your next batch of Mead. The biggest joy of being a Meadmaker is that we get to let nature do all the hard work of creating the honey and keeping it clean.

Honey's Defenses

It is fortunate for us that honey, by nature, does not ferment on its own. Honey does not sustain microorganisms. If it did, the effects could result in contaminated beehive and possibility of killing the young bee larva. There are a variety of defense mechanisms found in honey that protect it from fungi and other microorganisms.

Examples of these defenses include the presence of peroxide, an acidic pH of 3.9, and a high osmotic pressure. For all these reasons, honey does not want to ferment on its own. It is our job as Meadmakers, to correct this problem.

Creating Honey

Honey is created when a Bee visits a flower, and captures a small amount of the complex sugars and starches that makes up the pollen. The Bee takes this pollen, and combines it with an enzyme to break it down into more simplex sugars. When the Bee's storage sacks are full, they return to the hive and transfer the honey to the young House Bees who spread it drop by drop, through the honeycombs within the hives.

Honey's Makeup

Each flower type visited by the Honey Bees consists of their own unique signatures of complex sugars, thus providing a unique aroma, color and overall character. It is safe to say that based on these unique signatures of complex sugar chains found in different flowers, the honey derived will in turn have its own unique signature of simplex sugars from which it was derived. For this reason, there are multitudes of different types of honey's that vary in overall sweetness, color, aroma, flavor, and more importantly to us, fermentability. Evidence of this is supported by the following table which quantifies the major sugars found in five different varieties of honey.

Note: The facts within this table are taken from The Compleat Meadmaker by Ken Schramm

Honey

Color

Gran.

Moist.

Lev.

Dext.

Sucrose

Malt.

Higher

?

total

OG

FG

Buck

10

2

18.3

35.30

29.46

0.78

7.63

2.27

4.3

79.74

1.084

1.002

Clover

4

2

17.7

37.95

30.97

1.14

7.75

1.4

2.6

81.81

1.074

0.990

Orange

4

4

16.7

39.26

31.83

1.87

6.5

1.33

2.5

83.29

1.076

0.993

Palmetto

7

2

16.6

38.24

30.92

0.83

6.48

1.69

5.3

83.46

1.074

0.996

Tupelo

7

0

18.2

43.27

25.95

1.21

7.97

1.11

2.3

81.81

1.066

1.002

Yeast Facts

Yeast is a single celled micro-organism that looks for simplex sugars to consume as it creates alcohol and C0 2 as its byproducts. The ideal fermentation conditions for most common Wine and Ales yeasts include a pH range between 5.0 and 7.5 at a fermentation temperature of 65º F and 75º F.

Mead Yeast

The type of Mead you are setting out to make should govern the type of yeast selected for fermentation as well as the amount of honey. It is important to consider the overall body and sweetness level that the Mead is targeted for, and choose from the range of yeasts along with the correct amount of honey in order to obtain this end result.

Successful yeasts for making sweet Meads include Montrachet, Chardonay, Ale yeasts and believe it or not, the liquid "Dry" Mead yeast. Depending on the starting gravity, these Yeasts typically result in a medium to high sweet Mead.

Successful yeasts for making dry Meads include Champagne , Premier Cuvee, Blanc, and others. Again, depending on the starting gravity, these yeasts typically result in a dry to medium dry Mead.

Yeast Starters

For numerous reasons, it is highly recommended that all dry yeasts are dissolved prior to pitching. In addition, regardless of dry or liquid yeast, it is also strongly recommended that you do a starter about 2 or 3 days before making your Mead. This will boost the population of yeasts thus decreasing the time it takes for the batch of Mead to start fermenting, as well as limit to risk of other microorganisms beating the yeast to fermentation in the carboy, thereby minimizing the risk of an infection.

Making the Perfect Mead

The ultimate goal set forth by any Meadmaker, is to create the perfect Mead. Although the "perfect" Mead is debatable and dependent upon the pallet of those who taste it, it is possible to create a Mead that best suites your own pallet. But first, it is important for you to define what that pallet is. One way to do that is to try a variety of different white wines for example, to help determine what sweetness level and body you wish to emulate in your Mead. As a general guideline, most Meads are created with about 1 to 2 gallons of honey, filled to a total of 5-gallons in a glass carboy, with a specific yeast type for fermentation.

Preparing the Honey

As discussed in the section above, by nature, honey does not want to ferment. It is our job as Meadmakers to correct this problem. It is also important to note that while honey may contain microorganisms in dormant forms, it is not necessary to boil it for sanitization. In fact, boiling honey will strip it of most of its wonderful aromas as well as further break down the sugars resulting in a solution of more simplex sugars and water instead of to complicated array of sugars.

Keep in mind that this does not mean there are no living organisms in honey to worry about. In fact, there is potential for microbes to be present in spore or dormant form, but they are not active enough in the normal state of honey to cause the organism reproduce and contaminate the honey. Though there is some concern that these spores can cause a problem once the honey is diluted to fermentation levels.

It is necessary to first dilute the honey to reduce its osmotic pressure and allow it to sustain single celled organisms, such as yeast. It is a good idea to take the 1 to 2 gallons of honey and dilute is with an equal amount of water prior to adding to the carboy. This solution can then be placed in a large pot and heated on a stove to about 150º F. The reason for the heating process is not necessarily for sanitation purposes, although it does reduce the potential for the spores to begin to populate and develop. The primary benefit for heating the honey is to help it dissolve and more importantly, allow the proteins and waxes found in the honey to be removed. You will find that by heating the honey to this temperature for about ½-hour, a white foam layer will appear on the top surface. Using a screen skimmer or spoon, continue to scoop up this layer as it forms.

In addition to removing proteins and wax from the honey solution, heating allows the volatile and unstable peroxide (H 2 0 2 ) to break down and become water (H 2 0) and free Oxygen (O 2 ). It is also a good idea to add about ½-TSB of Irish moss to your solution to aid in additional removal of proteins that do not coagulate during heating.

Once the honey solution appears to be clean and the top layer is no longer appearing, pour this solution into a sanitized carboy and continue to dilute to 5-gallons.

Proper pH

It is an old myth to state that it takes 1-year to ferment Mead. Those who say that may have not attempted to use proper and acceptable techniques that decrease this time to a more reasonable 4-weeks. Highest on the list of techniques, is to increase the acidic 3.9 (on average) pH of honey to a more fermentable level. Most yeast perform their best at a pH close to neutral (7.0), but it is acceptable to increase the pH to a range between 5.0 and 7.5 depending on the desired acidity level of the Mead.

Fruit Melomels

There are a number of techniques that can be used to add fruit to a Mead and creating a Melomel. Most common among the fruit types are Cherries, Blueberries, Blackberries, Grapes (Pyments), Strawberries, Raspberries, and an assortment of others. It is important to note that the three most important things about adding fruit are as follows.

Firstly, do not boil or overheat the fruit as that will set pectin and cause the Mead to become cloudy as well as dissipate most of the pleasing fruit aromas. Secondly, in order to derive the colors from the fruit in the Mead, it is important to break the skins in order to extract the pigments. Thirdly, it is important to sanitize the fruit as a host of microorganisms including fungi, are present and can/will infect the Mead.

Fermentation

Primary fermentation for most Meads can last as long as 4-weeks. During this time, it is not necessary to rack the Mead unless you have added fruit. When fermentation slows down, there is typically a deep sediment on the bottom on the order of 2-inches or more. That's O.K! If fermentation has slowed enough, it is time to rack the Mead into another sanitized carboy and leave behind this sediment. At that time, it is important to check the specific gravity to determine how much fermentation is left. If the gravity is high, it is a good idea to re-check the pH and see that it is between 5.0 and 7.5. If it must be adjusted, it is imperative that you re-pitch a new yeast, since any drastic adjustments to the pH can kill active yeast. Secondary fermentation can be slow and last about an additional 2 to 4 weeks. It's best to just let it continue at a slow pace since bottling at this time will likely result in either an under or over carbonated Mead in about 6-months of being bottled.

Advanced Mead Making Skills

As your Mead skills develop and you search for more excitement, it is possible to take Meadmaking to a new level and out of the ordinary. Many of the ideas that are applied in this section are actually derived from making wine. These ideas include oak aging, blending, layered fermentation and icing.

Oak Aging

Perhaps the most overlooked technique for making complex beers and wines is the use of Oak Barrels. Oak Barrels have been used in creating complicated Belgium Beers and Wines for what seems like forever. If they work for these beverages, why not incorporate oak aging to Meads?

Oak aging, when done correctly, can help mellow the higher, undesirable fusel alcohols found Meads by allowing them adequate time to break down, as well as adding a slight amount of oxidation and tannins. In combination, this can result in additional, "complex" flavors which can create a more interesting taste in any Mead. Keep in mind that not all oak is created equal, and caution should be used when considering this approach. First and foremost, it's important to consider what type of oak to use. American oak for example, tends to have a higher tannin content, and can therefore add astringency to the Mead if not used correctly. Young oak, typically in oak chip form, can also do the same. This is partly the reason why many winemakers use predominately French oak barrels for their longer aging processes. American oak barrels are typically used for shorter periods of time to reduce the tannin content imparted into the beverage. Many wineries also use both types of oak (American and French) and blend the final product. But none, at least that I'm aware of, use oak chips.

Blending

Blending is another fine art found in the world of wine. It is common for a Winemaker to blend a variety of different grapes or even vintages of wines, in the creation of their wine in order to develop complex flavors. If you remember the discussion above, each honey type (Orange Blossom, Tupelo , Buckwheat, ...) have their own unique taste, aroma, and flavor. This is because each contains different a composition of sugars which is dependent on the complex sugars (pollen) of the flowers which derived. Most honey's consists of levulose, dextrose, sucrose, maltose and higher sugars. In addition to these common sugars, there are also a number of unidentified sugars present in each honey type, all of which have their own unique signature. When consumed by the yeast, and converted into alcohol during fermentation, these unique chains are turned into unique alcohols along with other assorted by-products. These unique alcohols and by-products all add their own unique flavor to the Mead. A Mead created from one type of honey may taste single dimensional. But if the Meadmaker combines a unique combination of honey's, their unique flavors are combined and offers the Mead a complex arrangement of alcohols and other tastes that can in turn, create a more complex Mead.

Layered Fermentation

Equally as important to developing unique chains/combinations of alcohols and by-products from blending honeys is the type of yeast used to create them. Yeast is a living organism and when harvested into single strands that are found in our brewing/winemaking yeast's, they can also create their own unique flavor profile. To take advantage of these varieties of alcohols, it is a good idea to consider layered fermentation. This can be done by beginning primary fermentation with a weaker yeast stand and allowing its fermentation to complete. At the end of this primary fermentation, you can then add more honey and water as you rack the original solution into another cleaned carboy, and/or pitch a more aggressive yeast strand. It is necessary to do a starter on this new yeast in order to assure acclimate it to the alcohol of the Mead, and increase the starting population to help ensure its success. Prior to pitching this new yeast, it is also a good idea to check the pH. Once the new Yeast begins fermenting, it will begin to look like another primary fermentation, and in all likelihood, it is. Allow this yeast to go through its fermentation cycle until completion. It is possible to continue using this method of adding honey, water and a new yeast as long as you have the patience to endure. Each time, if you dare to be creative, try adding a different honey to the solution. In all probability, this method will produce a much more "complex" taste in your Mead then just a straight fermentation with one honey and one yeast.

Icing

If you care to make a higher alcohol, higher perceived sweetness, higher bodied Mead, it's possible to take portion of the Mead (don't recommend doing the entire 5-gallons), and placing it into a separate container with a wide open top, such as a clean 2.5 Gallon Bucket. Take this solution and place it in a freezer overnight. In the morning, you will find an ice block floating on the top of the bucket. Remove this block as carefully as you can. It will likely be slushy and break up as you remove it. What you have left is about 40% to 60% of what you started with, which will consist of a concentrated Mead. Take the ice block and toss it aside. If you are so bold, taste some of what was removed as ice. You will notice that it is not only water that was taken from this Mead, but instead, icing the Mead also acted as a cold filter, thus removing a variety of unpleasant tastes from the Mead.

You can do two things with this concentrated Mead. One is to re-dilute it back to its original gravity (or close) and notice how much cleaner it is then the Mead it started from before icing. Another suggestion is to bottle this concentrated Mead in small 6 or 7 oz bottles and use if as a liquor. If you decide to leave it concentrated, I recommend placing it in a brandy snifter type glass and slowly sipping instead of drinking. Mark my words, you will learn to love this type of Mead.

 

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