Thursday, November 24, 2011
Mead, the very word conjures up images of Vikings pounding long tables and demanding the serving wenches to bring more of the golden liquid. Even today it seems like an exotic drink saved for renaissance fairs and fancy parties.
But in reality mead is one of the easiest wines to make. I've been making it since long before I was legal and never knew what the big fuss was about. One of my friends showed me a book fill with wine recipes and warnings and dire predictions of what can go wrong and a list of ingredients that were impossible to get except through a mail order catalog. And then the equipment that was needed to make it made me wonder how people in the Dark Ages could have even known what mead was much less ever tasted it.
No, mead should not be a mysterious culinary treasure reserved only for those who have a cabinet full of wine make chemicals. It is a drink that is beyond simple to make. Some wines you need to add a sugar to it to feed the yeast. Mead is made with honey, a sugar, and so really needs nothing besides water, honey and yeast. If you are buying a yeast that needs "yeast nutrients" figure yourself conned. Sugar, honey, maple syrup, sorghum...heck, think sweet and it will probably feed the yeast.
So, to make mead go out and scrounge yourself up a 5 gallon food grade plastic bucket. Clean it with bleach and the let it set for 12 hours or so to get that nasty bleach smell out of it. Then in a stainless steel pot heat up a gallon or so of water to boiling. Really, precise measurements are not needed. Just get it close. A little more is better than a little less. Once it's boiling pour in 3 to 4 pounds of good honey. If you raise bees, you honey will be the best. Stir until the honey is dissolved. Turn off heat. In you 5 gallon bucket grate up a little ginger or throw in a couple of cinnamon sticks. This isn't really needed but I like a bit of bite to my mead. Then slice up 3 or 4 organic lemons, peel and all, into the bucket. If you don't have lemons do it with oranges or even a grapefruit or two or mix and match. What you have, what you can get, put it into your mead. Now a great addition is a strong cup of tea. Tannins in tea help give the mead more body, but if you like sweet wine, don't worry about it.
In case you just can't understand what I am saying here is there is no 'one recipe fits all' here. I have made good mead with nothing more than honey, water and yeast. The rest is just gravy, or to put it another way, the rest just adds another layer of flavor. If you don't like that layer, forget about it.
So then you dump your honey and water mixture over whatever you've put into your five gallon bucket. Cover and let cool until just above body temperature. A little over 100 degrees F, if you need to be precise, is the perfect temperature for yeast to start growing. Then sprinkle some yeast over the must (that's a wine term for all the stuff you put into that 5 gallon bucket). What kind of yeast? What kind do you got? Don't use brewers yeast, but if you've got bread yeast and can't get to a wine store to pay outrageous prices for a fancy sounding yeast, use the bread yeast. Don't mix this in, just sprinkle 2 or 3 tablespoons or if you are using single packages, a couple packages over the top of your liquid. Cover this with a dish cloth and let it bubble for a week to ten days. If you forget about it for an extra day or two, don't worry too much. Here is one thing you shouldn't do. Once you pour that yeast over it until the 10 days are up, don't move it around or stir it. Just put your bucket in a warm place in your house and don't do a whole lotta touching.
The must is probably going to be bubbling allot here, and that's what you want. It may even look a bit yucky at this point but mead has a way of working itself out. Now, while this is bubbling go to your local tavern and ask them to set aside a gallon glass jug or two for you when they use up the wine. Be polite and go get it as soon as they call you so they aren't tripping over what to them is garbage. Clean it out the same way you cleaned out your bucket, with a little hot water and bleach. Then, when your must has slowed down on the bubbling either filter it into the glass jug (called a carboy in wine making speak) or rack it into the glass jug. racking is like siphoning gas from your car except you get a mouth full of mead instead of gas fumes. If you decide to rack your wine, keep the end of your siphoning tube about an inch off the bottom of the plastic bucket. This is where all the dead yeast goes and that can make your mead cloudy. Over the top of your glass jug put a balloon or unlubricated condom--both with a couple pinholes poked into them or some kind of airlock. At this point your mead isn't bubbling enough to keep bad stuff out so you want to keep air out, but you want to let the gasses in your mead escape. Let set for a month or so, longer if your balloon is blowing up.
If you have a second glass jug you can filter or rack you mead a second time. The more your filter it the clearer it will get so it looks nice but it won't effect the flavor. When all the bubbling stops filter or rack your mead into clean mason jars, clean bottles you have salvaged that can be corked, or any clean glass containers you can close. At this point I wouldn't put the covers on too tightly. Mead is very slow to finish fermenting and it will keep giving off gasses until it is done. If the covers are on too tightly the bottles can explode. Give it a month or two more before you put those covers on tightly.
Now comes the hardest part...you have to wait for mead. Because it is made from a sugar, mead takes a looonnnngggg time to age. Minimum of nine months. Yeah, you heard me, you can't drink this for nine months at the earliest and a year is better. Put it down in the basement and wait until next year to try it. While other wines are more complicated in the begining you don't have to wait as long for them but mead is easy in the beginning and you put your time in during the waiting.
But Oh, is it worth it. Really, it is hard to make a bad batch of mead. It may not taste like the last batch you made, even if you follow your exact recipe (bees make different honey from year to year), but you will most probably love what you have there.
So rile up your warrior blood, pound the tables for the serving wenches, and enjoy mead made by your own hand. People will be amazed at your skill in the spirit making department, and you'll be practicing a skill that has been used since long before the Egyptians created their great cities along the Nile.