When I decided to have a go at making mead for the first time the amount of information I discovered was overwhelming. But I am a beekeeper, and a maker of country wines, and so it was logical that I should combine the two activities in one product. So I persisted, hoping to find simple instructions. I failed, so here are mine, and I learnt quite a few useful things along the way.
The trouble is that the articles I read on the subject were written by geeks, fermenting maniacs who take their hobbies to the extreme. Whilst I admired them for their dedication and thoroughness I had no wish to emulate them as I have other things to do as well. Plus I live on a boat and therefore have limited workspace. In any case I do most of my wine making at my allotment, in a shed, where there is no mains water or electricity. So it had to be simple. Simple and effective!
And on that note, if you’ve been attracted to this article by the title of ‘Simple Mead Making’ you might want to skip my many and thoroughly interesting thoughts on honey, beekeeping and mead and get straight to the nitty gritty. I that’s the case, or if you are sat there with several jars of honey wondering what to do with them then scroll down to where the text reads: ———– ‘Mead Making Instructions – the details‘
For the rest of you, especially if you are a beekeeper, and if you can spare a couple of minutes … read on!
I’m sure that if you want perfect mead every time, each batch absolutely identical to the last, then it is worthwhile working to 6 decimal points and buying lots of electronic equipment from the internet to ensure you do not waver in your quest for perfection. But if like me you just want to enjoy odd glass for yourself, or give impressive bottles as presents to people who have little idea what mead is, then things are a lot simpler, and great results are surprisingly difficult to avoid in my experience. The Saxons seemed to manage alright for hundreds of years, with open wooden buckets, and by guessing, without the internet or a single home brew supplies shop, and they also invented the pub. Heros!
However I am not a Luddite, and make use of some modern materials and technology. I ferment in sealed plastic buckets with airlocks and I also use a hydrometer, to measure the specific gravity of each batch, just once! Don’t let this very scientific sounding piece of kit put you off. You just float it in your juice and read the number on the side. You don’t need to know what the numbers mean or how the thing works. Just work to the numbers I give you and everything will be alright. Details below!
I ferment my mead, in an unheated, un-insulated wooden shed, at my allotment, and not in a temperature controlled environment. I do it both during summer, and during winter, and the results are always fantastic despite the enormous temperature range the hut experiences, and the utter neglect the mead and my country wines endure.
So fermenting can begin in any month of the year and I deliberately save fruit and other juices so that I can start off country wines in the middle of winter, as space or fermenting containers become available, and as winter allotment boredom sets in. There is a full description of each season’s bounty below.
(Note: If you are also interested in making country wines then see ………
……… otherwise read on!)
The only problem I get in my shed is that I can, occasionally, experience a stratification of honey and water during winter, especially with a new batch. This is because there are times, during prolonged very cold spells, when the fermentation practically stops for weeks,. A quick stir with a spoon, or a rigorous shake of the container sorts that out, and fermentation picks up again when the sun comes out next. No matter how cold it gets in the shed the buckets and demi-johns keep bubbling, and the greater the alcohol content you have then the less chance of freezing there is. However yeast can survive freezing and I have never had mead, or wine, in buckets or glass demi-johns, freeze on my allotment, and I live in the bottom of a cold dark valley in the Pennines of Yorkshire. Things take longer in winter, but in summer things move very quickly indeed. Time is a variable commodity in an allotment shed, for many reasons.
Which honey to use?
Of course you can use honey from a jar, clear and ‘pure’, and this is what most people use, however you don’t have to use this type of honey to make mead. The great discovery in mead making for me was that you can put to good use all the stores you can’t use for anything else, including really manky brood frames.
A – Manky brood frames
A few years ago I ended up with several frames of very old and smelly brood frames full of stores. I spun it off but the smell and taste of the honey were very unappealing so I had a go at making mead with it. The resulting two demijohns were not very inspiring, brown like stout beer, the colour of the brood frames, and foaming madly. I fully expected these unattractive qualities to be carried through to the finished product, and to be honest I had planned to go on to make mead vinegar out of them. To my surprise I ended up with 10 bottles of beautifully clear and delicious mead.
Extracting honey from brood frames will result in perfectly edible honey, but with a brood frame smell and taste, which is not to everyone’s liking, not to anyone’s actually. But put this dark honey in a fermenting vessel with some yeast and it will be transformed into the most perfect, clear mead. In this way you can make use of the darkest, smelliest brood frames.
A patch of stores in a brood frame which can be spun or melted out.
B – Mixed and uncapped stores – the 20% rule
When you pull a frame of uncapped stores, or mixed stores (capped and uncapped), you cannot spin it and add it to honey taken from capped stores because it will raise the moisture level above the all important 20%. The bees reduce the moisture content to 20% or below before capping over, to prevent fermentation, and this is therefore the moisture content figure which is a legal requirement for honey sales. So what do you do with stores which are uncapped and therefore above the 20% mark? You can’t sell it, but you can make mead with it as mead is made by diluting honey with water anyway, by increasing the moisture content.
‘Wet’ uncapped stores
C – Solar melter run-off
When I’m melting down old brood frames in my solar melter there’s often bits of stores, capped and uncapped in them, too little to justify spinning, or too ‘wet’ to do anything with. No matter, as the melter sorts them out for you.
A solar wax melter made from an old display cabinet. It melts one brood frame at a time or two super frames. Making a bigger one is on my ‘to do’ list.
The stores are carried down and out with the wax to the collecting vessel and the molten wax floats on top of the stores. The wax sets when the sun goes cool, still floating on top of the denser stores, and concentrated now with the evaporating effect of the solar melter. Remove the solid wax block and pour off the accumulated stores below into the ‘Mead Only’ bucket.
In this way, every drop of stores, regardless of its nature or source, is recovered and used. The yeast you will add to the bucket doesn’t care where it came from or how it got there.
Concentrated stores beneath the wax
Extraction – spinning
I extract all the capped honey, filter through sieves, and then leave it to settle before putting it in jars. Then I do exactly the same thing with mixed stores and put it into a bucket marked ‘Mead Only’. But I don’t stop there. I also wash any removed cappings in a little water and add the sweet water to the ‘Mead Only’ bucket. The extracted stores will need diluting anyway so why not recover every drop. And I still don’t stop there!
Extraction – Crushed comb and stores
(from Top-Bar hives and other broken comb)
Most of my hives are ‘Nationals’, with standard frames, but I have a top-bar hive as well. Extracting from the unframed comb of a top-bar with a spinner is difficult. Instead I cut away the comb from the top bar and separate the capped comb from the uncapped or mixed stores. There’s an opportunity here to make up some ‘cut comb’ as gifts, or for sale, but the remaining comb is processed for both honey and mead.
Cut comb from my top-bar hive
I deal with the capped and uncapped comb in the same way, but separately, capped stores go for honey and the rest for mead.
I chop up the stores in a big pan with a knife which results in a mushy mess. I filter this through a cone filter to remove the worst of the wax, quite a slow process, and then I put it through fine sieves.
Mushy mess being separated in the cone sieve
The capped stores are put in jars and the mixed stores go for mead making. All the leftover wax is washed with a little water to remove the last of the sticky coating of stores and this sweet water is then added to the ‘Mead Only’ bucket along with the extracted mixed stores.
Dealing with non-frame comb is more of a faff than spinning but it is no less satisfying, plus you end up with lots of beeswax, a bonus if you make things from beeswax like I do.
Mead ingredients summary
So you can use stores from anywhere. From manky brood frames, uncapped stores, mixed stores, capping washings, broken comb, and stuff with bits of dead bees in it. I started out using pure honey but now I never use this valuable resource but instead recover all the stores which you cannot sell, and nobody wants. It’s all perfect for mead, the yeast doesn’t care.
Mixed cappings in a cone sieve
When to start fermenting
Winter – The first batch of mead can be going as early as February.
If a colony doesn’t survive winter (see example below) then its stores can be dealt with immediately and put to good use.
It’s a great way to process the frames straight away and not having them hanging around going mouldy. Any pollen or other particles (e,g. wax) which end up in the mix are sorted out during fermentation. They either sink or swim and so are easily, scooped off the top with foam, or left behind in the bottom of the vessel during racking.
A sad sight. The top-bar colony dwindled during winter and became too few to sustain the colony. The last bees are dead but still clustered. There was plenty of stores in the hive, some only inches away. All the comb was eventually destroyed by melting it in the solar wax melter (just to be on the safe side) but the sections with stores, like the one shown above, were cut out first and mashed up to extract the honey for mead making. I got about 4lbs (??kg) of clean cut comb and about 3lbs of manky stuff for mead making, the silver lining to this particular dark cloud.
Spring – The next brewing opportunity is to use honey which comes from old brood comb, removed in spring, whilst most of the frames are empty, during my on-going brood frame re-cycling (replacing brood frames every four years). The honey from old brood comb is unusable in jars due to its heavy, musty smell and taste, but in a fermentation vessel it doesn’t matter, the yeast sorts it out, and I have had the most wonderful mead from the most horrible dark brood comb, an amazing transformation.
Summer – Then I usually do a batch in May or June, with the first left-over winter honey taken from the supers during pre-swarm inspections, after the threat of a late spell of bad weather has passed. This is often mixed stores, capped and uncapped. Honey which is destined for jars is covered by legislation which requires you to use honey with 20% moisture or less, which is only capped honey. For mead it doesn’t matter because you will adjust the specific gravity with water anyway. It’s a great way to use uncapped stores, or mixed stores and it is very satisfying to get a batch under way at this time of year because it will be ready for Christmas, an ideal Christmas present.
Summer bonus – The occasional removal and re-location of established colonies from lofts, garages, etc. is another good source of honey which is inevitably contaminated by wax, bits of dead bee, dust, powdered rotted wood, etc. All picked up during the cutting away of comb during the removal process. I drop any clean comb into one bucket, and anything which has picked up particles, or contains uncapped stores into another. If I don’t need to feed the stores back to the colony in their new home then this ‘dirty’ honey will be used to make excellent mead. How many people can say they made 3 gallons of wine from something they found inside a porch roof?
Autumn – As autumn approaches I begin sorting the hives for winter. I don’t feed my bees sugar so sufficient fully capped frames are consolidated in the lower super as winter stores, and anything else is removed. Capped frames are spun for honey and anything else is spun for mead making. This autumn batch will bubble gently through winter and will be bottled the following summer, possibly in May or June. A lovely summer drink for the allotment.
Adding to! – The big bucket.
Another thing I do is to gradually add to a big bucket as stores become available. I get a batch going, then, when I have the time to process more hives/comb, I make up another batch, to the same specific gravity, and simply add it to the first batch. In this way the first batch increases in size in the same bucket over a period of a few weeks rather than having lots of little batches all over the place. I can usually get close to 5 gallons in this way, this big batch will easily provide Christmas presents for my friends and relatives, (whether they like it or not).
The big bucket with the first batch of 20 pints (2.5 gallons) fermenting, and taken from a hive which didn’t survive winter. Another gallon was added 10 days later from old brood comb stores taken from another hive (note slight darkening), and another gallon a few days after that..
Mead Making Instructions – the details
1 – Boiling – If you think there is a danger of contamination by wild yeasts, or anything else, then boil your juices (honey or honey and water) first. Occasionally frames of mixed or uncapped stores can begin fermenting and you can smell it on them. This of course is the yeast the Saxons used and I have experimented with it too, and there’s nothing wrong with it. There is tremendous satisfaction in successfully using a wild yeast in any fermentation. There is tremendous satisfaction in the avoidance of parting with money under any circumstances. However if you are just beginning, and want to be confident of success, then boil the mead juices to kill off any organisms in there, then add your bought yeast to the resulting sterile juice.
2 – Diluting – Just add warm water to the honey, mix well, check the specific gravity.
The end sweetness is determined by the amount of honey you have in the fermentation to start with, more honey for a sweet mead and less for a dry one. This amount, accurately determined by the specific gravity, is measured using a hydrometer, a glass thing which looks like a fisherman’s float.
Hydrometer and plastic sample tube. The cheap stuff works just as well as the expensive stuff
The figures below are all you need.
1.118 = medium sweet mead
1.110 = dry mead
Add a little more water, or honey, to achieve the required specific gravity (e.g. more water if it’s above 1.118 and, more honey if it’s below)
I tend to go for medium sweet as everyone seems to like it this way, including me. However I also do the occasional batch of dry which I can either bottle as ‘dry’, or ‘back sweeten’ with honey to make it medium sweet. There is a taste difference between medium sweet mead made from 1.118, and from dry mead (1.110) which has been back sweetened, but only if you use good quality wild flower honey which adds its aroma and flavour to the mead.
A gallon of dry mead which is destined to be back sweetened with honey. The rest of the batch was bottled as dry mead.
3 – Yeast – Any general purpose yeast from anywhere will do.
The first batch I made was with a special, and expensive yeast, obtained from the internet, and recommended by a geek. I could tell no difference between the mead it produced and others made with general purpose white wine yeast bought from a home supplies store, or from mead made from wild yeast, but perhaps I’m just not discerning enough.
4 – Yeast nutrient – Not compulsory but ensures a complete fermentation. I like to use it because of my variable temperature fermenting conditions. Your mead will foam when the nutrient is added so leave space.
So, in summary, this is what you need to do, per gallon of mead:
– make up a yeast culture 24 hours before brewing (general purpose yeast is fine)
– add about 3 pounds of pure honey, or its equivalent in mixed or manky stores to a mixing container or fermentation bucket.
– add warm water to the honey to make up to nearly 1 gallon and mix well
– test the specific gravity (using a hydrometer)
– add a little more water, or honey, to achieve the required specific gravity (more water if it’s above 1.118 and, more honey if it’s below)
– optional: add ½ teaspoon of yeast nutrient and mix well
– add the yeast culture and mix well
– close fermentation bucket or demijohn (use airlock)
The mead may foam during the early stages of fermentation, especially if you use yeast nutrient. This doesn’t matter in a bucket. The foaming will bring all the particles to the surface where they can be scooped off the top of the foam.
Tiny wax particles and pollen float to the top where they can easily be removed by scooping or by dabbing with a cloth or with a paper kitchen towel.
However there is limited air space in the top of a demi-john and the increasing fermentation will cause foam to force out through the airlock like lava from a slow motion volcano in a Thunderbirds special effect shot. It will make a right mess, and wastes valuable, hard won product. If you are worried about foaming then add the yeast nutrient once the fermentation has settled a bit, or start off fermenting in a bucket and add to a demijohn later when it calms down (or just leave it in the bucket like I do). Buckets come in all sizes from 2 gallons to 10 gallons and it’s not compulsory to fill them (just desirable).
Each batch usually needs racking off once before bottling, maybe twice if you use really manky brood comb.
I find that with particle rich manky honey much of the sediment drops out in the first few days of fermentation and the contents quickly clear to a colour more like mead fermented from cleaner sources. So if I’m adding a small manky batch to a clearer bigger batch then I might rack off early in the process to leave the sediment behind. I said ‘I might’.
Mead is best slightly chilled before drinking, like white wine, and goes with anything: chicken, lobster, chips, tripe, sausage butties. It’s very versatile.
Making mead is really easy, not complicated at all, and the results are amazing.
Using any type of stores, capped, uncapped, mixed, brood, etc. you can make delicious mead and, at the same time, ensure nothing our little friends make is wasted.
And another thing!
If you are successful in making your own mead you can easily go on to make mead and honey liqueur, which is even more delicious. Fruit liqueurs take about 3 months to make but mead and honey liqueur takes about 3 minutes. I’m going to write up all my liqueur and flavoured alcoholic drinks experiments in another article, after another season of extensive testing.
Q: What is mead anyway?
A: Mead is wine made from only honey.
Q: Aren’t monks the only ones allowed to make mead?
A: Is that a serious question?
Q: Do I need special kit?
A: Use identical kit to DIY wine making.
Q: Do I need a specialist mead yeast?
A: No, any general purpose yeast will do.
Q: Can I use cheap supermarket honey instead of all that faffing around with bees?
A: Yes, of course, but it won’t be quite as good as my organic wild flower mead.
Q: My mate can get me free plastic buckets with sealable lids from where he works. Can I use them?
A: Yes, Can he get me some?
Q: Does mead get better with age like wine does?
A: I have no idea.