Mead is one of the oldest fermented beverages, perhaps even the oldest; after all, at its most basic, it requires only honey and water to make. A recipe from Pliny the Elder, (who was by no means the first to make this sweet fermented beverage) is the oldest written account of the recipe. This is what he had to say, in A.D. 77, according to a favorite source of brewing inspiration, Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, by Stephen Buhner. Pliny lists the ingredients as “3 parts rainwater, 1 part honey,” and goes on:
“A wine is … made of only water and honey. For this it is recommended that rain water should be stored for 5 years. Some who are more expert use rainwater as soon as it has fallen, boiling it down to a third of the quantity and adding one part of old honey to three parts of water, and then keeping the mixture in the sun for 40 days after the rising of the Dog-star. Others pour it off after 9 days and then cork it up. This beverage in Greece is called “water -honey”; with age it attains the flavour of wine.”
Follow the trail even further back in time, and we can see cave paintings from the stone age, which depict the collection of honey from wild bees; it’s not too far a stretch to imagine that those long-ago ancestors would have mixed water with the honey, and allowed the invisible wild yeasts to ferment it into mead. Mead may predate the wheel!
There’s something mystical about mead, even if one does not use rainwater which has been aged for 5 years, or ferment it at the rising of the Dog-star. It’s been used ritualistically in all cultures which developed it, through the sacred rite of intoxication itself, and at other times, in conjunction with medicinal herbs. The term honey-moon derives from the Norse tradition of bestowing a newly wed couple with enough mead to last a month, a moon; this was believed to increase the likelihood of male offspring, and indeed may have had some physical effects that contributed to this effect.
Although mead can be flavored in a thousand different ways, with additions of flowers, herbs, fruits, and juices, the flavor of honey sings most sweetly when the recipe is reduced to something that closely resembles Plinys’ simple concoction. Generally speaking, lighter, mellower honeys are used for meadmaking; clover, sage, and wildflower honeys are common, but even the darker honeys can be used to good effect. The darker the color, the stronger the taste seems to be; sometimes the dark, late-season honeys can have a bitter flavor. Start with this simple recipe, and feel free to branch out from here. Although wild yeasts and unsterile conditions can and have been the norm when fermenting mead, we recommend the use of commercial yeasts and airlocks for more consistent results.
The longer mead ages, the more complex and interesting it gets…but we’ve rarely managed to age it for more than a year, ourselves. Mysterious, indeed.
This recipe makes 1 gallon of mead.
When fermentation is complete, sanitize all necessary equipment again.
Siphon the mead into another sanitized carboy, leaving behind the spent yeast solids, or lees. This step is called racking.
To calculate alcohol by volume, take a specific gravity reading at this time, and perform the necessary calculations. The lower the reading, the drier the mead. To get the final strength of your mead, subtract the final SG reading from the original SG reading. Divide the result by 0.00736 to get the percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV).
From the second, now-full carboy, siphon the mead into sanitized bottles. This step is useful to make the bottling easier; the solids on the bottom of the first carboy, while not harmful to the flavor of the mead, detract from the clear appearance of the mead. Racking the mead off the lees makes for a cleaner, clearer, more impressive finished mead.
Secure the lids on the filled bottles of mead, and store them in a cool, dark place. The mead is ready to drink in two weeks, but the longer it ages, the better it gets! Try to hide a bottle from yourself, if you can, to open one night beneath the Dog Star, Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.
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