Mead, or honey wine, is likely the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage. From ancient Greeks to Nordic Vikings, mead was a preferred drink across cultures for centuries. Even today, there are dozens of variations of mead produced and consumed all around the globe. For instance, melomel is mead made with honey and fruit, and metheglin is mead made from honey and spices.
I’ll describe how to make mead, melomel, and metheglin. The main ingredient is, of course, honey, which I collect from the beehives I keep on my homestead. Previously, I wrote about how to keep bees and how to make wine, in this very column. Do an internet search for those articles, if it interests you.
Making mead is legal to do. The laws regarding homemade wine state that a person over the age of 21 can make up to 100 gallons per year for personal consumption. If there are two or more adults in the household, you can make up to 200 gallons per year. But be sure to follow the laws regarding selling, serving, possessing, and transportation, as stated in Title 61, Chapter 6 of the South Carolina Code of Laws.
Now, let’s get started. You will need honey. I strongly recommend you buy it from a Pee Dee beekeeper, for several reasons.
First, you are supporting a local producer of the finest available honey. Honey from other countries is cheaper, but it’s often adulterated with corn syrup, and some batches contain chemical contaminants. Second, you are supporting local bees, which are responsible for pollinating many of our South Carolina fruits and vegetables. And finally, there is increasing scientific evidence that eating local honey may help with seasonal allergies.
Next, you’ll need a fermentation vessel. You can buy a gallon-sized plastic fermenter online for less than $10. This is essentially a plastic bucket with an airtight lid, with a small hole drilled in the lid. The gases produced during fermentation escape through this hole, which is fitted with an inexpensive airlock. An airlock is a small plastic “bubbler” that allows gas to escape, but prevents oxygen from entering the bucket. Old-timers used a rubber balloon for the same purpose, fitted onto the neck of a one-gallon bottle instead of a bucket. As the balloon fills up with gas, they would periodically remove the balloon to let the gases escape.
To make a simple mead, add 2 pounds of honey to a half gallon of hot water. Make sure all the honey is dissolved, and then let it cool to room temperature.
This recipe will make a dry mead that is more like a chardonnay than a sweet muscadine wine. For a sweet mead, add 3 pounds of honey per half gallon of water. And remember, you can always add more honey after fermentation to make it sweeter. Experimenting with the recipe is part of the fun, so keep notes.
You will also need yeast. Baker’s yeast will produce a crude, hazy, off-flavored mead with an alcohol content of 8-10%. Winemaker’s yeast will produce a clearer, better-tasting, and higher-alcohol-content mead. The Lalvin brand of yeast is best for mead. For example, their EC-1118 and K1-V116 strains will preserve the delicate, fruity, honey flavors and create a finished mead containing up to 18% alcohol! A packet of this yeast costs less than a dollar, online.
Stir in the yeast (one small packet per gallon is plenty), seal the fermentation vessel, and let it sit in a dark, climate-controlled place that stays around room temperature. Within a day, gases will be produced. The gas escaping from the fermenter into the balloon or through the airlock is mostly carbon dioxide, which is released by the yeast cells as they convert sugar into alcohol.
You should let the mead ferment until all gas production stops. That usually takes a couple of months. I let mine sit for a year, more or less. Feel free to taste a small sample every month or so. The “young” mead will be yeasty, cloudy, and sweet. The “mature” mead will be clear and taste heavenly. Patience is key for a good final product.
When you are satisfied with the taste of your mead, carefully decant it into a large pitcher, keep it in the fridge, and enjoy drinking it! The gunk at the bottom of the fermentation vessel is dead yeasts, which are harmless, but most people don’t want to drink them.
Now, to make a nice melomel, try this recipe, which includes South Carolina peaches. Add 2 to 3 pounds of honey, a couple of pounds of skinned, diced peaches, and two or three tablespoons of lemon juice in a half gallon of water. Simmer the ingredients and then let it cool. Add the mixture to your fermenter and “pitch” in the yeast. Let it ferment until it stops bubbling, and carefully decant or siphon away the finished peach melomel from the pulp and gunk at the bottom of the fermenter. It will be golden and fragrant, locally sourced, and all natural. And you certainly can’t buy local peach melomel at the store!
Finally, you can make a pumpkin spice metheglin. Afterall, pumpkin spice is all the rage. Use the same basic recipe for mead, but also add a half teaspoon each of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice. While the finished metheglin has no actual pumpkin, it will nonetheless remind you of fall, and warm you from the inside out.
Most Americans have never tried drinking mead, let alone making a batch. But if you follow these directions, it’s easy! So, honey, if it’s mead you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place.
Greg Pryor, Ph.D., is a professor of biology at Francis Marion University and enjoys a self-sufficient lifestyle on his 100-acre homestead. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.