Medieval adventures

Mead Making

Penda and I (Sibylla) have been brewing for many years. Now that we have our own bees, we have access to a lot more honey! In the Fall of 2014, Sibylla put on 30 gallons of mead with honey from our hives. I like to think of Sibylla as a Medwrihte.

Sibylla here, after harvesting from the hives we use gravity in a series of buckets to extract the honey. Once as much of the honey has dripped out of the comb, we “wash” the honeycomb. This is said to be the way the Anglo-Saxons made their mead according to Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink written by Ann Hagen. The honeycomb needs to be washed in order to process the wax (will share that process on another page). The result is “honey water”. We then measure the specific gravity of the honey water to determine how much more honey or water is required to make a batch of mead. The following instructions are for those who do not have the luxury of harvesting honeycomb from beehives.

Things you will need:

  • A sanitizing agent such as Star San. The dosing rate for Star San is 1 ounce per 5 gallons. That’s . 2 ounces for 1 gallon. . 2 ounces = 5.91 ml. Everything you use for brewing should be cleaned and sanitized or boiled for 20 minutes before brewing!
  • Fermentation bucket (6 gallons or 23 litres)
  • Large cooking pot (roughly 6 litres or more)
  • Hydrometer!! It can be found at any brewing store.
  • Honey
  • Water from a trusted well, bottled water, or your tap. If you are using tap water know that it is treated water with chemicals that can only be removed using a reverse osmosis system (which we have as well as excellent well water). I recommend (but it is not necessary) using as little of the treated water as possible as it does change the flavour of the mead.
  • Carboy with bubbler and bung (stopper).
  • Spices, fruit or herbs if you are looking for different flavours. More information will be given as you follow the instructions on the recipe pages.

The Basic Method:

Note: We base our recipes on 6 gals or 23-litre batches (the size of a standard plastic brewing pail). Smaller batch options will be listed in the recipe section.

  • On a stovetop warm-up 2 gals of water in a metal pot. Do not bring it to a boil. Ideally, it is about 65C/150F when you are ready to put just a few pounds of the honey into the pot. This will help dissolve the honey for easy mixing. The rest of the honey can be added to the primary fermentation bucket.
  • If you are adding spices, this is a good time to do so. Be careful with how much spice you add. Spices like cloves or ginger are very potent. You may need as little as 1 clove per gal! Let the spices simmer until the desired potency is reached. Taste the honey water to determine if you have enough flavour keeping in mind that things will be a little more watered down once it is added to the fermentation bucket. An easy filter bag is a coffee filter tied closed with thread. A cotton or linen bag will also work as well as a few layers of cheesecloth tied.
  • Pour honey-water mixture into the 6 gals plastic bucket along with the rest of the honey. It is important to use a bucket for this initial phase because if you use something with a narrow neck, the gasses will not be able to escape quickly enough and you could end up with it exploding through the small opening and gushing mead and yeast everywhere (been there – done that).
  • Before topping up the pail with warm water measure the specific gravity (potential alcohol percentage) with the hydrometer. You can get these at any brewing supplier. There are often three scales on the hydrometer, use the alcohol percentage scale. Pour the water (or more honey depending on your reading) into the bucket within 2 inches or slightly less of the rim. The air gap allows the yeast to work as it foams up and bubbles when it starts to brew. If you leave too much of an air gap you may end up with a lot of wonderful honey flavoured vinegar (ask me how I know…)
  • There are several different types of yeast on the market so if you want a dry mead, use a typical dry wine yeast such as EC 1118. For a sweet mead, we used Safale US 05. We have found that meads when using the sweeter yeast didn’t clarify as well as the drier wine yeast. Champagne yeast is also commonly used for mead. We have had “explosive” but tasty results using it. Bread yeast is another option, however, we have discovered the mead will have a yeasty bread flavour. The yeast you use will impact the final flavour of your mead.
  • Put the lid on and insert a plastic airlock/bubbler. These work very well because they let you see how fast the mead is fermenting. The faster the bubbles the faster it is working. Open the yeast packet and gently pour it into the pail. You don’t need to stir or shake. Just let the yeast float on top where it will slowly begin to consume the sugars creating alcohol.
  • Move the pail to a warm (we have brewed in as low as 13 degrees Celcius but any lower than that and the yeast won’t work) and dark (throw a blanket over the pail if it is going to be in the light) fermenting location.
  • After a day or two, you should start to see bubbles in the airlock. If not, double-check the room temperature. If you do not have a warm place to brew your mead a heating blanket is a good solution. If things are still not working, you may need to add more yeast.
  • After about two weeks check the mead with the hydrometer. If the mead hasn’t finished or still has a high percentage of sugar, leave it to keep working. When it reaches the desired lower alcohol percentage it is time to “rack it” which means transfer the mead into the secondary fermentation container called a “carboy”. Syphoning with a neoprene hose is best as it allows you to leave the unwanted sediment at the bottom of the fermentation bucket. We like plastic carboys because you can clean them with hot water and they are less likely to shatter into tiny shards leaving 23 litres of mead all over the floor…ask me how I know that??
  • Eventually, the mead will clarify, leaving the sediment at the bottom of the carboy. Some people like to leave their mead natural at this point. We certainly have. We have also experienced that temperatures warming up has caused the mead to “start” again which sometimes leads to exploded bottles or gushing mead from the bottle when it is opened. So, if you chose not to “kill” your mead by adding a couple of Campton tablets or sulphates, we suggest storing it in a very cool place. Before bottling, we suggest pouring the mead through a funnel with a coffee filter. This will remove any chunky bits or spice debris. Do not use a wine filter system on the mead, it will remove most of the honey taste and you will be disappointed, trust me.
  • Once you are happy with the clarity and the flavour of your mead bottle it up and enjoy. To store mead for ageing purposes it should have an alcohol percentage of 10 to 12% or higher. If it is lower you will want to drink it sooner.