Mead is almost certainly the first beverage that got humans drunk (sorry, beer). It predates wine by ten to thirty thousand years. Hell, it predates the cultivation of soil. Best of all, you only need three common ingredients to whip up a batch. So let's do that.
It's Friday afternoon, you've made it through the long week, and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science, and alcohol. Yar, let's get ye olde drunke.
Mead is just three simple ingredients: honey, water, yeast. That's it. The end. You can add fruit, spices, or hops to add flavors, but you don't have to. I'm a purist, personally.
Before we get cooking, a little history. The reason mead likely predates other forms of booze is that man probably didn't even make it. He found it. Somewhere around twenty to forty thousands of years ago, bees would make their nests in holes in trees, then the rainy season would come and flood the nest. Wild yeast would blow through the muck and get all mixed up, too. Then some early hunting-gathering humans ambled by and were like, "Oooh, honey! Eww, it's wet. Ahh, screw it, I need the calories." Cue drunken orgy.
It was also a favorite drink of the Vikings before storming into battle. Not surprising; the alcohol gets you drunk and the sugar in the honey gets you amped. Think of it as an early Vodka-RedBull prototype. Oh, and yes, that high sugar content can give you a hangover, so be careful.
There are sweet meads, which have 8 to 11-percent alcohol, and are, not surprisingly, sweeter. And there are dry meads, which can have up to 18-percent alcohol and taste more like a white wine. They pack more of a punch, so that's what I went with. Let's get to the how-to.
We're going to make a one-gallon batch of mead. This recipe will easily scale up if you want. Also, there are tons of variations. Like I said, bees made it by accident, so don't be afraid to experiment.
- 1 gallon glass jug ($6)
- 1 rubber stopper (with a hole, $.85)
- 1 plastic air lock ($1.50)
- 1 pack Dry Mead Yeast ($7)
I got all of that for just over 15 bucks at the very awesome Brooklyn Homebrew, where I will soon be a regular customer. See if there's a local homebrew supply store near you, and if there isn't, you can find all of this stuff online. Everything they have is food-grade (which is very important), and they had a lot of yeast options. This one would stay hearty up to 18-percent ABV, so I went with it. However, if you want to go the super-duper cheap route, you can actually just use a plastic gallon jug and put a balloon on it instead of an air lock, but it's more of a pain in the ass, and it seems more likely that nasty stuff could go wrong.
- 1 gallon of spring water ($2)
- 3 pounds of honey (preferably unprocessed, $15)
- Bleach, small bottle ($1.50)
Yes, honey is expensive. It takes a lot of bees to make honey. But remember that those three pounds of honey are going to net you about 4 wine bottles of mead. All in all, not so bad. Spring water, or distilled water, isn't just a personal preference; it's a must, and here's why.
You are creating an environment in which good living organisms (the yeast) can thrive. However, that also means that bad living organisms can thrive there, too. That includes mold, bacteria, and bad yeasts. If those kinds of things go unchecked for six months in a bottle, then you drink it, you can die. Don't do that. (UPDATE: Mead making commenters have been chiming-in to say that you cannot die from bad mead, but you can make really bad mead. I would still bet that you could get sick. Regardless, better safe than sorry.) You've got to sterilize everything before you start. That means the bottle, the rubber stopper, the air lock, even the outside of the yeast package and the bottles of honey, if you can. Wear gloves if you've got 'em, or at the very least wash your hands constantly. As you can see in the video, I used a half gallon of water, added half a tablespoon of pure bleach, and used that to sanitize everything. You can find specialized cleaners and homebrew stores for that, too, that may be easier, but bleach should be okay. Just make sure you don't leave any bleachy residue in your mead.
1. Sanitize everything.
2. If you go with a wet Dry Mead yeast (see video), the pouch you buy should have a nutrient pack inside the bag. Pop it and let sit for about three hours at room temperature. This is to let the yeast activate. It's important to note that you can use a variety of types of yeast, but each will yield a different result. Bread yeast will work, but it's not as hearty and it will die at lower alcohol concentrations. Make the effort to find a brewer's yeast at the very least, and if you can find yeast specifically for dry mead, all the better. I had a wet yeast, but dry yeasts are just as good, you'll need to add some additional nutrients (purchase various nutrient mixes, or you can throw in some orange-slices and raisins). You'll just probably have to activate it in a bowl first. Follow the instructions or do your research online. Either way, once the yeast is activated, set it aside for the next two steps.
2. Add about half of the spring water to the glass bottle, and then dump in the entire three pounds of honey. Warming the honey up by putting it in a bowl of hot water will help it pour faster/easier.
3. You'll notice that you have two very distinct layers. You need one, homogenous fluid. Put the rubber stopper in the bottle opening, plug the hole with your thumb, and shake the hell out of it. Once it's all one color and doesn't settle at the bottom, you can move on.
4. Add the yeast (already activated, preferably), and then add the remaining water until your mixture is roughly one gallon. You won't be able to pour all of the water in because the honey takes up some of the space, so don't over fill the bottle. It should have some air at the neck.
5. Shake the bottle again for another five minutes to oxygenate the water. That should give those yeasties a little boost.
6. Put the air lock in the stopper, fill it to the line with water, cap it, and put it in the bottle.
7. You're done! Now just wait six months.
Oh, did I mention this takes six months? Yeah, it takes six months, give or take.
Keep your mead-to-be in a medium-to-cool dark place. Check on it every few days. After a day or two, you should see the air lock start to bubble a bit. That's a good sign.
About a month in you're probably going to want to rack the bottle, which means transferring the mead from one bottle to another, but there's art to this. You don't want to oxygenate the water, and you want to leave the old dead yeast behind. We'll cover that in-depth next month, in Let's Make Mead Part II, which is when I'll rack mine and show you everything else you need to do.
I also want to point you toward a great resource. I did a lot of research on mead-making, but no site was more helpful than Storm the Castle, and their Joy of Mead. If you want more details on anything, that's a great place to start.
My mead is placidly bubbling under my kitchen table, and I can't wait until step two. Hopefully, come summer time, I'll be sipping some chilled mead at a BBQ... and then I'll go all berserker on somebody's picnic.
Big thanks to Mr. Peter Schaad for the advice. Check back next Friday for more Happy Hour.
Music credit: Kevin MacLeod/Incompetech.com