If you have been following along with our fermentation series, then you have already made your own Fermentation Jar, NY Style Deli Pickles and Authentic Sauerkraut. While there are so many other delicious ferments to cover in future articles, we will be concluding this introduction to fermentation series with mead. During my own journey, Melomel, or fruit mead, was where the whole process of fermentation really hooked me. Watching the transformation happening daily gave me that little sense of magic described by most cultures through history. Whether you like it young, aged, plain or infused, I'm pretty sure you're going to agree - mead making is easy and delicious.
We are using a few, simple ingredients but we are going to be a little fussy on the quality:
- (1) Fermentation jar w/ airlock lid. If you do not have a fermentation jar but have access to other home brew vessels, then feel free to substitute and adjust the ratios accordingly. I would, however, discourage the use of a narrow-mouth carboy for some firmer fruits during the first stage as removing them can be frustrating. Also, while you can produce young mead in an open container, you will likely invite flies, while lossing much of the mead's fizzy, sparkling nature. (Leaving an alcohol ferment exposed to oxygen for a week or more will begin its slide towards vinegar.)
- 10 oz of The honey you choose will not only affect the flavor, but also your success. I recommend raw, local honey in a flower variety that you find most enjoyable. If local honey is not available, look for a brand that is minimally processed and use terms such as "raw" & "unfiltered". Also be aware that what can be labeled as 'honey' differs from country to country, so be careful if using imported honey. Over-filtered, heated or honey blended with other sweeteners will hinder your fermentation. *more details about honey to follow below.
- 50 oz of Chlorine is added to tap water to make it inhospitable to undesirable organisms and does not differentiate between what is bad for your water supply, and what is necessary for successful brewing. Though you can still brew with tap water by first boiling it, using it straight from the tap might lengthen the brew time which could potentially lead to spoilage of any floating fruit.
- - Soft, sweet fruits tend to work the best if you want to produce a young fruit mead quickly. Bananas are a perfect starting fruit, as they impart a generous flavor to the mead, offer up sugars and break down visually in a manner that corresponds nicely with the progress of the brew. Any fruit can be used, as well as some peels, but additional stirring and attention might need to be paid as you experiment with other types.
With the basics covered in regards to our ingredients, feel free to skip ahead with the mead video tutorial, or keep reading for a more solid understanding of the process.
So before we get into the technique, let's understand a bit more about the honey which is so essential for our ferment.
Though there is some misinformation circulating, the FDA does, in fact, enforce the term 'Honey' to mean a product that contains only naturally occurring honey thanks in part to the efforts of a 2006 citizen petition lead by the American Beekeeping Federation . If it is a blend of honey and other sweeteners, such as corn syrup, than it must say so on the label. For the sake of our mead, we want pure honey with no additives.
Now let's discuss terms such as "raw" and "unfiltered". Raw simply implies that the honey has not been heated, or else the yeasts lying dormant within the honey would be destroyed. No yeasts, no mead (unless you add replacement yeast). Unfiltered means that most of the natural pollen remains within the honey and that filtering agents such as diatomaceous earth was not used. Filtering honey is done mainly to prevent or limit crystallization, even though this is a natural process of pure honey. Neither of these terms are outlined or enforced in the FDA guidelines, so make sure that you are buying from a reputable company.
So if honey is indeed regulated, why the mention of local honey as being best? For me, it's about taste and supporting local agriculture. By purchasing from your local beekeeper, you support your neighbors and in return, you get a tastier, more natural product. You will know from which crops the honey came from (Blackberry, Wildflower, Clover, etc) and find the flavor that is most appealing to you. If you thought honey was just... well, honey flavored, you're in for a real treat once you try different crop types, rather than the more generic taste of store-bought that does not typically display a crop type. One of my favorites, Tupelo, comes from the southeast US in limited quantities. For more info on honey varietals, check out the National Honey Board's website.
For the sake of this demonstration, I used a high quality, store-bought raw/unfiltered honey to prove that it does ferment properly. Having made batches with this and my local beekeeper's blackberry varietal honey, I can say that there is a difference. The local honey begins fermentation more quickly but the end result was somewhat similar. As with most Melomels (mead w/ fruit), the unique flavor profile of different honeys does diminish behind the fruit more than in a straight mead. Considering that we are using wild yeast fermentation that originates from the honey itself, results may differ other, lower quality bottles of honey.
Now that we have the honey basics out of the way, let's get brewing!
If you have a kitchen scale, then this process will be effortless, otherwise you will need to use a measuring cup (10 oz = 1.25 cups). Place your fermentation jar on the scale, zero out the ounces and then add at least 10 oz of honey. Mead recipes vary greatly on the honey to water ratio. If making a straight mead (no fruit), 1 part honey to 4 parts water is a good, general start point. Since we'll be adding sweet fruit, I find it best to drop the honey amount to a 1 to 5 ratio to prevent it from being overly sweet. Sugars are consumed during the aging process, but if you intend to drink this young (within the first 2 weeks), starting sweetness should be taken into consideration.
Once your honey is measured out, add 50 oz of water (which should stop just at the point where the bottle begins the curve towards the neck as shown in the pictures below).
Chop your banana (or fruit of choice) into bite sized slices. The smaller the pieces, the quicker the fruit flavors will infuse, but you needn't be too fussy. In the video as well as in the picture below, you'll see that I left my banana pieces quick large, and they still broke down just fine. If using berries or other fruit with skins, give them a good presssing before adding to your honey water to ensure that the juices extract properly. Remove pits and seeds to ensure that no off-flavors are imparted to your mead.
Give your mixture a good stir to ensure that the honey has been fully dissolved into the water. Fermentation of honey only occurs when its hydration level exceeds 17%, at which time the dormant yeasts become active . Yeasts may also be hitching a ride with the fruits you add, making each batch unique.
Of special consideration is that we are, indeed, using wild yeast to produce our mead, which can have differing results from batch to batch. Brewers will often kill off any wild yeasts before adding their own chosen varieties in order to help control this variable. After you have made your first batch or two of wild yeast mead, especially if you age some, you may decide that you want that level on control. In young mead, you won't notice too much of a difference between wild and package yeasts, but aging can make the same fruit and honey batch taste quite different on the scale from dry to sweet depending on the yeast types that are encouraged.
Though I will likely explore aged mead in a future article, my best advice is to make several batches of young mead and decide which flavors are most appealing. Have a honey taste test, try many types of fruit, and when you think you have a really great flavor profile, age it. If you taste your mead months later and it isn't delicious, let it age longer. Some meads can take up to two years to mature, while others are ready in under three months. If you find yourself really enjoying the process, find a friendly homebrew shop who will answer questions. Beyond that, the internet is full of helpful enthusiast sites, message boards and supplier tutorials.
But how long until I can drink... something?
This is young banana mead after about 1 week. I did stir it daily to avoid any chance of the fruit molding since this was done during the summer. Heat will not only speed your fermentation, but can cause anything floating at the top to break down faster than expected. Ideally, you would keep your mead between 65 - 70 degrees F. Over 75 degrees F and you run the risk of developing off flavors, and in the case of some yeasts, a die off. This batch was intentionally made during a heat wave that taxed our climate control, where the room did hit 80 degrees F more than once. As a young fruit mead, it was delicious. Having aged some of it for six months, however, you could tell something had gone wrong. Rather than a well rounded mead, it had adopted a slight grain alcohol taste, and to date, has been the only batch to take on that characteristic.
This is a winter batch that I allowed to ferment with banana for 2 weeks without stirring. It is also the batch displayed in the demonstration video. The temperature of the room never exceeded 70 degrees F, and I could keep a close eye on the state of the floating fruit. Normally, you would consider removing a fruit like banana after the first week, but I wondered how long it could go without being disturbed. Under controlled room conditions and sealed within an airlock container, the fruit did brown, but was never in danger of fully spoiling.
When young mead begins to press up into the airlock, however, it's time to strain. (For clarification, you can strain and enjoy your mead at nearly any point during the first two weeks based on taste, but if contents are being pressed into the airlock, it is best to regain head-space by removing the fruit before it floods the air lock.)
Though I used a slotted spoon here, you can certainly use a fine mesh stainer. You do not have to be very picky about getting all of the fine pieces out if you intend to continue aging, as they will sink to the bottom. Larger pieces, however, can remain floating for a time and cause issue. If serving young, strain a day in advance and it will likely clarify a bit for better presentation. Return the airlock lid to preserve fizziness. Young mead can be served at room temperature or chilled and mixed with other juices for a refreshing beverage.
If you decide to age your young mead, this is what you can expect after a few months. Most mead with clarify on its own, with the debris falling neatly to the bottom. In order to keep from mixing the sediment back in, consider purchasing an inexpensive siphon from your local homebrew store. If your mead hasn't fully matured at the time of siphoning into a fresh jar, simply replace the lid and give it more time. You can also choose to bottle your mead, but this will require additional space and equipment. If brewing in small batches with limited space, your fermentation jar will work just fine as long as you check the water level on your airlock from time to time.
We have covered so much in this tutorial, but there is always so much more to learn. If you have a favorite recipe, technique or resource, please share in the comments below. Happy brewing!
 The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz pg72
* Additional reading on the honey controversy: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2011/11/25/142659547/relax-folks-it-really-is-honey-after-all