The Art of Making Mead
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Article by Brother Adam, O. S. B.,
(1898 – 1996)
© Erik Österlund picture
St. Mary’s Abbey, Buckfast,
South Devon, England.
Original : Bee World
1953 34(8) 149-156
One of the oldest beverages in the world is mead. Long ago in the simple and more thriftful days the economy of every home was self-contained. Foreign foods and foreign beverages played little part in the life of ordinary people. Bees were kept, not only for the honey they provided, but also for the wax that gave light on winter nights. Honey was primarily a sweetmeat, or sweetening agent, and the only one available before sugar could be obtained freely. Waste is a modern characteristic! Every beekeeper knows that much honey is still wasted in extraction. Our forbears washed the pieces of comb, after all honey possible had been retrieved by crushing and draining, and from those washings they brewed a beverage. It was so highly esteemed that wine was regarded as less delicate and delicious.
On many a winter night, with a wax candle on the table, and a fire of logs on the earthen hearth, the old beekeeper entertained his neighbour, or solaced his own soul by a cup of mead. The home was simple, but the fare was rich; the talk around the fire most companionable, and the liquor most stimulating.
For many a year there stood on Salisbury Plain a shepherd’s hut on wheels, among bushes of gorse, and surrounded by hives. Few passers-by would notice the hives among the gorse, and possibly not even see the hut, unless the gale blew ribbons of smoke across the traveller’s path and drew his attention to it. In that hut lived a solitary man who had travelled far, but had found anchorage at last among his bees on Salisbury Plain. He sold his honey, and made his candles, and brewed his mead. At night, let the storm howl as it might, though the hut shook and trembled, he was content to lie on his bunk and read the pages he had written, and sip the mead he had drawn from his cask in the tiny shed outside. It was a work on philosophy of possibly little value, but the man was in essence a philosopher. The mead warmed his lonely heart, and was the only concession to a luxury he otherwise despised. He let the world go by, and he coveted none of the pomps and delicacies that others spent so much labour to acquire.
In every cottage in England similar contentment centred around the mead that came so readily to the hand of the beekeeper: and, when all were beekeepers, it was the equivalent of the sherry, port, or brandy of richer folk in a later age. But it now has become quite the fashion to serve mead on even wealthy tables again — the old-time value is being recognized afresh.
We have made mead ever since we kept bees, because it is one way of using the honey which would otherwise be thrown to waste. It is necessary to follow strictly certain rules in the making of mead if the best results are to be obtained. Before detailing our findings, may we say that we have produced four distinct varieties of mead — one that is of the ordinary type of table wine or light sherry; another of a dessert type, richer and sweeter than the first; a spiced wine that possesses a character all its own; and lastly a sparkling wine similar to a sweet champagne. Each has its admirers; and honey and water are the sole ingredients.
Special points in making mead
Before describing the actual mode of preparing the ”must“, and the sterilization, fermentation and maturing of mead, I will first, for the purpose of a clearer understanding of the whole process, briefly set forth the points which according to our experience are of the utmost importance in the making of mead.
- It is most essential to use soft water — clean pure rainwater or, alternatively, distilled water. Water from the tap, even if soft, is not suitable on account of the particles of rust it may contain.
- The kind of honey used determines the flavour and bouquet of the mead. Mild-flavoured honeys, such as clover or lime, are the most suitable. A strong-flavoured honey — excepting heather — should never be used; it will merely lead to disappointment. There is a view prevalent that any strong-flavoured or off-grade honey which cannot be used for any other purpose is suitable for making mead. This is, however, a completely mistaken notion, and it is the cause of many failures. Only the very best mild-flavoured honey will produce the finest vintage mead.
- The yeast used largely determines the character of a mead. A pure-culture grape wine yeast gives the best results. There are a number of pure-culture wine yeasts which give particularly good results in the fermentation of mead. We use a Maury wine yeast, but Madeira or Malaga wine yeast cultures also give eminently satisfactory results. Hitherto brewer’s yeast or baker’s yeast has been almost universally recommended as a ferment for mead. The former imparts to the mead, as would be expected, a distinct beery taste; the latter gives the mead a tang peculiar to this type of ferment.
- The solution of honey and water must be sterilized, and also the vessels or cask in which the process of fermentation is completed. Moreover, all possibility of any contamination subsequent to the sterilization must be most carefully avoided. This is really of the utmost importance.
- No chemicals whatever should be added to the liquor, except perhaps in very special cases when a very dry wine is desired. As for cream of tartar or phosphate of ammonia, which have been hitherto recommended in many recipes, these chemicals should be excluded without fail. These additions hasten fermentation, but spoil the delicate flavour and bouquet of a good mead.
- The temperature throughout the process of fermentation must be kept constant, neither too high nor too low. The most favourable temperature to the species of ferments I have recommended (Maury, Madeira and Port wine yeast cultures) is 65–70°F.
- The process of fermentation should be effected during the summer months, for at that time the temperature and atmospheric conditions are most favourable to the propagation and growth of the yeast cells. Therefore the best time to begin operations is from May to July. This applies to all still wines. In the case of a sparkling mead, the most suitable time to start fermentation is in October.
- To obtain a mead of character, a beverage that will surpass the finest wines produced from the juice of the grape, it must be matured in sound casks made of oak, and it must be stored in wood a full seven years before it is bottled.
Proportion of honey to water
It should be clearly understood that the flavour, bouquet and character of a mead are the combined products of the floral essences contained in the honey and the particular type of yeast used. On the other hand, the body or ”oiliness“ of a mead and its alcoholic content are largely determined by the proportion of honey to water used. A mead made of less than 2 lb honey to the gallon of water will not keep. The maximum concentration which can be effectively fermented is 6 lb to the gallon of water. For a sparkling mead I would recommend 2¼ lb ; for a dry still wine, 2–3½ lb ; for a medium-sweet to a rich dessert wine, 4–6 lb.
Whenever the proportion of honey in a solution is not known, as when honey is washed from cappings, it will be necessary to use a hydrometer to determine the honey content. Alternatively, the proportion of honey may be ascertained by the less accurate method of weighing a quart of the liquor. The weight of a quart of liquor and the amount of honey per gallon of water, together with the specific gravity readings (at 60°F.) and the actual sugar content are as follows:
We gauge the proportion of honey — or really the sugar content — for every sample by a specific gravity reading. It is the only accurate way for the purpose of comparative experiments, as the water content in honey itself varies from 17 to 25%. Moreover, ling-heather honey, which we mainly use for making mead, contains a considerable and variable proportion of other substances in relation to the actual sugar content. It will be realized that it is the percentage of sugar (glucose, fructose and sucrose) contained in the honey-must that matters.
Preparation of the honey-must
At this point I will explain our method of preparing a honey-must made from ling-heather honey. Every producer of heather honey will inevitably have on hand considerable quantities of scum or honey that will not clear sufficiently to be put up for sale, but that is of the best quality in all other respects. However, a solution of ling-heather honey has to be filtered to exclude all foreign substances before it can be used for making mead. If it is not filtered, the foreign matter will spoil the flavour, giving the mead an unpleasant tang. So the mixture of heather honey and water is first sterilized (only just brought to the boil), then after it has cooled it is strained through a filter-bag made of raised milk filter cloth. Muslin and any of the ordinary straining cloths are quite unsuitable for this purpose. The readiness of heather honey to filter varies from year to year, and at best it is a slow process. Two gallons of the solution, the capacity of our filter bags, usually take about 24 hours to filter. If at first some sediment should pass through the filter, which is usually the case, then this is returned and re-filtered. When well filtered the liquor obtained should be crystal-clear and of a rich deep golden hue. After the filtering is completed it is necessary to re-sterilize the must. It is advisable to make the original solution in a concentrated form, and then dilute the filtrate to the desired density before the final sterilization. A honey-must thus prepared will develop, with good vinting and careful handling and keeping, into a mead of supreme quality.
I now come to the actual making of the mead. It is necessary first of all to obtain a sound cask and one that has contained wine — preferably a sherry cask. After washing it thoroughly with hot water, without the addition of any cleansing agent such as soap or soda or other detergent, we can make the honey-must which is to be the raw material of the mead.
I again emphasize very strongly that pure water, soft and pure as from rain itself, together with honey of the best quality, are the absolute necessities for a mead of finest character. Honeys derived from clover, the limes or ling undoubtedly make mead of supreme quality. But even so, just as honey from the same source varies from season to season, and from district to district, so will the mead vary. Honey from old brood combs should not be used. The mead would be inferior. But honey from cappings, if of good flavour, is quite suitable. Soft warm water is poured over the cappings, and after all the honey is dissolved, the wax is then formed into balls and well squeezed, and every drop of honey is thus saved. In whatever way the honey is obtained — from cappings or otherwise — it is well to use a hydrometer for ascertaining the exact density of the solution. The specific gravity we use for a light table wine is 1.055 ; if the reading is taken after the final sterilization it should be 1.058.
Having mixed the honey and water solution, it is then sterilized. The must is brought just to the boil and held at that point for a minute or two. It should on no account be boiled for half an hour, as is generally recommended, for the prolonged boiling would dissipate the subtle floral essences contained in the honey. It is these very delicate aromatic oils that impart to mead its inimitable bouquet and aroma. The object of the sterilization is to kill all the yeasts contained in the honey, or any which have entered from the surrounding air, which if not destroyed would spoil the mead. The sterilization must be done in a vitreous enamelled or tinned utensil, or a container made of stainless steel or aluminium. A vessel made of copper, if perfectly clean, is also suitable. But the honey-must should never at any stage come into contact with iron or brass or galvanized metal.
Practically every recipe for the making of mead recommends the addition, at this stage, of various inorganic salts — such as cream of tartar or phosphate of ammonia — to hasten fermentation. Such artificial stimulants undoubtedly accelerate the process of fermentation. However, according to our experience, a fermentation thus artificially stimulated will produce a mead of inferior quality. So I do not recommend the addition of any chemicals. But if a very dry wine is desired, then ½ oz citric acid crystals may be added to every ten gallons of must.
After the completion of the sterilization the honey-must is immediately poured into the cask whilst it is boiling hot. This will destroy such yeasts as may be in the cask itself. The cask should not be filled right to the top, but an allowance of about two inches made for the addition of the yeast culture and the subsequent expansion of the liquor when fermentation sets in. The bung hole is at once plugged with a tightly packed wad of cotton wool, to exclude all micro-organisms from the liquor.
Addition of the yeast
The must is allowed to cool until it has reached a temperature of 80°F., and then the pure-culture grape wine yeast is added. It is not necessary to be very exact in the matter of quantity. If the wine yeast is in a liquid medium, the amount should be not less than 1 % of the total quantity treated. If too much yeast is added there is a possibility that the yeast will exhaust itself before the fermentation is properly completed.
Immediately the yeast has been added to the must, the cotton wool wad is replaced to exclude any contamination. The cotton wool will allow the carbon dioxide (which is formed as soon as the fermentation begins) to escape, but it will effectively exclude the entry of any micro organisms. However a proper fermentation valve, obtainable for a few pence from any chemist, is preferable. The valve is inserted into a hole bored in the bung-hole plug just sufficiently large to admit its glass stem. The bung-hole plug is driven home tightly, and the joint round the glass stem of the valve is sealed with scaling wax. The valve is then filled with sterilized water to half way up the bulb. The carbon dioxide escapes in bubbles through the water in the valve, but at the same time the water forms an effective seal excluding the ingress of any air or bacteria. There is thus no possible danger of the mead going bad or turning to vinegar.
It is of the utmost importance that, until the primary fermentation is completed, the cask is kept at a temperature of 65–70°F. This is especially important when a pure-culture grape wine yeast is used. Common yeasts propagate at a lower temperature, say 58–60°F.
After adding the yeast the stormy fermentation will begin within about 38 hours, but if the yeast is not in an active state of propagation several days may elapse. The first violent fermentative process will gradually decrease in the course of a few days. Then the primary fermentation will supervene. This second process will take six to eight weeks in a light wine, but in a heavy wine it may extend over a period of three to four months.
On completion of the primary fermentation, or as soon as the mead has cleared, it should be decanted. The clear liquor is siphoned, by means of a half-inch rubber hose, into a cask which has been well rinsed with clean soft water and subsequently fumigated with sulphur candle. The fumigation is essential. If after decanting there should he insufficient of the clear mead to fill the cask, sterilized clean soft water may he added to make up the loss. The hung-hole plug is then driven home tightly. The cask of newly made mead is now placed in a cellar and allowed to mature in the wood for at least two years. To bring it to absolute perfection mead should be matured in wood a full seven years. However, both light and sweet wines make a pleasant and very palatable drink as soon as they have fully clarified, at about six months old.
It will be found that in the case of a full-bodied wine another very slow fermentation will take place the year after the mead is first made. The minute quantity of carbon dioxide formed by this after-fermentation normally escapes through the wood.
Three distinct stages in the process of fermentation take place:
- The stormy fermentation, which begins within about thirty-eight hours of the insertion of the yeast and lasts about three days.
- The primary fermentation, which may take six weeks to four months — depending on the proportion of honey contained in the liquor.
- The after-fermentation, which in a light wine may be hardly perceptible, but in a full-bodied wine may reassert itself during the summer months for one or two successive years.
Meads made of certain honeys seem to take longer to clarify than others, notably that made of clover honey. This honey often forms very tiny flaky particles, like those found in some Rhine wines. If any difficulty is experienced in this connection the mead may be fined with isinglass. For every ten gallons ¼ oz isinglass is well beaten up in a little mead and then stirred into the cask. In a few days the mead will be perfectly clear. However, I prefer to leave the clarification entirely to time.
Mead cannot be made to perfection in small quantities — in glass jars or bottles of small capacity. It certainly cannot be matured in stoneware jars or glass. Like all wines and alcoholic liquors, mead can only be properly matured in wood. Pyrex aspirator jars, holding 2–10 gallons, are ideal for fermentation. In glass the air is more completely excluded, and in consequence there is less danger of contamination during the critical initial stages of the fermentation. Glass jars have one further great advantage, that there is no possibility of a leakage, as so often happens with casks of small capacity when they are kept at a temperature of 65–70°F. Stoneware jars should not be used on any account. They are too cold: a yeast will not thrive as it should when in contact with stone at any rate in jars of small capacity.
A sparkling wine may be produced by bottling the mead before the after-fermentation has set in. A very fine beverage, comparable to the best sweet champagne, is thus produced.
I find that the most satisfactory results follow a bottling in February or March of a mead prepared in October the previous year. For a sparkling: mead the honey-must is diluted to a specific gravity of 1.058. The primary fermentation is completed in the late autumn. As soon as the liquor has cleared, the cask should be placed in a temperature below 60°F. to delay the after-fermentation. Then in February or early March the clear mead is siphoned into bottles. It should not be drawn off at the bottom of the cask, for some sediment would thus be inevitably drawn into the bottles. Champagne bottles should be used, as the ordinary type of wine bottle is not strong enough to withstand the pressure formed by the carbon dioxide produced. It is quite a common thing for bottles to burst if the must has been made to a higher specific gravity than 1,058. As a matter of fact, a sparkling mead should not effervesce unduly; it should subside immediately on being poured into a glass, and the effervescence should be only just perceptible on the palate — it is then at its best.
To ensure a regular temperature, and thus a perfect after-fermentation, the bottles should be stored on their side in sand in a dry cellar. The corks used for sparkling mead should be of the best possible quality, and they should be firmly wired down.
A sparkling mead is ready for use about three to four months after bottling, but it will mellow with age the longer it is kept. To ensure the utmost clarity, the bottles ought to be taken out of the sand about a week before they are used and allowed to stand upright. This is to let the slight sediment, formed in the last fermentation, settle to the bottom before the mead is brought to the table. It is advisable also to put the bottle in ice, or in a refrigerator, for about two hours before serving. A sparkling mead is greatly improved by cooling. Indeed any medium-sweet or dry mead is at its hest when so treated before it is served.
Sack mead is a sweet wine similar to sherry. It can be made in various degrees of sweetness — depending on the amount of honey used to each gallon of water, and also to some extent on the age of the mead. For a medium-sweet wine I would recommend 3½–4½ lb honey; for a full-bodied dessert wine, 5–6 lb But 6 lb honey to a gallon of water is the maximum amount that should ever be used. If this amount is exceeded, the liquor will be too sweet to permit a satisfactory development of the fermentative process. The resultant product will not be mead, but merely a partially fermented syrup. A specific gravity of 1.128 is the maximum permissible. Anything up to this is satisfactory, but a reading as low as 1.075 gives a rather less full-bodied wine, and one that tends to get drier with age.
The richest sack mead we make is from a must giving a reading of 1.120. This has a sugar content of 27.98 %, or a little less than 6 lb honey to a gallon of water. But the Maury grape wine yeast, which we use for every mead, is a particularly vigorous species and yields a rather higher alcohol content than the common sorts of yeast. This type of sack mead needs at least seven years to mature, and a mead of this quality will keep indefinitely. When fully matured it is a wondrously soft, mellow, full-bodied wine — and a wine that in its incomparable aroma holds imprisoned the subtle scent of a thousand blossoms of moorland and countryside.
Sack metheglin is a spiced mead. It is made from substantially the same must as a sack mead.
A great variety of herbs and spices is often recommended in different recipes. One includes thyme, rosemary, sweet briar and other herbs; others insist on such ingredients as bitter almonds, ginger, elder, hops and rum (of all things); another, various spices, such as cloves, mace, nutmeg and cinnamon. I believe most of these ingredients are much better omitted.
The peel of lemon may be added to heighten the natural flavour of a sack mead — and perhaps also of a sparkling mead. The flavour of honey and mead blend well with lemon, but the blending must be done with discretion. The peel should so merge with the flavour and aroma of mead that the addition of the peel should not he discernible as such. I recommend the peel of half a lemon to every gallon of must. The grated peel should be put into the cask just before the hot sterilized liquor is poured in. It should not be added to the must before, as in the sterilization the volatile oils would be dissipated and lost.
According to our experience the only spices which seem to blend well with the natural flavour of sack mead are cloves and cinnamon — and in this instance I have in mind a very special type of honey-must, namely one made of ling-heather honey left imprisoned in the wax after the pressing. This honey is retrieved from the wax in the following way: the slabs of crushed honeycomb are melted in a bath of clean rain water, but the water should on no account be brought to the boil. Immediately the wax is melted, the honey solution is drawn off at the bottom; or alternatively the wax is dipped off from the top into another container. The honey that was imprisoned in the wax is of course now retained in the water. The liquor thus obtained is allowed to cool, and then filtered according to the method already detailed. After filtering, the liquor should be crystal-clear, and of a rich red-brown colour. It is diluted to a specific gravity of 1.120, and then re-sterilized, and any scum that may rise is removed.
This special type of honey-must is greatly improved by the addition of ¼ oz cloves and 1½ oz bark of cinnamon to every ten gallons. The spices are placed in the cask, like the lemon peel.
The sack metheglin thus obtained when fully matured will rival any brown sweet sherry in the world. It is quite a distinct type of sack mead, unlike any other mead or wine I know. It has a character all of its own. In colour it is a rich red-brown, and the crystal-clear liquid reflects every light with an intense glow, and from it rises an evanescent perfume that is totally absent in any wine made of the juice of the grape.
Reprints of this paper are obtainable from the Hon. Publications Secretary, Bee Research Association. 2 Northovcr, Bromley, Kent (price 1/- each post free).
Original : Bee World
1953 34(8) 149-156
[ Return to Biblio ]
Article by Brother Adam, O. S. B.,
St. Mary’s Abbey, Buckfast,
South Devon, England.