If you’re ready to make your own home-brewed mead, then you’ve come to the right place. First off, we’ll encourage you to subscribe to our YouTube channel where we post weekly videos every Friday and do livestreams every Wednesday! It’s your go-to place for mead content on YouTube! We have dozens and dozens of mead-related videos – including recipes, how-tos, and tips+tricks!
WHAT IS MEAD?
Mead is an alcoholic beverage created by fermenting honey with water, sometimes with various fruits, spices, grains, or hops. The alcoholic content ranges from about 3.5% to more than 20%. The defining characteristic of mead is that the majority of the beverage’s fermentable sugar is derived from honey.
Mead may be still, sparkling, and anywhere from dry to sweet. It is often said that mead was the first alcoholic beverage. It isn’t difficult to imagine ancient humans coming across a beehive in a tree trunk that has been saturated by rain and fermented by naturally-occurring yeasts. After drinking the sweet boozy honey water, who wouldn’t want to learn how to replicate that?
Mead was produced in ancient history throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. Pottery vessels dating from 7000 BC discovered in northern China have shown chemical signatures consistent with the presence of honey and organic compounds associated with fermentation.
During the Golden Age of ancient Greece, mead was said to be the preferred drink. The Hispanic-Roman naturalist Columella gave a recipe for mead in his writings around the year 60 CE:
“Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius of this water with a pound of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.”
Modern practices are far more refined. A traditional mead can be made in a gallon glass container with three pounds of honey, some spring water, and champagne yeast.
Are you ready to make mead? Let’s do this!
If you’re brand-new to homebrewing, the vocabulary and gear list can feel daunting. There are so many new terms and best practices to keep in your brain. Then you hop on Amazon to browse for supplies, and it is all so overwhelming.
Our Four-Part Series on How to Homebrew
We’ve all been there. When I started brewing ten years ago, I had no clue what to look for or what things are called. And in those days, web forums and books were often the best resources. Fortunately, now YouTube and blogs have taken off, so information is more accessible to access. But for the newer brewer, a cheat sheet is always handy. For that purpose, we developed this simple homebrew starter shopping list so you can get your brewventure started right now!
Here’s everything you need to jump into homebrewing your wines and meads:
We place this at the top of the list because it is the #1 tool for getting to know your brew. Learning how to read a hydrometer will allow you to see some clutch pieces of information: your potential alcohol content, the progress of your fermentation, and residual sweetness (if any). The hydrometer is crucial in homebrewing because it is like a gauge for diagnosing what’s happening in your brew. Think of it like a thermometer, barometer, or any other type of weather diagnostic tool. The more you know about the environment within your fermentation vessel, the better you can hone your brews – and your skills at brewing.
Speaking of vessels, you need something to brew in! Most common these days are glass jugs and carboys. You can most often find them in 1-, 3-, 5-, and 6-gallon volumes. New brewers typically start in 1-gallon batches. I recommend 5-gallon batches as a starting point – but one gallon is a great way to get started. You can start out fermenting in food-grade buckets (I did), but as you become more cognitive of and sensitive to oxygenation issues in your wines/meads, the more you’ll want to limit “headspace.” With their narrow necks, jugs and carboys restrict the exposure of your must to the air. Less oxygen in contact with your must means less chance of over-oxygenation in your fermentation vessel before bottling.
The best way to limit outside air (and pests) getting into your brews is to keep them under airlock. Bubbler airlocks use sanitizer or vodka as a “valve” between the must and the outside. CO2 can bubble out, but nothing else can get in. They do come with some maintenance needs, though – a bubbler should not run dry. So you need to keep an eye on it and top up the airlock when needed.
For this reason, I’ve switched to silicone bungs. These (often medical-grade) airlocks are molded, breathable, silicone valves that fit into the neck of the carboy. I’ve found them to be just as reliable as bubblers without any of the headaches of maintenance.
These pill-shaped tablets are made of potassium metabisulfite, a sulfur-based product used primarily to sterilize wine, cider, and mead. They can kill bacteria and inhibit the growth of most wild yeasts. Campden tablets allow the home brewer to measure small quantities of potassium metabisulfite easily. They have no noticeable flavor. Many homebrew recipes include sanitizing the must with Campden 24 hours before pitching the yeast, then again just before bottling. This step is not necessarily required, but it is a useful control mechanism for the homebrewer who is learning the best practices of proper sanitization.
This brings us to acid-based sanitizers like Star San. Star San is a self-foaming acid sanitizer ideal for brewing and other food and beverage equipment. It is an extremely effective bactericide and fungicide made from a blend of phosphoric acid and dodecylbenzene sulfonic acid. It is cheap, effective, and most importantly safe! Anything that will come in contact with your wine or mead must be sanitized to prevent microbial infections that could turn the must into something dangerous (or gross). Star San is the most widely used product, but other homebrew sanitizers are out there as well, like Iodophor. Sanitizing solution is a must-have for homebrewing!
Racking Cane and Tubing
Your racking system is how you get your brew from one container to the next. Remember the old TV shows where someone would siphon gasoline from a car? It is the same idea! The racking cane is a rigid tube that clips onto your brewing vessel. The tubing, typically medical-grade plastic tubing, attaches to the top of the cane. Don’t skimp here – get a stainless steel racking cane. I’ve blown through enough plastic ones early on to have more than paid for stainless. You can start your siphon with a little mouth suction, but some people prefer an auto-siphon.
Once you’re ready to bottle, you’ll want some serious control over how the mead/wine gets from the carboy to the bottles. The bottling wand attaches to the end of your racking tubing and has a valve at the end. When pressed against the bottom of a bottle, the valve opens, and your brew flows delicately into the bottle. Just lift when the bottle is full and move onto the next bottle. You can see an example of this process in our Juniper Mead video.
Brushes – Bottle and Carboy
Make sure to pick up some brushes for bottles (if you’re recycling) and your carboy. It is challenging to clean the insides of these vessels. But with a soak in StarSan and a little scrubbing with the proper brush, and you’ll be cleaning glass in no time flat!
You’re probably here because you’re interested in making meads and fruit wines – which means you’ll probably be bottling in wine bottles. Make sure you have a great corker on hand for this process. You want the cork to be firmly seated inside the bottle all the way into the neck. My favorite style of corker is this small hand corker, but there are large floor models as well. Just sanitize your corks, plop them in the corker, and cork away.
Optional Additional Items
Particularly if you plan to carbonate and bottle-condition, you’ll probably want a crown capper. They make hand models, but I prefer a bench capper because of the added control. Caps are cheap, and recyclable bottles are aplenty – so this is a great cost-conscious option if you plan to drink your brews sooner than later. Stick to corks if you’ll be bottle aging for a while.
A wide-necked funnel can make it a lot easier to get honey, juices, grains, hops, and other fermentables and additives into the neck of your carboy.
Some folks, myself included, like to keep certain yeasts on-hand. My current lineup includes D47 and EC-1118, but I’ve also had Premier Rouge on hand for fermenting fruity reds. It’s nice to be able to grab a packet from the fridge and ferment – rather than run down to the brew shop or wait for an Amazon delivery.
Fermentation is as complex as is it rudimentary. Getting started can feel like a complete whirlwind from the first moment you type it in the search bar: How to make mead at home.
A lot of folks come to our YouTube channel looking for information on how to make wine or mead. And while we put a lot of effort and thought into how to show the brewing process step-by-step, we could tell that more could be done to break everything down to the nuts and bolts. We really wanted to strive for an introductory course to fermentation.
Fermentation consists of four phases we’re going to discuss here: Preparation, Brewing, Primary, and Secondary. For still products, you may also need to Stabilize the brew.
Preparing to Brew
Fermentation begins with deliberate preparation. What are you going to brew up? A blackberry merlot? A hazy IPA? A lemongrass mead? What’s your recipe? And do you need to do anything to get your ingredients ready before you ferment them? Preparation is key!
Your prep may include maceration, which is the process of putting the fruit in a cold environment for a few days or even a week before starting fermentation. This can encourage color extraction, and is generally done with crushed fruit soaking in its own juice or in water.
Sometimes this involves the addition of pectic enzyme. Pectic Enzyme is a powdered enzyme which physically destroys pectins. Pectins make up the “fleshy” part of most fruits. It works great for breaking fruit down for improved juice extraction, and particularly in fruit wines and ciders, it can lend to a product that clears easier. Pectin haze can be a frustrating problem. So if you’ve got pectin-rich fruit, use some pectic enzyme!
Your prep may also include a yeast starter. While not absolutely necessary, it can help to ensure good yeast counts and a healthy colony. A yeast starter can be as simple as slowly introducing some must to your yeast bit-by-bit and whipping in some oxygen. Or, it can be as complex as using a rehydration nutrient like Go-Ferm and a stir plate to really whip it into action.
It’s important to plan for your prep – and how much time you’ll need. Preparation can impact when you need to mix up your must. For example, if you want to do a week-long cold maceration to get lots of red coloration out of some blueberries, you have to budget time a week later to mix up your must. Or if you’re making beer – know that a one-hour boil may mean 3 or 4 hours of work between your prep, boil, cleanup, and yeast pitch.
Once your prep is complete, you’re ready to mix up the must – or “brew” your brew. Remember now, everything that touches your must should be sanitized!
Mixing up the Must: You’re Brewing!
Your must is the liquid to be fermented. For wines and meads the must typically gets mixed up in the carboy. In a wine this means grape or other fruit juice, and sometimes added sugars. For meads this is the water, honey, and any other adjuncts to be added – like herbs or spices. In beer-making, this must is called wort, and it comes together in the brew kettle during the mash, sparge, boil, and sometimes in the carboy at yeast-pitch, like if you’re adding adjuncts you didn’t want touched by heat.
Recipes are important! There are tons online, or you can make your own. But it’s important to have one and to write it down. That way if you like it, you know what you did next time! Keep a brewing logbook!
Recipe research is paramount to your brewventure’s success. For example, wondering how much nutmeg to use? Google it. Someone else has experimented with it and will have a recommendation. Really deliberate on your recipe, make sure you have all the ingredients before you start mixing up your must, and make sure your ingredients are fresh and high quality! You get out what you put in!
And one final thing to remember when mixing up your must: fruit wine aficionado Jack Keller was once asked about whether to add a certain spice in primary or secondary. His answer was that the process of fermentation fundamentally alters anything it touches, and something going in at the beginning will not taste the same as something that goes in at the end. Fermentation is a wonderful and seemingly magical process, but only experimentation will tell you if YOU like the taste of, say, cinnamon once it has endured the fermentation process. You may prefer your cinnamon (or whatever other adjunct) added in secondary or even after stabilization. More on secondary in a bit.
In primary, it’s important to leave plenty of headspace on top of your must. It will begin releasing a lot of gas, which can push particulate up toward the airlock. A cozy blanket of CO2 will cover the must as it ferments, protecting it from oxygenation issues. In fact, it is a good practice in primary to whip some oxygen into the must so the yeast has plenty to work with.
If you have a lot of particulate, like grape skins or dry hops, you will want to punch the cap every so often to ensure nothing on top of the fermentation gets dried out.
Once your must is ready and at your desired temperature (typically room temperature) it’s time to pitch the yeast. If using a starter, you can simply pour it in and give it a swirl. If using a dry yeast, that may mean sprinkling the packet into the carboy, letting it rehydrate for a bit, and then giving it a swirl a little while later.
When your yeast is inside your fermentation vessel, you’ll affix your airlock, and if it is a bubbler, fill it with vodka or sanitizer. We prefer the breathable silicone airlocks.
Now you’re in primary fermentation.
This is the part where the yeast kick into gear and convert the sugars into alcohols, primarily ethanol, and carbon dioxide. Fermentation will also create reactions that change flavors throughout all the ingredients in the must. Patience is paramount during primary fermentation. You can watch it bubble and foam and do its work for a few weeks – but resist the urge to mess with it. Unless you’re adding yeast nutrient, punching down a cap, or maybe doing a degassing on a mead, the fermentation should be chugging along on its own. Every time you remove the airlock, there will be an opportunity for bad microorganisms to creep in.
Primary fermentation, colloquially, refers to the period when a fermentation ferments through to completion.
Then you move on to secondary fermentation, which many times, includes no fermentation at all. Colloquially, secondary refers to the time the brew needs to sit and clarify before bottling. However, some homebrews will call for ingredients to be added in secondary. And sometimes those ingredients will ferment as well.
Secondary begins when the must is racked from the fermentation vessel into another sanitized vessel. Racking utilizes a racking system, vacuum pressure, and gravity to siphon the fermented must with minimal air contact. Most popular these days are autosiphons. After racking, many homebrewers will take the opportunity to degas the brew with a sanitized spoon or whip to get as much trapped CO2 out of it as possible.
Then the yeast should be allowed to finish any work left to do, if any. But by this point the yeast have typically cleaned up after themselves and dropped mostly out of suspension. Most of the dead yeast, byproducts, and debris leftover should’ve remained at the bottom of the primary vessel to be discarded after racking.
Once the brew is in secondary, headspace concerns become more immediate. You will want to limit exposure of the brew to oxygen which can work to decrease the brew’s shelf life or worse, spoil a batch before it’s even bottled. Using a carboy or jug for bulk aging and clarifying will help moderate the potential of over oxygenation. With their narrow necks, jugs and carboys restrict the exposure of your brew to the air. Less oxygen in contact with your brew means less chance of over-oxygenation in your fermentation vessel before bottling. If you end up with a lot of headspace after racking, you can minimize it by topping up the carboy with a bottle of similar brew to get the liquid level up toward the neck
And then, the waiting. Sometimes, lots of waiting. Typically the more complex and higher the ABV, the longer one can expect to wait for “drinkability” to emerge. Clarification happens during this phase.
Fining – How to fine and clear your mead
So much “stuff” can be suspended in the brew – proteins, pectin, yeast, and more. The clearer the brew, usually means the cleaner the flavor profile. So homebrewers employ a variety of tactics to get the brews cleared up.
Cold crashing is a popular choice. This method requires bringing the fermented brew down close to freezing temperatures for a few days to a week, via a refrigerator, chest freezer, or even just cold ambient temperatures outdoors. Yeast and some proteins with precipitate out at colder temperatures – sort of like how we slow down the colder we get. Cold crashing can help clarity considerably.
Sometimes fining is a good choice. Fining involves adding polarized molecules to the fermented brew which will bond to suspended molecules, make them heavy, and drop them out of suspension. Some popular choices are:
- Bentonite is a clay created by volcanic ash. It is absorbent and binds to the particulates making the fermented brew hazy. Once it binds to the particles, it will eventually fall out of the brew.
- Sparkolloid is a hot-mix, proprietary fining agent which is effective against a wide range of hazes. Sparkolloid carries a positive charge, so it bonds with negatively charged particles, removing them from the brew. Sparkolloid is inexpensive and very effective.
- Super-Kleer is a two-stage homebrew clarifying kit. It contains two pre-mixed pouches. These pouches include kieselsol (a negatively charged fining agent made from silicon dioxide) and chitosan (a polysaccharide made from the chitin shells of shrimp and other crustaceans). The fining process works by creating both strong negative and positive charges in the brew, which allow for large yeast clumping and a typically speedy clarification.
There are several other fining techniques and materials that can be utilized, like filtering. Or, just let it sit and clear on its own.
Two chemical compounds are typically used to stabilize a homebrew product. If you’re creating a product that will be still in the bottle, aka not carbonated, you might consider stabilizing the brew so that fermentation cannot kick off again – particularly if you will be adding fermentable sugars like honey or sucrose to back-sweeten. You want to avoid the potential that any remaining yeast will reactivate and restart the fermentation process. Because this can create bottle bombs! The two chemicals typically used in tandem are:
- Potassium sorbate. It is added to the end of the fermentation to ensure that the fermentation is halted. It is a preservative that stops yeast from reproducing, which contributes to the prevention of any renewed fermentations.
- Potassium metabisulphite. An antioxidant that helps remove free oxygen suspended in the wine. Eliminating oxygen suspended in the wine helps to prevent spoilage and deprive microorganisms of a crucial element needed for their synthesis process. No synthesis, means to restart to fermentation.
- So, using Potassium sorbate to stop yeast from reproducing together with Potassium metabisulphite to stop yeast’s synthesis effectively stabilizes a brew from further fermentation.
Once fermentation is complete and your brew is ready to drink, you’ll need to get it packaged up for consumption. While some homebrewers like put their products into kegs, we will be discussing bottling only. Bottling is how the majority of beginner homebrewers package their brews, and if you’re just starting out, most likely you will too.
Bottling works just like racking, except with an added piece of equipment – the bottling wand. The bottling wand is a valve contraption that gives you control over how the fermented brew gets from the carboy to the bottles. The bottling wand attaches to the end of the racking system via your tubing and has a valve at the end. When the valve is pressed against the bottom of the bottle, it opens up and your brew flows into the bottle from the bottom up. You lift when the bottle is full and move onto the next bottle. When you remove the wand from the bottle, there should be appropriate headspace remaining for corking. However, for a brew that will be capped and carbonated in the bottle, you’ll want to leave a little bit more breathing room by lifting up when the liquid is an inch or so from the mouth of the bottle.
There are two common ways of sealing the bottles: corking and capping.
Corking is exactly what it sounds like. Putting a cork into a bottle. As per best practices, sanitize your corks prior to use!
For corked bottles, you will want to use bottles made for corking. This will most often be 750ml or 1 liter wine bottles, and those will most often be sized for #8 or #9 corks. You can natural or synthetic corks, but most advanced winemakers will advocate for natural corks because they are said to provide better microoxygenation for wines.
Using a bottle not made for corking can have catastrophic effects. Don’t do it. Also, do not cork carbonated beverages. The cork will be at risk of being pushed out the bottle – or, even worse, a bottle not rated for pressure can dangerously explode.
Corkers come in two types – floor corkers and hand corkers. Both perform the same function. A thin plunger pushes the sanitized cork into the bottle. A floor corker is typically more expensive, but provides better, more steady control. A hand corker is preferred by most due to its simplicity and how easy it is to store. However, it does require a steadier hand and, sometimes, a good set of knees.
Once bottles are corked they should spend a few days upright, and the rest of their days on their side. This will prevent the cork from drying out and crumbling or cracking.
Capping is a whole other ballgame, and again there are a couple of options: hand-cappers and bench cappers.
Hand-cappers are similar to hand corkers. A magnet holds onto the cap while you place the bell on top of the bottle. With a little bit of pressure, the arms go down and the cap is crimped closed.
The bench capper is typically bolted down to a work bench for stability. The bottle is placed under the height-adjustable bell and the arm is pressed down to cap the bottle.
There is another alternative as well – swing tops. Swing tops use the force of pressure to hold a rubber or silicone gasket against the mouth of a bottle. For drinks that will be consumed soon, these can be a great reusable option.
Still vs Sparkling
Bottling still brews – that is, non-carbonated – is fairly straightforward. The biggest concern is minimizing oxygen exposure.
Sparkling/carbonated brews are another beast entirely. Extra work must be done to ensure your sparkling brews do, in fact, sparkle. When not using a kegging system, two elements should remain in mind: priming sugars and PSI.
This post can’t even begin to scratch the surface on the variety of priming sugars and methods of calculating how they will impact your final product. Our foremost recommendation is to google “Priming Sugar Calculator” and input your own variables.
What you’re after is the appropriate carbonation level for the style of beer, wine, or mead you’ve fermented. Again, search engines are your friend when determining how to carbonate the product you’ve created.
The most common priming sugar is typically dextrose, corn sugar. 3.5 to 5 oz is usually used for a five-gallon batch. And remember, your brew should not be stabilized if you want your yeasts to be able to ferment your priming sugars and carbonate your bottles.
The process is simple, mix the appropriate amount of priming sugar with a cup of warm, sterile water and pour it into the bottling bucket. Then, rack on top of it, using the whirlpool of the racking tube to mix the priming sugar evenly throughout the batch. Then bottle away.
Give your bottled brews 3-4 weeks alone to condition. If you’ve bottled still wine or mead, this 3-4 weeks helps prevent bottle shock, a condition where freshly bottled wines taste flat and flabby. Bottle shock isn’t well understood by current science – but what seems clear to most everyone, is that a little bit of time reverses the condition. So once you’ve bottled, be willing to wait a month or two before consumption.
Capped bottles should be stored upright. For bottle conditioned brews, this also allows the remaining film of yeast to settle at the bottom.
Corked bottles should be stored on their sides after a few days so that their corks stay wet.
Ready to brew your first mead? Here’s a very simple recipe for a zesty mead from our YouTube channel:
There are a whole heck of a lot of words we use for mead! Can you name them all?
Here’s our video explaining what’s what!