Click the photo above to listen to Bob Liptrot and Dana LeComte discuss how they harvest honey and make mead at Tugwell Creek Honey Farm & Meadery in Sooke, B.C.
People are often confused by mead: Is it wine, or is it beer? Historically, it has been known as both. While the primary ingredients of mead are honey and water, the basic recipe has been augmented with an array of other ingredients, many of which are common to either wine or beer, such as fruit, hops and barley. In addition, some production methods employ boiling, an activity more akin to beer brewing than winemaking. In reality, mead blurs the lines between wine and beer and makes it difficult to assign it to one realm or the other.
Mead production predates wine and beer making in most ancient cultures, yet it is relatively uncommon today. Decline in mead production coincided with the spread of viticulture from the Mediterranean basin as well as the advent of grain malting, both of which provided cheaper fermentable products than honey. Today, however, there is a quiet renaissance in mead making. This niche market is partly driven by technological advances that eliminate some of the problems inherent in commercial mead production.
Mead products are stylistically diverse. By adjusting the honey-to-water ratio, alcoholic strength and residual sugar can be controlled. The presence or absence of dissolved carbon dioxide and the use of herbs, spices or fruit define a mead’s ultimate identity.
The type of honey selected is as important to the flavor of mead as grape varieties are to the flavor of wine. The floral source used by bees determines the flavor characteristics of their honey, which translates directly into the flavor of the mead. Strong flavored honeys make strong flavored meads, and lighter flavored honeys yield lighter flavored meads. One of the more interesting and creative aspects of mead production is the selection and blending of different honeys to achieve a desired flavor profile.
In addition to flavor, color must be considered when selecting honey, as this obviously impacts the appearance of the finished product. Standardized color indexes are used to categorize honey under one of the following: water white, extra white, white, extra light amber, light amber, amber and dark amber. Honey color is not indicative of quality, and it is not necessarily proportionate to the flavor intensity.
Honey that has undergone minimal processing is the most desirable. Many commercial honeys receive detrimental heat treatments to retard crystallization. Depending on the extent of the treatment, many of the more interesting nuances of a honey’s flavor can be lost. In addition, most supermarket honey has been blended to the extent that no distinctive varietal characteristics remain, even though they often state “clover honey” on the label.
The best source for high-quality honey outside of keeping your own bees is probably a local beekeeper or a reliable packer who understands your needs. We’ve received honey sealed in plastic pails, in 55-gallon drums and in 1,000-liter cubes. Depending on the quantity of honey you will be using, the forklift-able cubes are the most convenient. When purchasing honey, be sure it has not crystalized. If it has, it must be heated to 130°F and held there until all the crystals are dissolved. (It’s probably best to have a honey packer do it for you.)
The amount of honey you will require depends upon your target finished alcohol, desired residual sugar and whether or not you are going to “stretch” the honey with less costly sugar. Since honey averages about 81.5° Brix and weighs about 12 pounds per gallon, you can closely estimate your honey requirements using an equation to calculate the required initial Brix and a second formula to determine the number of pounds of honey required.
Mead makers should know that Title 27 CFR 24.203 from the Alcohol, Tax and Trade Bureau requires that a minimum of 13° Brix in the “honey must” come from honey. Also, hops may be used but not in excess of 1 pound per 1,000 gallons. Sugar may only be added after fermentation is completed. The wine cannot exceed 14% alcohol by volume or a total solids content exceeding 35° Brix upon completion of fermentation.
Added water is a major ingredient in mead, generally making up more than 65% of the final volume. In my experience, any clean, good-tasting water will work. If there is chlorine in the water, you will need to remove it before mixing with honey. Activated carbon filters work well for this.
Raw materials—fruit, herbs and spices
The same quality considerations apply here as with any wine ingredient. If you choose to make mead using ingredients other than straight honey and water, the options and combinations available are nearly limitless. Fresh or frozen fruit work well. You can infuse fruit, co-ferment with the mead or make a fruit wine to be blended after fermentation. Fruit concentrates can give excellent results and offer great versatility. They can be added to a single base honey wine after fermentation or toward the very end to create several different products.
There are too many herbs and spices to give special consideration to all possibilities here. Some may need to be ground into a tea or infused during or after fermentation. Others may require heat to extract the desired flavors and aromas. Small-batch experimentation is the key to determining how to proceed.
The productions of mead and grape wine have many similarities, but differences also exist. While most grape juices provide yeast a healthy, balanced and nutritious environment, diluted honey does not. In addition, honey has high bacterial loads, stubborn haze-forming proteins and low buffering capacity. To achieve consistent, high-quality results, mead makers must address each of these issues.
The oldest and simplest method for making mead—diluting the honey with water and leaving it in the hands of fate—is not a viable commercial option. This is a good way to make bad -tasting, cloudy mead.
Two major hurdles in honey wine production cited above are high microorganism loads and haze-causing proteins. Traditionally these problems were overcome by boiling the honey-water mixture for 15-20 minutes while skimming off the foam. Boiling sterilizes the mixture while denaturing and eliminating most of the haze-forming proteins.
However, this solution comes at a cost. The first and most immediate problem with this approach is that most wineries lack the equipment to boil commercial volumes of liquid. Other drawbacks include the loss of some delicate and pleasing honey aromas as well as the development of bitter, harsh, resin-like tastes.
Pasteurization has been used as a compromise. Holding the honey-water mixture at a temperature of 150°F for 20 minutes has been reported to work well for eliminating biological load while not inflicting as severe a blow to the aromatic integrity of the honey. Unfortunately, this process still requires special equipment and does not eliminate the potential for haze formation. It is most likely that fining will be required to eliminate unstable proteins.
Sulfiting, such as is used in grape wine production, can be used to control microorganisms. Combined with a tight DE filtration, this method should give the yeast a healthy head start on biological contaminants without the addition of heat. As a rule of thumb, additions between 80 and 100 parts per million should be adequate in the typical range of honey-water pH. Keep the honey-water cool and allow eight to 10 hours from sulfiting to inoculation. Again, this treatment does not eliminate potential protein haze problems, and fining will probably be required to improve stability.
In the early 1990s it was discovered that meads produced through ultrafiltration were rendered both biologically and protein stable.1 Researchers showed that filtration at 500,000 molecular weight cutoffs (about 0.1 micron) removed roughly half the proteins, which was sufficient to produce protein-stable mead. In the same study, mead produced using ultrafiltration was judged to be vastly superior to mead produced using the traditional boiling method. While ultrafiltration solves the problems of sterilization and potential haze, its biggest disadvantage is the initial equipment cost. I believe anyone entertaining the notion of commercial mead production would be wise to give it due consideration.
Regardless of the processing method you choose, the honey must be thoroughly mixed with water. We use an open-top milk tank with a mixer and fill it to a given level with water, then add the honey. Even with the mixer going, the honey is so dense that it tends to settle to the bottom. We use wooden paddles to coax it into solution. Using warm water helps. If this operation takes place during warmer weather when honeybees are foraging, don’t be surprised if you attract a large number of uninvited guests. Be kind to them. Remember, we stole the honey from them in the first place. If you’re squeamish about bees or are allergic, you should probably work inside with all doors and windows closed.
Yeast health is paramount to a successful fermentation, especially when dealing with mead. Low nutrient levels and little buffering capacity in the honey-water mixture make for a challenging environment. A full complement (highest allowable levels) of yeast nutrient (like Fermaid) and diammonium phosphate should be used. Also, rehydration nutrients such as Scott Go-Ferm may help better prepare yeast for its difficult task. For reasons not fully understood, ultrafiltered meads tend to have faster, more dependable fermentations. I have used an ultrafilter to make mead for nearly 20 years and have yet to have a stuck fermentation (knock on wood).
Another factor possibly contributing to poor yeast performance results from the poor buffering capacity of the honey. Because of this, pH drops precipitously in the early stages of fermentation. This drop is due primarily to the production of CO2 and, subsequently, carbonic acid as well as the production of organic acids. The rapid drop in pH from usually above 4.0 to below 2.9 in the early stages of fermentation can cause a great deal of stress on the yeast and can severely hinder its performance. For this reason, any acid additions used to balance the mead should take place after fermentation is complete to avoid adding to the problem. Some mead makers temper this drop in pH to no lower than 3.5 by additions of CaCO3
or some other base. Be careful, as excessive additions of potassium salts can cause bitterness.
Fermentations should be carried out within the preferred temperature range of your chosen yeast. John Earle, proprietor of Earle Estate Meadery in Penn Yan, N.Y., says he prefers Epernay II or EC1118 with fermentation temperatures ranging in the low 60°s F. I generally prefer a little closer to 70°, but it’s hard to argue with Earle’s results. His meads are some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Over the years I’ve tried a wide variety of yeast with good results. The only caveat I have to offer here is it’s probably better to stay away from the real nitrogen hogs like BM45. My go-to yeast for mead is D47. Earle also noted that for fruit meads he prefers to make the wines separately and blend them after fermentation, giving him greater control over the final product.
Depending on your production methodology and the characteristics of your mead, getting the yeast to settle out in a timely manner can be a problem. I have had great success with silica gel followed by gelatin. It is so effective that I can fine a very cloudy 2,000-gallon tank of mead and rack brilliantly clear mead the next day. A simple bench trial to determine the most effective fining rates should be performed.
Honey lacks the phenolic structure that fruits like grapes provide. Consequently, even aromatic, flavorful meads can be quite thin on the palate. Sometimes a small tannin addition can help fill out the mouth feel—but be very careful, as it is easily overdone. Additions of fruit wines or juices help the body but direct the nature of the mead in ways you may not wish to go. A certain degree of residual sugar—whether added or resulting from an arrested fermentation—has a very positive impact on perceived body and is therefore a very important component.
Honey, despite its low pH, has low acidity, about 2-3 gallons per liter (g/L), and less than 1g/L after dilution with water. It usually will benefit from some level of acidulation, especially if there is considerable residual sugar. As noted earlier, acid additions are better made after fermentation. Acids such as tartaric, malic, citric or a blend of these three are generally used.
Stabilization: All stability checks should be performed after the final blend is made. Additions of fruit wines, acid or tannin can change the stability of the wine. The potential for unstable mead is predicated by the ingredients and methods used to produce it. The first and foremost issue is protein stability. If cross-flow filtration was used, this is not a concern. If boiling was used, there is still a chance for haze formation. With all other methods, the future likelihood of haze formation and precipitation cannot be overstated. Bentonite is the primary weapon against protein instability and probably the only cure besides extended aging in bulk.
The major problem with bentonite is the volume of lees it produces. Therefore, using the minimum quantity required to achieve stability is common sense. Testing for protein stability consists of fining samples of mead at various levels, filtering the samples and then heating them to precipitate unstable protein. Samples should be allowed to cool in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours before evaluation. Select the lowest fining level that yields a clear sample. The question here is: How severe does the heat treatment in this test need to be to ensure an adequate fining level? I wish I could answer that question. Despite my research, I’ve been unable to find a definitive, reliable answer. One source recommended boiling the filtered sample for 15 minutes. This seems pretty severe, but might well be necessary. I’ve seen meads that passed a protein stability test of 140°F for 40 minutes throw a precipitate a year later. So I can say the proteins in mead require more aggressive treatment than a typical grape wine to guarantee stability.
Other types of chemical instability can arise from combinations of additives. For example, if KHCO3 was used to buffer the pH in the early stages of fermentation and later the wine was acidified with tartaric, the potential for potassium bitartrate to form is there. The same goes for calcium salts, except they take longer to form. For this reason, it is probably better to avoid calcium salts if possible.
management is similar to grape wine. The mead should be maintained at 0.8 ppm molecular [SO2
] or better in storage with an additional 10ppm or so prior to sterile bottling through a 0.45-micron membrane.
Well-made mead is amazingly age-able. Twenty years is not out of the question. It can also be produced year-round, utilizing capital that might otherwise sit idle at a winery. Mead can provide a unique addition to a winery’s offerings. Unlike grape wine, traditional mead requires no cold stabilization. Turnaround time (at least when ultrafiltration is used) can be very short. I have literally brought in honey and three weeks later, bottles were on the shelf—although the mead vastly improves with just 8 months of aging.
In our tasting room, we pour mead only upon request. Because it is so different from grape wines, we’ve found it difficult to fit among our traditional wine lineup. For most people it requires a lot of explaining, but there is a definite niche market—and within that context, it is a pretty easy sell.
At Lakewood Vineyards, most of our mead is sold wholesale. We produce two different types: Mystic Mead, which is a sweeter mead made from a blend of orange blossom honey and a fairly light fall flower honey. Our second mead, Seifu’s Tej, is drier and uses spring and fall flower honeys. This mead was designed with the help of Ethiopian restaurateur Seifu Lessenwerk (Blue Nile Restaurant, Detroit) and is marketed to Ethiopian restaurants.
Chris Stamp is president and winemaker at Lakewood Vineyards in Watkins Glen, N.Y. Previously he served as extension associate at the Ohio Agricultural Research Development Center in Wooster, Ohio.