Mead Making Process – by Cannon Trawets

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A primer from everyday life on the ship.

Mead Making
A gallon test batch of pear mead.

A gentleman by the name of Cannon asked me how I made my muscadine mead and wine. Yes, you read that right, someone else with the same name as me. I will explain how I make my mead. Many say I don’t make it the right way, but my way works for me. I have been making mead and wine for about 5 years now and everyone who tries it wants more of it. I am always trying new flavors, but I have my old faithful, muscadine mead and scuffadine wine are two of those. (muscadines are wild red grapes and scuffadines are wild white grapes).

I start by freezing my fruit. The reason I freeze my fruit is to rupture the cell walls to allow more sugars to come out during processing. I process by pressing the fruit in a fruit press, similar to a cider press. Once the juice is separated from the pulp, I pour it into 1 quart mason jars and place it in the refrigerator. I started doing this when I was limited for time. By chilling, I can press one day and come back to the actual brewing another day. I can also spread out my batches. Note that I never heat the fruit or the juice, this preserves the natural sugars and beneficial bacteria in the juice.

I guess I miss-spoke, the very first thing that has to be done, besides picking the fruit, is to prepare the water that will be used. I use water out of my tap, until I can get out to my land and get the well working. Boiling removes the chlorine and any bacteria that may have survived treatment. Once boiled, I let the water cool in a covered pot until it reaches 100 degrees. At that point, I pour it up in quart jars and seal it, effectively canning the water. As it cools, it creates a vacuum and seals the jars. I set these aside until needed. I usually boil 5 to 10 gallons at a time. I generally work with 5 gallon batches because I make so much each year, but for this class, I will break it down to one gallon batches. I use the smaller batches to experiment and try different combinations of honey and flavors. This part will be broken down to the simplest form for people wanting to try their hand at mead making.

The first question I am always asked is, “What equipment do I need?” I use a glass demi-john (one gallon glass container). You will also need an airlock, some use a balloon, but for the price, it is worth it to buy a 3 pack of basic airlocks. You will also need a rubber stopper the airlock will fit into. Total price for these items is usually under $25. Everything else, you should already have in your kitchen. Oh, a good piece of clear tubbing to siphon with after fermentation. When I started, I was given a beer brewing kit for Christmas one year. It had everything I needed to start, but was for large batches. I purchased the demi-john separately. The kit came with a 6 gallon glass carboy.

Okay, let’s move to the actual brewing. I will name the items from your kitchen as I go. My prep involves taking 4 quarts of my canned water out and pouring them into a pot on the stove. I heat the water to 120 degrees F. More than that will affect the honey and juice. While the water is heating, wash the demi-john out with hot water from the tap. Drain it well and get as much of the excess out as possible. Turn it upside down in the dish drainer while you work on the rest. Take the fruit juice out (you will need 3 cups of juice for a gallon) and set it on the counter. Run a sink full of hot water from the tap and place your 1 quart of honey in it to warm it up. This makes it easier to pour. Use only pure, raw, unprocessed honey.

Set you demi-john on the counter and place a funnel in it. Open and pour your juice in the demi-john. Make sure you lift the funnel slightly, or it will fill up and spill over from lack of airflow. Don’t ask how I discovered this…. next, open one quart of honey and pour it into the fruit juice. Using a cup, dip some of the heated water and pour it into to empty honey jar. Replace the lid and shake the jar. This helps rinse the rest of the honey from the jar. (Only use enough water for about a quarter full of the jar). Pour this into the honey and fruit juice. Repeat 2 or 3 more times until the jar is clean. Next, remove the funnel from the demi-john, place a finger through the finger loop on the neck, cap the hole with the palm of your hand, and shake the mixture to blend everything together. Add more water until the demi-john is about three fourths full, repeat the mixing process. Top off with more water, and shake again. Any water you have left can be placed back in the quart jars and re-canned until you need more.

The mixing process for mead is complete. At this point, I rinse the airlock and stopper in hot water and place it in the neck of the demi-john, to prevent anything from getting into the mix. The mixture has to cool down to room temperature before you can add the yeast. Normally, the airlock is filled with water during fermentation, if you do this before the mixture cools, the water will be drawn into the demi-john as the temperatures equalize. Basically, you create a barometer. Again, don’t ask how I learned this…

While the mixture is cooling, let’s discuss yeast. You need to use brewer’s yeast, not kitchen yeast. Use yeast specifically for wine. There is a wide variety of brands and types. I will not recommend any specific one to you. I use Lavlin brand. When selecting which yeast to use, you have 2 considerations to make, the first is what alcohol content are you looking to obtain? And second, what temperature do you intend to ferment at? All yeast has a rating of minimum and maximum temperatures that the yeast will be active in. If it gets below the minimum, the yeast stops working. If the temperature goes above the maximum, the yeast quits, and there is a good possibility you will kill the culture. I ferment on my bar top, so I use yeast rated for 70 – 95 degrees.

Now, let’s talk alcohol content. The yeast determines the content, to an extent. The yeast has a rating of maximum alcohol content achievable, in percentage. The yeast I use will make 18%. Now, here is the low down on that rating. If the mix does not have enough sugar content, the yeast will quit working before it gets to the maximum alcohol content. And if the mix has more sugar that the yeast can process, it will stop at the maximum percentage. Knowing this will allow you to decide if you want a dry mead or a sweet (dessert) mead. You need to experiment with this, I could give you the mathematical formulas to calculate, but what fun is that? I don’t use the formula, I use experience as my guide.

Now that the mix has cooled, it is time to pitch the yeast. That is a fancy term for adding yeast. Each packet of yeast you get will make up to 5 – 6 gallons. You can put the whole packet into the mix, but I am frugal. I add 1/8th TSP to the mix. I put it in dry. After you add the yeast, put the airlock back on and fill it to the fill line with water. After about 30 minutes, you should see the airlock bubble every so often. This means the yeast is starting to work and building pressure from the gases that are being release. As the day progresses, the bubbles will get faster. Mine usually pops every 5 seconds after the yeast really gets going. The speed of these bubbles determine when it is time to move the mix to a new fermenter, for the second ferment. You siphon from one demi-john to another, being careful to not disturb the first. There will be sediment in the bottom and as little of this as possible should be transferred to the new demi-john. You also want to take care to introduce as little air as possible during the transfer. I use an auto Siphon specifically designed for this process. You can find them on Amazon. Once the transfer is complete, top off with your canned water, because there will be some loss during the transfer. Make sure you leave a couple of inches of head space. I top off to the point where the liquid starts to enter the neck of the demi-john. Once topped off, replace the airlock and fill it back up with water. Now we wait. When the mix clears up, the mead is ready to bottle. Bottling is another process that can be different for everyone. It is basically your choice of how you want to bottle. I use clear claret wine bottles and cork.

The difference in mead and wine is simple, mead uses honey as the sweetener and wine uses sugar. You can follow the same steps as above for wine. For this 0ne gallon recipe, I would use 2 pounds of sugar to the gallon. And the other difference is, use 1 quart of your canned water and mix the sugar in a separate pot on the stove to make sure the sugar melts. Pour that in over the fruit juice and top with the other water you have heating. Everything else in the process is the same.

I hope this explains the process to those wanting to learn how to make their own mead and wine. Once you get a recipe you are happy with, it is easy to make another batch or a larger batch. Make sure you write down every ingredient you use, and the exact amount used, in order to reproduce what you made. You also want to record the dates you start, move to second ferment, and bottle. There may be slight variances in taste from the fruit used from one year to the other. I call that the Mother Nature Surprise. I also try to use fully organic products for my flavoring. You are not limited to just fruit. You can blend herbs and flowers to mix and get some awesome flavorings. Experiment and you will find what you like.