Mead making can be either extremely simple, or very complicated.
At its core, mead is honey, water, and yeast.
Fermentation is the conversion of sugars into CO2, alcohol, and heat.
Honey is dissolved in water then the yeast is added. The amount of alcohol that produces depends on how much honey is added and how much alcohol the yeast are capable of producing (tolerance). Typically it takes 2-3 pounds of honey to make 1 gallon of mead.
The mechanism of dissolving large quantities of honey is one of the things that is different between home mead makers and large commercial operations. My first one gallon batch of mead at home was dissolved by shaking the jug for a few minutes. Now a large mixer with stainless steel blades is used in a steel tank so that hundreds of pounds of honey can be quickly dissolved with the least amount of work possible. For garage-scale mead making, a metal paint mixer that attaches to a drill is a good choice.
You’ll know it’s fermenting when it starts producing CO2. If you’re fermenting in a glass carboy you can see it. You can also see it on the surface in a bucket or even hear the bubbles (sounds like Rice Crispies cereal).
T.M.I. about yeast and nutrients:
Most commercial yeast strains have an alcohol tolerance of somewhere between 13 and 18% A.B.V. This means that in general once the alcohol level gets somewhere around that point, it will no longer convert more honey into alcohol. This may leave you with unfermented honey which is one of the methods used to make sweet mead.
If you try to make mead with way too much honey at the start however, it may not start fermenting at all.
Yeast can be fairly picky about nutrients. They require nitrogen in order to produce alcohol. A nice healthy ferment is usually supplemented with nutrients such as Fermaid-O using a staggered nutrient additions protocol. This just means that yeast nutrient is added in steps instead of all at once. The fermentation speed is largely dependent on temperature and nutrients. Fermentation also produces heat. Temperature control is used commercially to ensure a fermentation doesn’t get too warm. Yeast strains have temperature ranges that they operate optimally in. If it gets too hot it can produce off flavors that may never age out. A traditional mead with just honey and water tends to ferment considerably slower than a mead with fruit in it.
A typical mead fermentation takes 14-30 days.
Fruit meads (melomels):
A mead made with fruit (called melomel) adds a few required steps. Once fermentation is complete you must get the liquid out of the fruit. Often a siphon type device with a mesh screen over it is used to remove as much liquid as possible without getting large chunks of fruit through to the new vessel. A fruit press can also be used (the same type used for making grape wine) which will squeeze any juice out of the remaining fruit. This step adds a lot of labor, but without it you’d be dumping a lot of mead and expensive honey down the drain or into the trash!
Aging and clarification:
After fermentation is complete that does not mean that it is ready to drink! At this stage the mead will still be full of yeast and other particles and be extremely cloudy. It probably will not taste good either. In order to have a tasty product it must be much clearer and age for a bit to allow the flavors to develop.
Shortly after fermentation is finished someone would usually transfer or “rack” the mead to another container to leave some of that settled particles behind. It is then left to age and settle for several weeks to many months. This gives it time for gravity to pull all of the sediment out of suspension to the bottom of the vessel. Mead can be aged in oak barrels, glass, food grade plastic, or stainless steel tanks. Here at Contrivance we use stainless steel tanks and oak barrels. Aging also helps the release CO2 that was generated during fermentation since generally you don’t want a carbonated mead.
Often times fining agents are used to help speed up the clarification of products. Bentonite is one such fining agent. It is a type of clay that attaches to particles and drags them to the bottom of the tank in a fairly dramatic fashion that only takes a few days.
Other additions are also used such as sulfites to help keep the product from spoiling, or potassium sorbate to prevent fermentation in the bottle. Acid and other adjustments such as sweetening may also be made to make the product taste as good as possible.
Filtration is commonly used in commercial mead making. This helps polish the mead and ensure that there is no yeast or other particles present. It makes a tremendous difference in the flavor and presentation of the product. A clear mead is much more appealing than a cloudy one.
Shortly after filtration the product is bottled and prepared for sale.
These same steps are generally used whether you’re making a 1 gallon batch at home or a 1000 gallon batch in a commercial meadery.
Most batches here at Contrivance take 3 months or longer to produce.