Mead is simply fermented honey. To ferment honey, you have to dilute it with water, since the high sugar content in honey actually turns water molecules it comes into contact with into hydrogen peroxide, and draws the water out of cells, both of which have the effect of killing microorganisms like yeast and bacteria.
In addition, since honey is almost completely composed of fructose and glucose, it's lacking most of the nutrients that yeast need to grow, prosper, and metabolize it into alcohol. Consequently, making mead requires either adding these nutrients (usually in the form of diammonium sulphate and/or the powdered yeast remnants).
You can also add other fermentables to the must (the water with dissolved honey), such as fruit juice or grain, which will both provide these nutrients and change the character of the finished beverage. Mead made with fruit juices is called melomel, and with grape juice specifically, pyment. Mead can also be flavored with herbs and spices; spiced pyment is called hippocras, allegedly after the father of Greek medicine, Hippocrates; in fact, the Celtic word for spiced mead is metheglin, from which derives the English word "medicine," because as we all know, a spoonful of sugar...
Mead is typically still, but can be made sparkling like beer or wine by adding sugar at bottling to feed the living yeast in the bottle. Like beer, mead can be strong or weak, sweet or dry, depending on how much honey you use and how alcohol tolerant your yeast strain is. The main thing required to make mead is patience, because it's much more like wine in the time it takes to mature.
Mead made with apple juice is called cyser, and that leads us to today's two recipes.
Still mead (3 gallons)
A lot of mead recipes call for you to boil or at least pasteurize the honey, but it doesn't seem like that's really necessary, since the honey itself is pretty close to sterile, and you'll boil off any volatile flavor or aroma compounds in the honey, which is usually pretty subtle to start with. In general, the better honey you use, the better your mead will be, but also, the more expensive!
- Add 6 quarts warm water, 1.5 tsp diammonium phosphate, and 1.5 tsp yeast nutrient (dried yeast remnants) to sanitized fermenter.
- Add 10 lbs honey to fermenter, mix as much as possible by swirling fermenter.
- Add warm water to fill each honey container about halfway, seal and shake vigorously. This will help get all the honey out, and aerate the mixture, since the must will be low in oxygen. Pour into the fermenter.
- Add warm water to bring the fermenter to 5 gallons, then pitch yeast and seal. You can use liquid mead yeast, or a dry mead or wine yeast like grand cuvee.
- Rack after 4 weeks. During primary fermentation, you may want to gently agitate the fermenter a couple of times, as the must will tend to accumulate dissolved CO2, which can cause issues when you rack.
- Rack after 3 additional months.
- Bottle after 3 additional months.
Spiced cyser (3 gallons)
I like to make cyser - apple mead - with Gravenstein apple juice. Gravensteins are a variety local to Sonoma, north of San Francisco. It's typically only available in the fall after the harvest. They've got a good balance between sweet dessert apples, and tart savory apples. Sadly, as demand for California wine has increased over the last couple of decades, many Gravenstein orchards have been torn out and replaced by vinyards. This stuff makes a delicious holiday treat (or gift), like Christmas in a bottle.
- In a large pot, combine: 6 quarts Gravenstein juice; 8 lbs honey; 2 sticks cinnamon, cracked; 8 cloves, crushed; 8 allspice berries, crushed; 1 tsp fresh-ground nutmeg; 1/2 dried curacao (bitter) orange peel.
- Bring to a low simmer, heat for 20 minutes, cover and let stand until the pot is cool to the touch, then pour into a sanitized fermenter.
- Warm 2 more quarts Gravenstein juice, fill each honey container about halfway, seal and shake vigorously. This will help get all the honey out, and aerate the mixture, since the must will be low in oxygen. Pour into the fermenter.
- Pitch yeast and seal. You can use liquid cider or mead yeast, or a dry mead or cider yeast, or wine yeast like grand cuvee.
- Rack after 4 weeks, then bottle after 3 additional months.