Flowers tempt bees with their bright colors and sweet nectar to ultimately encourage bees to come pollinate. Bees jump from one flower to the next as they collect nectar, some of which is consumed immediately for energy and nutrition, while the rest is brought back to the hive for reserves. Through the introduction of enzymes from the bees and a reduction in the water content, the nectar is transformed into the honey that is used in mead making.
The sugars provided by the honey are consumed by brewer’s or winemaker’s yeasts, producing alcohol and CO2–a process known as fermentation.
The flavor and aroma of honey is directly related to the varietal source of the nectar the bees collected. The names “orange blossom,” “alfalfa,” “clover,” etc., all refer to the type of flowers the honey was derived. “Wildflower” honey simply means the bees likely went to many different types of flowers.
Honey intended for mead making is ideally sourced from a local beekeeper. If you can’t go directly to the source, local farmers’ markets or gourmet grocery stores are great places to find quality honey. It is wise to avoid mass-produced honeys, which are often times treated with heat and a filtration process that can be detrimental to the flavor and aroma profile of the honey and ultimately the mead. Find a non-heat treated, local honey that tastes and smells good. If you like it in the raw form, it’s worth trying to ferment into mead!
Water makes up a large portion of mead, making it a critical ingredient when making mead.
One of the best ways to gauge the quality of water is to fill up a glass and taste it. If there is chlorine or other qualities not natural to water, avoid this source.
Using filtered or bottled water can help ensure unwanted flavors and aromas are avoided.
Yeast is the workhorse that converts the sugars from the honey and other adjuncts into alcohol and CO2, a process known as fermentation.
Meadmakers typically use wine yeasts, but some beer and cider yeasts may be up to the task. When selecting a yeast strain, particularly for high gravity meads, it is important to make sure it has the alcohol tolerance to complete the job.
Yeast comes in liquid or dry form. Liquid usually comes in a vial or foil package, while dry yeast comes in a small packet. Yeast can also be purchased for propagation, a more advanced method.
Unlike homebrew wort, honey and water do not provide all the necessary nutrients yeast need to conduct a clean fermentation. Yeast nutrient can be used as a supplement, though mead can and has been made without it.
There are various types of “nutrients” and “energizers” available to the home meadmaker. These terms are often used interchangeably. No matter what type is used, it is crucial to follow the manufacture’s directions on the correct amounts when making mead. Using too much nutrient can manifest itself as an off-flavor.
Some meadmakers will just add nutrient at the time of pitching the yeast while others conduct the popular method of gradually adding nutrients over a few days, a process known as staggered nutrient additions (SNA). For more information on staggered nutrient additions, see the Mead Making Tips.
Traditional mead is made using only honey, water and yeast. Adding other ingredients like fruits, vegetables, spices, malted grains, and so on can make for very interesting and delicious mead recipes.
There are a plethora of different mead styles based on additional ingredients. For example a mead recipe with fruit is called a “melomel.” A “metheglin” is mead made with spices, like cinnamon. If using wine grapes or juice, you are making a “pyment.” The sky’s the limit!