Adventures in mead

Rasim Valdes Laribi shares their experience learning the ancient art of mead making


Pouring out a bottle of the ruby-red and crystal-clear liquid, while the heady smell of hibiscus and hops fill up the room, I still can’t entirely believe that all this delicious mead was made right here in my home. Was it really possible that only six months and three homebrews ago I had never even seen brewing equipment up close?

Mead can almost be brewed accidentally, which may be why it’s been made in various forms going back over 4000 years all over the world. Even now, the basic recipe only contains two or three ingredients: honey and yeast, as well as water. 

The water and honey are combined in a big pot, and heated until dissolved. Next they are added to a ‘primary fermentation vessel’, which in my case is just a big bucket with an airlock on top. After topping up with some more hot water and pitching in the yeast, the primary is sealed up for a couple of days. Within a few hours of sealing it I see the first signs of life: bubbles coming out of the airlock. 

Those first few hours are always tense: did I kill the yeast by adding water that is too hot? Did I add enough honey? Did I contaminate my mead? Hearing the first few bubbles, and then watching the bubbler pick up speed is always a moment of pure relief. The bucket remains sealed, bubbling contentedly to itself, at least until you add additional ingredients.

This is where you can get creative: will your mead have a dry character? Sweet and fruity? Not every ingredient benefits from being added at this stage, and there is pretty fierce debate about when is the best time to add fruit or spices. Broadly speaking, if you add certain ingredients too early, some of the delicious flavour compounds known as esters will dissipate during the fermentation process.

Probably because of its long and storied tradition, each combination of honey and extra ingredients has its own name: metheglins are honey and herbs or spices, while melomels are any combination of fruit and honey, with further sub-divisions such as apple meads known as cysers. It can get confusing, but for our purposes, we just need to know if our aromatics will bubble away in the primary bucket or if the sugar content of any added fruits will re-start the fermentation process while in the second bucket. 

I started brewing during one of the lockdowns, to pass the time at first and maybe have some drinks I could share with my friends whenever the restrictions eased enough. My very first homebrew was a basic double IPA brewing kit I had bought online on a whim. This beer was… OK at best. It was hazy, which was great, and it had a powerful hoppy nose. In my impatience (and hubris) I’d ignored the need to transfer the beer away from the yeast, known as ‘racking’, on the basis that it was an extravagant amount of refinement. As a result the taste was feisty and strong with distinctive yeasty notes.

One evening, after polishing off the last of my first homebrew beer, I started drunkenly thinking about what I wanted in a beverage. I enjoy a cold glass of dessert wine, maybe with some cheesy nibbles, after a big meal but the cloying sweetness can make it difficult to drink after my first glass. The dank hop flavours of the latest additions to the IPA canon are enticing, but sometimes overwhelming in intensity. Could I combine these into one delicious beverage?

Mead presents an important advantage over some other homebrews: its simplicity. Using the basic method as a base it is very easy to add additional ingredients. The packet of yeast I bought stated the end result would approach a wine in strength. With this in mind, I figured that I might be able to approximate some almost wine-like flavours if I tweaked the basic ingredients. Aiming for a crisp rosé, my first mead would have hibiscus flower for acidity and hops for their dry bitterness. 

The instructions on my packet of yeast said to expect the bubbling in my first brew to start dying down after about 10 days. Five weeks later, it was still going, with my happy little yeast colony pumping out CO2. Eventually, as my patience was nearing a breaking point, the bubbler stopped bubbling. I had taken a gravity reading at the beginning of the brew, so I took another one here. I waited a couple of days and took another reading, and they were the same so I concluded the fermentation must be done. I tried to let the brew settle for a bit, but once again impatience got the better of me. After all, after so many weeks of waiting, surely I deserved a drink for my saint-like restraint?

When it comes to mead, aging really does make a big difference. What I siphoned out of my fermentation bucket this time had the appearance of a delicious strawberry milkshake but the powerful reek of a bowl of rising bread dough. This mead had a noticeable yeasty funk, much like my first beer. But more dramatically, this masked the strong alcoholic content and led to some embarrassing stumbling home. 

The next mead was an orange-peel and hops number, which came out looking more like chocolate milk. After a couple of weeks of clearing in a secondary bucket and some aging in the bottle, the result is a straw coloured, refreshing, slightly bitter, hoppy drink with unexpected notes of apples. 

My latest mead is a simple recreation of the first but using a secondary fermentation vessel with a second round of hops and a good long time to allow the sediment to settle out. What comes out is a refreshing, tangy and dry ruby coloured mead of impeccable clarity. Chilled, this mead is a smooth and refreshing delight - a far cry from my initial attempts. It has only been improving with age.

Armed with some renewed confidence, I will be experimenting with bolder flavour pairings and more challenging ingredients. Could foraged meadowsweet contaminate my brew? Does thyme go well with melon in a mead? When is it best to add strawberries? Learning how to make mead hasn’t only given me a supply of good honey-wines; experimenting with flavour has helped expand my taste buds and my knowledge of food.

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