The beauty of mead is in its simplicity. At its most basic, you really only need three ingredients: honey, water, and yeast. A typical batch has around 3 pounds of honey per gallon of mead’s final volume you’re looking to brew. The amount will vary between recipes, along with the type of yeast you use will determine the final alcohol percentage and how sweet it will be.
Do yourself a favor and find some good honey. The stuff that comes in the little squirt bottles shaped like a bear are often not pure honey, and has some filler in it.
As for the yeast, a wine yeast is probably the best starting point. Some beer yeasts are pretty finicky about needing certain nutrients which honey is often devoid of, and may cause some off flavors from stressing them. I’ve had good luck with Lalvin 71B (it’s good for cysers and melomels because it can metabolize maltic acid). It claims to have a 14% alcohol tolerance, but I’ve had some hit as high as 18%. Lalvin D47 is another solid choice that is said to accentuate the flavors in the honey, and EC-118 is a champagne yeast with a very wide temperature range and high alcohol tolerance – it will eat through any sugar you can throw at it. You can find these at most hobby brew shops or online.
You may wish to add a fruit addition to your mead to make it more interesting. This can be done either during the primary fermentation, or after that has finished. Adding it later may cause the yeast to wake back up if there is sugar within the addition and the yeast have yet to reach their alcohol tolerance.
If you’re just wanting to test this process out, it can be done so pretty cheaply. You can get a cleaned one gallon milk jug, and uninflated balloon that you poke a hole or two in with a pin (this will be your airlock). Small one gallon glass jugs of apple juice can be purchased from places like Whole Foods which also work pretty well.
If you’re feeling a little more ambitious, or wanting to get more seriously into the hobby, a food grade bucket and/or a glass or plastic carboy is what you’re looking to use. I like to do my initial fermentation in a bucket as this provides more room for the fruit and has less of a chance of causing a geyser if the fermentation gets too vigorous. Check out the equipment guide for more information.
Let’s brew already
Now that you have your materials, it’s time to prepare everything. Wash and sanitize your containers and tools. Most yeasts, if bought dry, will require rehydrating. The instructions on the package may vary, but you generally need to heat some water to just over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the pot from the heat source once the temperature is reached, and stir in the yeast.
Note: those packets of yeast are generally meant for a 5 gallon batch. Over-pitching won’t hurt your mead, but if you’re making less you can get away with not using the whole thing. But they’re also fairly inexpensive.
Occasionally stir your yeast but let it sit for about 20 minutes, to let them wake up and start reproducing. While you’re waiting for this, you can mix your honey and water. Put your honey into the container (some older instructions may say to heat the honey, but unless you’re making a bochet, which involves caramelizing the honey, this isn’t necessary). Top up the container with the water and mix it until it’s nice and evenly dissolved. In larger batches this can be pretty labor intensive. I actually use a mixer attachment for my electric drill to help. While you’re doing this make sure you whip it up a bit, as this will add oxygen to the mixture (called a must) that the yeast can use while fermenting.
Add the yeast to the must, and cover your container. Make sure to set up your airlock if you are using a sealed bucket or carboy. If you’re using the balloon, just place it over the top of your milk jug.
Now you wait. If everything works you should have visible fermentation within the next day or two. Once this begins, you’ll want to degas it a few times a day for the first several days, and less frequently after until fermentation ends. To do this, slowly stir the must. This will release the CO2 that the yeast produce while making alcohol. Don’t whip it, as you shouldn’t need to add any more oxygen to the mix.
When can I drink it?
The fermentation generally conclude within 2 weeks. This can go quicker or slower depending on a number of factors: amount of honey, type of yeast, temperature of the room you’re brewing in, etc. Once it does, you now officially have mead!
It’s drinkable at this point. But you may want to let it age. It is likely still cloudy at this point, as the yeast are still suspended in the mead. They will eventually fall to the bottom of the container into a compacted layer. Also, especially in higher alcohol levels or quick ferments, you’ll have a lot of fusel alcohols present. These are the ones that have that harsh bite burn a bit going down. They will break down over time, and your mead will taste less “hot”. The flavors in your mead can also change over time depend on what additions you used. Mead makers don’t fully understand some of this interaction yet. But if you don’t initially like your mead, don’t lose hope. It can improve with time.
With these basics, you now know how to make mead at home. For a more advanced process, view the How do I Make Mead? (Intermediate) guide. Or, if you’re looking to upscale your equipment, take a look at the Equipment Guide.