Anyone who has ever tasted a really good mead, or one of its many derivatives, will never again be satisfied with commercial "honey wine." Commercial meads are bland and insipid compared with what can be produced at home by anyone with a good recipe, a little patience and the following pieces of equipment:
(2) five gallon glass carboys, or
(2) one gallon glass bottles (for smaller batches)
one quart jar (for starter solution)
an airlock (allows gas to escape while preventing access to air)
6 feet of food-grade plastic tubing (for siphoning)
a wooden spoon
a large pot of 2 gallons or more (preferably enamel)
Here is a recipe for a metheglin taken from The Closet of sir Kenelme Digby, Knight, Opened.
A Receipt to Make Metheglin As It ls Made At Liege as Communicated By Mr. Masillon
Take one Measure of Honey, and three Measures of Water, and let it boil till one measure be boiled away, so that there be left three measures in all; as for Example, take to one Pot of Honey, three Pots of Water, and let it boil so long, till it come to three Pots. During which time you must Skim it very well as soon as any scum riseth; which you are to continue till there rise no scum more. You may, if you please, put to it some spice, to wit, Cloves and Ginger; the quantity of which is to be proportioned according as you will have your Meath, strong or weak. But this you do befor it begin to boil. There are some that put either Yeast of Beer, or Leaven of Bread into it, to make it work. But this is not necessary at all; and much less to set it into the Sun. ML Masillon doth neither the one nor the other. Afterwards for to tun it, you must let it grow Luke warm, for to advance it. And if you do intend to keep your Meathe for a long time, you may put into it some hops on this fashion. Take to every Barrel of Meathe a Pound of Hops without leaves, that is, Ordinary Hops used for Beer, but well cleansed, taking only the Flowers, without the Green-leaves and stalks. Boil this Pound of Hops in a Pot and a half of fair water, till it come to one Pot, and this quantity is suffficient for a Barrel of Meathe.... When you Tun your Meathe, you must not fill your Barrel by half a foot, that so it may have room to work. Then let it stand six weeks slightly stopped which being expired, if the Meath do not work, stop it up very close. Yet must you not fill the Barrel to the very brim. After six Months you draw off the clear into another Barrel, or strong Bottles, leaving the dregs, and filling up your new Barrel, or Bottles, and stopping it or them very close.
The Meath that is made this way, (Viz. In the Spring, in the Month of April or May, which is the proper time for making of it, ) will keep for many a year.
Do not be frightened off by the seeming complexity of this recipe. It is actually very simple. It is also one of very few period recipes that does not call for the use of exorbitant amounts of spices. It does call for hops, as a preservative, which would create a drink tasting more like a beer than a wine, but the hops can be eliminated with no harm to the drink. Following is my own version of this recipe: To three and three-quarter gallons of water add one and a quarter gallons of honey (fifteen Ibs. ). Add cloves and ginger to taste. Heat this mixture just to a simmer and skim any film which rises to the surface. Do not overheat! (With processed honey it will not be necessary to skim the must-honey, juice, spices and water prior to fermentation-just heat to a simmer, then allow to cool, or use sulfites to sterilize the solution.) Make a starter solution of yeast and the must, and when it is fermenting rapidly add it to the bulk of the must in a five gallon carboy. Fit the carboy with an airlock, or cover the mouth of the carboy with several layers of finely woven muslin. Allow the carboy to stand undisturbed for six weeks, or until fermentation has completely finished. Siphon the mead into a clean carboy, leaving behind the sediment at the bottom of the old bottle. After several months, the mead should be clear and can be siphoned into bottles. If it is not yet clear, siphon it into a clean carboy as before, again leaving behind the sediment, and let it stand until it has cleared. At this time, carefully siphon into bottles.
Mead in its truest sense is made of nothing more than honey and water fermented by yeast. The two derivatives of mead are melomel, made from honey and fruit juices, and metheglin, made by the addition of spices to mead or melomel, as in the above recipe. The variety of melomels and metheglins available to the home mead-maker is virtually unlimited, yet none are commercially available.
Honey itself is virtually pure sugar and water with only very minute traces of other substances. It lacks the acids and nutrients which yeast requires for healthy growth. This causes a pure mead to be slow to ferment as well as slow to mature. The easiest way around this problem, without resorting to chemical additives, is simply to make a melomel or metheglin. The fruit juices and spices will almost always add all of the required nutrients and acids without any other doctoring of the must. When using water or a low acid fruit juice, the simple addition of two or three ounces of lemon juice per gallon of must will generally supply all of the acidity needed.
Buy your yeast at a wine supply shop. Pure wine yeast cultures should always be used. Do not rely on natural yeasts as the original recipe recommends. Wine yeast usually comes in packets which are usable for up to five gallons. Even if you are making less than five gallons at one time, use the entire package. The pennies you can save by using a partial package are more than offset by the need to measure and save the yeast, and the possibility of stuck fermentation. I recommend the use of a general purpose wine yeast as I have been less than satisfied with the results from mead yeast. Montrachet is one yeast which has worked well for me for many years. It is easy to use and gets off to a good start, which is important for home use.
Almost any fruit juice can be used to make a melomel and could be used to replace all or part of the water in this recipe. Some fruits which were used more than others within the medieval framework were apple, grape, pear and mulberry. Melomels made from these fruits are called cyser, pyment, perry, and morath, respectively. Although these fruits were certainly used more than any others for the making of melomels, this does not mean that you must limit yourself to these juices. I strongly recommend experimentation with any fruits you like. I have made and enjoyed melomels made with apple, pear and grape. I now use apple juice in almost all my melomels and metheglins. Apple juice is a good base to provide for a light beverage, both in color and in taste, as it does not add a very strong flavor of its own.
I almost invariably make fruit metheglins as opposed to mead or melomel, but that is strictly my taste and may not match your own. The real beauty of this entire process is flexibility and variety. A list of the spices used in medieval recipes for metheglins could fill half a page or more. My standard spices are cloves (five to seven per gallon), cinnamon (one or two sticks) and ginger (two or three thin slices). I know of some mead-makers who have also had excellent results using allspice or nutmeg. I strongly recommend that you use only whole spices, not powdered, because this makes it much easier to remove the spices after steeping them in the must.
Once all of the ingredients have been mixed, the must and anything that it will come into contact with should be sterilized by boiling, or with sulfites (also sold as Campden tablets, which can be purchased at wine supply shops). Some people are allergic to sulfites. If you don't want to use them, boil or heat your must to above 160 F. Do not boil fruit juices as this will cause the fruit pectins to clot and gel. (Enzymes may be purchased to prevent or correct this problem. ) If using sulfites, follow closely the instructions which come with the package. Once sulfited juice has been allowed to sit for twenty-four hours, or boiled must has been cooled to below 95 F, it is time to begin fermentation.
Fermentation should be started by adding the full amount of yeast to only a pint of the must. This small amount of must should be kept warm (90 F - 95 F but not warmer). This starter solution, when ready, will be fermenting very rapidly. It usually produces a visible head in the container, so leave plenty of airspace. This starter provides ideal conditions for rapid initial growth of the yeast culture. When ready, the starter solution should be added to the bulk of the must which should also be warm (80 F - 90 F). Now allow the solution to drop to a comfortable room temperature. This allows for initial rapid growth of the yeast, followed by a slower more steady growth and the production of alcohol by the already large culture.
Learning to make mead is something which you will remember and make use of for the rest of your life. I hope this article has been informative and useful to you in this endeavor and that you will receive as much enjoyment from the making and drinking of your own mead as I have.
Acton, B. and Peter Duncan. Making Mead. England: 1918. Amateur Winemakers.
Gayre, Robert and Charlie Papazian. Brewing Mead/WASSAIL! In Mazers of Mead. Boulder, CO, Brewers Publications: 1986.
MacDonnel, Anne, ed. The Closet of Sir Kenelme Digby Knight Opened, Whereby is discovered several ways oJ making Metheglin, Sider, Cherry-Wine, Sc. London: H. Brome, 1669; reprint, London: Philip Lee Warner, 1910.
Shadan [Downey, James T.]. "The Making of Melomels and Metheglins." Tournaments llluminated no. 82 (Spring 1987): 22-24
Stuart, Caitlin [Frankel, Nancy]. Mead Making that Works." Tournaments Illuminated no. 59 (Summer 1981): 32.
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